Homo Sapiens, Gatherer

veggies2Since our first appearance on the planet, the human diet has changed dramatically. While popular wisdom portrays us as primarily carnivorous hunter-gatherers from day one, there is increasing evidence that, not only do we have this backwards (which is why anthropologists now tend to describe us as ‘gatherer-hunters’), we have only very recently become hunters, and until that time, we were almost exclusively vegan.

As anthropologist Dr. Craig Stanford of USC explains, clues to how our diet has evolved are best found by looking at our closest (98.5% shared DNA) cousins, the chimpanzees. Of the various ‘higher’ primates, including gorillas, orangutans etc., only chimps and humans hunt and eat meat. For chimps, meat is a supplement eaten rarely, and hunting occurs almost exclusively during very dry months when the plant species that are the main natural diet of all primates become scarcer. Even chimps are 98% vegan, and their meat diet (sorry to burst your bubble, macho hunters) consists almost exclusively of the babies and adolescents of a tender-fleshed primate, the colobus monkey (the colobus adults are too smart to be caught). Chimps need to organize in parties of up to 40, corner a young colobus in a treetop, and then grab it and bash it against the tree trunk until they can get through the hide at the flesh inside. For all this work, there is generally only a taste — an ounce or so per chimp — to go around.

This shouldn’t surprise us. Looking at the bodies of any primate, you can see immediately from our teeth, (lack of) claws, lack of strength and lack of speed that we’re just not the hunting type. Until we invented stone (and later metal) tearing tools, we wouldn’t have known what to do with an animal even if we could bring one down. There are theories that we were meat scavengers (like our fellow large-brain-to-body-ratio creatures, the crows and ravens) before we learned to hunt ourselves, waiting until the canids or felines (animals that are made for hunting, and are naturally carnivorous) had sated themselves before moving in on the leftovers, already cut open for us. But even this theory is suspect — chimps have the opportunity to scavenge, but many studies indicate they don’t.

Why do chimps hunt at all? In part because in dry seasons, especially when their territory is encroached upon, they need a small amount of meat to supplement their vegan diet. And in part because infant chimps fed a small amount of monkey meat tend to be healthier and stronger than those that aren’t (infants of all species tend to be more vulnerable to deficiencies of any element in their diet than adults, which is probably why breast-feeding evolved, and why infants eat more in general than adults). And in part because the hunt is a social and exciting activity, rewarded hormonally by their bodies just as all social and learning activities are.

All other major primates don’t hunt because they don’t have to — it’s a pretty inefficient way of getting calories when you just don’t have the makeup to do it well, and when your body is perfectly able to get what it needs by foraging. All primates, including early humans, are gatherers, not hunters.

Just as we developed tools, and then agriculture, because we had to to survive, it is very likely, then, that we took up this very unnatural activity of hunting because we had to. When because of overcrowding or climate change (ice ages) our natural vegan foraging no longer provided us with enough food, we had to supplement it with other food-obtaining methods. So then we started scavenging, eating the leftovers of the kills of real hunters. And then, probably by learning from ravens and crows, we struck up synergistic relationships with the smaller-sized real hunters (the ancestors of dogs and cats) — we’d help them locate and corner prey, and share the spoils with them. The invention of the arrowhead would allow us, for the first time, to catch and kill and tear the flesh of prey ourselves — a huge evolutionary advantage for those of us who had left the forest and its vegan food abundance, and this in turn would allow us to spread across the planet.

So now we quickly changed from an almost purely vegan species to an almost purely carnivorous one, for two reasons: Few of our new non-tropical habitats offered us much in the way of edible fruits, vegetables and nuts. And our new technology allowed us to bring down and carve the abundant large mammal species, so we had more food than we could eat. This in turn had two consequences, both of them unfortunate: With the new surplus of food, human population soared. And, to supplement the unnatural and inadequate meat diet, we needed to find another food source, and we found it in grains. And unlike our natural diets, we had to cook most of these new foods to make them edible, destroying much of their nutritional value.

Richard Manning’s book Against the Grain explains how grain monocultures led to agriculture, and then to civilization culture — human settlement in one place, urbanization, and power hierarchies. The new unnatural foods — meats and grains — led to massive malnutrition, addiction and all kinds of dietary diseases that were previously unheard of — obesity and heart disease, osteoporosis and tooth decay, vitamin deficiencies, alcoholism, scurvy, goiter and other thyroid and metabolic disorders, and diabetes and hypoglycemia, just for starters.

