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Of course, the veggie believer line is that a carnivorous diet is unnatural, outdated, inappropriate for us post-modern citizens.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.
“We compared the type of prey killed by lions and leopards today with the type of prey selected by humans in those days,” Bunn was quoted in a story in UK’s The Guardian newspaper. “This has shown that men and women could not have been taking kill from other animals or eating those that had died of natural causes. They were selecting and killing what they wanted.”
In his study, Bunn and his colleagues analyzed at a butchery site in Tanzania. The carcasses of wildebeest, antelopes and gazelles were brought there by ancient Homo habilis more than 1.8 million years ago. The meat was then stripped from the animals’ bones and eaten.
Most scientists agree that our larger brains evolved to help early humans cooperate with each other, followed by the development of language and other skills that helped us construct complex societies.
“I don’t disagree with that scenario,” Bunn told conference attendees. “But it has led us to downplay the hunting abilities of our earliest ancestors. People have dismissed them as mere scavengers, and I don’t think that looks right anymore.”
Bunn said he believes that early humans probably sat in trees and waited until herds of antelopes or gazelles passed below, then speared them at point-blank range. Their success had profound implications: Provided with a dense, protein-rich source of energy, our ancestors no longer needed to invest internal resources on huge digestive tracts required to process vegetation and fruit. Early humans’ energy-rich food source was instead diverted to fuel the growth of brain size and capability.
Which led to that interesting historical development we call civilization.
It’s not a stretch to say that hunting and meat-eating, far from being an ugly chapter in human history, is in fact the main reason we’re who we are today.
Digest that one, vegetarians.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.