Human Ancestors Were For The Most Part Vegetarian

Looking to free your diet from the perversions of modernity and eat paleo-style? When our ancient predecessors were developing their digestive systems, they did so on a steady ration of plants — which are what most primates eat to this day, writes Scientific American:

An entire class of self-help books recommends a return to the diets of our ancestors–Paleolithic diets, caveman diets, primal diets and the like. But what did our ancestors eat?

A paleo diet is an arbitrary thing. Which paleo diet should we eat? The one from twelve thousand years ago? A hundred thousand years ago? Forty million years ago? I would argue that, IF we want to return to our ancestral diets, we might reasonably eat what our ancestors spent the most time eating during the largest periods of the evolution of our guts. If that is the case, we need to be eating fruits, nuts, and vegetables—especially fungus-covered tropical leaves.

We need to understand the diet of our ancestors during the time when the main features of our guts, and their magical abilities to turn food into life, evolved. We need, in other words, to look at apes, monkeys and other non-human primates.

The diets of nearly all monkeys and apes (except the leaf-eaters) are composed of fruits, nuts, leaves, insects, and sometimes the odd snack of a bird or a lizard. They have the capacity for eating sugary fruit, the capacity for eating leaves and the capacity for eating meat, although that capacity tends to rarely be invoked. Sure, chimpanzees sometimes kill and devour a monkey, but the proportion of the diet of the average chimpanzee composed of meat is small, less than 3% by mass. The majority of the food consumed by primates today–and every indication is for the last thirty million years–is vegetable, not animal. Plants are what our apey and even earlier ancestors ate; they were our paleo diet for most of the last thirty million years during which our bodies, and our guts in particular, were evolving.

47 Comments on "Human Ancestors Were For The Most Part Vegetarian"

  1. Anarchy Pony | Jul 24, 2012 at 4:19 pm |

    Extensive meat eating likely became commonplace during the ice ages.

  2. charlieprimero | Jul 24, 2012 at 4:44 pm |

     Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck GmbH says don’t eat meat.

  3. mannyfurious | Jul 24, 2012 at 4:52 pm |

    I tend to rag on vegetarians and vegans because they tend to be so annoying, but I always thought their diets were closer to what we subsisted on through prehistoric ages than the “paleo” cult. I’m often pretty stupid, and perhaps I am being ignorant on this point as well, but it never seemed to me that there was a good return on investment, calorie-wise, on hunting animals. Especially now that it seems as if we chased the animals until they essentially collapsed. That’s a lot of energy to be expending, especially when we consider that meat isn’t actually the best source of calories.

    • Calypso_1 | Jul 25, 2012 at 10:52 am |

      Hunting and tracking need often involves a great deal of waiting and observation not just chase.  As far as ROI on caloric needs it all depends on environment.  There is no way that gathering or farming in a subarctic climate is going to require less expenditure of calories than hunting.  Also when you look at most cooperative small game hunting methods of tribal peoples in dense equatorial areas it does not involve a great deal of chase.  A group will casual walk through the bush singing and talking driving the animals into the waiting nets of another group hidden at a choke point of an animal trail. 

  4. when I lived among a wilderness community
    we would encounter visitors with special diets
    raw fooders, vegans, vegetarians, whole fooders
    you name it, we encountered it

    after a few days in the Wildo
    they would adopt the “see food” diet
    they’d see food, they’d eat it

    • emperorreagan | Jul 25, 2012 at 7:34 pm |

      Despite claims on both sides, it’s always made sense to me that human diets were most likely opportunistic until the rise of agriculture and the city-state.

  5. The Paleo Diet Is Uncivilized (And Unhealthy and Untrue)

  6.  Uhm, the Paleo diet is about avoidance of modern foods and ones that require processing to eat, such as grains, soy, dairy and legumes. There are vegetarian paleos. Of course, many vegetarians and vegans get butthurt over the paleos choice of grassfed meat as a staple, but they’re just mentally weak from lack of the required fatty acids in their diet. 😉 This doesn’t really contradict the paleo paradigm at all, and trust me, we eat TONS of plants.

  7. I’m vegetarian but seeing this article made me wonder… if I’m to confess I more became vegetarian because my husband is, rather than any research based on my own dietary needs. What are our stomachs liked compared to ancestors and related primates? How much has our gut evolved towards eating meat? I’ve noticed that I find it difficult and painful (and frankly a religious experience when it comes to bowel movements) to eat it after just a couple of years of the diet change. 

    Also how much can you really partake in a paleo diet? Aren’t the fruits and vegetables we eat now also different?

    • Jin The Ninja | Jul 25, 2012 at 4:26 am |

       many cultures still eat tree fungus. in fact in chinese vegetarianism, there is a very wide range of different fungi considered both medicinal and edible. they all have pretty names like ‘cloud ear fungus,’ lion’s mane fungus.’ but essentially, still fungi. don’t forget truffles are also fungus.

      • I had no idea of the different types, especially the lion’s mane! as beautiful as the name. I was more giggling however at the thought of various ancestors finding some particularly special fungi…. especially in tropical climates…. wowee. Also I was wondering if the fungi and nuts and stuff we find today are the same ones that were around at the time, or are we eating either evolved forms or a different set of species altogether?

