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I am a politically-progressive, ethically-herbivorous anthropoid pursuing a paleontology education in the Los Angeles Basin. I am largely nocturnal, have rarely been photographed, and cannot thrive in captivity.

14 August 2010

A. afarensis may have eaten meat; so what?

I suppose it's inevitable. I suppose I bring it on myself. Whenever people learn that I am both an ethical vegan and a paleontology student, they throw meat-eating cavemen in my face. I have hence adopted the habit of pre-empting these inquiries by keeping abreast of developments in the study of hominin diets, even though hominin evolution isn't really my primary interest.

The latest discovery out of Ethiopia is sure to add another arrow to carnists' quiver. An article in the New York Times sums up their announcement:
Scientists who made the discovery could not have been more surprised. They said the cut marks on a fossilized rib and thighbone were unambiguous evidence that human ancestors were using stone tools and sometimes consuming meat at least 800,000 years earlier than previously established. The oldest confirmed stone tools are less than 2.6 million years old, perhaps only a little before the emergence of the genus Homo.
The evidence offered for their conclusion is a series of cutmarks and one percussion mark on two bovid bones. The authors run through a battery of microscopic tests to rule out other sources of the cutmarks, such as trampling by other animals, and conclude that the marks could only have come from australopiths using sharpened stones to scrape flesh off of the bones. If true, the discovery would substantially revise our understanding of australopith diet and behavior. The current consensus is that A. afarensis was largely herbivorous, thriving on fruits, seeds and tubers, with supplementation by insects and such, and perhaps a bit of meat-scavenging when opportunities arose. But this discovery could show that australopiths developed tool-use and pre-meditated meat-eating before Homo did.

Thankfully, the NY Times piece offers up the proper skeptical response from other scientists:
Still, the discoverers are already being pressed to defend their interpretation that the cut marks on the bones are evidence of stone-tool butchery. Tim D. White of the University of California, Berkeley, one of the foremost investigators of early human origins, said flatly that their “claims greatly outstrip the evidence,” and noted, “We have been working sites in this area for 40 years, and not a single stone tool has been found in deposits of this antiquity.”
Sileshi Semaw, a paleoanthropologist at Indiana University who was a discoverer of the oldest confirmed stone tools, from 2.6 million years ago, noted in an e-mail message from Ethiopia that researchers had often been misled by bone markings left by trampling animals and other natural causes. “I am not convinced of the new discovery,” he said.
So, the jury is still out.

This touches on the issue of how vegans should handle the caveman argument. Many of us are tempted to strain credulity and torture the evidence to "prove" humans are "naturally" vegan. This is a trap, and one into which carnists (especially paleo-dieters) would love us to fall; the evidence isn't on our side. There's no doubt that hominids ate meat.

But, it should be remembered that this fact doesn't tell us very much about an "ideal" human diet, either. Paleolithic hominids were opportunistic feeders by ecological necessity, and a capability to do something does not imply either an obligation or a necessity to do it, circumstances being equal.

The argument for veganism has always been primarily ethical, and ought to remain that way. It's based on a concern for the future, not an obsession about the past.

So what if australopiths and early Homo ate animals? While interesting, it says little about what's right or wrong for Homo sapiens in the 21st century, confronted as we are by increasing resource scarcity, overpopulation, and biodiversity crises.

The problem I have with paleo-dieters isn't that they point out prehistoric meat-eating, but that they all seem to think a return to this style of living is both possible and ideal.

I'm skeptical of both claims; given what we know about the Pleistocene mammal extinctions and the  impact of modern hunting, a return to the Paleolithic hunter-gatherer lifestyle is not sustainable. And from a nutritional standpoint, neither it nor veganism are "ideal"; the only "ideal" human diet is likely to be one of our own invention, in the future, borne of increased knowledge and practical application of biochemistry.

So this latest potential ammo for the carnists is much ado about nothing before it even ends up in their arsenal.

UPDATE: Paleoanthropologist John Hawks, writing about the same discovery, offers some interesting thoughts about its implications for the the expensive-tissue hypothesis:
A 2.6-million-year-old butchery tradition should already have refuted the hypothesis that meat-eating caused the expansion of brain size in Homo. But it was still possible to maintain that the initial Oldowan was insufficiently dedicated, or that the anatomical specializations (e.g., small guts) allowing brain expansion took time to develop, or that as-yet-undiscovered large-brained hominins would be found. Any of these are still possible, but the observations Braun points out pretty much demolish the 15-year-old story of "expensive tissue." Australopithecus seems to have had a small gut, and a bigger brain than chimpanzees. If there was a tradeoff, A. afarensis had already made it.


  1. Dr. Marion RollingsAugust 17, 2010 at 5:08 AM

    Great examination of this topic. I especially like your comment "The argument for veganism has always been primarily ethical, and ought to remain that way. It's based on a concern for the future, not an obsession about the past." Too often, those who object to veganism point to our carnivorous origins for justification of meat-eating as we know it today. As if the meat-eating and hunting practices of Paleo-hominids somehow compares favorably to the factory "farms" of today.

