What have you eaten today? Woolly mammoth burger for breakfast followed by a rhino steak for lunch? It sounds a little intense but a study into our ancient cousins the Neanderthals shows that up to 80% of their diet consisted of meat. Such a figure would get the most committed competitive eating champion sweating. Today we are advised to build most of our diet around fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Also the roughly 12-20% of our diet that contributes proteins should consist of beans, pulses, fish and lean meats. Red meat such as beef and pork should be avoided or at least be cut down to just 70g a day. It is safe to say that the NHS would not be big fans of mammoths if they were still around.
This interesting information comes from Scientists at the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment (HEP) in Tübingen. They looked at a large number of 40,000-year-old bones belonging to horses, mammoths, rhinos, European bison and reindeer. By looking at isotope distribution of the collagen within the bones, the team could determine what was making up the diet of the Neanderthals and who they were in terms of other animals. Not only did they discover that 80% of their diet was made up of meat but that they also had a taste for the large herbivores of the day - mammoth and the woolly rhinoceros. This is at odds with other predators in these ecosystems (lions, wolves, cave hyenas, and bears) who were eating a variety of different animals. Perhaps this was a sign of the picky diets some of us have in 2019?
Another common aspect of our diets is cooking. Most people cook at least one of their meals every day (yes, we will class pot noodles as cooking just this once.). However, when and how our ancestors began warming up their meals has always been a mystery. Stephanie Schnorr from the Human Origins Group at the Leiden Faculty of Archaeology has helped shed some light on this with her time with the hadza tribe of Tanzania. Like early humans, the Hadza live in the east African savannah and so their diet and how they live could shine light on how our ancestors lived. Schnorr looked at the fibre rich tubers that the tribes sustain themselves on. She found that roasting makes them easier to digest and so increases the amount of calories available. However, this amount was so small it only just covered the amount of energy needed to build the fire. Roasting however does make the tubers softer to eat. Perhaps cooking was first developed to make tubers softer on our teeth before our ancestors realised it could be used to maximise the calories in other food groups once they became available?
Although we may never get straight answers, looking into how our ancestors ate may have benefits for us today. Schnorr found that the Hadza people had a more diverse range of microorganisms living in their guts compared to western test candidates. Despite what the average person might think, the vast majority of these microbes are beneficial-helping us to digest foods our lazy bodies cannot, as well as keeping out any intruders looking to cause us problems.
By looking at the way our ancestors have eaten in the past, perhaps we could find lost secrets to live longer and healthier lives. Mammoth burger with a side of tubers anyone?