Were Our Ancestors Meat Eaters or Vegetarians?

Despite critics of the Paleo Diet one thing is certain, removal of processed food can only be a good thing. There are critics out there that claim the diet can result in calcium and fibre deficiency due to the elimination of dairy and ‘healthy’ whole grains and question, just how can it be proven that our diet back then consisted of mainly meat?

It is said that the profound changes in our ancestral diet that began with the introduction of agriculture 10,000 years ago, began too recent in our evolution for the human genome to adjust and as such, many of the so-called diseases of civilization have emerged, according to Paleo diet experts Boyd Eaton and Loren Cordain.

Food processing procedures introduced in the Industrial Period have fundamentally altered crucial nutritional characteristics of our previous two-million-year-old diet, resulting in what they and many others believe, have contributed to the diseases of Western civilization.

According to current thinking, before the development of agriculture our diet would have been limited to minimally processed, animal and plant foods. From this initial domestication of animals and cultivation of plants, the original nutrient content of genuine wild foods were changed, changes that rapidly advanced and which the human genome had little evolutionary experience.


Science is now proving this hypothesis by gathering information from bone fragments and analysing the composition. Before this, evidence was only circumstantial, tools were found that had been used to cut up animals but there was previously no way to really tell what proportion of our ancestor’s diet actually came from animal sources.

So, a study looked at what proportion of our ancestor’s diet was coming from animal protein versus plant protein. Researchers took bone fragments and immersed them in hydrochloric acid which dissolves away most of the bone leaving collagen, a white fluffy material which is analysed in a mass spectrometer to measure the amount of carbon and nitrogen. Isotope ratios are then compared between early humans and animals that lived in the same time period. Reindeer for example are herbivores, wolves are carnivores. A food map with isotope values was constructed and in the case of Neanderthal/animal comparisons, it is revealed that the Neanderthals were getting all of their protein from animal sources.

2 Replies to “Were Our Ancestors Meat Eaters or Vegetarians?”

  1. I’d recommend “Against the Grain” by James C Scott – it also suggests that urbanisation (as distinct from settlements & transhumance) is inextricably bound to dry land/irrigated cereal cultivation.


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