Were Our Early Ancestors Really Carnivores?

12 min read

The One Diet To Solve Them All

It might seem like pure fantasy to suggest that there’s a diet out there that could rule them all. There are a million and one genetic variants to cater for, a huge diversity of cuisines that further muddy the waters, and a whole lot of extras that I’d rather not cover. To throw out the idea that we can all get together, hold hands, say our prayers, and scoop our fill from the same pot, that’s just not PC anymore. 

But this is part three, and I’ve been busy setting up that crazy idea. The controversy is worth the risk, because the stakes are higher than ever. The modern diet is failing the population, and the nutritional recommendations put out to counter that just seem to be fanning the flames. 

So rather than looking for a miracle supplement, or the magic macro ratio to pull the metabolism back from the precipice, it may be worth throwing in the towel and declaring the whole mission a bust. It’s time to consider a hard reset.

The world has been progressing on all fronts at a breakneck speed, and it may be time to take a breath and wonder if we’ve stepped beyond our means. A global population boom has created a demand for faster and more economical ways of food production. Numerous innovations have been made just over the last few decades. We’ve got to the point where we can synthesize meat in labs, process the hell out of grains to extract every last calorie. The body has no means of keeping pace with all the latest tweaks we keep imposing on it. Evolution just doesn’t work that quickly. 

And where does that leave us now? A modern diet where even the healthy versions just don’t gel with the body. The balanced diet that gets dosed out by dieticians still amounts to an artificially imposed state of health, with foods and supplements that are designed to help out in isolation. But there’s no such thing as isolation when that ingredient hits the digestive tract. Foods outside our evolutionary means tend to create clashes of different systems within the body, leading to inflammation, catabolism, insulin resistance, and oxidative damage. The four horsemen of disease are allowed to run rampant across your broken metabolism.

I’d recommend wheeling back to the beginning of the Cult Of Carnivore Series, but If you’d rather skip to the good stuff, I’ll give you the briefest of recaps.

Part One – A Broken Metabolism Is Your Ticket For Chronic Disease – How metabolic syndrome, your biggest threat to a long and happy life, is driven by the diet.

Part Two – Scrap Modern Diets And Head Back To The Original – Why it’s the modern version of the diet that’s causing metabolic syndrome, and the cure could well be found in the one that we spent the bulk of humanity’s existence adapting around.

Were We Hunters Or Foragers?

This brings us at a nice canter to the next question. What exactly was the original diet? As I wrote in Part Two, the first agricultural revolution turned out to be a mixed bag. Settling down in farming communities lent us the opportunity to divert more time towards innovations and moon landings, but it also opened the body up for a host of debilitating diseases and physical defects. We got shorter, and the golf ball chin was born. The time that followed the agricultural revolution pales in comparison to the millions of years of evolution that preceded it. 

Stepping back before the sorry revolution puts us in the realms of the evolutionary diet, which I’d like to call the apex diet. Because this was the way of eating that brought us to the top of the food chain. It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, even back when we didn’t have to worry about overflowing email inboxes. Food wasn’t exactly available in abundance, not in the sense where a caveman could lumber across to the fridge to pick up leftover pizza. This was the ice age, not quite the garden of Eden.

Sometimes the caveman had to go days at a time without any food. Sometimes the wait was fatal. So he couldn’t be too picky about his diet. That’s why I’d divide the ancestral cuisine into two categories. The foods the caveman would pick when it was available, and the fallback options he scrambled around for when the first picks weren’t on the menu.

The Apex Diet’s Primary Foods

Before the days of farming, our ancestors spent their time hunting and foraging. It was a lot of work, although maybe not quite as much as we’d think. Surviving hunter-gatherer tribes today spend about 16 hours a week searching for food, and there’s nothing to suggest it would have been too different back then. There would still be plenty of time to paint walls and play kick the stick. But hunting still came at the cost of a lot of sweat and toil. The prey had to be worth the chase.

So when our ancestors went out on a hunt, they weren’t looking for chickens. Small animals wouldn’t just be lacking the meat, there’d be next to no fat, which was the cornerstone of the primal metabolism. Dietary fat was a necessity, and it still is, hence why there are stories of explorers dropping into a state of insatiable hunger when eating rabbit meat. The hunters didn’t have eyes for small game, that was saved for the megafauna. Big, lumbering beasts that were easier to kill, and far heftier in nutrients. 

