Here below is an article about a new take on ancient humans and the eating of meat. Essentially it argues that the thesis that ancient humans shifted from plant-based foods to meat around two million years ago is not correct. This finding came not from any new evidence or studies, but from an analysis of already-found sites, their frequency, and basically a reinterpretation of the data. It seems as if the authors a building a case for a reinterpretation of humans as a killing, meat eating species.
This study, much reported of late, follows hard on the heels of a book that came out last year, The Dawn of Everything, by Graeber and Wengrow, claiming that the earliest large societies of humans were in many cases non hierarchical, lacking evidence of temples and other manifestations of class and power distinction. The book is massive, wonderfully written, and basically offers no proof for any of its conjectures, yet it is being lionized everywhere. It seems the authors are trying to argue we humans arose as a peaceful, pacific species. However, the book is admirable in confirming that indigenous peoples carried great wisdom and western industrial societies could learn much from them, and in the past have learned much from them.
It sounds like a thesis is emerging that the earliest humans were not meat eaters, primarily, and that, furthermore, human societies since the beginnings of time have chosen many forms and many of them, early on, were benign, classless, cooperative.
It is interesting that Darwin’s survival of the fittest emerged at almost exactly the same time that European nations were busy colonizing (and had been colonizing) vast swaths of the earth. One might even argue that this thesis was justifying colonial behavior, ie, if indigenous peoples could not resist invaders then this was OK because the “winners” were fitter.
There is other history whereby scientific theses were used to justify ideologically-driven points of view – for example “eugenics” being used to justify the sterilization of people considered retarded as happened in the first decades of the 20th century.
As human evolution theories expanded during the period, say, 1875 – 1960, greater numbers of ancient human-like (or human) types (or “species”) were named and discovered. Then it was found that homo erectus, the first really big brained hominid (mentioned in the attached article about meat eating) had expanded from Africa nearly 2 million years ago (coincident with the start of the ice ages) to spread all over Eurasia and Indonesia. A school of thought arose that held that the different “races” of humans arose each in their turn from erectus all over the world, with specific appearance traits like skin color, yet interbreeding enough so the difference were groups, not species, but after World War 2 this thesis lost favor to another, arguing that all modern humans arose from a single mother in Africa, “Lucy,” born about 200,000 years ago. The multiple origin thesis was declared racist, or feared would be used to support racist ideology, whereas the “Lucy” thesis held everyone was basically the same, and countered any racial tendencies. Today the multiple origin thesis is essentially banned from any discussion whatsoever.
In the years since, other hominid species have been found – Denisovian, Florensis – and genetic analysis had determined that these different types interbred with each other and with Neanderthal and with homo sapiens. It seems that hominids of many different types in the last several hundred thousand years interbred when they could. This means they were all one species.
Some might argue that science has been used as a support mechanism for ideology. Others might argue that scientific theories and social movements may be more interlinked than anyone wants to admit.
Now we seem to be entering a new era, call it “wokeness” with studies and books sifting through available data and coming up with entirely new conclusions which support the current ideological thrust of those who are trying to characterize us and our ancestors as peaceful, vegetarian, benign beings who have somehow gone entirely wrong since….agriculture? Industrialization?
As regards this meat eating study, which again is simply a reinterpretation of existing data, the authors seem to miss many salient points. One, apes and other primates are primarily plant eaters and have huge guts to process the fiber. Two, humans were able to control fire at about the same time brain size expanded and also when teeth became much smaller. Controlled fire allows for the cooking of food, the breaking down of the structure so it is easily digested. The use of fire, and cooking, required smaller teeth and meant that the energy needed to digest all those plants in earlier primates and maybe hominids could now be used to support a much expanded brain. It is all linked together.
My personal thesis is that the earliest humans ate meat when they could find it and seafood and marine food; ie, clams, shellfish, fish, marine mammals. We forget that until 12,000 years ago we humans were not the apex predator. The great animals were – short face bears, dire wolves, saber tooth tigers, lions, huge hyenas. Humans had to hide on islands and protected refugees in the ice to prosper, and many groups were wiped out, again and again. On land, or in the interior, life surely was difficult, and dangerous.
It feels, a bit, as if there is a desire and urge to somehow classify we humans as somehow evolved from a peaceful, pacific species, to thus deny danger and death and suffering and tragedy.
One thought on “Woke human origins?”
Hi Charlie – I couldn’t agree more with your thought that scientific theories often reflect current social ideas, especially politically correct ones. As far as us being descended from plant eaters, that may have been true in the sense that we are descended from a group of woodland apes of the Pliocene and even Miocene. But the dentition of modern humans clearly shows we are omnivores. It is likely we are like chimps who are opportunistic and enthusiastic meat eaters.