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A recent study of archaeological sites in Africa has suggested that the theory that our ancestors Homo erectus eat more meat than the hominids they evolved from could be false as it may be the result of a problem in evidence collection. 

There has been a traditional view that hunting and eating more meat was instrumental for early hominids evolving into the first human-looking primate of our genus Homo who expanded beyond Africa (Homo erectus). One of the pieces of evidence that have been used to support this theory is that palaeontologists have found more fossils of marked animal bones around fossils of this hominid than around fossils of previous hominids. But now, the new study has shown that this only happened because more effort was put in finding them in Homo erectus sites, not because they are more common. 

Dr W A Barr, the study’s lead author, said to the Natural History Museum: “Generations of paleoanthropologists have gone to famously well-preserved sites in places like Olduvai Gorge looking for, and finding, breath-taking direct evidence of early humans eating meat, furthering the viewpoint that there was an explosion of meat-eating after two million years ago. However, when you quantitatively synthesise the data from numerous sites across eastern Africa to test this hypothesis, as we did here, the ‘meat made us human’ evolutionary narrative starts to unravel.” 

The study, published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, covered 59 sites across nine areas of eastern Africa dating between 2.6 and 1.2 million years ago. It found that the sites that pre-dated the appearance of H. Erectus were lacking, and the amount of effort put into the sampling was linked with the recovery of bones which showed evidence of meat consumption. When the number of bones was adjusted by the amount of effort put into finding them, it suggested that the level of meat-eating remained broadly the same.

Dr Briana Pobiner, one of the study’s co-authors, said: “This study changes our understanding of what the zooarchaeological record tells us about the earliest prehistoric meat-eating. It also shows how important it is that we continue to ask big questions about our evolution, while we also continue to uncover and analyse new evidence about our past.”

This means that meat-eating may not have been as transformative in our evolution as is often suggested. Instead, H. erectus may have eaten diets containing many roots and tubers, which could have been made digestible by roasting them in fires. Perhaps the fact that most humans thrive on nutritionally balanced vegan diets has more of a paleoanthropological explanation than even vegans considered.