But what can we do to correct this error now? Over the most recent million years or so, our bodies have evolved to accommodate and tolerate this strange new diet, to the point that we can’t simply go back to eating what was our natural vegan diet. Even the cats and dogs whose forebears helped us migrate to our new diet have changed metabolically to the point that their natural (raw meat) diet can no longer be tolerated by their digestive and immune systems (and they now suffer from many of the same diseases and illnesses that the grain-based diet we feed them has afflicted us with).

The answer, I think, both for us and for our pets, is to realize that what we eat is making us sick, and wean ourselves off our addictions to fat, sugars, starches, salt, alcohol and other unnatural substances gently. That means taking it one step at a time, gradually reducing our intake of these unnatural substances and replacing them with healthy, natural ones. It’s taken more than a million years to adapt ourselves to eating this crap, and we’re not going to be able to adapt to healthy eating overnight, or even completely in our lifetimes.

But, like they say at AA, awareness of our sickness is the first, and most important step, in overcoming it. Just as we have been able to rise up and fight back against the tobacco companies, we need to rise up and fight back against the agribusinesses that have addicted us to fats, sugars, starches, salt, alcohol and other unhealthy ‘foods’. We need to sue them for what they have done to our health (not to mention to the health and well-being of the many suffering creatures they exploit) and shut them down. They need to be held accountable for the epidemic of human disease and illnesses that they have precipitated and profited from. The proceeds from dismantling these corporatist disease-mongers should be distributed half to our overburdened health care system (largely their legacy) and half to supporting small, local, organic growers of the foods we should be eating.

And at the same time we need to take personal responsibility for the health of those we love, and get ourselves and each other, one step at a time, off the toxic crap we eat and drink. We need to start looking at the family in the grocery store with the cart full of sugar cereals, pork chops, potato chips, pop and candy bars the same way we look at crack addicts — with sympathy, and alarm, and the motivation to look for answers.

Oh, and what should we do to replace the social bonding and hormonal high some men, like their chimp cousins, get from the macho ‘sport’ of hunting? I suggest paintball.

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15 Responses to Homo Sapiens, Gatherer

  1. kerry says:

    This sounds logical and wise to me. Do you believe that straightening out our physical disease will be enough, though? What about our emotional and mental distortions that grew alongside this adaptation?

  2. Food affects thoughts, thoughts causes interospection, interospection leads to action,action leads to attachment,attachment leads to lust,lust leads to anger,anger leads to delusion,delusion leads to loss of intelligence,loss of intelligence causes fall down into the cycle of samsara.——–Monitor what u eat, else it will bind u.——-Do not eat meat, it leads to very severe bad karma.

  3. Herbinator says:

    So close and yet so far. You’ve missed the mark by a fair bit on this one.

  4. sampo says:

    modify our diets? are you insane? the indoctrination into addiction to sugars grains and meats begins at such a young age that it becomes near impossible to even perceive the problem. These are the things that we are now hardwired to see as “tasting good”. Not to mention that our whole lives we are told that meat and grains are good for you to boot, and sure some parents try to teach their kids that sugar is bad but nobody does it with much seriousness. Americans get more calories from high fructose corn syrup than any other source. and they LOVE it. Our soft drinks, french fries and ice creams are now served in vessels that should properly be referred to as buckets…No matter how many studies, reports and real direct evidence of linkage between diet and disease there are we will never go back from our sugar coated, lightly toasted, grill marked ways. NEVER.and paintball? honestly…

