Jason Moore coined the term “world ecology” to argue that humans are a part of nature, illustrating the intrinsic interconnectedness of political, economic and environmental histories (Weis, 2016). From a paleoanthropological perspective, the human diet has evolved over three million years; the selection of foods, methods of gathering, tools for hunting, and processes of preparation have also developed over several years. Modern scientific evidences investigating the evolution of human diets compare primate and hominoid excavations. Studies and interpretations of prehistoric findings in regard to human meat consumption have been expansive and, often, contradictory. Human pre-history provides insight to the development of human anatomy as early hominids survived through changing landscapes, climates, biodiversity and diet.
Industrialization and capitalism have commodified meat as an essential food source in the current world economy. Modern societies remove humans from the hunter-gatherer mode of production through mass producing foods, using industrial farmhouses, establishing supermarkets and more. Commodity fetishism, in the neoliberal food regime, removes the production process from the meaning of meat. By critically examining the evidence and arguments that have been presented about the role meat-eating has played in human evolution, this paper will critique the link between capitalism and ecology in the “‘meatification’ of diets” (Weis: 4). Meat is produced in surplus yet yields global gaps in consumption; considering world ecology theory, the dominant food system has transformed human production of meat and manifested issues of bioaccumulation and food insecurity.
As closely related primates, humans and chimpanzees share similar genomes, digestive patterns and, in turn, diets. Apes generally share the same basic gut anatomy, enabling connections to be made between transitions in diet and anatomy. Palaeolithic fossil records provide evidence of eight to ten Drypopithecinae apes in Africa and Arabia of diverse sizes with “a frugivorous pattern of molar morphology”, similar to chimpanzees (Stanford et al., 1999). Researchers have studied ape diets over several decades concluding that chimpanzee diets are often “dominated by fruits” and yet, “obtain the protein-require[d] each day (Stanford et al., 1999). There is strong evidence for the sustainability of plant-based diets based on the ways in which apes consume vegetable material such as fruits, leaves, flowers, bark and vines (Milton, 1999). Studies of the dental makeup of australopithecines found most of the species to be frugivorous, while also consuming some insects, leaves, flowers, and other plants (Stanford et al., 1999).
Modern chimpanzees are known to have harvested insects for consumption; considering this, early hominids most likely consumed invertebrates as a primary source of protein. Apes consume invertebrates and, more rarely, vertebrates; therefore, McGrew suggests, issues of food insecurity could be fixed by replacing mammal meat consumption with invertebrates, for nutritional importance (Stanford et al., 1999). Meat-foraging is a debated concept among the evolution of chimpanzees and hominids; some researchers claim meat was not sought but rather “opportunistically” consumed while others claim primates “search for meat during plant food foraging- after the advent of efficient bipedal locomotion” (Stanford et al., 1999). Research suggests that over time, larger, middle Miocene apes most likely developed omnivorous tendencies, however, an evolutionary change in size may have attributed to a hunger for meat.
This is an examination of diets and dietary transitions among primates including recent hominids, gibbons, and pongids together with extinct ancestral and related forms. A taphonomic study of the BK4b (figure 1 and 2), in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, provides evidence of hominin consumption of megafauna, at least 11,700 years ago, at the end of the Pleistocene age (Dominguez-Rodrigo et al., 2014). Hominoid diets have historically been generally “omnivorous with the strongest leaning toward the vegetable side” (Milton, 1999). Megafauna, refers to large mammals during the Pleisotene age who frequented BK4b, most likely due to water resources. The archaeologist, Foley, states that significant evolutionary and ecological shifts resulted in the evolution of Homo ergaster, about 1.9 to 1.4 million years ago, adapting “to an increase of meat in the diet” (Stanford et al., 1999). Archaeologists consider the “consumption of megafauna -[as] a significant evolutionary event” ; the site, BK4b is considered an important site for both hominids and carnivores during this time (Dominguez-Rodrigo et al., 2014). The site accumulated large amounts of raw materials, suggesting “thorough defleshing and demarrowing of megafaunal remains” (Dominguez-Rodrigo et al., 2014). According to the taphonomic evidence, “as indicated by the number and size of individuals butchered”, the amount of meat consumed at this site was greater than any other during this time (Dominguez-Rodrigo et al., 2014). An incomplete phylogenetic tree leaves room for critical analysis of varied dietary transitions.
Human dietary origins cannot be traced back to one species nor time or place. Studying cut marks of the ancestral East African hunter-gatherer tribe, provided evidence of “Hadza meat eating-1.75 million years ago-[from] both hunt[ing] and power scaveng[ing], butchering the carcasses selectively and transporting them to favored central locations for consumption” (Stanford et al., 1999). The Neandertals settlement and patterns of meat consumption have been documented at Kebara Cave in Israel and elicit the question of whether hunting behaviour was similar to the “anatomically modern H. sapiens” (Stanford et al., 1999). As nomadic hominoids expanding through various continents, survival was priority and intrinsically related to diet and nutrition. Paleolithic Homo sapiens, from 250,000 years ago in Europe and the prehistoric continental landmass of Europe and Asia, both hunted and scavenged for food (Stanford et al., 1999). Meat consumption provided high-fat and protein-dense components important for balanced primate diets.
