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.