  5. Aaron says:

    I have to disagree with some of your assumptions. First of all, it’s unwise to assume that the ideal human diet matches that of chimpanzees. A 1.5% difference in DNA can lead to huge differences in phenotype; perhaps you’ve noticed that there are a few visible differences between humans and chimps. ;-) A friend of mine has spoken with some nutritional anthropologists (there aren’t many of them), and the consensus was that significant adaptation can occur within 5000 years.Also, I no longer believe that there is a universal ideal diet for all humans. I had to learn that lesson the hard way; I ate a vegan, whole foods diet for close to a year, and my health went from bad to worse — to the point where it was a struggle to walk about the neighbourhood. Luckily, someone noticed one of my internet postings, where I mentioned that I was a hypoglycemic vegetarian, and he told me that hypoglycemics cannot thrive on a vegetarian diet. That was a message I didn’t want to hear, but I eventually admitted that he was right. I learned about metabolic types — the idea that different people can have wildly different metabolic needs. Like most hypoglycemics, I was obviously what Dr. George Watson called a “fast oxidizer” — someone who needs to eat a lot of dark meat and fat and to restrict carbohydrates. The difference was dramatic; it turned out that diet *was* key to regaining my health, but I had picked the wrong extreme at first.Hypoglycemia indicates a “fast oxidizer” metabolism; type II diabetes (hyperglycemia) usually correlates with a “slow oxidizer” metabolism. I marvel at the metabolism of “slow oxidizers” who can thrive on a semi-vegetarian diet; I sometimes envy their seemingly more efficient physiology, but I can’t change my inheritance. Anyway, I obviously disagree with your assertion that a meat-rich diet is always unhealthy. Believe me, “macho” doesn’t enter into it. There are plenty of hunter-gatherers in northern and arid regions who thrive on such a diet. I once reluctantly admitted to a Chinese acupuncturist/herbalist that I was eating a lot of lamb, expecting him to disapprove, and was amused when he exclaimed, “That’s wonderful! The Mongols eat almost nothing but lamb and they’re very healthy!” ;-)

  6. Doug Alder says:

    Dave you missed many things. First there is considerable evidence to suggest that it was the move from eating plant protein to that of meat which triggerd the evolutionary trends that led to our development as a species. That without substantial meat eating we would not have developed the ability to use the brain size we have and the resulting intelligence and language capabilities.You compare us to our closest relatives yet we split off that evolutionary tree somewhere between 5 and 7 million years ago and a lot changed in our biology in that time. Anatomically we no longer have the intestinal tract needed to survive on the diet ythat chimps and great apes have. It is much too small (by about 60%) and can not process that food.Here’s a small sample from http://psychology.unn.ac.uk/nick/EPlec01.htmHorrobin (1998) proposed that during the course of human evolution specific biochemical alterations led to changes in metabolism which enabled the human brain to expand in size and function more efficiently. He points out that a large brain per se does not automatically produce creativity or intelligence as our ancestors did possess large brains, but for many millions of years showed no evidence of using them. Neural connectivity is determined largely by the availability of phospholipids, which make up 60% of the brain, and in particular the connections between neurons are made by phospholipids-rich axons and dendrites. These rely on a supply of the essential fatty acids (arachidonic acid, and docosahexaenoic acid) and the essential amino acids, which are vital for cell-function and neuronal signalling and can only be obtained from a diet rich in animal protein (meat, fish, eggs).Horrobin points out that the sudden rise in creativity paralleled dietary changes as hominids moved from eating vegetation and fruit, to eating meat and fish.

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    Kerry: You’re right — improving our diet is a necessary but not sufficient step to equip us for the next stage in our evolution.Aaron/Doug: I did acknowledge that ‘we can’t go back’ — our systems have changed too much. Hypoglycemia is actually one of the diseases that occurred after we changed from a vegan to an omnivore diet, and Aaron’s situation is an extreme example of why we can’t go back. Once you reach a certain point, especially when it’s taken a million years to get there, you have to go foreward. The Mongols and the Inuit and the desert peoples went first — because in dry and tundra climates they had to, and that is what evolution is all about. But meat was not an essential part of the human diet (else we would have been born with cheetah speed and agility and claws), and the evolution of the brain is also a necessity for survival of slow, weak, naturally ill-equipped (clawless and dull-toothed) creatures like us (and like whales and corvids, our smart cousins), not a consequence of our diet. In fact large brains led to our more omnivorous diets, not the other way around. Horrobin, I believe, has the cause and effect reversed.

  8. Aaron says:

    I’m confused. You said that we’ve adapted to meats and grains, yet those foods are “unnatural” (a loaded and ambiguous word). And therefore, we need to gradually change to a “natural” diet that would make the current generation sick. If our (pre-homo sapien) ancestors ate a vegan diet, why is that diet necessarily better for all the species descended from them. Ecosystems are in a continual state of flux, and all species need to co-evolve in order to survive (a proposition you seem to agree with); how can adaptation to one evolutionary context be considered better than adaptation to a completely different one?You also argue about cause and effect. I’m not sure how helpful it is to argue whether our cognitive development led to a different diet or vice versa; those processes evolved together and apparently supported one another.Finally, what’s with the anti-brain discrimination? If we could rip out the jugular of a wildebeest with our fingernails, it would be our “natural” prey, but because we have to use our brains to dig pits, use nets or javelins, etc., it’s “unnatural”. Why?It’s fair to debate the sustainability of our current lifestyle, including diet, but that has little to do with the “naturalness” of a particular food. Also, it might be worth emphasizing that we’ve had much longer to adapt to meat than to grains. And that the modern diet includes other recent changes to which we haven’t adapted yet at all.

