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Prehistory was plant-based for early humans

Archaeologists have dug up evidence that our ancestors ate less meat and far more vegetables than previously believed

Excavation at Wilamaya Patjxa archaeological site, Peruvian Andes, images © Randy Haas
Posted : 15 March 2024

If you thought life as an early human was all about poking sabre-toothed tigers with spears and gently roasting mammoths over the clan campfire, think again.

In a blow to proponents of high-protein regimes that profess to be based on the sort of grub our bodies were “designed” to eat, such as the Paleolithic or “caveman” diet, archaeologists now believe that our earliest ancestors were more likely to be eating prehistoric plants than meat.

Analysis of 24 sets of remains found in ancient burial sites in Peru show that four fifths of what passed for cuisine back in the day were vegetables, roots and berries. Bone analysis demonstrates for the first time that from 9,000 to 6,500 years ago, humans survived and thrived not by hunting and killing but by foraging – in the mountains of the Andes, at least.

The extent to which teeth had been worn down, as well as the remains of plants found at the sites, suggests spuds and other tuberous underground vegetables were a likely favourite meal.

Randy Haas, an assistant professor at the University of Wyoming, said: “Conventional wisdom holds that early human economies focused on hunting — an idea that has led to a number of high-protein dietary fads such as the Paleo diet. Our analysis shows that the diets were composed of 80 per cent plant matter and 20 per cent meat.”

He added that since “archaeological biases have long misled archaeologists — myself included — in the Andes”, it was likely that research in other parts of the world would reveal that “archaeologists have also gotten it wrong elsewhere”.

Jennifer Chen, an anthropology PhD student at Penn State University and lead author of the study, published in the Public Library of Science journal PLOS ONE, suggested it was possible research had been misled by notions of the kind of food required to power hunter-gatherers in high-altitude environments such as the Andes.

“A lot of archaeological frameworks on hunter-gatherers, or foragers, center on hunting and meat-heavy diets,” she said. “But we are finding that early hunter-gatherers in the Andes were mostly eating plant foods like wild tubers.”

Read the study

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