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Our hunter-gatherer ancestors did much more gathering veggies than hunting meat

In a significant departure from the widely accepted view of early human societies as hunter-gatherers who were primarily meat-dependent, recent research seems to prove otherwise.

Spearheaded by University of Wyoming‘s Assistant Professor Randy Haas, a new study reveals a strikingly different dietary habits of early humans.

The term “hunter-gatherers,” long synonymous with early human groups, is now being reconsidered, particularly for societies in the Andes of South America.

The findings suggest a more accurate descriptor would be “gatherer-hunters.”

New insights into early human diets

Haas, along with a team of researchers from various prestigious institutions, undertook a detailed analysis of human remains from two burial sites in Peru: Wilamaya Patjxa and Soro Mik’aya Patjxa.

Contrary to the long-held belief that early human diets were predominantly meat-based, the study discovered that the diets in the Andean Mountains were composed of approximately 80 percent plant matter and only 20 percent meat.

The study, entitled “Stable isotope chemistry reveals plant-dominant diet among early foragers on the Andean Altiplano,” utilized isotope chemistry and statistical modeling.

This approach provided a fresh perspective on the dietary habits of Andean societies dating back to 9,000 to 6,500 years ago and challenged the traditional narratives of hunter-gatherer diets.

Plant-heavy diet of early hunter-gatherers

The conventional wisdom surrounding early human economies has long emphasized hunting. This belief has influenced modern dietary trends, such as the Paleodiet, which advocate for high-protein, meat-centric diets. However, Haas’ research tells a different story.

The isotopic composition of human bones from these ancient Andean societies indicates a diet where plant foods, particularly tubers like potatoes, were the primary sustenance, relegating meat to a secondary role.

This finding is further supported by evidence such as burnt plant remains at the sites and distinctive dental wear patterns indicative of tuber consumption.

Collaborative research effort

The study represents a collaborative effort involving researchers from Penn State University, the University of California-Merced, University of California-Davis, Binghamton University, the University of Arizona, and the National Register of Peruvian Archaeologists.

The initial excavations in 2018 at the Wilamaya Patjxa burial site also provided a valuable opportunity for undergraduate students to engage in hands-on research.

Jennifer Chen, currently a Ph.D. student in anthropology at Penn State University and the lead author of the journal article, played a pivotal role in this research.

As a former undergraduate in Haas’ lab, Chen conducted significant portions of the isotope lab work and analysis following the excavations.

Reconsidering hunter-gatherer societies

Chen emphasizes the importance of understanding food consumption, especially in challenging environments like the Andes.

The study challenges the traditional archaeological frameworks that predominantly focus on hunting and meat-heavy diets.

Instead, it suggests that early hunter-gatherer human societies, at least in Andean culture, primarily relied on plant foods, such as wild tubers.

Haas points out that this study not only revises our understanding of early Andean diets but also highlights the potential for similar misconceptions in other parts of the world.

He notes that archaeological biases have often led to misconceptions, suggesting that future isotopic research might reveal similar plant-based diets in other early human societies.

“Our combination of isotope chemistry, paleoethnobotanical and zooarchaeological methods offers the clearest and most accurate picture of early Andean diets to date,” Haas says.

“These findings update our understanding of earliest forager economies and the pathway to agricultural economies in the Andean highlands,” he concluded

Much more to learn about early humans

In summary, this surprising research alters our understanding of early human diets, especially in the Andes. Their study has shifted the narrative around our hunter-gatherer ancestors from a meat-centric to a plant-dominated subsistence.

This revelation challenges long-standing archaeological assumptions and underscores the importance of reevaluating our perspectives on ancient human lifestyles.

By uncovering a diet heavily reliant on plant matter, particularly tubers, in the Andean societies, the study highlights a need to explore the diversity of early human diets across the globe.

The full study was published in the journal PLoS ONE.


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