Hominids gathered larger amounts of nutrition from environments with the use of food processing and tools. Archaeological excavations of stone tools suggest hominids manufactured ways to capture prey and consume scavenged carcasses (Stanford et al., 1999). Hominoids began consuming meat in order to satisfy nutritional requirements, incorporating a portion of animal matter to a primary diet of plant-based foods. A study on the preparation of meat for hominoid consumption considered the density of muscle tissue and the strength required to chew the product (Zink et Lieberman, 2016). Low-crested (bunodont) hominoid molars, where the cusps are low and rounded rather than sharp, challenge the consumption of meat (Zink et Lieberman, 2016). For example, “chimpanzees reportedly spend approximately 5–11 h chewing small (~4 kg) animals” (Zink et Lieberman, 2016). Figure 3 provides Zink et Lieberman’s table, estimating the number of chews required depending on the ways in which the meat was masticated. Observations of chimpanzees suggest that hominoids may have used rocks to pound, grind and tenderize foods, in order to masticate meat. Prior to the manufacturing of tools, flakes of stone could have effectively been used to “slice meat-remove skin, cartilage, rinds, and other mechanically demanding tissues,” so it would be more feasible to share and consume (Zink et Lieberman, 2016).
Plants provide a substantial amount of energy for hominoids, however, an increase in meat consumption is considered to have fuelled the initial moderate increase in the size of early humans about 2 million years ago. A study by Elliot and Barclay-Smith comparing the anatomy of hominoid guts found that it is structured similarly to a herbivore rather than an omnivore (Milton, 1999). Omnivores and herbivores cannot process all of the required daily energy, as well as protein and other essential nutrients from meat, whereas, carnivores differ, with a gut and digestive physiology structured to process it all (Stanford et al., 1999). Similarities between the human and ape colon give prominence to the claim that human ancestral lines were more often herbivorous (Milton, 1999). According to Milton, “hominids overcame the constraints of relatively inefficient digestive apparatuses among the hominoids by turning to meat in increasing amounts” (Stanford et al., 1999).
Consumption of aquatic animals in addition to scavenged carcasses may have provided large amounts of nutrients, causing evolutionary adaptations. The size of the hominoid gut has undergone some modifications as changes occurred in an encompassing environment, impacting the diet (Stanford et al., 1999). However, the amount of meat consumed among early hominins remains unclear, especially before cooking was commonly required. Over time, meat consumption impacted the reduction of the jaw muscle and size of teeth, which evolved “by the combined effects of eating meat -[that is] mechanically process[ed]” (Zink et Lieberman, 2016). Decreases in facial and dental size increased other functions including speech production, locomotion, thermoregulation, even changes in the size and shape of the brain (Zink et Lieberman, 2016). The changing forms of hunting, scavenging, and the uses of meat in light of recent data and modern evolutionary theory are still limited. Paleoanthropologists continue to uncover the unique adaptations of the hominoid diet and anatomy which impacted the transition from early ancestors to modern humans.
Human ancestors evolved to consume meat where ripe fruits and leaves were not available throughout the year (Stanford et al., 1999). Hominoids ate plant-based foods as primary energy sources and accessed meat in order to consume the amino acids and micronutrients required in large amounts. Although many archaeologists claim the “incorporation of animal matter into the diet played an absolutely essential role in human evolution” (Stanford et al., 1999), it is vital to consider that sources of plants, particularly cooked starches, also contributed to the increase in brain size. Archaeologists, scientists and political-economists have popularized and de-politicized meat consumption culturally while increasing its domination in the modern world market.
Considering the hunter-gather diets common among animals like chimps and bonobos, it is important for humans to be critical of the ways in which we assemble or accumulate food to consume. From an evolutionary perspective, a “healthy” human diet would be similar to earlier, traditionally consumed hominin diets in which meat, fat and a variety of natural foods are balanced. Evidence for the diets of the homo species including but not limited to Homo erectus suggests the use of stone tools with animal bone debris, marks on the tooth enamel/bone, and the skeletal form indicating functioning wear patterns from chewing. The current global food system as monopolized by industrial corporations have made drastic changes to our diet that make meat, grains and even fruits more dangerous in production, distribution, commodification and consumption. Capitalistic systems of accumulation have appropriated the means of “hunting” and “gathering”, furthering the domination of “market value” in which goods are exchanged.
