News / Africa

Meat Was Main Dish for Early Humans

A fragment of a child's skull discovered at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, shows the oldest known evidence of anemia caused by a nutritional deficiency. (Credit: Dominguez-Rodrigo M, Pickering TR, Diez-Martin F, Mabulla A, Musiba C)
A fragment of a child's skull discovered at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, shows the oldest known evidence of anemia caused by a nutritional deficiency. (Credit: Dominguez-Rodrigo M, Pickering TR, Diez-Martin F, Mabulla A, Musiba C)
Joe DeCapua
Modern-day humans eat a lot of meat. Some nutritionists say perhaps too much. But fossils in Tanzania indicate that early humans considered meat a dietary staple much earlier than first thought. What’s more, meat may have played a major role in evolution.


At least one and a half million years ago, humans considered meat a main dish, not just occasional fare. That’s very big news to archeologists. The evidence is found in skull fossil fragments of a young child discovered in Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge. What evidence is that? We’ll find out after we consider the mystery of meat.

Professor Manuel Dominguez-Rodrigo of Madrid’s Complutense University has been searching for clues about early humans for 20 years. He’s been digging around the gorge since 2006, after analyzing fossils found by the famous British archeologist and anthropologist Mary Leakey.

“There was an increasing amount of evidence that early humans pretty much around two million years ago were eating meat. And archeologists over the past 50 years have been debating two main questions. One, was meat an important element in the diet of these hominids or was it just a complimentary element like you might see in modern chimpanzees, for instance? And question number two is --whether it was important or not – how did they acquire this meat. Did they hunt the animals they were eating? Did they scavenge the animals they were eating?”

Archeologists know from sites in Ethiopia that human ancestors ate meat as far back at two-point-six million years ago. But there are so few bone fragments from that time with primitive knife marks on them that it’s unclear how often meat was consumed.

Now, they can confirm that it was indeed a regular staple of the diet at least one-and-a-half million years ago. Dominguez-Rodrigo says it tells a lot about the social habits of early humans and much more.

“Getting meat in a Savannah ecosystem, in a Savannah environment, is not something simple for a primate. It is something that requires planning. Something that requires cooperation. Something that requires a complex social organization. We were not sure how these early humans behaved in that regard. It is important because this is happening pretty much at the same time period as we see that the brain starts developing, starts growing, compared to previous hominids. And brain growth has important nutritional requirements and some of them are the vitamins that are associated with meat eating,” said Dominguez-Rodrigo.

He’s talking about B vitamins and that’s where the skull fragments come in. Scientists know from studying the remains of humans over the centuries that dietary deficiencies leave traces in bone. The fragments belonging to a one or two year old child had bone lesions commonly associated with a lack of B vitamins. In other words, the lesions indicate the child was anemic from not eating enough meat.

“We don’t find these pathologies commonly in populations that live on hunting and gathering, because the diet of hunter / gatherers is actually more beneficial for human metabolism than the diet of producers. So our surprise was to find that this pathology typical of sedentary populations actually was found in a prehistoric hunter-gatherer individual that was 1.5-million years old,” he said.

Dominguez-Rodrigo realizes the findings will not make vegetarians very happy.

“I’m fully aware of that, yes, (laughs). We find vitamins, we find folic acid, we find vitamin B-12 now everywhere in the cereals that we eat in the morning and in many other foods that we take because a lot of that has been artificially produced. But in nature, if we were living on whatever we’re able to obtain by living in a Savannah in Africa B-12 can only be obtained in meat,” he said.

The archeologist describes meat as “a crucial element in becoming human.”

You May Like

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs UN countermeasure More

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountaini
X
July 02, 2015 4:10 AM
Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs