A Short History of Human Nutrition

This is a very brief look at how the modern Human diet came about, what changes our species went through that shaped our biology and health, the consequences of milestone events and what it means for our species as a whole moving forward.

1. Pre-Tool Era

Very early descendants of Humans that existed 1-2.5 Million years ago did not have tools or weapons. It was a time when these early Human descendants weren't even the dominant animal on the planet. In fact, even the earliest example of a tool reinforced the fact that they weren't anywhere near the top of the food chain. These tools were simply just rocks, shaped by the user through its usage - which was most likely a way to crack open bones from prey left behind by more powerful and dominant carnivorous animals. It's thought the bones were then drained of bone marrow as a food source for the early Humans. Left to scavenge bone marrow from the already flesh stripped prey of other animals suggests that very early Human descendants scavenged most of their meat.

2. The Invention of Tools and Weapons

2-300,000 years ago descendants of Homo Sapiens (genetically modern day Humans) were not the only Human species on the planet. Contrary to popular perception of evolution, up to 6 different species of Human inhabited the earth at the same time. This meant there was competition for the top spot. Competition and the fight for survival seems to be the main driver for innovation in the story of Humankind, and some historians believe that having to compete against other Humanoid species forced early Homo Sapiens to become smarter with how they obtained food and how they dominated the landscape. The emergence of more advanced tools and weapons enabled these early Homo Sapiens to obtain more food and thus over time develop higher social skills (advanced language) and exchange more ideas about effective hunting strategies.

3. Braun vs Brain

It is exceedingly difficult to ascertain whether these different human species were in conflict or what kind of interaction they had with one another, but we do know that the Homo Sapiens Species was not the most dominant at the outset. Neanderthals (the original caveman) was by far the most physically dominant and even had a larger brain. However, there were fewer in number compared to Homo Sapiens and were eventually outnumbered - as well as outwitted (going extinct 30,000 years ago). Although early Homo Sapiens had slightly smaller brains than Neanderthals, it still needed excessive amounts of energy, in fact our brains consume up to 25% of all the energy we eat. This resulted in Sapiens being less well built physically (to reduce the need for energy) but more adept intellectually (advanced tools + hunting + communication). Sapiens were able to work as a team for the future greater good, a notion Neanderthal brains could not conceptualise.

4. Fire

So smart in fact were early Humans that even hundreds of thousands of years ago they perfected the art of Hunting to such a degree that hundreds of animals could be killed in one day - entire herds of animals being forced into a manufactured death trap. Archaeologists believe that early Sapiens only hunted and gathered for just a few hours each week, spending most of the time socialising, exchanging ideas and inventing better tools. When the control of Fire came along (300,000 years ago) the world started becoming less of a hazard and more of a playground. Entire forests could be deliberately burned down to enlarge pastural areas for wild animals - not only that, but the food Sapiens currently ate could be cooked, freeing up more nutrients for absorption and requiring less time and energy to chew and digest. Furthermore, foods that they couldn't eat became edible with cooking, foods like root vegetables, grains and other fibrous plants.

5. Roaming Foragers

Before the agricultural revolution approximately 10,000 years ago, Humans obtained food by foraging (hunting and gathering). Early Humans got most of their food from simply waking up and walking into the world looking for plants to gather and animals to hunt. Since wild animals and fruits are not deliberately planted or bred like in modern farms, the Human population 'pre-agriculture' was a constantly migrating one; Moving from one source of food to another, rarely staying in one location for long. From studying the archaeological evidence of tools and weapons along with animal bones, Archaeologists can determine migration patterns of humans and what those humans ate for meat. This would all change with the introduction of farming.

6. Agricultural Revolution

The Agricultural revolution was the gradual transition from the Hunter Gatherer lifestyle to the Farmer lifestyle. Before the Agricultural Revolution was in full flow (most Human populations living off farmed food) two things had to happened. The first is the control of fire; without Fire Humans simply cannot eat starchy vegetation like root vegetables or grains. The second is the discovery of plants and animals that could indeed be farmed effectively - note that many wild plants and animals are too difficult to farm as they are prone to disease, have too small a work:yield ratio or have too strict living conditions. Humans ended up with Goats, Wheat Grains, Rices, Barley and Potatoes which - due to the fact not all plants and animals can be farmed - weren't necessarily the foods humans wanted or needed to eat. Certainly the plants didn't grow numerously enough in the wild to eat in significant amounts daily. What happened next was both the greatest and worst thing Humans could hope for.

7. The Agricultural Consequence

Many Historians believe, and indeed the evidence is overwhelming, Humans as a species have achieved an incredible feat while at the same time suffering the most tragic loss. 'Incredible' because we have multiplied exponentially due to the abundance of farmed food, and from a DNA point of view that is what is defined as 'success' according to Evolution. But, also 'tragic' because as agriculture took over it resulted in the degradation of the Human life experience; Nutrition deteriorated, diseases thrived, lifespans shortened, workload increased and depression is an epidemic. You see, Evolution doesn't care if you spend 16 hours a day farming/working or a less tiresome 5 hours a week hunting... as long as you pass on your DNA. The sacrifice for all of this is 'comfort and protection', but the reality is that we are unhappier more now than ever. The true tragedy is that we have become slaves to our own lifestyles and population growth.

8. The Dilemma

Grains, Barley and other farmed crops use less space 'per-calorie' than animal farms. Meaning, more humans can survive, and live off less land if they ate mostly farmed vegetation. This means faster population growth in less space - thumbs up for DNA replication. Hunting and Gathering (as well as animal farming) on the other hand requires huge amounts of space and that space in-turn cannot sustain nearly as many people. Since we are contained to the boundaries of our own biology (we need food, sleep, shelter) we must find a way to obtain better nutrition without excessive work or taking up too much space, in order to improve our life experience and health. The agricultural revolution has fuelled human growth and innovation to an incredible degree, but at the expense of human happiness and health. We must be pro-active to innovate one step further and get 'Forager' Nutrition back to the masses. Otherwise the world is going to get a lot more crowded and a lot more grumpy.

NOTE: You must draw your own conclusions from this brief history of Human Nutrition. There are many other factors involved that drove the progress of Human populations, and of course different populations in different times and places had entirely contrasting experiences, e.g. during the ice age very little vegetation was available, but meat could be deliberately frozen for later consumption - seeing populations through hard times. And while many bands of people enjoyed tranquil and stress free lives in paradise lands, others endured intense conflict and struggle in remote, dangerous and barren habitats.

Happy Lifting!



Sapiens - A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari.


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