Are People “Meant” To Be Vegan?
When people recommend one diet or another it sometimes comes with a whiff of moralistic reasoning.
And more often than not, you’ll hear the following justification ad nauseum:
“The “xxx” diet is great because it’s what humans were designed to eat.”
It’s not true.
It might seem intuitive that there’s a very specific set of circumstances under which humans were meant to thrive, but that sort of thinking doesn’t capture the non-linearity of evolutionary processes.
The truth is, humans probably wouldn’t have been able to conquer the planet by having a narrow set of dietary requirements. Just the opposite. We went out of Africa because our bodies were remarkably good at using pretty much whatever was around us….including meat, fish, and dairy.
Humans have a long history of eating pretty much whatever was available.
For example, in prehistoric times humans simultaneously had the following diets:
- 85% mammal meat (whales, dolphins, seals, etc) among the Inuit
- Northwest Indians depended on wild fish more than any other food source combined
- Havivuh Indians lived almost exclusively on corn
- Further south diets relied almost exclusively on corn
And mind you this was going on before we developed agriculture.
Jaws, Bones, Bodies and Teeth
Vegans like to make a point of how our set of teeth and nails suggest that we were meant to eat plants because neither are very sharp and our teeth can move side to side, which is unusual for carnivorous animals.
However, they miss an important point: our ability to hunt developed long before we ever needed sharp teeth.
If you can hunt an elephant with spears and rocks then sharp teeth for biting the animal are irrelevant. Any idiot that tried to claw a tiger instead of waiting for his tribe quickly removed himself from the gene pool. No need for sharp teeth.
It’s the same reason why our bodies respond well to cooked food. Right around the same time we figured out how to use tools we also started making fire, and cooked food has been baked into our genes.
When talking about what people were “meant” to eat, references are typically made to the Savannah jungle man.
That crude walking ape, wistfully trolling the grassy plains looking to chew on the closest nut with his gnashing teeth. Surely, early humans had to be vegan!
Africa 200,000 years ago looked a lot different than it is today. It was a lot colder back then and the climate was going through a bout of schizophrenia. The temperature changed a lot and the continent consisted of a lot of “microhabitats” that were exploited by different species of humans. Some of the earliest and best preserved traces of human origins are in the southern tip of the continent, and their bone collagen and archeological digs suggest they made heavy use of the marine life to feed themselves.
Yep….early humans were fish eaters.
Or put it this way….we were eating fish before we were eating about 95% of the consumable plants we have exposure to today.
An overlooked fact about human evolution is that there have been plenty of human-like species before us. 23 to be exact. They’ve all gone out business, but still came from our common ancestor.
By the time Homo Sapiens showed up the Neanderthals were already living in europe, Homo Erectus was living in the fertile crescent, and Home Floriensis was setting up shop in the east asian islands. They all had different diets. The neanderthals were even hunting badass wooly mammoths.
So by the time Homo Sapiens were borne as a species early hominims had a wide and deeply nuanced genetic history of eating food sources that were quite varied.
What Not To Eat
You can’t really say what humans were meant to eat. The remarkable thing about our bodies is that with enough time, it looks like it can get used to eating anything.
A more useful endeavor is to think about what humans were not meant to eat.
We weren’t meant to eat certain foods that were developed after agriculture…..at least not in large quantities.
We’ve fed on just about every animal, herb, and nut under the sun, but in 4 million years we have no experience eating different commercial grains, refined sugar, or pressed oils in volume until recently.
In certain quantities they’re harmless, but their health dangers are similar to that of synthetic vitamins: too much nutrition at one time.
Ungar, S. Peter. “Diet in Early Homo: A Review of the Evidence And A New Theory of Adaptive Versatility” http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/fae/PSUFEGMFT2006ARA.pdf
Marean, Curtis, et. al. “Early Human Use Of Marine Resources And Pigment and South Africe During the Middle Pleistocene” http://www.archaeomagnetism.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Marean-et-al-2007-Nature.pdf
Teaford, Mark, et. al. “Diet and the Evolution of the Earliest Human Ancestors” http://www.pnas.org/content/97/25/13506.full
Cordain, Loren “Origins and Evolution of the Western Diet: Health Implications for the 21st Century” http://courses.biology.utah.edu/carrier/3320/readings/westerndiet.pdf
Schoeninger, Margaret, et. al. “Stable Nitrogen Isotope Ratios of Bone Collagen Reflect Marine and Terrestrial Components of Prehistoric Human Diet” http://www.anthro.ucsd.edu/Faculty_Profiles/margaret/Tauber%20etal.1983.pdf