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What did our ancestors eat in the stone age? Mostly meat

This figure began to change in the Stone Age * Evidence of genetic changes and the appearance of unique stone tools for processing plants led the researchers to the conclusion that starting about 85 thousand years ago in Africa, and starting about 40 thousand years ago in Europe and Asia, there was a gradual increase in the consumption of plant food and a greater variety of the diet

Hunting of large animals, man's specialization in prehistoric times. Image: depositphotos.com
Hunting of large animals, man's specialization in prehistoric times. Image: depositphotos.com

What made up the menu of the ancient man and what was the ratio between the meat and plant components in the meal? This question often comes up during conversations around the dinner table about vegetarianism and veganism and also intrigues many researchers. "Attempts to reconstruct the human diet in the Stone Age have been based to this day mainly on the acceptance of the diet in hunter-gatherer societies from the 20th century. But there is no point in this comparison, because a hunter-gatherer society two million years ago was fed by an abundance of elephants and other large animals - while today's hunter-gatherer societies do not have such an abundance. The entire ecosystem has changed and is incomparable.” Dr. Miki Ben-Dor explains From the Department of Archeology named after Yaakov M. Alkov At Tel Aviv University. 

In an article published in the yearbook of the American Association for Physical Anthropology, Dr. Ben-Dor and Prof. Ran Barkai from the Department of Archaeology, together with Rafael Sirtoli from Portugal, show that man was a super carnivore for about two million years. Only following the extinction of the large animals (the megafauna) in various parts of the world and the depletion of animal food sources at the end of the Stone Age, there was a gradual increase in the plant part of the diet, until finally man had no choice but to domesticate plants and animals - and switch to agriculture.

The body remembers

"Our idea was to use other methods to reconstruct human nutrition in the Stone Age: to use the memory embedded in our body, metabolism, genetics, physical structure. After all, our behavior changes quickly, but evolution is slow. The body remembers." says Dr. Bo Dor. In a move that has not been done to this day on the current scale, Dr. Ben-Dor and his colleagues collected about 25 pieces of evidence from about 400 scientific articles from various scientific fields, which deal with the question of whether man specialized as a predator (carnivore) or as an omnivore (omnivores) during the Stone Age. Most of the evidence is found in studies of current human biology, including genetics, metabolism, physiology and morphology.

"A striking example is the acidity of the human stomach," says Dr. Ben-Dor. "The acidity in our stomach is stronger than that of omnivores, and even that of other carnivores. Producing and maintaining strong acidity costs a lot of energy, and its existence indicates a specialization in the consumption of animal food. Strong acidity helps protect against harmful bacteria in the meat, and prehistoric man, who hunted large animals whose meat was enough for several days and even weeks, in many cases lived on old meat with many bacteria - and therefore also needed to maintain a high level of acidity. Another example of how humans belong to the group of predators is the structure of the fat cells in our body. The fat in the body of omnivores is stored in a relatively small number of large fat cells, while in carnivores, including humans, the picture is the opposite: we have a much larger number of smaller fat cells. Significant evidence of man's evolution as a carnivore has also been found in our genome. For example, geneticists came to the conclusion that the human closed regions of the genome to allow a high-fat diet, while the chimpanzee opened regions of the genome that allow a high-sugar diet."

The researchers added archaeological evidence to evidence from human biology. For example, the study of stable isotopes in the bones of ancient humans and hunting patterns unique to humans shows that humans specialized in hunting large and medium-sized animals with a high fat content. Comparing man, who hunted large animals, to large contemporary social predators, all of whom specialize in preying on large animals and all of whom consume over 70% of the energy from the animal, strengthened the conclusion that man specialized in hunting large animals and was a hypercarnivore like them.

Specializing in hunting large animals

"Hunting large animals is not an afternoon hobby," says Dr. Ben-Dor. "It requires a lot of knowledge, and even lions and hyenas reach these abilities only after many years of study. From this it is clear that the large animals that we find in countless archaeological sites are the result of man's specialization in hunting large animals. A significant number of researchers into the extinction of large animals agree that the hunting of large animals by man played a central role in their extinction - and there is no better proof than this of man's specialization in hunting large animals, and in accordance with contemporary predators, in hunting itself as a central activity of man for most of the period of his development. Additional archaeological evidence, such as the appearance of tools for processing and obtaining plant food only in late stages of human evolution, also supports the centrality of large animals in the human diet throughout most of human history."

The multidisciplinary reconstruction conducted by Tel Aviv University researchers for nearly a decade offers a paradigm shift in the understanding of human evolution. Contrary to the accepted hypothesis that man owes his development and survival to nutritional flexibility between relying on animal hunting and a plant diet, the picture that emerges is of man's development as someone who specialized mainly in preying on large animals. "Archaeological evidence leaves no doubt that man also consumed plants in the Stone Age," adds Dr. Ben-Dor, "but according to the findings of the current study, they did not form the main part of the diet until towards the end of the period."

An increase in plant food consumption following the development of tools

Evidence of genetic changes and the appearance of unique stone tools for processing plants led the researchers to the conclusion that starting about 85 years ago in Africa, and starting about 40 years ago in Europe and Asia, a gradual increase in the consumption of plant foods and a greater variety of the diet - according to the ecological conditions - is evident. This increase is accompanied by an increase in the local uniqueness of the stone tool culture and is similar to the diversity of the material culture among hunter-gatherer societies of the 20th century. In contrast, in the two million years in which the researchers concluded that man was a top carnivore, there was similarity and continuity in the stone tools regardless of the local ecological conditions.

"Our research erupts into a very big debate - scientific and non-scientific," says Prof. Ran Barkai. "The paleolithic diet is on the minds of many people, not only in relation to the past but also in relation to the present and the future. It is difficult to convince a person who advocates vegetarianism that his ancestors were not like that, and there is a tendency to mix here between personal perception and scientific reality. Our current research is multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary. We offer an unprecedentedly wide and comprehensive picture, which clearly shows that man was first of all a super carnivore, specializing in hunting large animals. As Darwin found, the adaptation of species to obtain and digest their food is the main source of evolutionary changes, therefore the determination that man was a super carnivore for most of his development period may form a broad basis for essential insights into the biological and cultural evolution of man."

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