Putting meat on Homo’s menu

Although some diet books might suggest otherwise, nature has been very accommodating in its meal plan for Homo sapiens. Whereas other great apes, such as gorillas and orangutans, are vegetarian (though some chimpanzees will eat monkey), evolution has made humans omnivores and left most culinary decisions up to us. So, when did evolution enable humans to eat meat? Two sources —the family tree of our species and the fossil record —offer clues.

The branches of the human family tree converge as they descend toward the root, revealing common ancestors where branches join. The shared ancestor of humans and chimps lived about five million years ago, and, although we do not know for certain what that ancestor ate, the best guess is that it was mainly, if not exclusively, vegetarian. If five million years ago is the earliest date that human ancestors could have opted for a diet that included meat, what is the latest date by which this might have happened?

One answer to that question can be gleaned from the skeletal remains of Lucy,a prehuman fossil ancestor of humans discovered in 1974. Lucy belonged to a species called Australopithecus afarensis, who lived in East Africa between three to four million years ago and is thought to have been the immediate ancestor of our genus, Homo.

The first evidence that Lucy’s species might have eaten meat came in 2009, when researchers excavating a site in Ethiopia unearthed two 3.39-million-year-old fossilised animal bones scored with markings made with a stone blade. The marks were interpreted to mean that the animals had been slaughtered but sceptics questioned why no butcher’s “blades” were found in the vicinity.

Then, five years later, the missing evidence showed up at another site in East Africa where, 3.3-million years ago, some creature was making flaked stone tools for the apparent purpose of butchery. This date is too early for that creature to have belonged to a species of Homo, so it must have been an ancestor. The most likely candidate is Australopithecus afarensis, and if Lucy was no vegetarian, then her descendants —us —have very likely always been omnivores. Evolution may have equipped humans with the ability to eat meat but it left us with plenty of latitude to decide how much, if any at all.

A more inflexible evolutionary legacy involves our relationship with milk. Mother’s milk may be the only food that humans were biologically programmed to consume. And yet two-thirds of adults worldwide cannot drink liquid milk, because they are intolerant to lactose, a sugar that is found almost exclusively in milk. The explanation for this intolerance is that the gene that codes for the production of an enzyme called lactase, which enables babies to digest the lactose, is normally switched off in late childhood.

There are two solutions to this problem. The first, invented by farmers in Anatolia about 1000 years ago, is to allow bacteria to consume the lactose, turning milk into curd, cheese and yoghurt. That is why a lactose-sensitive person can comfortably digest these dairy products.

The second solution was provided by evolution. About 700 years ago, a genetic mutation arose among farmers in Central Europe that prevented the lactase gene from being switched off in childhood. People carrying this mutation are able to drink liquid milk safely throughout their lives, without the unpleasant side effects that lactose-intolerant individuals suffer.

This mutation was a great advantage to those who inherited it, and carriers multiplied among farmers as they swept into Northern Europe, creating one of the fastest-spreading evolutionary events humans have ever experienced. Today, 90% of northern Europeans, and a similar percentage of North Americans who trace their ancestry to Europe,are lactose-tolerant. Other mutations with the same effect have evolved independently in parts of Africa, South Asia and the Middle East.

The human diet is unique among animals because we are ubiquitous and eat whatever is at hand. In fact, humans consume thousands of animal varieties and 7000 plant species. But although everything we eat has an evolutionary dimension, this rarely contains any prohibitions —as meat and milk illustrate in different ways. Simply put, choice may be the biggest factor shaping human diets. Biology provides the potential in our cuisine but it is culture that writes the menu. — Project Syndicate

Jonathan Silvertown is a professor of evolutionary ecology at the University of Edinburgh and author of Dinner with Darwin: Food, Drink and Evolution

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Sewage threatens world heritage site

Years of pollution in the rivers flowing through the Cradle of Humankind, and Mogale City’s inaction — are a risk to the environment, our health and — cultural status.

In defence of chicken soup

What happens when cultural traditions conflict with the ethical imperative to give up meat?

The good, the bad and the vegan

There’s a global push for people to become vegans, or at least eat less meat, to reduce their carbon footprint

Beast-free burgers are on a roll

Pioneering food firms are winning over fast food fans with meat alternatives – and even the beefy SA market is starting to bite

These climate activists want you to give up hope

​The Extinction Rebellion is rooted in the conviction that humanity has dug its own grave and has one foot dangling over the edge

Oldest known drawing by a human found in SA

South Africa’s Blombos cave is home to the earliest drawing by a human: a 73 000-year-old cross-hatched drawing on a silcrete flake.

Subscribers only

Toxic power struggle hits public works

With infighting and allegations of corruption and poor planning, the department’s top management looks like a scene from ‘Survivor’

Free State branches gun for Ace

Parts of the provincial ANC will target their former premier, Magashule, and the Free State PEC in a rolling mass action campaign

More top stories

Why anti-corruption campaigns are bad for democracy

Such campaigns can draw attention to the widespread presence of the very behaviour they are trying to stamp out — and subconsciously encourage people to view it as appropriate

Tax, wage bill, debt, pandemic: Mboweni’s tightrope budget policy statement

The finance minister has to close the jaws of the hippo and he’s likely to do this by tightening the country’s belt, again.

SA justice delays extradition of paedophile to UK

Efforts to bring Lee Nigel Tucker to justice have spanned 16 years and his alleged victims have waited for 30 years

Former state security minister Bongo back in court

Bongo and his co-accused will appear in the Nelspruit magistrate’s court in Mpumalanga over charges of fraud, corruption and theft

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday