The zoologist Jordi Casamitjana looks at the current scientific evidence suggesting human ancestry was mostly plant-based, not meat-based as old-fashioned scientists used to think.

There is a London Overground station called Chrystal Palace. 

For those not familiar with London, the railway public transport has many forms, and although the underground trains (called subways or metros in other places) colloquially referred to as “the Tube” are very well known, there are some similar lines that do not go underground, which are called overground railways. Chrystal Palace is one of the stations, in the recently named The Windrush Line of the overground network.

This station is located in the South of London, by a park called, precisely, Chrystal Palace Park, and if you walk through it, you will find something very interesting: a group of old life-size statues of dinosaurs commissioned in 1852 to accompany the Crystal Palace (an actual glass building) after its move from the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park.  These statues were unveiled in 1854 as the first dinosaur model sculptures in the world. 

There is a problem, though. They are all wrong. At the time, scientists had no idea what dinosaurs looked like, and looking at the fossils they found, they made the wrong guesses. With not many people challenging them, they applied wrong assumptions that made them look closer to modern reptiles than the dinosaurs looked like (and palaeontology has advanced enough to have a pretty good idea now). In particular, the Iguanodon and Megalosaurus models are the ones with more errors of interpretation (making them look like giant iguanas). 

These types of errors are typical in science, no matter the century. Scientist of any time “project” their personal biases and cultural assumptions, and as those alive in the same period often share the same cultures and education, they do not realise they are doing it. It may take several generations of future scientists to realise how much these factors affected the results and conclusions of the science of the past. 

As we now know (and understand) why Victorian palaeontologists imagine extinct animals so differently than modern palaeontologists do, we are beginning to see that modern paleoanthropologists studying human fossils as well as modern archaeologists studying human ancient artefacts are discovering that those who preceded them had made some assumptions about humans of the past that now seem wrong. One of these is assuming that human ancestry was mostly meat-based, and prehistorical humans were mainly hunters.

We are beginning to see that this is not true, and this erroneous interpretation was made by several generations of meat-eating scientists who, predictably, assumed that meat-eating was the natural thing to do for humans. They looked at the fossils and artefacts and assumed they came from carnivorous hunting cultures, but we are beginning to realise that this may not be accurate.

Does this matter? Yes, it does, because ancestry connects genetics and society in fundamental ways. For many people, ancestry has cultural, religious or even political significance, and can play a key role in shaping personal and public identities — including the vegan identity. 

When vegan sceptics criticised vegans by saying veganism is unnatural as humans are carnivores, and they always have been, they often refer to the stereotypical image of so-called hunter-gatherer prehistoric humans. However, they do not realise this is an old-fashioned view of humanity coming from confirmation bias that current science is now gradually correcting. This article will lay out the recent scientific discoveries that suggest that, after all, human ancestry was mostly plant-based.  

A Plant-Based Planet

shutterstock_240382504

All life on Earth is connected, so if we go far enough, we can trace human ancestry (and the ancestry of any living organism today, from a bacterium to Taylor Swift) as far as 4.2 billion years, which is where we think life started on our planet. Was it a plant-based world, then? No, it wasn’t, as plants had not evolved yet. At about 2.1 billion years ago, there were already simple unicellular organisms that could use light to synthesize Carbohydrates and produce oxygen, but then the first eukaryote cells evolved (the more complex cells that algae, plants, fungi, and animals have). However, not until 1.5 billion years ago that the plant-type eukaryotes separated from the animal-like eukaryotes — still all living in the water, though.   

In the strictest sense, the name plant refers to those land plants that form the group Embryophyta, comprising the bryophytes and vascular plants, which first appeared around 515 million years ago evolving from green algae. The earlier evidence of land animals was discovered in 2022, in the form of footprints of arthropods (animals like insects or spiders) scuttled about fossils that used to be sand dunes that existed 530 million years ago

By the start of the Carboniferous Period around 363 million years ago, the Earth began to resemble its present state, with insects roaming the land and beginning to fly, vegetation covering the ground and producing lots of oxygen, and seed-bearing plants and forests soon to come. About 202 million years ago, in the Mesozoic Era, Seed-producing Gymnosperm forests dominated the land, herbivore reptiles grew to huge sizes to accommodate the large guts necessary to digest plants, the first flies and turtles appeared, and we found the first coelophysoid dinosaurs. 

In this mostly plant-based world, a group of small-sized carnivore insect-eating animals evolved from early reptiles, and these were the first mammals. About 125 million years ago the first Placental mammals (like us) evolved from those, and between 124–101 million years ago we see these mammals diversify and many become herbivore plant-based leaving their insect-eating ancestral habits behind. Most hoofed mammals, most carnivorous mammals, cetaceans, bats, and Supraprimates, appear around that time. After the dinosaurs became extinct around 66 million years ago in a plant-based terrestrial world still dominated by plants and plant eaters (the majority of dinosaurs were herbivores), mammals spread and became very specialised, with separate dietary adaptations (such as the carnivore or herbivore adaptation) becoming evolutionary choices for them. Up to that point, the human lineage was shared with the lineage of all the plant-based terrestrial mammals we know today (yes, the mammal ancestors of sheep and cows were also small shrew-like carnivore creatures), but from then on we start to be able to separate the plant-eating mammals from the animal eating mammals. Which of these two routes did human ancestry take? 

Primates Chose the Plant-Based Route

shutterstock_1955388442

Primates (which is the Order of mammals we belong to) first appeared on this planet about 66 million years ago, but only about 40 million years ago the Simiiformes (the monkeys and apes) evolved into being. Before these, primates were mainly what we call today pro-simians (who can still be found on the island of Madagascar), and these had not “made their mind” yet on whether they would choose the carnivore or the herbivore adaptation, as we find species from either persuasion (namely tarsiers and lorises chose the carnivore route, while some lemurs the herbivore route). But the Simiiformes did, and although there are exceptions, they chose the herbivore route (by the way, the term herbivore is used sometimes to mean plant-based eater, as in this case, and sometimes, most specifically, grass-eater). 

Many of those who chose the herbivore adaptation still ate the occasional animal (mainly insects, even cows can digest insects and molluscs they occasionally eat when they eat grass), but their behaviour, morphology and physiology became better adapted to obtain food from plants. 

By the way, although the term omnivore is often used to describe species that eat both animals and plants, strictly speaking, there is not such a thing as an omnivore adaptation, but instead what defines the animals who receive this label is the lack of adaptation to either plant or animal food — which is something quite rare as most species, after millions of years of evolution, have tended to adapt to either, even if only slightly. One thing is to be omnivorous (note the different spelling) as an individual (to eat foods from many sources, plant and animal) but another is to be an omnivore (to have a biological adaptation not to eat more than one type than another), so while we can say that most individual animals can become omnivorous if forced by circumstances, most are not omnivore as they would be better adapted to thrive from one type of food than another. We do not say an animal has a terrestrial-aquatic adaptation, but rather that there are aquatic animals who often venture on land — like seals — or land animals who often venture into water — like beavers — so we define them not only by the percentage of time they spend on either medium but also for what their body is most adapted to be in (clearly, the body of a seal is adapted to be in water, and although they are often on land they struggle to move there).  

Equally, Simiiformes’ bodies became adapted to eat fruits or leaves from trees, and this is when they got long limbs with grabbing fingers to be able to pick up fruit or tear leaves, binocular vision with eyes facing forward to be able to judge distances accurately and jump successfully from branch to branch, and three-colour vision to be able to tell apart ripe fruits. In Simiiformes, including the species alive today, meat typically accounts for only small proportions of feeding time and of total energy and protein intake, so they have an herbivore adaptation (not an omnivore adaptation) that makes them choose a mostly plant-based diet. 

About 30 million years ago, the Simiiformes split into two main groups, the parvorder Platyrrhini (New World monkeys, only found in America today) and the Catarrhini (the apes and the rest of monkeys, found everywhere else), and both branches maintained their predominantly herbivore adaptation, with some in either branch specialising in eating fruits (frugivores) while others in eating leaves (folivores). Proconsul was an early genus of catarrhine primates, which is the type of primate we are. The group of Catarrhini primates which are in our direct ancestral line are the suprafamily Hominoidea, known as apes, which split from other primates around 22 to 20 million years ago. These remained mainly plant-based. 

Then, between 20 and 15 million years ago we found the family Hominidae, which is composed of Great apes (today chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans) and hominids (human-like apes, like us). These were still adapted to eat plants, but gorillas and similar now-extinct great apes became mainly folivores (leaf-eaters) while the rest were frugivores (fruit-eaters), which is a less specialised type of herbivore. Between 14 and 12 million years ago these evolved into the Subfamily Homininae, composed of today’s chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and hominids (the orangs belong to another subfamily), still herbivore primates. Between 10 and 8 million years ago we see the Tribe Hominini split, and today these constitute the chimps, bonobos, and hominids (the gorilla was now separate), who are now all mostly frugivore (a type of herbivore) better adapted to eat fruits and nuts.

Between 8 and 4 million years ago, finally, the hominids stood on their own forming the Subtribe Hominina (what we call Hominids) that does not include bonobos or chimpanzees (both belonging to the genus Pan, and both continue being mostly frugivore today, although about 2% of chimp’s food is animals, including vertebrates such as monkeys — bonobos, who are closer related to us, don’t eat these, though). Did the hominids remain plant-based, or did they, uncharacteristically for a Hominidae Homininae Hominini Hominina ape who were mostly plant-based for 32 million years, switch to an animal-based diet? Victorian paleoanthropologists thought they did, but we now know better. 

The Hominids Were Mostly Plant-Based

shutterstock_1256025355

We belong to the sub-species Homo sapiens sapiens of the species Homo sapiens, but although this is the only species left of the entire Subtribe Hominina, there were many other species in the past (more than 20 discovered so far), some directly part of our ancestry, while others from dead-end branches not directly connected to us. 

The first Hominids that we know of did not even belong to the same genus as us (the genus Homo) but to the genus Ardipithecus. They appeared between 6 and 4 million years ago, and we do not know much about them as we have found very few fossils of them (those we found come from the Afar Depression in Ethiopia). The most well-known species of this group is Ardipithecus ramidus. There is debate if they are indeed the first Hominids but this is to be expected because none of the groups mentioned suddenly appear with already distinct forms, but more gradually with blurred lines between the groups (as you would expect from an evolutionary process). It seems, though, that Ardipithecus has many features close to the bonobos and still lives mostly on the trees, which makes them likely to still be a frugivore species like them (although they seem to have less specialised teeth than modern apes suggesting that their diet did not depend heavily on foliage, but rather soft fruits). So, the first ancestors of the group of animals we are the only species left were most likely plant-based (in other words, the hominid early ancestry was mostly plant-based), eating the occasional insect or perhaps even some birds.  

Between 5 and 3 million years ago, Ardipithecus evolved into another group of Hominids of the genus Australopithecus (all the species of which are commonly known as the Australopithecines), and the first species of the genus Homo evolved from some of their species, so they are in our direct lineage. It is believed the Australopithecines are the first hominids who move from the trees to live mostly on the ground, in this case, the African savannah. Some consider that there is more than one genus in this group, so some species are classified within the genus Australopithecus and others within the genus Paranthropus and Kenyanthropus, but in any event, we have now found enough fossils to know that there were quite a number of species, some of which likely to have been adapted to different environments and even diets. Overall, though, Australopithecus species are thought to have eaten mainly fruit, leaves, and tubers, and perhaps some animals such as termites and small lizards, remaining mostly plant-based. The thickening of enamel in their teeth may have been because of moving to the ground and eating more tubers, nuts, and cereal grains with gritty dirt.

