Scientists find oldest evidence of regular meat consumption by early humans

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A fragment of a child’s skull discovered at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania shows the oldest known evidence of anemia caused by a nutritional deficiency, reports a new paper published Oct. 3 in the open access journal PLOS ONE.


A skull fragment unearthed by anthropologists in Tanzania shows that our ancient ancestors were eating meat at least 1.5 million years ago, shedding new light into the evolution of human physiology and brain development.

“Meat eating has always been considered one of the things that made us human, with the protein contributing to the growth of our brains,” said Charles Musiba, Ph.D., associate professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado Denver, who helped make the discovery. “Our work shows that 1.5 million years ago we were not opportunistic meat eaters, we were actively hunting and eating meat.”

The study was published Wednesday in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE.

The two-inch skull fragment was found at the famed Olduvai Gorge in northern Tanzania, a site that for decades has yielded numerous clues into the evolution of modern humans and is sometimes called `the cradle of mankind.’

The fragment belonged to a 2-year-old child and showed signs of porotic hyperostosis associated with anemia. According to the study, the condition was likely caused by a diet suddenly lacking in meat.

“The presence of anemia-induced porotic hyperostosis…indicates indirectly that by at least the early Pleistocene meat had become so essential to proper hominin functioning that its paucity or lack led to deleterious pathological conditions,” the study said. “Because fossils of very young hominin children are so rare in the early Pleistocene fossil record of East Africa, the occurrence of porotic hyperostosis in one…suggests we have only scratched the surface in our understanding of nutrition and health in ancestral populations of the deep past.”

Musiba said the evidence showed that the juvenile’s diet was deficient in vitamin B12 and B9. Meat seems to have been cut off during the weaning process.

“He was not getting the proper nutrients and probably died of malnutrition,” he said.

Written By: PhysOrg
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3 COMMENTS

  1. Perhaps this article could equally be interpreted as ‘oldest evidence of death from vegetarianism’.

    Thanks for the other related Slate link.

    The Slate article says there isn’t much evidence for humans bringing fire with them when they left Africa. But Wrangham may not be casting widely enough across other disciplines to support his hypotheses.

    2 other disciplines are epidemiology and economics:

    Most of the energy from eating meat comes from the fat. The protein is mostly converted to glucose, and then on to become a much smaller amount of fat in the body. This leaves little protein to contribute to large brains. Most of which is irrelevant because fats are the more important structural component. And fat is also the more important brain fuel.

    Carcasses of large land animals hunted by early humans provide mostly saturated fats, which can be separated out using fire. The product is solid, durable and doesn’t readily decompose, and is extremely valuable for a wide variety of uses. It’s also light, portable, fungible and readily broken up into different quantities. This is a definition of a suitable emergent monetary commodity. Modern equivalent is pemmican, which has been used occasionally as money.

    Intelligence and language couldn’t have been driven by nutrient availability. The driver would be selection pressure that favours division of labour based on the concept of comparative advantage. Nutrients are a constraint, not a cause. Intelligence and language enables cooperative hunting, providing the nutrients, and also making widespread trade inevitable. Wherever there is trade a monetary commodity emerges. It could be arrow heads, or raw materials like flint, axes, arrow heads, dies, glue etc. Money arises from commodities with special qualities and is essential to establish trade across distant times and places.

    A fat-based money might also be a behavioural driver for the mass exterminations and extinctions associated with prehistoric human migration into any new ecosystem.

    Other indirect evidence of early exploitation of fire and meat is evolution and health.

    If early humans used fire and ate mostly meat then modern humans should be well-adapted to cooked meat. Being omnivores then non-meat energy (sugars and alcohol) would enhance short term survival but optimal long term health would only associated with significant meat consumption, particularly large amounts of saturated fat. This is because evolutionary processes often lead to the loss of capabilities like gene expression to internally assemble various protein and other components otherwise always found in food sources. De-adaptation is the other side of evolution, in the absence of selection pressure. If humans are adapted to animal fat then you’d expect various physiological impacts to accumulate in populations deriving most of their energy from glucose-foods instead of saturated fat.

    There’s a theory that most cancer, cardiovascular, diabetes, alzheimers, and similar diseases are the manifestation of these inevitable consequences of accumulating glycation causing AGEs, owing to chronic exposure to blood sugar, inadequate saturated fat intake (as a more neutral and less damaging energy fuel), and with AGE accumulation unmitigated by nutrients that only occur in meat. If animal fat is the primary human food then this implies that athletic performance would also be superior if athletes consumed mostly fat instead of mostly carbohydrates.

    At present it seems self-evident that eating saturated fat causes disease and that all elite athletes should load up on carbohydrates for optimum event performance. This conventional wisdom might be based on the assumption that humans evolved as mainly vegetarian.

    But if humans are instead optimally adapted to animal fat as primary fuel than the conventional wisdom may be expected to change. But not very soon. Aside from Pleistocene anthropology there doesn’t seem to be much research into this because hardly anyone one takes it seriously, plus there’s no ROI driver from a pharmaceutical perspective.

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