habilis, carronyer, carroñero, habilis, herramientas ,eines

Eating meat made us human

Currently some of the world’s population can choose their diet: omnivorous, vegetarian, vegan, raw foodism, carnivorous, paleodiet… but what ate our ancestors?  Which diet is more suited to the one of our ancestors? Without going into polemics, we will discuss one of the crucial facts of the evolution from Australopitechus to Homo: the meat intake.

WHAT DID OUR RELATIVES EAT ?

One of the reasons given to follow a strict vegetarian or vegan diet is that as “we are apes”, they feed on fruits and plants, and moreover, a more “natural” diet  is achieved. Currently and traditionally the base of the world diet are the seeds of cereals (rice, wheat, corn, etc.) and legumes (beans, lentils…), which often require processing (flour, for example) and have nothing to do with their wild ancestors. Since agriculture and livestock was invented and we have selected the best varieties for human consumption, the label “natural” loses all meaning. Although transgenic food is now on everyone’s lips, we have been using the genetic modification for thousands of years.

In the top row, wild ancestors of lettuce, carrot and corn. Below, domestic varieties. Source

That we are apes and the natural thing is to eat vegetables, is also not entirely true. As primates have evolved in trees, hominids have a strict diet or mainly folivorous -leaves- and frugivorous -fruit- (gorillas, orangutans), while gibbons also complete their diet with invertebrates. Our closest relatives however (bonobos, chimpanzees) are omnivorous as they eat vegetables, fruits, invertebrates and even small mammals and other primates (althought in less proportion than vegetables).

Chimpanzee eating meat. Populations of chimpanzees have been described  hunting with spears made by themselves. Photo Cristina M.Gomes, Max Planck Institute.

No wonder then that our direct distant ancestors as Australopithecus Lucy, ate leaves, fruits, roots and tubers as the basis of their diet. Some species, in addition to vegetables, also fed on invertebrates and small vertebrates, similar to modern chimpanzees.

HERBIVOROUS AND CARNIVOROUS

Fruits have more sugars, although they are not very abundant in comparison with leaves and stems. But leaves have less nutritional value because they contain many fibers we can not absorb, such as cellulose. Legumes contain more protein than grains, but some essential amino acids and vitamins (such as B12) are absent or in a few proportion in vegetables and easily assimilable iron (hemo iron) is found only in food with animal origin.

In short, vegetables are harder to digest compared to animals, so mammalian herbivores have longer digestive systems, or compartmented stomachs, chew over long periods of time and some are ruminants, while carnivores have digestive systems with lower absorption surface and require little chewing of food.

Digestive systems of non-ruminant herbivores, ruminants, insectivores and carnivores. Unknown author

 

WHY OUR ANCESTORS STARTED EATING MORE MEAT?

2.6 million years ago, climate change made our planet cooler and drier. In Africa the savanna dominated much of the territory, so hominids had to deal with hard leaves, leaves covered with wax, hard or thorny stems, roots… these difficult to digest resources were utilised by Paranthropus, with large teeth and powerful musculature in the jaw to crush, although they had a similar brain to Australopithecus. They became extinct a million years ago.

Paranthropus boisei. Reconstruction by John Gurche, photo by Chip Clark.

But another group of hominins found a kind of resources that offered them more energy in smaller quantities, and were easier to chew: meat. Homo habilis was the first to eat meat at higher rates than the rest of relatives and also meats with more fat. It was an opportunist: they ate almost anything edible, instead, Paranthropus were specialists, so if their food was scarce, they had more possibilities to die.

BIG BRAINS …

While Australopithecus and Paranthropus had a cranial capacity of 400-500 cm 3, Homo habilis had up to 700 cm 3. This increased brain size allowed them greater versatility and ability to improvise to find food.

One thing that clearly differentiates us from other primates and animals is the large size of our brain. As you have noticed, H. habilis and is classified within our genus,  Homo, due to that great leap of brain size, among other things.

Skull comparison between Australopithecus, Homo habilis and Paranthropus. Credit: Peter S. Ungar et al, 2011.

But a large brain also has drawbacks: 25% of our body’s energy is consumed by the brain at rest, H. habilis brain consumed 15% and Australopithecus only 10%. In addition to quantity, this energy also has to have quality: some fatty acids for proper brain function only are found in some nuts, but especially in animal fat, easier to achieve if vegetables were scarce.

homo habilis, cosmocaixa, daynes, museu de la ciencia de barcelona
Homo habilis reconstruction by Elisabeth Daynès, Cosmocaixa (Barcelona). Photo by Mireia Querol

…SMALL INTESTINES …

The only way to dedicate more energy to brain function is to reduce the size of other high energy consumer organs (Aiello, L. Wheeler, P, 1995). Heart, kidney, liver, they are major consumers of energy, but vital, so the solution is to reduce the gut and that’s only possible with the change of an almost exclusively vegetarian diet (Australopithecus) to another of easier assimilation with more protein and animal fat (H. habilis).

Comparison between high energy consumer organs between humans and other primates. Image by J. Rodriguez

…AND TOOLS

A large brain also gave another advantage to H. habilis. Despite his appereance (small, no large fangs or claws) they could make use of a great variety of meat (first as scavengers and later as hunters) due to the use of tools. Australopithecus probably used some sort of simple tools, mostly wooden made, but we know for sure that early manufacture of stone tools (archaeological industry) belong to H. habilis. This allowed them to take advantage of the inside of the bone marrow of large prey killed by carnivores when all the flesh had been eaten by other animals. Currently only hyenas and bearded vultures can access this resource without tools. Besides, by not requiring such large teeth and jaws, the skull can accommodate a larger brain.

habilis, carronyer, carroñero, habilis, herramientas ,eines
H. habilis scavenging a rhino. Source; DK FindOut

CONCLUSION

In short, the increase of the brain of Homo was possible by changing diet, which allowed a shorter digestive tract and smaller masticatory apparatus. In turn, to achieve these more energy foods more intelligence is required, resulting in more complex behaviors such as the use of manufactured tools (Oldowan lithic technology, Mode 1).

Our digestive system is the result of millions of years of evolution as opportunistic omnivores. Some current strict diets (vegetarian or almost carnivorous) are in contradiction with this biological heritage and the abuse and access to all kinds of food carry us all kinds of allergies and food problems. The secret remains following a balanced and varied diet.

REFERENCES

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