The first Australopithecines known is A. anamensis (about 4 million years ago), and the last one directly in our lineage is A. africanus (who lived between about 3.3 and 2.1 million years ago in the Late Pliocene to Early Pleistocene of South Africa). Sometimes Australopithecines are divided into two main groups, the robust Australopithecines (which, as the name suggests, were more robust) and the gracile australopiths (the opposite), and our direct lineage is linked to the latter. When you compare the two Australopithecines groups, the gracile group had smaller teeth with fewer microwear dental features and more scratches as opposed to pits on its molar wear facets, which suggests robust australopithecines had more tough, fibrous plant material in their diets, whereas gracile australopiths ate more hard and brittle foods. 

This has been known for a long time. In a 1979 microwear study of Australopithecus fossil teeth, anthropologist Alan Walker suggested that robust australopithecines were mostly frugivores. Are more recent 2018 study found non-carious cervical lesions caused by acid erosion on the teeth of A. africanus, probably caused by the repeated consumption of acidic fruits. 

Comparing the teeth between A. afarensis and A. anamensis suggests that the former predominantly ate fruits and leaves, whereas the latter also included grasses and seeds. Although some species had larger teeth that could indicate the need to tear food (hard fruits or even scavenged meat), the wearing patterns on the teeth support the hypothesis that all Australopithecines had largely herbivorous diets (we know that in primates having large canines may have nothing to do with diet, but it may be about dominance display, as we see today with the folivore gorillas who have large canines).

So far, we are seeing an uninterrupted stretch of 38 million years that our ancestry has been plant-based (and during this considerably long period many of the anatomy and physiology of this lineage changed to become better at digesting food from plants), and even when our ancestors had already descended from the trees and live on the ground walking on two feed, we remained plant-based. 

Did Homo Change the Pattern?

shutterstock_1499681843

For some time it was believed that when Australopithecus evolved into the early species of the genus Homo (Homo rudolfensis and Homo habilis) around 2.8 million years ago, the diet shifted towards meat-eating as the new stone tools they manufactured made it possible to cut meat, but recent studies involving carbon isotopes suggest there was no such shift then, but much later — the earliest evidence of large vertebrate meat-eating in hominins dates to about 2.6 million years ago. In any event, we could say that it is around this time that the “meat experiment” begins in human ancestry, starting to incorporate more food from bigger animals. 

However, paleoanthropologists do not believe that these early species of Homo were hunters. It is thought H. habilis was still eating mainly plant-based food but gradually becoming more of a scavenger rather than a hunter, and stealing kills from smaller predators such as jackals or cheetahs. Fruit was likely still an important dietary component of these hominids, as the dental erosion consistent with repetitive exposure to acidity from fruits suggests. Based on dental microwear-texture analysis, early Homo was somewhere between tough-food eaters and leaf eaters

What happened after these early Homo species is what has divided scientists. We know that subsequent species of Homo leading to us got increasingly larger brains and became bigger, but there are two hypotheses to explain this. On one side, some believe that the increase in meat consumption allowed the large and calorie-expensive gut to decrease in size allowing this energy to be diverted to brain growth. On the other side, others believe that a drying climate with scarcer food options made them rely primarily on underground plant storage organs (such as tubers and roots rich in starches) and food sharing, which facilitated social bonding among both male and female group members — which in turn led to bigger communicative brains that were fuelled by the glucose provided by the starches. Therefore, we have two competing hypotheses that avid carnist meat-eaters and vegans have chosen to champion, but everyone else tends to take the carnist side simply because we still live in a carnist world with a carnist bias (carnism is the prevailing ideology that conditions people to exploit non-human animals — the opposite of veganism). It is possible that the most important driving force on diet-related evolutionary changes in early Homo species was the mastering of fire and the subsequent cooking of food, but this does not help us to choose which of the two hypotheses mentioned is more likely as both would have benefited with such advancement.   

