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Are humans carnivores? The evolution of our place in the food web

By Raphael Sirtoli, M.Sc., Science Writer
October 7, 2020
Tatjana Baibakova/ Shutterstock.com Tatjana Baibakova/ Shutterstock.com

Are you meant to be a carnivore?

To understand the diet that modern humans have evolved to eat, we need to study the diet of our ancestors. Humans evolved during the Pleistocene epoch, which started 2.5 million years ago and ended 12,000 years ago. The mostly glacial environment shaped our diet and, thus, our position in the food chain—in scientific terms, this is known as the human trophic level (HTL).

What did our ancestors eat? What was trying to eat us? If we were, indeed, carnivores for most of our evolution, this is clearly relevant to our modern diet.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Template:Human_timeline https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Template:Human_timeline

Where do humans sit in the food chain?

Research suggests that during the Pleistocene, the human trophic level evolved to become increasingly carnivorous. This trend then reversed somewhat during the Upper Paleolithic (which ended about 11,000 years ago); this was followed by a push toward a more agricultural approach in the Neolithic period, which started 5,000 years ago.

Research also has established that by the end of the Pleistocene, there was a dramatic drop—up to 90 percent—in the average body weight of terrestrial mammals. This is best explained by hunter-gatherers hunting large mammals to extinction, such that mostly smaller ones remained [1]. Subsequent hunter-gatherer populations were, therefore, faced with a different ecology—notably, very little megafauna, a change in the types of plants available, and increased vegetation density [2].

Keep in mind that carnivores can eat things other than meat. That is, a carnivorous HTL is compatible with observations that healthy ancestral populations could live on omnivorous high-starch diets [3, 4, 5]. This could take place as long as there were enough animal-sourced foods to ensure adequate nourishment [6, 7].

Let’s take a closer look at the basis for this carnivorous HTL, according to the following parameters:

  • diet quality
  • fat metabolism and reserves
  • genetic adaptations and starch consumption
  • physiology and anatomy
  • isotopes, trace elements, and dental health
  • paleozoology

Diet quality

A high-quality human diet is calorically dense, easily digestible, and has both depth and breadth in terms of its essential macro- and micronutrient content [8]. According to these criteria, animal foods are qualitatively and quantitatively superior to plant foods.

Comparing 100 grams of plants to 100 grams of various terrestrial animals shows that in eight out of 10 key vitamins and minerals, animal foods are more nutrient dense than plants—and several times denser in most cases. Adjusting for factors like bioavailability and active nutrients makes animal foods look even more nutritious [9]. It’s well known that animal-sourced foods provide several essential micronutrients in their active forms that plants often do not.

Plant food is mainly denser in vitamin E, C, and calcium. However, the results of the two-year Bellevue “carnivore” study, as well as accounts of highly carnivorous polar societies, do not provide evidence of scurvy, vitamin E deficiency, or other such deficiencies in these populations [10]. Research has established that our bodies handle micronutrients differently, according to physiological context. When someone is on a low-carb diet, for example, more calcium is absorbed to compensate for its increased excretion, should bone resorption occur in an attempt to steady blood calcium levels [11].

Fat metabolism and reserves

Human metabolism is characterized by it’s extensive reliance on fat (both stored and from the diet) for fuel, which it can burn very efficiently [12]. This is evidenced by strong selective pressure over our evolution for the lipase enzyme – an enzyme that is critical to the storage and use of fats [13]. Likewise, comparative chromatin landscape analyses – a method used to perform extensive analysis of our chromosomes – shows a strong overall adaptation towards high-fat diets in humans and primates [14].

Humans are uniquely well adapted to ketosis, whether brought about through fasting or nutritional means [15, 16]. It’s even essential for proper brain development in infants [17]. Ketone bodies spare muscle mass in hypercaloric states [18, 19]. In ketosis, adaptive glucose sparing (i.e. physiological insulin resistance) occurs and is typical of carnivores [20]. When the genetic basis of physiological insulin was investigated by comparing Kirghiz herders from central Asia and Tajik farmers, it was found that despite eating a similar diet nowadays, the Khirgiz herders who relied more on animal foods had higher baseline adaptive glucose sparing [21].

Male and female hunter-gatherers have an average body fat level of 9 percent and 24 percent, respectively, which is quite lean by modern standards [22]. But compared to primate bonobo males and females that have less than 1 percent and less than 4 percent body fat, respectively, humans are relatively fat [23]. The fat we eat has priority storage in our subcutaneous fat tissue, even before other macronutrients do [24]. We also fit the typical carnivore pattern of adipocyte morphology, which means we have smaller and more numerous fat cells [25].

