Have you ever wondered how much meat and plants our hunter-gatherers consumed? Or our farming ancestors? When I originally designed the Healthbeat Diet, it was based on the optimal diet for athletes. Then I started noticing that it worked in our clinical nutrition practice for multiple disorders as well. People appeared to do better on more animal foods and fewer grains, meanwhile popular literature is constantly pushing a plant-based diet as the best for health. This simply isn’t what I have seen, nor do I believe anthropological literature to prove.
I started researching the diets of many hunters and farmers and wasn’t expecting to find so many contradicting books and studies as to how much meat was consumed. It is unfortunate that personal biases and agendas cloud observational studies, which makes me skeptical of many things I don’t observe myself.
The Health of the Farmers vs. The Hunter-Gatherers
According to the book Neolithic by Susan Foster McCarter, “Like most people, you may have always assumed that hunter-gatherers were usually hungry, tired and sick; and that things were much better once people began producing their food and living in permanent villages.
In fact, the opposite is true: hunter-gatherers were extremely healthy and Neolithic farmers were not. Paleopathologists tell us that foragers had excellent teeth, they were rarely malnourished, they were taller than most people today, and they didn’t suffer from endemic or epidemic diseases.” We know this because the evidence is in the skeletal remains. The skeletons of early Neolithic farmers show scurvy (vitamin C deficiencies), rickets (vitamin D deficiencies), poor dental health, bone infections and a stature roughly 6 inches shorter than the hunter-gatherers.
So despite an abundance of food, people were often hungry and malnourished. Why? Because the diet shifted to a grain-based diet of porridge and unleavened bread.
Let’s take a look at the meat-eating habits of our hunter-gatherers, and move our way through history to the agricultural changes of introducing grains, lower meat consumption and the effects on our health.
How Much Meat and Plants Did Hunter-Gatherers Eat?
When we look at our genealogy – with the genus homo existing for 2 million years and the modern human debated to be 160,000 to 340,000 to 400,000 years ago – as hunter-gatherers and agriculture starting roughly 10,000 years ago – the human diet is heavily favored for the hunter-gatherer way of eating. We no longer hunt and gather, we shop. If you have any friends that hunt – or if you hunt – you know that hunting is not always successful. During my time in Colorado, many of our neighbors would hunt the entire winter without getting an elk.
During the Paleolithic period, we can assume that there were unsuccessful hunts that probably consisted of fasting for many hours or days, and gathering nuts, seeds, berries, mushrooms, greens and insects would have filled the gaps. A research paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences identified 300 species of edible plants, including seeds, fruits, nuts, leaves, stems, roots and tubers (with the use of fire), mainly form the migration route out of Africa from 780,000 years ago.
Of course, if they were by the ocean, marine foods would be in abundance and a more reliable supply of animal protein. But there were also days of massive feasts of meat, especially with the coveted woolly mammoth. In fact, it has been said that the bow was such a technological leap forward that it could have led to an increase in meat consumption and population growth rates, eventually reducing game populations in certain areas and hastening the adoption of agriculture.
Information on hunter-gatherer societies is more difficult to obtain to find accurate day to day dietary habits. The ethnographic record of hunter-gatherers includes hundreds of cultures, but only about 50 groups have been studied. From the Ethnographic Atlas used by Dr. Cordain, he suggests prehistoric hunter-gatherer groups, allowing for regional variation, generally received around 50% of their nutrition from wild game and fish, while modern hunter-gatherer societies obtain 56-65% of their nutritional intake from fish and hunted game.
This study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition estimates hunter-gatherer animal food sources constituting between 45-65% of their total energy intake. Most hunting societies typically used the whole carcass which included organ meats, fat (high caloric energy), and bone marrow.
This study shows a cross-cultural examination of longevity among hunter-gathers and gives us insight on this topic. For example, the Ache were full-time, mobile tropical forest hunter-gatherers until the 1970s.
The Hiwi are neotropical savanna foragers of Venezuela. At the time of the study, almost their entire diet was wild foods, with 68 percent of calories coming from meat and 27 percent from roots, fruits, and an arboreal legume (5 percent as agricultural fruits, squash and store bought goods). The !Kung are estimated to contribute 33% from animal foods and 67% from plant foods, with fifty percent (by weight) of their plant-based diet coming from the mongongo nut, which is available throughout the year in massive quantities.
The Gainj are forager horticulturalists with a diet consisting of sweet potatoes, yams, and taro in the central highland forests of northern Papua New Guinea where meat is fairly rare. Typically, those closer to the equator consume more plants and less protein while those at higher latitudes, consume fewer plants and more animals. In other words, availability is what determines the percentage of animal and plant foods, much like in agricultural societies.
To see how important that the meat and fish supply was high, we can look at the innovate strategies our later ancestors employed for more successful hunts. We see the earliest evidence of stone, bone, and iron being used for arrow making, bows and axes, poison on the tips of arrows for taking down large game – and therefore more meat. Large nets and harpoons for fishing were used by both men and women for catching seafood. There is evidence of the deliberate use of fire to encourage new growth for animals to eat, and the cleaver and other processing tools for butchering large amounts of meat.
This study also mentions that before effective hunting, males could have relied on honey and plant foods. But if you read on page 65, we are shown that there were wooden spears next to horse bones dated 400,000 years. Stone tools and cut marks on bones dating back more than 2 million years are also evidence that animal carcasses were butchered at the beginning of the genus homo. Well, that’s interesting. We were meat-eaters from at exactly the start of the genus homo, and the modern human.
How Long Did Hunter-Gatherer’s Live?
How long did hunter-gatherers live? Past research will have you believe that they had short lives, and rarely made it past 40 and therefore the modern diseases didn’t show up due to age. It turns out, modern research has found conflicting results. The average ages of hunter-gatherers have always been grossly misrepresented due to infant mortality, skewing the numbers to appear much lower than they are.
The average modal age of adult death for hunter-gatherers according to the previously mentioned study is 72 with a range of 68–78 years. Illnesses account for 70 percent, violence and accidents for 20 percent, and degenerative diseases for 9 percent of all deaths in our sample. Illnesses largely include infectious and gastrointestinal disease, although less than half of all deaths in the sample are from a contact-related disease. Heart attacks and strokes appear rare and do not account for these old-age deaths which tend to occur when sleeping. Few risk factors for cardiovascular disease exist among active members of small-scale societies. Obesity is rare, hypertension is low, cholesterol and triglyceride levels are low, and maximal oxygen uptake is high.
Overall, degenerative disease accounts for 6–24 percent. There are also no studies or mention of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or other forms of dementia. This would line up with modern diseases stemming from sedentary lifestyles, processed foods, vegetable oils, sugar and chemical exposure and ingestion; not meat.