This carnist bias has recently been exposed when studying the research done with the next most significant species of the genus Homo. There have been discoveries that suggest that after Homo habilis there were other early species of Homo, such as Homo ergater, Homo ancestor, and Homo naledi, but it was Homo erectus, who first showed up around 2 million years ago, who stole the show as it was the first who left Africa toward Eurasia and mastered fire, starting eating cooked food as early as 1.9 million years ago. In consequence, many fossils and archaeological artefacts have been found of Homo erectus in many countries, and for many years scientists have suggested that this species ate much more meat than the previous species, making a clear shift away from our plant-based past. Well, it turns out they were wrong.

A 2022 study of archaeological sites in Africa suggested that the theory that Homo erectus ate more meat than the hominids they evolved from could be false as it may be the result of a problem in evidence collection. Palaeontologists in the past have claimed that they found more fossils of marked animal bones around fossils of Homo erectus than around fossils of previous hominids, but the new study has shown that this only happened because more effort was put into 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 covered 59 sites across nine areas of eastern Africa dating between 2.6 and 1.2 million years ago and 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, the study found that the level of meat-eating remained broadly the same.

Rather than access to more meat, the ability to cook may have given Homo erectus access to tubers and roots otherwise not edible. They probably evolved the ability to digest starch better, as these hominids were the first to venture into the temperate latitudes of the planet where plants produce more starch (to store energy in habitats with less sun and rain). Enzymes called amylases aid in breaking starch into glucose with the help of water, and modern humans produce them in the saliva. Chimpanzees have only two copies of the salivary amylase gene while humans have an average of six. Perhaps this difference began with Australopithecus when they started to eat grains, and became more pronounced with Homo erectus when they moved into starch-rich Eurasia.

So, although it seems true that the “eating meat experiment” of our human line age began about 1.9 million years ago to deal with the many challenging new environments migrating hominids encountered, we now know that the meat-eating side of most species of Homo has been exaggerated, and most likely they still had a predominantly plant-based diet that was still driving human evolution (now supplemented with some meat from scavenging first and hunting later).  This meat experiment probably lasted for a million years and became practical when hominids tried to live in much colder areas with fewer edible plants in winter. So far, then, we have a 39 million years stretch of a mostly plant-based diet and about 1 million years where our ancestry began experimenting with eating vertebrate meat (to address new particularly challenging environments).   

Were Early Modern Humans the Hunter-Gatherers We Were Led to Believe?

shutterstock_752779150

Between Homo erectus and our species Homo sapiens, there was another species that most scientists now recognised: Homo heidelbergensisThis species evolved from an African form of H. erectus (sometimes called H. ergaster) about 600,000 years ago, and by convention, it is regarded as the most recent common ancestor between modern humans (H. sapiens or H. s. sapiens) and Neanderthals (H. neanderthalensis or H. s. neanderthalensis). There is plenty of evidence that H. heidelbergensis hunted several animals, but does this make them the hunter-gatherer societies we often hear about?

I think the term hunter-gatherer is a loaded carnist term that probably does not reflect reality accurately. It makes you think that the hunter part is more important than the gatherer part, or at the very least it gives it equal value. But what if those species were just gatherers? What if hunting only formed a small part of their life and diet, and in the same way we call chimpanzees frugivore species even though up to 2% of their diet is meat, we should call these early humans gatherers even though a small percentage of their diet came from hunting? Think about it. Hunting weapons made of stone would last for millions of years so they are more likely to be found than any evidence of plant-based eating and fruit gathering, which will not leave any archaeological trace. We are not finding evidence of what they did most of their time, but of what has been preserved after all these years, giving us a skewed view of their lives.