Stroll down the halls of the American Museum of Natural History, and you’ll come across rows of enormous skeletons that once dominated the Pleistocene Epoch. This era stretched across from 2.6 million years to 12,000 years ago, ending with the last ice age. These are the megafauna, gigantic animals that dwarf their modern relatives. They were wiped out by the end of the ice age, and we haven’t been able to point a deciding finger at why this happened. More than likely, they were assaulted by a cluster of deadly events. The drastic change in climate, possibly a rampaging disease, and then the human factor. We like driving things to the verge of extinction, and there’s good evidence to suggest that we’ve been practicing that move since the Pleistocene

The signs are there. The megafauna survived longer in North America, and then were wiped out within a few thousand years of humans reaching the continent. The fact is, these animals had hundreds of thousands of calories packed under their fur, and they weren’t exactly hard to kill once we figured out how to make pointy things. Compared to the trouble of chasing down a rabbit that would barely get a family past supper, causing mass-extinction was a no-brainer. A medium-sized woolly mammoth could have provided a group of 50 humans enough food to last three months

And that’s the story of the megafauna. Perhaps their only crime was being stacked with delicious nutrients. They were easy prey for humans once they managed to carve out spears. Before spears, humans operated as scavengers, as evidenced by the discovery of bludgeoning stones dating back to 2.3 million years ago. Before fire, which was around 300,000 years ago, it was raw meat on the menu. Back in the days of the ice age, before we could start stumbling over ethics and food religion, we were meat-eaters. And not just any meat, we sought out the ones that came bundled with huge chunks of saturated fat. 

But surely apples existed back then?

The Survival Foods

We did eat plants back then, or we probably did. These were the fallback option, when a woolly mammoth hunt had gone awry, or the beasts had all migrated off to a faraway postcode. When the choices are eating plants, or starvation, it’s an easy one to figure out. 

There’s nothing to suggest that fruits and nuts, the paleo diet staples, were ever major fixtures in the ancestral diet. And even if they were, those plants would have looked nothing like the highly-hybridized produce we have today. 

The original versions of strawberries and bananas were extremely small and barely edible. Kale, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower all came from one plant, Brassica oleracea. We had to do a lot of cross-breeding to get plants to offer enough calories. Back in the ancient days, foraging just wouldn’t have been worth the time and energy.

We do have the hominid species, Paranthropus, which existed somewhere between 2.6 and 0.6 million years ago. They had flattened teeth, perfectly suited to chomping on soft leaves. All the evidence points to them being full-fledged herbivores, and as such they fit into the ecosystem by being prey for crocodiles and leopards. Paranthropus also had smaller brains compared to other hominids, and they duly went extinct, with the vegan line dying with them. 

Our direct hominid ancestors, on the other hand, would have kept grazing to a minimum. In a snapshot, the evolution of humans over the Pleistocene Epoch shows receding guts and enlarged brains. This was quite likely the greatest deal of all time. It allowed us to shuttle up to the top of the food chain, beating out the beasts that dwarfed us in strength and stature. And in the meantime, we lost the ability to devour metric tons of fiber. 

The cecum is a section of the large intestine that breaks down cellulose for energy, the most abundant compound in plants. At least that’s the case for herbivores. We have a cecum, it just doesn’t do much. So that means a bulk of plant matter has to go through the entire digestive tract without offering any energy. But of course that’s a good thing, because we can then spend several hours a week sitting on the throne and playing candy crush.

Over the two million year sprint to the top of the food chain, humans traded up from tree-dwelling omnivores, to mammoth-hunting carnivores. This didn’t stop us outright from eating plants, as we still ate fruits, nuts, seeds, and tubers when we came across them. But these were only available over a few months in the year, and the nutritional payout of foraging didn’t come close to the slam-dunk protein bonus from bringing down a megafauna. As a result, the human metabolism optimised itself around meat consumption. 

And I haven’t even touched on the big elephant in the plant kingdom, the fact that they all have numerous antinutrients as part of their defense mechanism. Back then, nutrition would have been simpler to figure out. There weren’t any ethics at play. If someone ate a plant that resulted in indigestion, then that food would have been knocked down the list. Eating was treated as a function, and the foods that caused the least problems and provided the most nutrition would have been the first picks in the apex menu.

Humans Are Facultative Carnivores

We aren’t carnivores in the sense that we’ll kick the bucket if we have nothing but crushed walnuts. That would be the territory of obligatory carnivores, like cats. Humans evolved to be facultative carnivores, in a similar vein to dogs. 12,000 years of agriculture amounts to a blip on the human timeline, nowhere near long enough to swing the pendulum back to an omnivorous metabolism. We are driven to eat meat, and we can thrive in an exclusive diet. We can eat plants, but we will develop glaring deficiencies if we stick to the vegan strategy.

When our ancestors managed to cause a mammoth stampede and spear an old tusker in the confusion, they would have had dopamine to last for days, and food to last months. This was the apex blueprint, a simple, but now controversial diet that enabled us to leave the trees and reach the heights that we occupy today. If we could just find a way of copying the ancestral blueprint across to the modern lifestyle, then the stage would be set for a body and mind that’s built to thrive.

Read The Ultimate Guide To A Fitness Transformation – The Apex Blueprint

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