The creation of the nation-state led to global, industrial and technological innovations that transformed the human diet. Colonialism corresponded with the establishment of food systems; “the first regime was constructed during British world economic dominance from about 1860-1914″ (Winders:27). Food resources have been commodified through socio-political organizational forms and the ideology of neoliberalism structures policies that “advocate privatizing and reducing government spending on public services, removing regulations that constrain markets and eliminating trade tariffs in order to promote economic growth” (Harvey 2005; Alkon and Mares 2012) (Weiler et al, 2015). Food has become a commodity, its cost and processes of supplement are far from the notion of free.
Fordism and Post-Fordism caused norm shifts and currently enforce neoliberal regulation, dominance of agribusiness multinational corporations, biotechnology for expansion, and the naturalization of supermarkets that further us from our hunter gather ways. By the 1980s, America came to dominate the neoliberal food regime and determine human access to food by state control, corporate power, biotechnology (genetic manipulation of food, etc) and the market (Otero: 26). The human diet is controlled by “an overarching global system that governs the production, trade, and consumption of food and agriculture [which]-includes the rules, regulations, policies, and norms that are created by national governments, as well as international agreements, institutions, and organizations”(Winders: 25). America monopolizes all of the high ranking global food and beverage processing firms.
Unhealthy foods are commodified and marketed to low-income, racialized families (Otero: 146). Modern mass-production of food has resulted in a “growing prevalence of non-communicable diseases associated with the spread of unhealthy western diets (Cordain et al. 2005; Sherwood et al. 2013)” (Weiler et al, 2015). By implementing neoliberal regulations, humans have “generated contemporary health crises (Plahe et al. 2013)” (Weiler et al, 2015). Although evolutionary effects of the human diet are natural, capitalism has “conflat[ed]- the meaning of development with increased consumption” (Weis: 71). Guthman examines the ways in which “socially constructed notions of what’s normal-and ‘natural’” (Guthman, 43), in tangent with class, impacts access to energy-rich foods for low income families (Otero: 17). Food, especially meat, has been stratified by the neoliberal classification of basic and luxury products.
Prior to the modernization of nation-states, hominins combined foods that could be found in nature. Industrial innovations include “new canning technologies, refrigeration, more extensive rail networks, and faster steamships” that result in ecological harm (Weis: 64). The neoliberal markets’ “elevation of animal protein went on to infuse both class and nationalist aspirations in the modern world” (Weis: 64). Chicken is an important meat as it is increasingly mass produced as the neoliberal meat; technological innovations seek to increase [how much]- animals yield flesh, eggs and mike (Weis: 99). These farm animals, regarded as assets, live through “intractable problems which include weakened circulatory, musculoskeletal, respiratory and immune systems – and having reproductive difficulties” (Weis: 125). Humans consuming cheap meat also encounter “heightened risks of obesity, cardiovascular disease and other diseases of affluence” (Weis: 136) . “Livestock production is responsible for-GHG emissions-[which] ranks among the largest causes of climate change of any economic sector” (Weis: 134). Meat is accredited to high nutritional value without consideration for health risks involved in diets involving high consumption of meat or processed and packaged meats that have been genetically modified.
The transition of natural or fresh food to processed has normalized the consumption of pesticides, refined sugars, and genetically modified foods. There is a strong separation between nature and food, wherein the foods consumed are highly processed, packaged and to be bought.
The social organization and production of food has divided land, resources and labour from the product and its consumer. In addition, agricultural businesses’ use “inorganic fertilizers” (Weis: 110) and exploit biological processes for industrial and other purposes that “serve- to greatly accelerate the loss of soil organisms and nutrients” (Weis: 101). Hominin diets would include a variety of meats, seafood, fruits, plants, nuts, eggs, insects, mushrooms, herbs, and spices. Although many consume these foods in the modern day, humans are often not hunting or gathering as much as walking into a supermarket to purchase it. Access is monetarily determined; “the [neoliberal food] system enfolded meat in a heavy veil that severed the commodity from its animal being” (Weis: 69). Rather than having the autonomy and agency to seek, gather, hunt and consume foods, the notion of a healthy diet is increasingly inaccessible to humans over time.
Evolution is an ongoing, unfixed process of biological adaptation, in which hominoids encounter internal and external diversification as well as development. Ancestral hominoids adapted to a variety of environments that have undergone changes in biodiversity, climate and more. It is evident that the consumption of cooked meat, as well as the development of tools and techniques to acquire as much food as possible, resulted in human adaptations in anatomy as well as social cognition. It is not conclusive whether meat alone resulted in biological adaptations such as increase in brain size as many factors, including measures of food preparation, may have been conducive to such transformations. Over 3 million years, massive transformations in world ecology took place as hominoid ancestors transformed into modern humans. The role of meat-eating has been overtly emphasized in human evolution and the modern, neoliberal food regime encourages the consumption of meat for capital accumulation. The combination archaeological research with the critical analysis of political economy could demystify the protein hierarchy that regards meat as essential to the human diet.