Our larger fat reserves are original to us, in the sense that they’re not a trait held by our group’s last common ancestor [26]. Our other energy source, carbohydrate, is stored in amounts (400-500 grams) about 10 times smaller than fat. Humans can earn tens of thousands of calories per hour hunting medium-sized animals, in contrast with the meager 1,431 calories from foraging plants [27]. Human specialization for hunting large animals during the Pleistocene provided even bigger returns [28]. Our fat stores and our hunting seem to go hand in hand.

Genetic adaptations and starch consumption

The evidence that points to an accumulated genetic adaptation to tuber consumption is rather recent on our evolutionary timescale [29]. It suggests tubers weren’t a big part of our diet previously [30]. The human AMY1 gene is expressed in many of our organs for the breakdown of starch and glycogen. Several studies have hypothesized that people with a low number of AMY1 copies would suffer from higher rates of obesity and diabetes on a high-starch diet. However, the evidence doesn’t support that [31, 32].

The APOE4 gene is involved in the metabolism of fat and cholesterol in addition to LDL receptor interactions. It underwent strong selective pressure as evidenced by 15 percent of the world’s population having it today and up to 40-50 percent in certain populations [33]. When eating a highly carnivorous diet—which could have a higher pathogen burden—APOE4 may help us retain cognitive functions [34].

Physiology and anatomy

The stomach of a carnivore has a pH of 2.2, an omnivore 2.9, and a scavenger 1.3. Humans have a stomach acid pH of 1.5, placing us more towards the high end of the carnivory spectrum between obligate and facultative scavengers in that regard. This may explain why hunting populations can process much of their animal food by drying and fermenting it, as well as putrefying the meat and fat without harm [35].

Relative to chimpanzee body size, the human colon is 77 percent smaller and the intestine 64 percent longer [36, 37]. The smaller our colons, the less fiber we can ferment into usable energy, which means the less we can rely upon fibrous plant foods to meet our daily caloric needs. Body size is related to trophic level, and Homo’s enlarging body is linked to carnivory [38].

Carnivore behaviors

Hunter-gatherer populations are known to abandon prey when they’re too lean [39]. Instead, they’ll target animals that appear fatter [40], especially large adults [41]. Adaptations increasing endurance, especially in hot environments, enabled our ancestors to add “persistence hunting” to their skill set and broadened hunting territories [42]. In one paper, researchers correctly predicted multiple behaviors evolving in humans relating to increased predation [43].

Humans have an early weaning age (less than three years old) relative to other species, which is strongly associated with carnivory level. Some authors “highlight the emergence of carnivory as a process fundamentally determining human evolution” [44]. Male and female modern Hadza hunter-gatherers reach peak food-acquisition productivity from age 40 onwards [45], suggesting a selection for “experience” that resulted in longevity [46]. Animal foods are more time/calorie efficient than plants, and thus advantageous [47].

We also evolved the ability to throw weapons at prey, which gave us a crucial edge to become apex predators [48]. Anthropologists have argued that carnivory was crucial for our survival of the extremely cold Eurasian winter [49]. During the Upper Paleolithic, wolves were domesticated, thus extending our hunting-abilities, which would in turn reinforce our carnivory [50].

Isotopes, trace elements, and dental health

Stable isotope studies suggest European hunter-gatherers mostly ate a carnivorous diet during the Upper Paleolithic, placing them at or above the trophic level of wolves [51]. Using a modified trace elements method on tooth samples, early Homo was found to be indistinguishable from carnivores [52].

Although tooth plaque isn’t suitable for determining the HTL within the vast zooarchaeological landscape [53, 54], it may be marginally accurate for identifying shifts. For instance, Neanderthals were known to rely heavily on animal-sourced foods and only showed six caries (signs of decay) out of 1,250 of their teeth that were examined [55]. Caries started appearing in substantial numbers between 13,700 and 15,000 years ago in Morocco, alongside evidence of increased starch consumption [56]. The low occurrence of caries during most of the Pleistocene corresponds to a low carbohydrate, high HTL pattern.

Paleozoology

Across species, carnivore size dictates prey size. The majority of present-day predators over 15-20 kilograms focus on hunting animals under half their size, in order to benefit from the bioenergetic perspective [57]. It follows that paleolithic humans, who were relatively large carnivores, didn’t derive large amounts of nutrition from insects, unlike what is argued by Lesnik [58].

Hunting large prey as humans did is exclusively associated with hypercarnivory [59]. It is likely that humans preferred large herbivores given the abundance of their biomass, the relative ease of hunting them, net caloric returns, and their higher fat content, which accommodates physiological limits on protein consumption [60].

Conclusion

It’s difficult to consider that humans are anything other than omnivores, given our spectacular range of diets, and our mastery of technologies that have enabled us to further expand our already vast dietary repertoire. Nevertheless, the evidence above suggests that humans evolved as carnivores. A combination of technology and physiology enabled a wide range of plants to be included on top of that essential carnivorous base.

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