13 march 2018


Just as I sat down to write this piece, I received a message from someone who has been reading my column. 

I’m always thrilled to know that someone other than my mum is reading my stuff!  I love getting feedback - so it was great to receive this message, with its delightfully challenging tone:

“You do realize that we homo sapiens, homo erectus and Neanderthals would not have survived if not for meat let alone evolved into what we are today,” said the reader.

I thought that was a very interesting point and I know people think about this subject quite a lot.  Sometimes that thinking is carried out quietly inside their heads, sometimes they think about it loudly at barbeques. 

Of course, our early ancestors were hunters and gatherers.  They killed and ate animals as well as plants and whatever else they could get their hands on, including humans, by the way.  

"We’ve found undoubting evidence for defleshing, disarticulation, human chewing, crushing of spongy bone, and the cracking of bones to extract marrow,” said Silvia Bello of London's Natural History Museum in a 2015 interview with BBC.  “These findings, taken together, suggest that cannibalism was a normal behaviour for our ancestors.”

Thankfully, we have other options these days.  We don’t have to eat animals if we don’t want to – and it’s now illegal to eat humans.  You can’t judge our ancestors for their choices, though.  There simply wasn’t the range of food available to provide them with other options. 

Well most of them, anyway.  There’s one group of Neanderthals who it appears were, in fact, vegetarian:

Scientists studying the teeth of Neanderthals who lived 50,000 years ago in the El Sidrón caves in Northern Spain, discovered they lived on a vegetarian diet.

By analysing the DNA from calcified plaque from teeth, researchers concluded the El Sidrón Neanderthals did not eat meat.  They ate pine nuts, moss, tree bark and mushrooms and consumed medicinal plants such as chamomile and yarrow.

The studies were carried out at the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies in Barcelona.  Karen Hardy, one of the lead researchers, concluded:

“These were not brainless carnivores…  These were smart and sensitive people capable of providing themselves with balanced diets and of treating themselves with health-restoring herbs.  Our vision of these long-extinct people needs adjusting.”

If we are to keep evolving as humans, surely we need to adapt to our changing world, as it is now and as it will be in the future.  Animal farming is becoming a problem which is getting harder to ignore, causing environmental damage while being extremely unproductive.  Around twice as much of the world’s surface is used for grazing as it is for growing crops. 

A paper in Science of the Total Environment reports, “livestock production is the single largest driver of habitat loss.”

People are looking for solutions to the problem and are coming up with all kinds of interesting ideas.  Meanwhile, the earth is showing less and less tolerance for farming for meat consumption.  Our bodies are changing, too.  Movements like Meat-free Monday are gaining in popularity.

Whatever it was that caused us to evolve into “the most intelligent species on earth,” - whether it was by eating animals, humans or plants - let’s use our giant brains to keep up the discussion on how we can adapt to our current environment and keep evolving in the right direction.