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The Juicy History of Humans Eating Meat

May 8, 2019 in History

By Dave Roos

Early man’s diet transitioned to animal flesh with an assist from saber-toothed tigers.

The mouth-watering smokiness of a rack of pork ribs. The juicy gluttony of a medium-rare bacon cheeseburger. The simple pleasure of a salami sandwich on rye. One thing is clear—humans love meat. But why do we eat so much more meat than our primate cousins and why are we wired to drool at the sound and smell of steaks sizzling on the grill?

Scientists still have plenty of unanswered questions about the origins and evolution of human meat-eating, but there are some strong theories as to when, how and why we started to incorporate larger amounts of meat in our omnivorous diet.

READ MORE: Going Paleo: What Prehistoric Man Actually Ate

Blame an ancient climate shift.

Between 2.6 and 2.5 million years ago, the Earth got significantly hotter and drier. Before that climate shift, our distant human ancestors—collectively known as hominins—were subsisting mostly on fruits, leaves, seeds, flowers, bark and tubers. As the temperature rose, the lush forests shrank and great grasslands thrived. As green plants became scarcer, evolutionary pressure forced early humans to find new sources of energy.

The grassland savannas that spread across Africa supported growing numbers of grazing herbivores. Archaeologists have found large herbivore bones dating from 2.5 million years ago with telltale cut marks from crude stone tools. Our ancient hominin ancestors weren’t capable hunters yet, but likely scavenged the meat from fallen carcasses.

“More grasses means more grazing animals, and more dead grazing animals means more meat,” says Marta Zaraska, author of Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million-Years Obsession With Meat.

Once humans shifted to even occasional meat eating, it didn’t take long to make it a major part of our diet. Zaraska says there’s ample archaeological evidence that by 2 million years ago the first Homo species were actively eating meat on a regular basis.

READ MORE: Hunter Gatherers

Neanderthals hunting a zebra for food.

Tools became our ‘second teeth.’

It’s not a coincidence that the earliest evidence of widespread human meat-eating coincides in the archaeological record with Homo habilis, the “handyman” of early humans. At sites in Kenya dating back to 2 million years ago, archaeologists have discovered thousands of flaked stone “knives” and fist-sized hammerstones near large piles of animal-bone fragments with corresponding butcher marks.

While our ancient human relatives had stronger jaws and larger teeth than modern man, …read more


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