Elephants, hippos central to prehistoric human diet, Israeli scholars say

Two Israeli researchers have proposed a new theory about the prehistoric human diet and how its evolution led to significant cultural and technological developments.

Prof. Ran Barkai at the Middle Pleistocene elephant butchery site of La Polledrara, Italy.  (photo credit: PHOTOGRAPHER: NATALYA SOLODENKO. COURTESY OF PROF. RAN BARKAI)
Prof. Ran Barkai at the Middle Pleistocene elephant butchery site of La Polledrara, Italy.
(photo credit: PHOTOGRAPHER: NATALYA SOLODENKO. COURTESY OF PROF. RAN BARKAI)
Two Israeli researchers have proposed a new theory about the prehistoric human diet and how its evolution led to significant cultural and technological developments.
Until a few dozen millennia ago, large herbivores such as elephants, hippos and rhinos wandered around most of the world, including Europe and Asia.
Contrary to what has been argued by others, their meat constituted a fundamental nutritional source for prehistoric humans, Tel Aviv University scholars Ran Barkai and Miki Ben-Dor claimed in a paper published in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.
Analyzing the behavior and diet of modern hunter-gatherer tribes – generally considered a good research avenue to better understand prehistory – does not represent an accurate model to shed light on the diet of humanity’s ancestors, in light of the many differences in circumstances, the two archaeologists said.
“We have been working on reconstructing the Paleolithic diet for a decade,” Barkai told The Jerusalem Post.
The question of the proportion between different sources of calories, especially from animals and plants, has been at the center of debate for a long time, he added.
Barkai said he and other colleagues had reached the conclusion in previous studies that fat must have played a major role in paleo-nutrition.


 
“Humans are unable to digest an unlimited amount of proteins since our liver needs to get rid of the nitrogen in the meat,” Barkai said. “Therefore, there is only a limited supply of calories, approximately one-third of the daily caloric need, that can be obtained from proteins. Moreover, vegetable resources were not highly available in many places, while before domestication and especially before the use of fire they were not as nutritious as today.”
“Larger animals are richer in fat compared to smaller ones,” he said. “We therefore established that big animals were a precious source of food for early Paleolithic humans.”
The numbers of these animals constantly declined until by 40,000 years ago almost all of them disappeared from the planet. Several species of elephants existed around the world, including at least six in Africa. Other species, such as deer and undomesticated cattle and horses, saw a decrease in their size. For example, an ancient ox weighed around a ton, about twice a modern specimen.
These transformations in the ecology of their environment had other consequences, forcing early humans to find new hunting techniques to increase the amount of animals they could obtain, Barkai said.
“Instead of one elephant, they needed to hunt dozens of deer,” he said. “This situation was the trigger for many cultural and biological changes in human evolution.”
“Hunting an elephant was not easy; it required knowledge and courage,” Barkai said. “However, since no one else hunted these animals besides humans, it did not require very sophisticated technology. For instance, elephants would not flee fast, while deer surely would, so they needed to develop tools to hunt from a distance. We believe that these might have been the circumstances that led [them] to invent arrows, bows and spears or fishing gear later on.”
In the paper, Barkai and Ben-Dor discouraged the use of studies on modern hunter-gatherer tribes to reconstruct the diet of early humans.
“Our position is that hunter-gatherers that live today in Africa do not hunt large animals for several reasons,” Barkai told the Post. “Nowadays, large animals exist in very small numbers, and hunting them is not permitted, while on the other hand, they use more vegetables to complete their diet.
“Moreover, there are differences from the technological perspective: Modern hunter-gatherers use fire to cook on a daily basis and also containers that early humans did not have. We claim that to make a comparison, the same ecological and technological grounds are needed.”