Contemporary diets—at least in western countries—are characterized by widespread meat eating. Worldwide, a significant majority of people make animal foods the central part of their daily diets.
Of course, the veggie believer line is that a carnivorous diet is unnatural, outdated, inappropriate for us post-modern citizens. They love to point out that if not for the existence of “factory farming”—which they loathe—we would have neither the availability (nor the affordability, though that’s rarely discussed) of meat and dairy products to support even a fraction of the consumption levels that are typical in most westernized countries.
(Not to take a detour here, but interestingly, consumption levels of meat, poultry and dairy have become a prominent focus of the activist community. Used to be, the pro-vegetarian advocates simply preached the gospel of no meat, no milk, no animal foods at all. However, with Meatless Mondays and arguments over the carbon footprint of livestock production, the issue is now framed as let’s reduce—not remove—the presence of animal products from people’s shopping lists and their menu choices).
While anthropologists are clear in discussing the eons-long history of humans as carnivores, dietary critics try to twist the evidence to suggest that even though early evidence of eating animal flesh correlates with tool-making and cognitive abilities related to hunting skills, the conclusion is a negative one: Meat eating triggers violent behavior, i.e., the killing of animals to provide for one’s subsistence.
New evidence on meat’s primacy
New research belies that theory, however, and reinforces not only that hunting was a unique and essential developmental activity but reinterprets the consequences of ancestral humans’ preoccupation with consuming meat.
According to Prof. Henry Bunn, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin, the origins of human hunting and meat-eating date back not hundreds of thousands of years, as previously determined, but two million years ago. That’s news in itself, at least if you’re interested in the complexity of human origins.
In the past, many scientists had assumed that the small-brained, ape-like people from that long ago only ate meat from animals that died of natural causes or from scavenged carcasses left behind by lions, leopards and other carnivores.
But in a recent presentation during the annual meeting of the European Society for the study of Human Evolution, Bunn argued that our aboriginal ancestors, though primitive and puny, were quite capable of ambushing large herbivores—even carefully selecting certain animals for slaughter. The appearance of that skill so early in our evolutionary past has key implications for the development of human intellect, he argued.