The Neandertals may have contributed even more to this carnist bias. Homo neanderthalensis (or Homo sapiens neanderthalensis), the now-extinct big-nosed archaic humans who lived in Eurasia from 100,000 years ago until about 40,000 years ago, clearly hunted big vertebrates and ate meat, with some steppe-dwelling communities in colder latitudes possibly subsisting primarily on meat. However, it is not known whether the early Homo sapiens sapiens, our species which appeared around 300,000 years ago and came to Eurasia from Africa again (our second diaspora out of Africa) coexisting with Neanderthals for a while, ate as much meat as was previously thought. Research from Eaton and Konner in 1985 and Cordain et al. in 2000 estimated that about 65% of the diets of pre-agricultural Palaeolithic humans may still have come from plants. Interestingly, anatomically modern humans are believed to have more copies of the starch-digesting genes than the Neanderthals and the Denisovans (another extinct species or subspecies of archaic human who ranged across Asia during the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic), suggesting that the ability to digest starch has been a continuous driver through human evolution as much as walking upright, having big brains and articulate speech. 

However, the possibly more meat-eating Neanderthals (although research is now showing they ate more plants than previously thought, more evidence of past pro-carnivore bias) often lived in cold areas, even through glaciations where the planet was much colder, so they relied on caves to survive (hence the term caveman) as the temperature inside remained more or less constant. Caves are perfect places to preserve fossils and archaeology, so we have many more remains from the more meat-eating Neanderthals than from the possibly more plant-eating humans from the south (as they would have more access to edible plants), skewing the view of what “prehistoric humans” ate (as early paleoanthropologists lumped them together). 

Now we know, though, that although there was some interbreeding, the more meat-eating Neanderthal lineage from the cold North became extinct, and those humans who survive, our direct ancestors, the anatomically modern humans Homo sapiens sapiens (aka Early Modern Human or EMH) from the South (mostly from the African area around Ethiopia), likely still ate mostly plants (at least more than the Neanderthals). 

There were other ancient human species contemporary of H.sapiens sapiens who also became extinct, such as Homo floresiensis, who lived on the island of Flores, Indonesia, from about one million years ago to the arrival of modern humans about 50,000 years ago, and the Denisovans already mentioned (still there is no agreement on whether to name them H. denisova or H. altaiensis, or H.s.denisova), who might have become extinct as late as 15,000 years ago in New Guinea, but they all have been discovered in the last 20 years and there is no enough evidence to know about their diet yet. However, I wonder if, as direct descendants of H. erectus, these species might have eaten more meat, and this might have put them at a disadvantage with the H.s.sapiens who ended up displacing them. Perhaps this African hominid (us) was healthier for being more plant-based, and had become better at exploiting vegetation (perhaps digesting starches even better), ate more carbs that fed the brain and made them cleverer, and cooked more pulses that otherwise would have not been edible — I cannot help to wonder if the very vegan-friendly pulse-rich cuisine of modern Ethiopia is the result, in part, of those early modern humans who came precisely from there). 

It appears, then, that the hominid “meat experiment” failed as all the species of Homo that tried it the most became extinct, and perhaps the only species that survived is the one that reverted to a more plant-based diet as had been the diet of most of its ancestry. Therefore, at that time, the ancestry of modern humans remained mostly plant-based for around 39.7 million years with a period of no more than 1 million years experimenting with moving toward omnivorism in some regions.   

What About Prehistoric Modern Humans?

shutterstock_1769953070

Early modern humans, as their ancestors Home erectus, ended up spreading all over the world, going even further as they were the first hominids who entered the American continent around 20,000 years ago. By 15,000 years ago, they had already inhabited most parts of all continents (except Antarctica), and they had displaced (or absorbed through interbreeding) all other species of hominids — becoming the only ones left. 

Then, around 10,000 years ago, the Agricultural Revolution started (and with it the Neolithic period), and humans learnt that rather than move around the environment collecting fruits, they could take the seeds from these fruits and plant them around their dwellings. This fitted well humans because the ecological role of frugivore primates is mainly seed dispersal, so as humans still had the frugivore adaptation, planting seeds from one place to their new dwelling in another place was right in their ecological wheelhouse. During this revolution, a handful of animals started to be domesticated and farmed, but by enlarged the revolution was plant-based, as hundreds of different plants ended up being cultivated.   

