Nutritional Downgrading

Nutritional Downgrading

Foraging didn’t provide ancient humans with a great abundance of food, but in many ways foragers likely had better diets than humans living in early agricultural societies. This idea doesn’t seem intuitive, but Yuval Noah Harari explains why it is likely to be true in his book Sapiens. He writes, “The typical peasant in traditional China ate rice for breakfast, rice for lunch, and rice for dinner. If she was lucky, she could expect to eat the same on the following day. By contrast, ancient foragers regularly ate dozens of different foodstuffs.”
It is tempting to think that foragers gave up their nomadic lifestyle in favor of an agrarian lifestyle because mastering agriculture provided more, and better, food. This was not the case for many ancient (and not so ancient) humans. Moving to an agrarian system could provide a surplus of some foods, which did provide more food security in some instances, but often decreased the quality of diet compared with the diets of foragers. Ancient foragers could find many different foodstuffs, from nuts, to berries, to edible roots, to small animals and bugs. Knowledge was passed along about what foodstuffs could be eaten and where foodstuffs could be found. Different things were eaten at different times of the year, based on what was blooming, what animals were around, and what the weather was like. Foragers didn’t have a ton of surplus food, but their diets were pretty varied and pretty nutritious overall.
When humans moved into agrarian societies, they often began cultivating just a single food item, like wheat or rice. Successful farming could ensure a good harvest and a surplus of the staple crop for the individual farmer, their household, and potentially others in the village cropping up around the crops. But a huge amount of work went into cultivating a single crop, and this meant that diets were not varied and that people were at risk if a harvest didn’t turn out as expected. Contrasting this to foragers again, Harari writes, “by not being dependent on any single kind of food, [foragers] were less liable to suffer when one particular food source failed.” Ancient peasants lost the knowledge of where and how to find edible foodstuffs, and how to safely prepare those items at different times of the year. This meant they were dependent on a surplus of a single crop to get them through.
Additionally, relying on a single crop meant that foragers who became farmers gave up the interesting diet of a hunter-gatherer. Ancient humans traded a nutritious but slim diet for a more bountiful but less nutritious and less varied diet. Without eating all the fruit, nuts, roots, and other foodstuffs that provided vital nutrients, nutritional diseases were more likely to pop up in agricultural societies dependent on a single crop. Eating just rice, just wheat, or a slim variety of foods likely meant that important vitamins and minerals were missing from ancient farming diets. Ultimately, humans figured this out and found a way to master their diets, but early humans were not exactly at a nutritional advantage by shifting to agriculture.
Are Humans Really Hunters?

Are Humans Really Hunters?

One skill that I have is the ability to see the narrative in the way that people understand the world. I think there is some level of an objective reality in the world, but it is often hard to see and understand because we layer so many narratives together to define the reality around us. I think I do a pretty good job of seeing the narratives that people tell themselves and of understanding why people are attracted to certain narratives. One such narrative that I think deserves to be questioned is the idea that humankind are natural hunters, that we are apex animals, and as such, our men (in particular) should be dominant and should exercise their natural urge to hunt and kill.
This is a narrative that has lost a lot of appeal in the United States and other WEIRD – Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic – countries, but still has a lot of power. People who gravitate toward such a narrative tend to be described as more traditionally conservative than people who eschew such a label in cultures like ours. In other cultures across the globe, the narrative is still a lot stronger, and countries like China are cracking down against sissy men who seem to violate the narrative. But are humans natural hunters? Are we really such powerful apex predators with urges to hunt and kill? Yuval Noah Harari argues that this narrative doesn’t seem to fit the evidence and leading scientific thoughts on exactly where humans have fit within the food chain for most of our evolutionary past.
“Humans who lived a million years ago, despite their big brains and sharp stone tools, dwelt in constant fear of predators, rarely hunted large game, and subsisted mainly by gathering plants, scooping up insects, stalking small animals, and eating the carrion left behind by other more powerful carnivores,” writes Harari. What is important to note is that for humans, who date back about 2 million years, a majority of our evolutionary past was not spent at the top of the food chain. There was a very long evolutionary past where humans were vulnerable, and rarely did any hunting that we would like to associate with early humans if we hold the narrative of humans being natural hunters and the most powerful animal on the planet. Harari continues, “one of the most common uses of early stone tools was to crack open bones in order to get to the marrow.” For much of human evolution, we were more scavengers than hunters, waiting for more dangerous predators (lions, hyenas, and such) to clear a carcass before we came along with our smart brains, deft hands, and insightful tool use to access the bone marrow the animals couldn’t easily get to.
I think it reveals a lot to note that the narrative of man as tough, aggressive, hunter-killers is common, while the narrative of man as a ingenious scavenging coward is not a narrative that anyone adopts. It may be more accurate to say that we are clever and find ways to pick up the scraps that other animals left behind, but no one wants to view themselves or humans broadly as scavengers. No one considers it “natural” to eat road kill, yet many diets are based on eating “natural” caveman diets that are based around the idea of hunting and killing our food.
“Genus Homo‘s position in the food chain was, until quite recently, solidly in the middle. For millions of years, humans hunted smaller creatures and gathered what they could, all while being hunted by larger predators,” writes Harari. The idea that man needs to hunt, that men need to be aggressive and kill, and that our survival is dependent on how tough our men are, is largely a narrative. I realize I am leaving out inter-human conflict and combat, but at least in terms of what humans evolved to eat, it is more narrative than objective reality that we need to eat lots of meat and kill animals for our diets. Humans evolved as scavengers, and only recently jumped to the top of the food chain.