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Ancient diets of early humans were richer in plants than expected

The image of a spear-wielding mammoth hunter might be the classic symbol of early humans, but it’s becoming clear that reality was much less meat-obsessed. A new study has overturned the idea that our ancient ancestors were all about the hunt for their diets.

As it turns out, long before anyone thought of planting wheat, North African hunter-gatherers had become surprisingly skilled plant chefs. They were even introducing their babies to a taste of the wild with mashed nuts and berries, completely changing our picture of prehistoric parenting.

The remarkable study was conducted by an international team of scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Leipzig, Germany), Géoscience et Environnement Toulouse (Toulouse, France), and the Institut National des Sciences de l’Archéologie et du Patrimoine (Rabat, Morocco),

Iberomaurusians and their ancient diets

The people in this study are known as the Iberomaurusians, who called Morocco’s Taforalt Cave home thousands of years ago.

Until recently, the assumption was that people like them mostly tracked animals, ignoring the plant life around them. But by diving deep into their teeth and bones, researchers found these cave dwellers were more like adventurous omnivores:

The main course

The Iberomaurusians had a diet much richer in plant material than previously thought. Researchers discovered a significant reliance on acorns, pine nuts, and wild pulses (which are similar to the beans and lentils we know today). This indicates a surprisingly diverse and well-rounded diet drawing on the local, Mediterranean environment.

Baby’s first bites

Analysis of infant remains indicates early introduction of solid foods in the Iberomaurusian population. Babies and young children likely consumed acorns, pine nuts, and pulses. These staples mirrored adult diets but were mashed for easier consumption by the young.

“Our findings not only provide insights into the dietary practices of pre-agricultural human groups but also highlight the complexity of human subsistence strategies in different regions,” says Zineb Moubtahij, who led the study.

Science behind the surprising ancient diet

The researchers in this study employed a range of advanced analytical techniques to uncover the dietary practices of the Iberomaurusians. This went well beyond the traditional examination of artifacts like bones or tools.

Isotopic analysis of tooth enamel revealed specific chemical signatures. These signatures are directly linked to the types of foods a person consumed regularly, providing a detailed dietary record.

Further analysis of skeletal remains focused on specific elements like carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur. The ratios of these elements offer insights into the balance of different food sources in an individual’s diet.

To gain a broader understanding of the available food resources, the scientists also analyzed the bones of animals discovered in the cave. This helped determine the position of humans within the ancient food web and identify potential sources of protein.

Rethinking the “hunter-gatherer” label

For decades, the prevailing image of “hunter-gatherer” societies has been one heavily centered on the pursuit and consumption of animals. This study challenges the traditional view that diets in pre-agricultural times predominantly consisted of meat.

It shows that plant-based foods were significantly important. Although meat was part of their diet, the findings reveal a complex strategy that utilized a diverse array of resources.

This new perspective forces us to question several long-held assumptions about pre-agricultural people:

  • Limited diet: The idea that hunter-gatherers were constrained by a monotonous and protein-heavy diet is undermined by evidence of diverse plant consumption. This points to more resourceful and adaptable dietary practices.
  • Foraging skills: The ability to successfully identify, gather, and potentially process various plant foods reveals a deeper knowledge of the environment and its resources than often attributed to these early communities.
  • Survival strategies: The emphasis on plants suggests a broader range of survival techniques employed by pre-agricultural people beyond just hunting. This includes sophisticated foraging strategies, seasonal exploitation of resources, and potentially even rudimentary food preservation methods.

Significance of ancient diets

Ultimately, this study highlights the remarkable adaptability of early human communities and their intimate relationship with their surroundings.

These groups were not limited by a lack of agriculture. They ingeniously utilized available resources to ensure survival. This resourcefulness also helped complex social structures to emerge.

If these ancient people had access to so much yummy plant food, why didn’t agriculture emerge in North Africa sooner?

This discovery of a surprisingly plant-based diet among the ancient Iberomaurusians raises a perplexing question: If access to plentiful and diverse wild food resources was possible, why didn’t the transition to agriculture occur earlier in North Africa?

Conventional wisdom turned upside down

The conventional understanding of agricultural development suggests that it arose in response to resource scarcity, population pressure, or unpredictable food availability.

These factors are thought to have pushed hunter-gatherer groups toward the domestication of plants and animals for greater dietary stability.

The findings of this study suggest an alternative scenario. Perhaps North Africa’s abundant wild resources provided enough comfort and food security to delay the adoption of labor-intensive farming. Foraging and gathering may have provided a perfectly sustainable, if nomadic, lifestyle.

It’s also important to consider the potential impact of climatic shifts. The end of the last Ice Age triggered significant environmental changes.

These changes may have altered the availability and distribution of wild food resources. This shift could have created the pressure necessary for the eventual transition to agriculture.

Future directions

This study highlights the need for a more nuanced understanding of the factors that led to the emergence of agriculture in different regions of the world. It prompts us to investigate several aspects.

A closer examination of plant remains in North Africa could shed light on the changing availability and types of wild food sources over time and how they may have influenced subsistence strategies.

Analyzing climate records and evidence of environmental change could reveal whether shifts in resource availability played a role in the eventual adoption of agriculture.

Examining the timing and trajectory of agricultural development in other regions with rich wild resources could offer insights into the unique circumstances of North Africa.

This discovery acts like a key, unlocking a whole new world of prehistoric diets in Africa. Imagine what else we might learn about how our ancestors ate, the challenges they faced, and the surprising ways they adapted to survive. More studies like this one have the potential to rewrite whole chapters of human history.

The study is published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.


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