        • Jin The Ninja | Jul 25, 2012 at 8:06 am |

          i agree that the idea of our ancestors finding edible plants/fungi is very interesting. that they were able to discern medicinal and edible properties must imply they were more advanced than we acknowledge, or perhaps it was their ecocentric paradigms that allowed them to ‘discover’ and actively cultivate these plants/fungi. i think to answer your question, it is probably both. obviously heritage/heirloom varieties are much closer to wild varieties than those in modern monoculture. i think in the last 50-100 years our cultivated vegetation has undergone radical change from that of our ancestors, but the fact is selective breeding is an important part of agriculture. so i think it’s a multifaceted thing, that is in a way in reactionary ‘farmer’s market’ phase- yearning for the vegetables of yore. and i can’t in any way say i disagree with that.

          •  the variety of edible mushrooms in China is amazing
            I eat the cloud ear & lion’s mane regularly

            I have been experimenting with mushroom culture
            right now have some Oyster & Maitake going

            but I’m just beginning and have a lot to learn
            I’m hoping to bring some Chinese mushroom spawn with me
            when I return to Hawaii

          • Jin The Ninja | Jul 25, 2012 at 9:50 pm |

            mushrooms are pretty miraculous. i buy this mushroom muscle spray from the chinese pharma, and it is so damn strong. i’ve heard mushies do really well in hawaii, i’ve seen some pretty ‘exotic’ varieties grown both in gardens and spore boxes, i don’t know about how they’d do on trees though.

      • Calypso_1 | Jul 25, 2012 at 11:53 am |

        I’ve got a forest acre dedicated to fungiculture. Hoping to get 140 soon and put some grad students to work on some ‘projects’ – graded of course. 

    • Calypso_1 | Jul 25, 2012 at 11:47 am |

      A religious experience?  Transcendent, noetic, a weighing of the soul?  Any attempts at scatomancy?

  8. Jesus Borg | Jul 25, 2012 at 9:18 am |

    Yeah, our a ancestors were mostly vegan…..that is until they started growing big brains! Doh!

    Meat is brain food. Look at the big cats, like lions and tigers compared to their prey. Which has a bigger brain and antelope of a leapard? A cat or a mouse? A wolf or a deer? Everything at the top of the food chain eats meat and has a bigger brain. Look at dolphins and Killer whales. Huge brains.

    The Mongolians and other Pastoral Nomads of the Steppes of central Asia, like the Scythians ate mostly meat. The Farming people in the surrounding areas they were continually conquered and dominated by these people at mostly grain. Once these barbarians begame the landed gentry they continued to eat more meat then the peasants. Thats why they remained taller with higher birth weights and bigger brains and IN CHARGE!

    So yeah, humans are adaptable. You can either be on the top of the food chain or closer to the bottom.

    • Calypso_1 | Jul 25, 2012 at 10:41 am |

      Our primate ancestors and modern apes consume significant amounts of ‘animal’ protein from insects as they forage fruit and leaves.  Even gorillas, which were previously thought to be folivores, have been observed to selectively choose plants that have high quantities of insects or larvae and feed upon them continuously while they eat leaves.

    • Actually large brains were required prior to us eating large amounts of non-insect meat.  In order to consume it we needed tools–knives, because we have inadequate teeth, and fire, because we have an inadequate digestive system.  So large brains and intelligence had to come first.

    • spideyismydaddy | Dec 4, 2013 at 7:10 am |

      Exactly. That’s why elephants have bigger brains than humans.

  9. I don’t understand why Disinfo has been so pro-vegetarian lately.  Vegetarianism is WORSE for the environment AND your health than eating meat in the vast majority of cases. Posting links to this kind of garbage article is not helping your cred.  I hope people who read this also check out the other side and research the science showing that we were primarily meat eaters who used saturated fat as a primary source of fuel, and that this is the healthiest and most ecologically beneficial way to eat today.  Here’s a good place to start:

  10. Scientific evidence also seems to be indicating the strong possibility that our ancestors are in large part responsible for making extinct many other large mammal species possibly including other hominids.

  11. Simiantongue | Jul 26, 2012 at 12:06 pm |

    I’m a vegetarian for the most part too. Except when I’m eating animals. 

  12. Anonnymouse | Aug 26, 2012 at 5:01 pm |

    can you imagine bonobos discussing what humans eat and thinking it has anything to do with what they should eat? 

    look, just eat what seems right to you. don’t worry about the science, but follow your own conscience. if you can watch videos of chickens getting their beaks cut off and it doesn’t bother you, than by all means have at it. but don’t avoid the truth just because it might make you queasy.

    for me, i eat pescetarian because i’ve been fishing since i was young and it doesn’t really bother me to skin and gut a fish, for whatever reason. i just don’t think that fish have as much awareness as say, a cow. 

    on the other hand, i’ve met pet cows and pigs and now i know first hand that they are as sweet as dogs when raised that way. although it doesn’t make me sick to have an occasional burger, i can’t stop thinking about what it would be like to eat a cat or dog, so i have to stop (or else try a dog burger).

  13. snertking | Apr 1, 2013 at 5:51 pm |

    No, we do not need to look at apes and monkeys. We need to look at other Hominids! Unfortunately we are the only surviving hominid. However archaeological evidence suggests our closest relative (Homo Neanderthals) was omnivorous with more than a 50% animal matter diet.

  14. Nicolas Quimby | Dec 4, 2013 at 5:49 pm |

    What were we eating over the longest period of time? Other single-celled organisms and waterborne nutrients. “What were we eating right before the agricultural revolution” is a much better question. Or maybe “what were we eating before refrigerated trains and the industrialization of animal husbandry”. There are good arguments for cutting back on meat, so please don’t invent or perpetuate bad ones.

Comments are closed.