Hominin Diet

Although websites might advertise this extremely healthy “paleo diet” that involves only “natural” agricultural foods and pounds of red meat, but do not be fooled. This is not the true paleo diet. There is actually no one “true” paleo diet, but many variable Paleolithic diets that depend on what is locally available to the hominine (Warinner 2013). The items that provided our ancient relatives nutrients might be labeled as inedible in our cultures today, for example, the practice of entomophagy. Hominines would eat anything that would provide sustenance, including a large range of insects (Lesnick 10/24).

Many people believe the misconception that we as humans, as well as our prehistoric hominine relatives, are these meat-eating beings. We are not. Our bodies are not anatomically or genetically adapted to meat consumption. All animals require vitamin C, which is a true vitamin in humans, meaning that it is only acquired by consuming a plant containing it. Carnivores that are adapted to regularly consume meat can make their own vitamin C, while, we as a species, need to eat vegetation to obtain it. A plant diet is supported by our much longer guts, which hold food for longer to gain more nutrients from fibrous materials. Our large molars support the shredding of highly fibrous vegetation, while we lack the carnassial teeth that are seen in carnivores (Warinner 2013). A prehistoric hominine would have consumed any number of available food sources in their environment, many of which we can identify through varying analyses. Anthropologists use stable isotope analysis to figure out the types of signature of isotopes a hominine have and therefore the types of food they are consuming. Using comparative anatomy, along with archeological and ecological records available would give an anthropologist a relatively clear story of what a hominine is eating near the time of death. All of these techniques need to be taken into consideration because a C4 conundrum could occur.

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The C4 conundrum refers to a situation where the morphology of the skeleton shows one type of diet, while the isotope analysis shows a completely different food consumption pattern. For example, Paranthropus boisei or “The Nutcracker Man” has the anatomy that supports the consumption of hard diet of mainly nuts, though their isotope reading and ecological data shows a high C4 intake. The Nutcracker Man was eating foods such as wheat, corn and tubers as their main food source, while their thick enameled teeth were better suited for the fall back food of nuts when their main C4 vegetation was not available (Loudon 10/8).

Anthropologists can also look at fossilized dental plaque found on ancient skeletons called dental calculus. The plaque obtained from an individual can give a unique signature of microfossils of plants and other remains that the hominine would have eaten throughout their life. When analyzing the dental calculus of Paleolithic hominines, researchers are seeing an abundance of plant remnants such as barley, legumes and tubers (Warinner 2013). An anthropologist can also looks at the dental microware as a method to determine the mechanical properties of the food a prehistoric person was eating. For example, a person who consumed a large amount of tough, fibrous foods would have long parallel striations on the occlusal surface of their tooth, while a person that constantly eats a diet of hard, brittle foods like nuts would have pits on their teeth (Howells 11/12).

An animal needs regular protein in their diet to survive. Little proteins are found in vegetation, therefore Paleolithic hominines need to supplement their diet with regular protein intake. Most early and middle hominines were not actively hunting, but scavenging the high protein bone marrow from the already picked over bones of carnivores (Howells 11/7). When high protein food was scarce, or the seasons were not supportive of hunting, many Paleolithic individuals would practice entomophagy, the consumption of insects, to supplement their protein intake. Dr. Julie Lesnick mentions that chimpanzees and some tropical populations practice entomophagy to increase their protein intake regularly. She mentions specifically that pregnant hominines, who need more protein in order to support fetus brain development, would use entomophagy as a quick and sure way of obtaining their needed nutrients. Although insect consumption is a more ecologically friendly due to its decreased pollution, water waste and methane release, very little current populations practice entomophagy. Dr. Lesnick mentions some key viewpoints of why she believes insect consumption is not widely practiced or studied to this day. She claims that due to the practice of entomophagy being a predominantly female exercise, it was overlooked when western societies reported on them (Lesnick 10/24).

Diet is very important for understanding a species of individuals. It is extremely difficult to know for sure what a Paleolithic individual ate, though there are techniques to determine their common diet pattern (Warinner 2013). Moreover, the fact that entomophagy is efficient to obtain and more ecologically friendly is an interesting concept to think about when you look at all the starving individuals in the world today. The environmental impacts are low while the protein obtained is high and a good supplement for individuals with currently low protein diets. Meanwhile, there is no true Paleolithic diet that can be obtained today, though we might be able to become closer to our Paleolithic counterparts by partaking in entomophagy (Lesnick 10/24).

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