|13 December 2016
Paleo diet was a veggie feast
Archaeologists tend to emphasise the role of meat in ancient human diets, largely because the butchered bones of wild animals are likely to be preserved at dig sites, but excavations at a Stone Age site in Israel reveal that roasted acorns and sedges were both on the menu.
The Gesher Benot Ya'aqov site in northern Israel was occupied 780,000 years ago, probably by Homo erectus or a very closely related species.
Yoel Melamed and Naama Goren-Inbar at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, and their colleagues have compiled data on the diversity and abundance of plant remains - both during periods when there is evidence of human activity, and when there is no evidence that humans were present. By comparing the two, they revealed that the ancient humans collected no fewer than 55 different plants.
"It gives one a substantial element of security when particular sources become rare or absent," says Goren-Inbar. "The modern human diet is clearly restricted when compared to the hominin diet or even to the early farmers' diet."
"There probably was no single balance between meat and plant," explains Ungar. "Human evolution is a work in progress, and diets likely varied along a continuum in both time and space."
Amanda Henry at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, thinks that early human diets may have tipped towards being plant-rich. "We need plant-derived nutrients to survive - vitamin C and fibre, for example. Hominins were probably predominantly vegetarians." Henry adds that, "only a very little amount of animal protein and fat is needed to supplement a predominantly plant-based diet."
Some plants seem to have been particularly popular with our Stone Age forebears: water lily, bulrushes, thistles, acorns, and water chestnuts. Goren-Inbar reminds us that: "Many species that most of us no longer recognise as food sources were recorded as food sources during the last few centuries somewhere in the world."
The site also preserves some of the earliest evidence for the controlled use of fire.
Edited from New Scientist (5 December 2016)
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