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Early Meat-Eating Human Ancestors Thrived While Vegetarian Hominin Died Out

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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early human ancestor tooth varied diet

Early Homo molar; image courtesy of Jose Braga/Didier Descouens

There has been fierce debate recently over whether the original “caveman” diet was one of heaps of bloody meat or fields of greens. New findings suggest that some of our early ancestors were actually quite omnivorous. But subsequently, our line and an ill-fated group of hominins developed very different dietary strategies. One chose meat while the other moved toward more plants.

The hominin Australopithecus, which lived from about 4 million to 2 million years ago, is presumed to be a common ancestor of both the Homo lineage, which emerged some 2.3 million years ago and gave rise to us, and to the Paranthropus genus, which is first documented about 2.7 million years ago and died out about 1 million years ago. Some have attributed the extinction of Paranthropus to an inflexible diet or limited territory, especially in the face of climatic changes.

A team of researchers led by Vincent Balter, of École Normale Supérieure de Lyon, decided to probe into some of these debates. They used lasers to analyze the enamel from fossilized teeth belonging to Australopithecus africanus, Paranthropus robustus and early Homo specimens, which were all from southern Africa. By assessing ratios of calcium, barium and strontium as well as the number of strontium isotopes, the team was able to deduce both diet and the size of the area that these individuals ranged over. The findings were published online August 8 in Nature (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group).

The ancestral Australopithecus consumed a wide range of foods, including, meat, leaves and fruits. This varied diet might have been flexible to shift with food availability in different seasons, ensuring that they almost always had something to eat. Paranthropus, according to the elemental analysis, was largely a plant eater, which matches up with previous studies of tooth morphology and wear patterns. It also helps to explain the massive jaw structure they possessed, which could have come in handy for tough food stuffs and earned one specimen the nickname “nutcracker man.” Early Homo, on the other hand, went in for a meat-heavy diet—possibly enabled by the use of tools for hunting and butchering.

However, just because a meatier diet was good for our early Homo forbearers does not necessarily it will keep each of us contemporary humans alive longer. Now that we no longer have to fend for ourselves in quite the same way, increased red meat consumption has actually been linked to shorter individual life spans. So next time you’re flummoxed by food choices, don’t be afraid to go a little Paranthropus and hit the salad bar.

Editor’s note (8/23/12): Typographical errors have been corrected since the original posting.

Katherine Harmon Courage About the Author: Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Scientific American. Her book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is out now from Penguin/Current. Follow on Twitter @KHCourage.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Unksoldr 5:19 pm 08/8/2012

    I have to agree with some of the posters here. You really need to hire some proofreaders.
    …..does not necessarily it will keep……

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  2. 2. Adrian Morgan 2:23 am 08/9/2012

    The article currently refers to “the Paranthropus genius”, which made me laugh…

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  3. 3. jtdwyer 8:54 am 08/9/2012

    Meat was likely a more reliable source of protean, especially during temperate zone winters. As I understand, evolutionary success is achieved by producing progeny that live long enough to reproduce an ensure the survival of their progeny, not through perpetual individual survival. Our individual desires (a keen survival ‘instinct’) do not necessarily benefit the survival of the species, especially as the global population of modern humans now exceeds 7 billion.

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  4. 4. FredButters 12:11 pm 08/9/2012

    I’m not saying all members of the Paranthropus were dumb… but geniuses?

    Red meat and shorter life span? There’s a big difference between a Slim Jim and a grass fed steak, yet both are “red meat.” Not to mention those questionnaire studies often count a Cold Cut Combo from Subway in the same “meat” category as Organic ground Bison. I promise, the two are not the same.

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  5. 5. Theodoricus 4:03 pm 08/9/2012

    Man… One quick read-through and, without trying, I spot four glaring errors. Besides the ones mentioned by others, there’s also “climactic” instead of “climatic” and the comma after the word “including” (“…a wide range of foods, including, meat, leaves and fruits”). What’s the deal, SA? How can people be so bad at their jobs and still have them, in this job market? I’ve got a degree in English (graduated summa cum laude) and I work at a friggin’ gas station; meanwhile this Katherine Harmon broad is an associate EDITOR? It doesn’t look to me like she could edit her way out of a wet paper bag! How do people get these gigs for which they are so clearly unqualified? Nepotism? “Job interviews” conducted in motel rooms? I used to teach high school, and I had 9th graders who could proofread better than this woman, and that’s with one brain hemisphere tied behind their backs (and they could probably write a better article to begin with as well). Sheesh, what a world…

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  6. 6. jgrosay 4:40 pm 08/9/2012

    Even the Bible contains some funny info about this. When the king of Babylon was trying to force them, Daniel and his friends were put in a legumes only diet, probably considered adequate just for domesticated animals by their captors, that look as if there were on a meat only diet. To the surprise of Babylonians, Daniel and his team thrived on beans, and beans and other vegetables are today a main component of healthy diets such as the so called “Mediterranean diet”. One never finishes learning…

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  7. 7. jake3_14 5:30 pm 08/9/2012

    So, let me get this straight.

    The article is titled “Early Meat Eating Human Ancestors Thrived While Vegetarian Homonins Died Out”

    The author draws the following conclusion:
    “However, just because a meatier diet was good for our early Homo forebearers does not necessarily it will keep each of us contemporary humans alive longer. Now that we no longer have to fend for ourselves in quite the same way, increased red meat consumption has actually been linked to shorter individual life spans. So next time you’re flummoxed by food choices, don’t be afraid to go a little Paranthropus and hit the salad bar.”

    In the immortal words/actions of Tom Naughton, “Bang head on desk.”

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  8. 8. Postman1 9:33 pm 08/9/2012

    “and to the Paranthropus genius, ”
    That should be ‘genus’, genius (not).

