New research reveals that while many modern people choose to eat vegetarian or vegan fare, our predecessors likely mostly consumed meat and only began to diversify their diets to include more vegetables around the end of the Stone Age. According to a recent research that was published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, multiple species of the Homo lineage engaged in “hypercarnivory” during the approximately 2 million years that humans were the top predators.
The location of ancient humans in the food chain, or their trophic level, is difficult to ascertain since we cannot directly see their feeding habits. Therefore, the majority of attempts to do so have concentrated on contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, presuming that the traditions of such civilizations mirror those of early humans.
However, as the authors of this most recent study point out, such comparisons are quite problematic since throughout time, people would unavoidably have been driven to adjust their preferences for hunting and gathering due to changes in the biological landscape. For instance, a significant change in human diets was brought about by the extinction of megafauna like mammoths and other huge animals.
In order to identify the trophic level of our predecessors during the Pleistocene, which began 2.5 million years ago and ended around the period of the agricultural revolution, or 11,000 years ago, researchers tried to recreate the food of ancient people. To ascertain whether early humans were specialist carnivores or more general omnivores, the team used a multidisciplinary method to review over 400 scientific research in fields including genetics, metabolism, morphology, archaeology, and paleontology.
25 different sources of evidence were uncovered throughout their inquiry, and they all point to our ancestors being hypercarnivores. For instance, carnivorous animals have characteristically acidic stomachs because this guarantees that any infections hiding in meat are destroyed. Our predecessors were well equipped to eat the meat of huge animals they hunted, which would have nourished a community for days or even weeks and would have consequently been full of germs. This is shown by the fact that modern humans’ stomachs are more acidic than other carnivores’.
This is supported by the observation that a number of ancient hominids had morphological adaptations for hunting megafauna. For instance, Homo erectus had shoulders that were perfect for hurling spears but unsuited for climbing trees, indicating that the species likely consumed more meat than vegetation.
Additionally, human genome expression of genes that aid in the digestion of plant acids and starch did not become widespread until late in the Pleistocene. This shows that there was no evolutionary pressure to adapt to a plant-based diet while hunting was successful, claim the study’s authors. Nevertheless, when animal resources became more rare, populations of people that ingested more plants had greater survival rates.
The researchers claim that this late shift to a more omnivorous diet served as the impetus for the development of agriculture, which changed the sorts of stone tools employed by prehistoric people. According to their analysis of the archaeological data, implements used in processing plants first appear only about 40,000 years ago and then become more prevalent around the time of the agricultural revolution. The majority of tools used up to this point were made for hunting, and the same kinds of artifacts were discovered in all human-inhabited regions.
Miki Ben-Dor, the study’s lead author, said in a statement that “archaeological data does not neglect the fact that stone-age humans also ingested plants.” However, the results of this study show that plants didn’t really start to dominate the human diet until the very end of the period.
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