  9. Aaron says:

    Upon re-reading my post, I realized I need to clarify/add some points:(1) I didn’t mean to imply that your essay confused sustainability and nutritional issues. Sustainability isn’t discussed at all (other than sustainability of our health care system); I was merely pointing out that it’s an important, but different, topic for discussion.(2) On re-reading your essay, I was reminded that you do specifically mention the deleterious effects of junk food. I agree, but please make a clear distinction between whole foods (including meats and grains) and their refined derivatives.(3) You associate many diseases with a diet of meat and grains, but never explain which problems are attributable to meat or grain in isolation. How do you reconcile these accusations with the early reports of the robust good health of Native Americans, for example? (Of course, most of them were wiped out by disease, which perhaps proves that even a healthy immune system can be shattered by foreign germs.) How does meat-eating lead to scurvy? A meat-rich diet can include sources of vitamin C; in fact, contrary to popular belief, some animal parts are rich in the vitamin (e.g., adrenal glands, whale blubber). According to Dr. Weston Price, hunter-gatherers had the best teeth, with almost no cavities; agriculturalists who ate traditional foods, including whole grains, had worse but still very good teeth; and people who had recently changed to a modern diet had many dental problems.(4) I don’t consider hypoglycemia to be a disease any more than dehydration from lack of drinking; it’s an indicator that you aren’t eating properly for your inherited metabolism. If I eat enough fat and purine-rich meat and don’t overdo the carbohydrates, I’m fine, so what’s the disease? Actually, that’s a slight exaggeration; chronic stress depletes your glycogen stores, leaving you susceptible to blood sugar swings, and that aspect of hypoglycemia could legitimately be labelled a disease. Diabetes is more complicated, because there are different types with different causes.

  10. Kurt says:

    @Doug — FYI, there are non-meat sourcesof docosahexaenoic acic (microalgae), whichthe body can convert into the other essentialfatty acids [Davis, et al., “Becoming Vegan” — an excellent book, by the way]. Healthy vegan diets *are* possible, but theydo require a good deal of nutritional awareness. (But then, that should be no problem for our big brains, shouldn’t it???):)I’ve been Vegan for over 2 years now. Hadsome problems early on with fatigue (bloodtests showed an iron deficiency), but I’m feeling great now. I miss the taste of meat and dairy occasionally, but now that I’ve acclimated to a non-meat diet, it no longer tempts me. I was actually amazed at how easy it was to switch (though I have heard that others struggle). The most difficult thing about it is the inevitably awkward dinner conversations that arise. It’s easy to avoid moral judgement conversations about religion or politics — but order a vegan meal and it almost alwaysgets commented on. I actually hate talkingabout it at meals with strangers ’cause so often it’s such a mood-ruiner. And frankly, I get tired of having the same conversation at every meal. Wouldn’t you? But still, I don’t think that I could convince myself that it was ok to start eating meat or dairy again, despite all the enormous social pressure to the contrary.

  11. Zephyr says:

    I disagree that mammals are physically able to liveas vegans or even strict vegetarians. I sought, myself, to live a vegetarian lifestyle for a coupleof years and I discovered it was very very scary – because your physiology seems to go out of whack at odd places.I remember reading the journals of the Author Farley Mowat when he was studying wolves – and he found that a largeportion of their diet in certain seasons, was actually fieldmice. There may be things these chimps are eating thathaven’t been observed, as thoroughly. I believe that the base level mammal diet, across the board, is mammal muscle meat and green leafy vegetables (cholorophyll).I think that it would be unwise for the progressive movementto continue in it’s quest, to try to ask the impossible of people it is trying to get onboard it’s movement. Rather, we ought to workto expose abuse of farm animals in the USA and to change their living conditions.