Those few humans who stayed in very cold areas, such as the Arctic, where they could not gather or cultivate plants, ended up having a predominantly meat-based diet (as the ancestors of the current Inuit), but what about those in milder and warmer areas? Before they settled in farms, were they really hunter-gatherer societies — as we learnt at school?  

I am not the only one with the view that after the hominid “meat experiment”, prehistoric humans’ meat-eating did not become the main diet of early modern humans, who might have maintained their earlier plant-based adaptation as they continued to eat mostly plants. In January 2024, the Guardian published an article titled “Hunter-gatherers were mostly gatherers, says archaeologist.” It refers to the study of the remains of 24 individuals from two burial sites in the Peruvian Andes dating to between 9,000 and 6,500 years ago, and it concluded that wild potatoes and other root vegetables may have been their dominant food. Dr Randy Haas from the University of Wyoming and senior author of the study said, “Conventional wisdom holds that early human economies focused on hunting — an idea that has led to a number of high-protein dietary fads such as the paleo diet. Our analysis shows that the diets were composed of 80% plant matter and 20% meat…If you were to talk to me before this study I would’ve guessed meat comprised 80% of the diet. It is a fairly widespread assumption that human diets were dominated by meat.”

As happened with the study mentioned earlier about H.erectus archaeological sites, the carnist bias had obscured this for generations, reinforcing the stereotype that primitive humans were mainly meat-eating hunters. The Guardian article states, “This view was partly driven by the archeological record, which is biased towards evidence of meat-eating because stone tools and butchered animal bones are much more likely to be preserved than plant remains. The biases of mostly male archeologists from western cultures, in which hunting is viewed as a masculine pursuit, is also likely to have played into perpetuating a ‘macho caveman’ stereotype of early human society, according to Haas, who added that similar biases may have coloured research into early human diet in other regions of the world.”

Research has also confirmed that there would be enough edible plants in Europe to sustain humans before agriculture without the need to rely on meat. A 2022 study by Rosie R. Bishoph on the role of carbohydrates in past hunter-gatherer diets in temperate Europe concluded that the carbohydrate and energy content of wild roots/rhizomes can be higher than in cultivated potatoes, showing that they could have provided a major carbohydrate and energy source for hunter-gatherers in Mesolithic Europe (between 8,800 BCE to 4,500 BCE). This conclusion has been supported by more recent studies that found remains of some of the 90 European plants with edible roots and tubers in a Mesolithic hunter-gatherer site on Harris, in the Western Isles of Scotland. Many of these plant foods would likely be underrepresented in archaeological excavations as they are fragile and would be difficult to preserve.

We have then the issue of dairy. A study published in the journal Cell Biology in 2022 showed that Bronze Age European warriors lacked the genetic mutation that allows adults to digest milk, suggesting that the widespread practice of Europeans drinking cow’s milk we see today came about much later than previously thought. It shows that even Europeans were biologically ill-equipped to digest milk as adults not that long ago (like most people on the planet today, approximately 65% of the human population). Researchers analysed DNA from 14 skeletons found on the ground of a battle that happened 3000 years ago around the Tollense River in northern Germany and discovered they did not have the lactase persistent mutation that allows digesting milk after weaning. 

We Live in an Anomaly We Must Correct 

shutterstock_1037266252

When the great civilisations began a few millennia ago, we moved from prehistory to history, and you may be forgiven for believing that this is when meat-eating took over everywhere. I even question that. It may have happened in the civilisations carnist historians like to talk about, but in other parts of the world, the plant-based adaptations of human bodies and minds may have still directed the dominant diet. For instance, we know that the term ahimsa which means “do not harm” or “non-violence” in Sanskrit already existed millennia before the Common Era, and this concept became an essential tenet of ancient religions like Jainism, Hinduism, and Buddhism — and is also the main axiom of the philosophy of veganism — having a profound effect on people’s diets moving them away from meat-eating. 

We know that the emperor Ashoka,  born during the 4thcentury BCE into the Maurya dynasty of northern India, had the biggest empire on Earth at the time (covering almost the entire Indian subcontinent, from the Hindu Kush in the west to the Bay of Bengal in the east, to the Deccan Plateau in the south), and at one point he became Buddhist and ordered the reducing of meat-consumption. 