  2. What our ancient ancestors ate is immaterial. Regardless of what either they ate or our more recent relatives raised on old-fashioned farms raised for food and ate, we are a species who learn and grow and evolve. There are no more excuses for continuing to eat meat, poultry, fish, dairy and eggs. May we all enter the new age of enlightened eating.

  3. I do believe our past dietary history is indeed important. Not all vegetarians or vegans became so for ethical reasons some did because of health reasons. Many of these then later become ethical vegans.

    The discussion of our vegetarian past is an important means of conversion and conversion is a good thing for their health, the health of nature, and the ethical treatment of animals.

    See happyhealthnut.com/Cancer Prevention and Cure/index.htm written by a vegan of 30+ years.

  4. Jean-Francois VireyAugust 20, 2010 at 5:13 AM

    "The argument for veganism" is "based on a concern for the future". Well, in my case it's based on a concern for the present: the present pain of animals which I can avoid contributing to by not consuming them or anything they produce. I do care about the future, but it is the slaughter and pain that are happening right now that bother me most (as reflected, for instance, in the web counters that tell you how many pigs, chickens and cows are being slaughtered while you're connected.)

    Otherwise a very good article. I posted a link on the Vegan Catholic group on Facebook.

  5. Jean-Francois,

    I agree whole-heartedly.

    Thanks for linking! :)

  6. Robert, I can't seem to find a contact form. I'll just ask you this. I'm setting up a personal site, and I'm planning to set up another site in which I will translate information about veganism for the Spanish-speaking public.

    I think there's not enough information about animal compassion and the horrors of factory farms in Spanish, at least not as much and as readily available as in English, and I plan to change that.

    I would like to translate your post and post it in my blog at first, and on the other site as soon as it's ready, but first I want to ask permission from you. If there's any other article you've written that I could use, would you let me use those also?

    My personal site is perroscongatos.com but it's empty right now. I'm still setting it up and the content will come in a few days. The other site will probably be on a subdomain of otrosmodos.org, which is also empty right now...

    Thanks for reading this!

  7. (Comment in 2 parts): I think study of paleodiets and study of current humans who live in the wild offer a lot of clues as to what diet is natural & suited to the land. Although a vegan diet currently has less environmental impact than the majority of meat eaters who exist on factory farmed meat, it is by no means ideal for the planet. Many vegans I have come across eat, as a large part of their diet, exotic or non-local foods. Many of the foods they eat are also produced in monocultures (vegans profess to being ethical towards animals, but many think nothing of the damage done by habitat destruction for crops which in its process leaves a trail of death/cruelty in the form of insecticides, fungicides, removal of home & many species to clear the land, the repercussions of death of insects on birds & small mammals; monocultures also often impact on local populations with environmental pollution, land grabbing, pushing local populations into dependency, leading to working in poor conditions & for little pay....)
    I do not know of any current indigenous communities living in the wild who do not eat meat as part of their diet. I also cannot think of any places where it would be easy to survive on a vegan diet if we ate wild. I also know that the majority of the world is not suited to cultivation - it depletes the soil.

  8. Robert said: "..given what we know about the Pleistocene mammal extinctions and the impact of modern hunting, a return to the Paleolithic hunter-gatherer lifestyle is not sustainable."
    I am guessing here you are suggesting that mammal extinctions in the Pleistocene were due to hunting/humans? Actually this is just one theory of several regarding mammal extinctions in the Pleistocene and there is no conclusive proof that it was due to humans. You talk of the impact of modern hunting, perhaps you'd like to provide some evidence? Most of the evidence I have seen and direct experience of hunter-gatherer communities has shown me quite the opposite - that most hunter-gatherer communities live within carrying capacity of the land, because to do otherwise immediately impacts upon the community.
    I do believe the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to be better in the sense that it usually means that all other life forms live self-determined until being killed/death. There is also increased understanding of the cycles of life and a direct relationship with what you eat. It also generally leaves the rest of life to flourish & diversify, unlike the current food system which is becoming increasingly dependent on fewer & fewer species & thus susceptible to disease, crop failure, etc.
    As an aside, if anyone reading this is wondering why humans couldn't all be just gatherers, then I assume you have never lived totally in the wild. I have lived in virgin tropical rainforests where there is maximum diversity & life. If anywhere wild were to be suitable for vegans, I'd have imagined here to be the best place for it. And yet none of the indigenous communities there are vegan and now that I know these rainforests, I too cannot imagine surviving as a 100% vegan. Fruiting is sporadic both in time & space, such that to survive on fruit alone (which would be the majority of vegan food available) would require walking extreme distances to get it. On top of that, the trees are very tall, so unless you are a monkey/bird you can't get to most of them. There might be a few mushrooms but again, as with most natural places, these are sporadic & short-lasting. And what about the artic & northern forests, can anyone honestly imagine surviving as a vegan in the wild there in winter?
    It should be clear to anyone that veganism is dependent on domestication, cultivation, storage, transport & many other factors that are part of the modern world, all of which have detrimental impacts on the planet.
    Although I believe the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to be in many ways a healthier one for planet & humans, most of the land across the world is now so degraded that it is impossible. There are also too many people for a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to be viable worldwide. It is also unlikely that most people would want to return to this lifestyle. However, it is impossible for the current food system to continue as it is for many more generations. So if we want to survive then we do need to look for alternatives. Therefore, I think it is important to look at what will be be potential solutions for healing the land & feeding the world. In my opinion, it will vary according to what is most suitable for the land in each place & would likely be a combination of small mixed organic farms (which by necessity must include animals as they are an important & fundamental part of the environment & crucial for maintaining soil fertility), permaculture & some rewilding.

