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Not All Prehistoric Humans Loved Meat — Some Were Vegetarians

New research on early humans in the Andes Mountains has redefined ancient diets, highlighting groups that ate more plants instead of meat.

By Jack Knudson
Jan 24, 2024 7:00 PMJan 24, 2024 7:01 PM
ancient human leaving a cave
(Credit: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock)


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A ravenous love for meat has saturated depictions of prehistoric humans for ages, but in a surprising twist, some groups may have embraced mostly plant-based diets.

A new study has raised the argument that humans’ historic hunger for meat might not have been so universal in the ancient world, as evidenced by early humans in the Andes Mountains who ate more plants than meat. 

What Did Early Humans Eat?

For years, archaeologists saw meat as the main course of early human diets. A new study published in PLOS ONE now challenges this belief with recent research that points to prehistoric plant-based diets.

Randy Haas, University of Wyoming archaeology professor led the research effort, analyzing the remains of 24 individuals from the Wilamaya Patjxa and Soro Mik’aya Patjxa burial sites in Peru. The results indicated that early human diets in the Andes Mountains consisted of 80 percent plant matter and 20 percent meat.

Meat did account for part of these people’s diets about 9,000 years to 6,500 years ago because of the evidence of mammal hunting, but the isotopic composition of the human bones proved that plants made up most of their diets. 

Burnt plant remains and dental-wear patterns on individuals’ upper incisors further suggested that these humans consumed a great deal of tubers — plants that grow underground, like potatoes.

“Our combination of isotope chemistry, paleoethnobotanical and zooarchaeological methods offers the clearest and most accurate picture of early Andean diets to date,” Haas said in the press release. “These findings update our understanding of earliest forager economies and the pathway to agricultural economies in the Andean highlands.”

With new technology, archaeologists can grasp finer details about early human diets and challenge common preconceptions.

“Given that archaeological biases have long misled archaeologists – myself included – in the Andes, it is likely that future isotopic research in other parts of the world will similarly show that archaeologists have also gotten it wrong elsewhere,” Haas said in the release.

Read More: How Did Ancient People Keep Their Food From Rotting?

When Did Humans Start Eating Meat? 

Ancient hominins are believed to have started eating meat around 2 and a half million years ago. Although both humans and most primates are omnivores, the frequency of our meat-eating habits makes us stand apart. Chimpanzees and other primates rarely or never eat meat, preferring fruit, leaves, and insects. 

The digestive structure and energy requirements for humans show how meat became an advantageous source of nourishment for our bodies, but we cannot compare to true carnivores. We lack some of the telltale carnivorous traits, such as sharp fangs and claws. 

Early humans had an easier time eating raw meat due to the creation of stone tools used to slice off more chewable portions. Meat became an even more efficient and digestible food source at the advent of cooking, which has a tenuous start date; recent evidence implies it was occurring at least 780,000 years ago. 

Read More: Which Animals Did Early Humans Mainly Hunt?

What Benefits Did Plants Have For Early Humans? 

Even though meat gave humans much-needed protein and fat, plants also played an essential role in ancient nutrition. For early human diets, plants had one major advantage over meat: they contain glucose, a sugar that is the number one fuel source for the brain. While plants are naturally rich with glucose because of photosynthesis, unprocessed meat has virtually no impact on glucose levels

Meat has often been hailed as the thing that “made us human,” supposedly acting as the catalyst for pivotal brain development and evolution in hominins. But a 2022 study downplayed its influence after finding no persistent increases in meat-eating once Homo erectus appeared about 2 million years ago. 

The discovery of ancient plant-based diets in the Andes Mountains could open new discussions about the prevalence of plants over meat in certain early human populations. Another potential case exists in Australia, where the first Aboriginal people likely used primitive tools to acquire and process nutritious plant foods like roots, tubers, and palm stems. It might be about time, then, for our ancestors’ unabashedly carnivorous image to be trimmed down.

Read More: Ancient Campfire Remains Hold Oldest-Known Remains of Humans Cooking Starches

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Read More: 5 Ancient Foods Still Eaten Today

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