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  9. 9. nickjaa 11:18 pm 08/9/2012

    if i can say the bleeding obvious: if you’re stuck in one little corner of the world like cavemen were and you don’t have access to legumes, nuts, dairy, seeds, rice, etc. then yeah, you’d better eat some meat to meet your requirements. Today, you don’t need to eat meat to meet your nutritional requirements. That’s not to say you shouldn’t eat meat – I’m not one of the preachy vegetarians – but you don’t have to, that’s all. But if I were a caveman with access to nothing but berries and meat I would do well to eat me some mammoth.

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  10. 10. shorebird 11:09 am 08/11/2012

    Oh great!! So where do you account for the non-dead Indians and Chinese who, for centuries, have been primarily vegetarian (read the China Study).
    This article be sending folks to eat even more marbleized meat full of high saturated fats from CAFO-bred cattle, meat bred to be way lower in omega-3′s as compared to grass-fed beef and other cattle.
    I agree with the grass-fed bison comment.

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  11. 11. HubertB 7:17 pm 08/12/2012

    None of the animals any early humans ate were fattened in feed lots. Instead, all were free range animals. All meat eating humans ate free range animals. Humans did not eat animals with bad fat.
    Thus, no animal should live in feed lots without exercise instead of being free range. We know that lifestyle is unhealthy for any animal. That goes for cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, and humans.

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  12. 12. Quinn the Eskimo 8:31 pm 08/12/2012

    STEAK — survival food!!! I knew it.

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  13. 13. David Marjanović 7:55 am 08/13/2012

    …I give up, I’ll say it out loud, after I apologize profusely for singling Ms Harmon out; what I’m about to say fits for most SciAm bloggers, including the guest bloggers.

    So here goes:


    Why doesn’t Scientific American let more scientists blog? Why all those science writers, science journalists and editors who clearly don’t know what they’re talking about?

    I thought the very point of a science blog was to let scientists talk directly to the public, without filters like paywalls, technical papers with technical jargon, or popularizers who don’t understand the science themselves?

    The present post, for instance, presents a conclusion in the headline, then gives a very short and slightly garbled presentation of the contents of a paywalled paper, then doesn’t even try to reach the conclusion in the headline (why is it that Paranthropus is extinct?), and finally jumps to a completely different conclusion. It was stupid of Theodoricus to sprinkle gendered slurs over his comment (number 5), but the rest of his comment is right on the money.

    A post with scientific worth would have noted the following facts and tried to answer the following questions:

    The normal state for apes is to have rather weak teeth and jaws, and only a thin layer of enamel on the teeth. That’s enough for eating mostly fruit with occasional additions of everything from leaves to meat, and that’s what Ardipithecus and Australopithecus anamensis still were like.

    Later, our ancestors evolved thicker enamel and more massive jaw muscles while shifting the point of greatest bite force forward in the mouth (so that the first molar, not the third, is the biggest one now), shrinking the front teeth (incisors and canines), and flattening the face (for mechanical reasons related to the jaw musculature). This allowed them to live mainly off harder, tougher food than fruits: certain tubers come to mind.

    Then, Paranthropus continued on this line, while we (Homo) stayed where we were, retaining the intermediate state. And then this situation didn’t change much for a million years or so, till Paranthropus died out.

    How did that happen? Is it possible that their staple food, whatever it was, died out or became too scarce to sustain them? If so, what caused this – perhaps increased aridity from one of the first ice ages? Does the timing fit for this? Do we even know with any precision when Paranthropus died out? And so on.

    That would be science. Taking a paper, summarizing it not very well, and slapping two different conclusions on it out of nowhere… is not. It’s not what I’m here for.

    …Now for something completely different:

    read the China Study

    Better yet, google for it and read the refutations.

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  14. 14. David Marjanović 7:58 am 08/13/2012

    It was stupid of Theodoricus to sprinkle gendered slurs over his comment (number 5)

    Oops, I forgot to state the obvious, in case it’s needed:

    Ms Harmon may have many failings, but being a woman is not one of them; it’s completely beside the point.

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  15. 15. Raoul 2:49 pm 08/13/2012

    I can`t be agree with that conclusion. The only con- clusion is : Australopithecus ate meat, and Paranthropus ate plants, that´s all.

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  16. 16. Fanandala 3:18 pm 08/15/2012

    @ Raoul, very well put, but you have to mention that no matter what they ate, they died out.

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  17. 17. iwikler 2:18 am 08/20/2012

    Dear jake3_14: Stop your head-banging. I believe Ms. Harmon is suggesting that our red-meat-eating ancestors lived long enough to reproduce themselves, but their diet prevented them from living long enough to play with their grandchildren.
    As for Ms. Harmon’s spelling and typing, not catching those mistakes is unprofessional. An author and/or her editor must make the time and effort to proof-read the copy at least twice (once on the computer screen and a second time as printed text). Also, they should take advantage of the “Spell-Check” feature on their computers. It is especially good at picking up “blind-spot” errors a writer is bound to make (according to a certain article I read in Scientific American) when, as described in that SA article, a person who was asked to watch a film did not notice a person dressed in a gorilla suit passing by in the background when the viewer had been instructed to watch the film to observe a very different event. But don’t go by me, guys. I probably made at least one typo in this comment.

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  18. 18. garyloewenthal 8:38 am 08/20/2012

    Modern-day vegans in the developed world, for which we have much more information, are thriving, as evidenced by the EPIC-Oxford study et al.

    In addition, the healthiest, longest-lived native people in the world today, such as the Hunzas and Vilacambabas, have a close-to-vegan diet.

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  19. 19. alibaba442 9:43 am 05/9/2013

    Theodoricus for Associate Editor!

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