Paleolithic nutrition possibly mainly vegetarian
Recent research does away with the myth that our early ancestors were mainly meat-eating savannah dwellers. In addition to significant amounts of fish, shell-fish and a little bit of meat, we appear to have been herbivores first: we ate at least 55 different plant species, scientists say.
It’s likely that humans evolved in the land-water ecosystem. At the interface of land and water, traditionally living tribes are more often fishermen-gatherers than they are hunters. There is a logical explanation for this.
Hunting is difficult and does not offer reliable subsistence. On the contrary, most vegetable foods – tubers, nuts and seeds, for instance – are available all year round. Modern-day tribes such as the Tanzanian Hadza still live this way. Why does the popular media then, more often than not, portray our distant ancestors as primarily meat-eating?
Ancient animal remains such as bones an teeth are more easily preserved than vegetable remains. This skews the image we have of our paleolithic nutrition towards meat. However, recent research at the Bar-Ilan University in Israel may bring about a shift in our perspectives. Scientists have made a unique and important discovery: well-preserved vegetable remains, near a 780,000 year old settlement within the land-water ecosystem.
Over 55 different plant species
The scientists studied about 100,000 remains of 117 different plant species. They calculated from this that the inhabitants ate at least 55 different plant species, but possibly more. In addition to tubers, fruit and nuts, they also found a relatively high number of water plants.
There is a small catch, though: scientist did not find direct evidence of plant consumption, such as charred remains. Although this may cast doubt on their results, it is hard to come up with an alternative explanation why the density of remains of edible plant species was so much higher around the ancient settlement than in the immediate vicinity.
Modern lack of variation
In our ancient past we consumed an enormous variety of vegetable foods. Our genome has gradually adapted to this. However, the past two to three generations we have been increasing our consumption of refined foods. Variation has been on the decline ever since the advent of agriculture. Herein lies an important explanation for the increase of diseases of affluence.
The intake of a wide variety of foods warrants a broad supply of nutrients important to keep us from becoming ill. In addition, being able to consume many different kinds of foods offers benefits in times of scarcity, as it increases the chance of finding foods to fall back on. On top of that, it prevents the intake of too many toxins from a small number of plant species. Therefore, there are many good reasons to introduce a lot more variation in our diets!
- Yoel Melamed, Mordechai E. Kislev, Eli Geffen, Simcha Lev-Yadun, Naama Goren-Inbar, The plant component of an Acheulian diet at Gesher Benot Ya‘aqov, Israel, PNAS, vol. 113 no. 51, pp. 14674-9, 2016.