We know that communities such as the ancient Taoists, Phythagorians, Jains and Ajivikas; the Jewish Essenes and Therapeutae; the Hindus Bramins and Vaishnavists; the Christian Ebionites, Bogomils, Cathars, and Adventists; and the vegan Dorrelites, Grahamites and Concordites, chose the plant-based route and turned their backs from meat eating.

We know that during the Middle Ages in the West, patriarchal Monarchs and Aristocrats made meat the food of the elite and forbade peasants to hunt on their lands punishing those who dared as poachers, which means that the majority of the population still probably relied mostly on vegetables to survive, and saw meat as a luxury for only special occasions (still today, hunting and shooting are minority elite “bloodsports” in the UK). 

We know that there has never been a human civilisation that was not based on plant seeds (being the seeds of grasses such as wheat, barley, oats, rye, millet or corn, or of other staple plants such as beans, cassava, or squash). There has not been any empire that was not forged on the back of seeds (being those of the tea, coffee, cacao, nutmeg, pepper, cinnamon, or opium plants).

When we look at all this, it seems that even human history, not just prehistory, might have been mostly plant-based. It was really only since the Industrial Revolution a couple of centuries ago that the failed hominid meat experiment was revitalised, and meat and other animal products took over humanity and messed with everything. However, not everyone went on board with this crazy regression. The Vegetarian Society was created in 1847, and from it, the Vegan Society was created in 1944, and since then, we, vegans, have been mobilising to stop this recent crazy anomaly and take us back to where we should be. We have been leading a socio-political movement to build the Vegan World where humans will no longer exploit animals in any way, and we will be going beyond any other primate has gone before in the plant-based journey they chose to start 40 million years ago.  

We know that human bodies today (including the shape of our teeth and our short canines) still show we have a frugivore adaptation, and the million years or so of the hominid “meat experiment”, which only represented 2.5% of our ancestry since primates chose the plant-based route, did not leave us any significant carnivore physical or psychological trait. We know that the leading causes of human mortality in developed countries (cardiovascular disease, cancer, etc.) are very much linked to meat consumption, and it is the obsession with meat of today’s society that is causing an epidemic of obesity, diabetes, and many pandemics. 

We know that intensive factory farms producing cheap meat for everyone is a very recent phenomenon that only began less than 100 years ago (which is only 0.00025% of the time the ancestry of humanity has been mostly plant-based, and that’s why our bodies clash with such unnatural food for us).  

I think that, considering all that we have discussed here, and the building of new evidence of how scientists’ exposure to carnist indoctrination has misleadingly pushed us toward a  “meaty ancestry” interpretation, the removal of the advert “mostly” should be finally granted, and we could say it clearly and proudly: human ancestry was plant-based.

I very much hope that, from now on, we can go a step further and make the remaining part of the ancestry of our future humans not just plant-based, but also vegan (this philosophy that seeks to exclude all forms of animal exploitation, not just for food). I hope that the species of humans inhabiting the Vegan World of the future look at their ancestry and remember the 22nd century as the time we ended, once and for all, the failed “hominid meat experiment” that almost destroyed everything.

I hope we learn what we now begin to know, and can correct the anomaly we have created that is harming all of us, all fellow sentient beings, all ecosystems, and the entire planet.

I hope we finally know who we truly are.

Jordi Casamitjana
“Originally from Catalonia, but resident in the UK for several decades, Jordi is a vegan zoologist and author, who has been involved in different aspects of animal protection for many years. In addition to scientific research, he has worked mostly as an undercover investigator, animal welfare consultant, and animal protection campaigner. He has been an ethical vegan since 2002, and in 2020 he secured the legal protection of all ethical vegans in Great Britain from discrimination in a landmark employment tribunal case that was discussed all over the world. He is also the author of the book, ‘Ethical Vegan: a personal and political journey to change the world’.