|Since 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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