In the face of the current obesity epidemic afflicting Western societies, the controversy over what our primitive human ancestors actually ate has recently taken on a newfound urgency.

For years, the debate over ancient diets was merely an inside baseball-type discussion between researchers studying esoteric clues about the foods and lifestyles pursued by Paleolithic humans, not to mention our even older hominid ancestors.

Now, the trend to return to the “natural” diet that so-called cavemen ate has become a cottage industry, and moved the scientific controversies out of stuffy academic journals and into the popular press.

“The [proponents] of Paleolithic diets urge us to eat like the ancients,” a recent article in Scientific American stated. “Taken too literally, such diets are ridiculous. After all, sometimes our ancestors starved to death and the starving to death diet, well, it ends badly. Yet the idea that we might take our ancestral diet into consideration when evaluating the foods on which our organs, cells and existence thrive, makes sense.”

The article noted further that there has been a serious debate of late about whether caveman lived primarily on wild animal meat of large amounts of plant foods. A newly published paper suggests the latter, although a much larger body of research data points toward a more omnivorous diet.

Here’s where the debate gets interesting.

According to a team of researchers led by Vincent Balter of École Normale Supérieure de Lyon, considered one of the most prestigious French universities specializing in training researchers and teachers in the sciences, theorized that the hominid ancestors of us modern humans and another “ill-fated group of hominins” developed very different dietary strategies. One group chose meat eating, while the other moved toward more plants.

One group survived, the other died out.

Plants versus animals

Here’s what the researchers found, according to findings published online in the current issue of the scientific journal Nature.

The hominin Australopithecus, which lived about three million years ago, is presumed to be the common ancestor of both the Homo line, which emerged some 2.3 million years ago and gave rise to Homo sapiens—us—and to the Paranthropus genius, first documented about 2.7 million years ago and which evidence suggests died out about a million years ago.

Some scientists have attributed the extinction of Paranthropus to an inflexible diet or limits on food-gathering ability in their territory, especially when climactic changes affected the Earth.

The researchers used lasers to analyze fossilized teeth from Australopithecus africanus, Paranthropus robustus and other early hominid specimens, which all lived in southern Africa. By measuring the ratios of calcium, barium and strontium the team deduced the diets of both species.

“Our ancestral Australopithecus consumed a wide range of foods, including, meat, leaves and fruits,” a summary of the Nature article on the Scientific American blog noted. “This varied diet might have been flexible to shift with food availability in different seasons, ensuring that they almost always had something to eat.”

Makes sense, doesn’t it? Isn’t that statement pretty much a parallel summary of what USDA’s modern Dietary Guidelines suggest we contemporary humans ought to be eating? Meat, vegetables and fruits. The only item missing is cereals, which obviously weren’t cultivated millions of years ago.

The Paranthropus hominids, on the other hand, appear to have been largely plant eaters, Balter’s research team determined. That explanation is supported by previous studies of fossilized tooth structure and enamel wear patterns and by their “massive jaw structure”—the ape-like jaws pictured in the earliest specimens shown in that iconic “Evolution of Man” graphic.Those powerful jaws would have enabled Paranthropus to consume harder to eat plant foods and earned one specimen the nickname “Nutcracker Man,” according to the blog post.

Ancestral members of theHomo line, on the other hand, consumed a meat-heavy diet that was likely enabled by the use of weapons for hunting and tools for butchering.

To summarize: Meat eaters one, veggie lovers zero.

Of course, the scientists reviewing the research are compelled to offer up the usual disclaimers—“Just because a meatier diet was good for our early Homo forbearers does not necessarily it will keep us contemporary humans alive longer,” blah, blah, blah.

But there’s no longer a whole lot of doubt about who won the struggle for survival millions of years ago.

And it wasn’t the ancestors of today’s vegan activists.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.