  9. Anonymous, look up veganic farming. You might be interested in learning about how many vegans are tackling the issues you bring up. Domestic animals are not necessary for agriculture. Wild, free living animals will do just fine.

    Also, you may be interested to know that many vegans have considered your objections in great detail. One even came up with a graph, supported by sources and facts, to show that animal agriculture displaces and kills many more insects and other animals than does plant based agriculture: http://www.animalvisuals.org/data/1mc/

    In short, I suggest you don't start by assuming vegans haven't considered certain things. Instead, maybe you should do a little research first and see that many of us are working on solutions to the problems you present. Our solutions just don't take for granted that killing animals for food is necessary.

  10. The Permavegan is a good place to start learning about vegan permaculture

    Permavegan also rebuts parts of Lierre Keith's "Vegetarian Myth" book, which anonymous probably keeps under his pillow.

  11. Great blog, Robert! Thank you for sharing with us.

    "what's right or wrong for Homo sapiens in the 21st century, confronted as we are by increasing resource scarcity, overpopulation, and biodiversity crises"

    This is something we have to think about. I think, we man kind still haven't been settled yet on this planet like other animals/plants who never get confused what to eat.
    And I think we are ones to choose.

    I choose vegan now, for myself....If one day all animal welfare and organic farming will be settled all over the planet, I might become a Lacto-Vegetarian;-)

  12. There have been articles written by old Earth Creationists regarding ancient man. One interesting theory is that Adam had to subdue and reform the violent inhabitants of the pre historic planet. In order to do this he was placed in an orchard like garden with sufficient foodstuffs growing. He should have proved his obedience to God by abstaining from one fruit but did not pass the test.

    According to some theorists pre Adamic races were already meat eaters by this stage with all the violence this entails.

    Some feel that Lucifer was present spoiling the planets development from an early stage.

    Not all Christians agree with these theories but all sincere believers in Christ acknowledge Him as probably bringing in a veggie diet when He returns.


  13. Great article!

    "There's no doubt that hominids ate meat.

    But, it should be remembered that this fact doesn't tell us very much about an "ideal" human diet, either. Paleolithic hominids were opportunistic feeders by ecological necessity, and a capability to do something does not imply either an obligation or a necessity to do it, circumstances being equal."

    Completely agreed. Although I have not studied paleontology, I do read up on evolution from time to time. From what we know about natural selection, it seems that whatever our ancestors survived on would only have needed to keep them alive until they've ensured the survival of their children, thus ensuring the propagation of their genes. Therefore whatever they ate would not necessarily have been the best diet for good long-term health. Even if we had a clear picture of all possible prehistoric diets, epidemiology and nutritional studies provide the best information with regards to what we ought to eat in order to be healthy.

    It's fortunate that we do not need to sacrifice good health in order to abstain from killing animals (in developed countries, where food supply is not a problem and supplements are available).

  14. I strongly disagree with your conclusion that the jury is still out. The jury isn't out and Veganism isn't even close to the ideal diet humans evolved to eat from purely a health perspective. Of course neither is the Western diet with all its factory farmed plants and animals and highly refined and processed foods either.

    I agree with you that even trying to argue the herbivore ancestor hypothesis is a trap though. However it is a trap that certain people like Dr. Mills, Dr McDougall, and T. C. Campbell PhD brought on the Vegan community with their ridiculous claims to begin with. Although I do respect T C Campbell. Campbell, as a true scientist, phrased his claims as a testable hypothesis, and admits he hasn't proven his hypothesis correct yet. So I have no problem with a scientist taking a minority view and working on developing the evidence. That's actually beneficial to humanity's progress. Mills, Graham, and McDougall etc.. are trying to take that minority view hypothesis and pretend it is fact. Then Vegan advocacy groups spread that information and it causes harm to people when they try to eat a Vegan diet without supplements thinking humans are herbivores.

    1. Dear latest Anonymous,

      I think you need to work on your reading comprehension skills. I didn't say the jury was still out on whether australopiths ate meat, only that the jury was still out on the meaning of this particular study's results.

      By the way, there is no "ideal diet that humans evolved to eat." If you think there is, you have a cartoon grasp of evolution.