  12. Kurt says:

    @Zephyr — I partially agree with you. Meat and dairy products do contain a wide variety of nutrients that are not found in as concentrated form in plant products. If a person eats meat, they’re far less likely to experience a nutritial deficiency because it really covers the bases. I was a vegetarian for 7 years beforebecoming Vegan, and I did notice some changes, mostly not for the better (fatigue), but I wasn’t as careful about nutrition then. (As an aside, though, I wish I had known what I leared about nutrition after becomingvegan — I didn’t know that most people, even meat and dairy eaters, really should watch their diet to make sure that they are getting enough calcium and omega-3, because many of them don’t.) I also agree that most people have a very negative reaction to any kind of pressure or suggestion that they change their diet, and that promoting better living conditions for farm animals is an easier sell. I guess I’m not convinced, though, that eating meat is necessary. I think if it were, there would be much stronger epidemiological evidence supporting it. E.g. the link between smoking and lung cancer is, epidemiologically, crystal clear. A link between a vegetarian/vegan diet and poor health is not, as far as I know. But if anybody knows of any any epidemiological studies indicating so, please post a reference — I’m sure that I wouldn’t be the only one interested.

  13. Zephyr says:

    Well Kurt, if you’re a magician who can live without eating meat or milk, I am astonished and amazed. I can’t do it. Indeed, those vegans and vegetarians who I have known in the past, including myself, were always fudging, and eating meat here and there, on the weekends. Now, as I listen to you, you say you are “not convinced” that eating meat is necessary. And, further, that you want to see the results of studies of diseases caused by not eating meat, for you to be convincedabout that issue.If you have been a vegan for as long as you say you’ve been,and you have never touched an ounce of meat or milk,you would know that it is possible to live that way,firsthand, and you would know the impact of that kindof diet on your health.I think that there are certainly studies done in areas of the world where famine has broken out… whereone sees what lack of certain foods do to humanhealth._____________________Now, to return to address the honourable Mr. Pollard.I really appreciate your excellent daily essays youpost here, speaking of the goals which we all ought to haveforemost in our lives – to change the course of ourcivilization. I do think, however, that we need to have someclarity of our conceptions of how things are, beforewe will be able to approach this project efficiently and effectively.I, for one, am very skeptical of scientific research, becauseI’ve seen how this is done from inside the field.My mother was the editor of a medical journal, when Iwas in highschool. People who do research are receivinggrant money from certain organizations, and that moneyis putting food on their table. Scientists work, trying to put together puzzles to explainthe world around us. Oftentimes, however, they use inference to do this. They try to prove an esoteric theory they have about things, by doing a few experiments without a good control.Whereas, they ought to weave together context with tangible physical observations in other neighboring areas of human experience.I will trust a philosopher sooner than I’ll trust a scientist,because he thinks more broadly about the issues. He’snot thinking with a microscope, as scientists do – whenthey focus on the details to where they can’t see the context.As a writer, you have an unusual approach, in thatyou do try to put together the entire picture. But you have to understand that those sources you areusing, are tired old professors who aren’t lookingfor the big perspective which you, yourself, are.

  14. Dave Pollard says:

    Aaron: I don’t disagree with anything you said. Early homo sapiens was vegan — that was our species’ ‘natural’ diet for at least two million years. Meat is a recent adaptation to the diet, and grain a more recent one still. Our systems have adapted to allow us to eat meat almost exclusively and be healthy, but have not yet adapted to allow us to eat grains and be healthy (hence diabetes, tooth decay, obesity, salt and sugar addiction). Now it would be difficult for us to return to a vegan diet, just as it would be difficult for our pets to return to a diet of raw meat and bones — our bodies have adapted, and we cannot go back.Zephyr: See my comments to Aaron, above. There are people who have spent their whole lives studying certain mammals — I think they have a pretty good idea of what their diet is. I agree with you about the need to be skeptical of science (my involvement with business Case Studies indicates the same kinds of biases in that research) though it’s hard to see why primatologists would be inclined to say primates are vegans if they aren’t — what’s to be gained by their sponsor? But I appreciate the advice to be cautious about believeing what you read, which is always good counsel.Kurt: Kudos to you. You have articulated my point about how difficult it is to ‘go back’ once our bodies have adapted to a different diet.

  15. dmaurer says:

    Your quote of Richard Manning’s book is quite humorous. In actuality, in that very book that you quote, Manning SUPPORTS the ability to eat meat, especially if it is wildlife on your own land. Manning continually supports the grassland culture, which includes Bison, other meats and indiginous cultures.

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