THE EVOLUTION OF HUMAN NUTRITION
IN : The Anthropology of Medicine
During a lifetime, a human being will eat thousands of pounds of food. The
body will use this food to grow, to repair damaged tissue, and to maintain
organs such as the brain and heart. Some of these foods will be enjoyable
to eat because they are perceived to look appetizing and taste delicious.
Other foods may not be enjoyable to eat, but will be consumed anyway
because they are "good for the body or the spirit." Biochemically, the body
does not distinguish between foods that are liked or disliked, for the human
body does not use food, rather the body requires the biological nutrients
contained in food. Biology, however, is not the entire story of human nutri-
tion. Cultural variables, such as the type of food eaten, its manner of prep-
aration, and the social context in which it is consumed, often determine the
efficacy of that food in meeting human needs for health and well-being. It
is the purpose of the chapter to explore the evolution of some of the bio-
logical and cultural requirements of human nutrition. Although at times the
biology and culture of nutrition will be treated separately, the major theme
of this chapter is to view human nutrition holistically as a biocultural phe-
The Conception of the People of Corn
It was night, and the gods sat thinking in the darkness. Among them were the Bearer,
Begetter, the Makers, Modelers named Tepeu Gucumatz, the Sovereign Plumed
Serpent. Twice before they had tried to create a human being to be servant to the
gods. One time the humans were made of clay and the other time of wood; but on
both occasions the creatures so formed were stupid, without any intellect and without
spirit. So, they were destroyed. As the dawn approached the gods thought, "Morning
has come for humankind, for the people of the face of the earth." Their great wisdom
was revealed in the clear light; they discovered what was needed for human flesh-
white corn and yellow corn. Four animals brought the food: fox, coyote, parrot. and
crow. The animals showed the way to the citadel named Broken Place, Bitter Water
Place. Here was a paradise filled with white and yellow corn and all the varieties of
fruits and vegetables. including pataxte and cacao. The white and yellow corn were
given to Xmucane. the divine Grandmother of the gods, and she ground the corn
nine times. She washed the ground corn from her hands with water and this mixture
made grease. The corn was used to make human flesh, the water made human blood,
and the grease made human fat. From these staple foods were born the strength
and vigor of the new beings. (From the Popol Vuh, the Maya book of the dawn of
life and the glories of gods and kings [compiled from the translations of Tedlock
1985 and Figueros. 1986].)
The domestication of maize, or corn, and other plants occurred in Mesoamerica about 7000 B.P. By 3000 B.P.
maize-based agricultural societies were established and these developed into the state-level, hierarchical so-
cieties of the Olmec and, eventually, the Maya. The central place of maize
as the staple food in Maya society is emphasized in the creation story. People
are corn, in both the literary and literal sense. Today, the living Maya people
of Guatemala depend on maize for 80 percent of their energy intake. It is
likely that the ancient Maya also consumed a large portion of their calories
from maize, or more correctly from maize-based foods. Very little maize is
eaten in Guatemala today. Instead people eat tortillas, tamalitos, tamales, ta-
cos, enchiladas, atoles (a beverage), and many other foods and drinks made
from masa harina. Masa harina is a flour made from maize that has been
dried, ground, and processed by boiling in lime water (Figure 6.1). Some of
the "tortilla chips" sold in American supermarkets may be made from a flour
like mass harinha, but most brands are made from corn meal, which is ground
maize without any processing. The difference is vitally important in terms
of nutrition and health, for without the processing, a maize-based diet leads
to death from pellagra. Later in this chapter the biochemical and nutritional
properties of masa harina and the cause of pellagra are explained in greater
The Maya, ancient and modern, do not live by tortillas alone. At Broken
Place, Bitter Water Place (a supernatural site located inside a mountain), all
varieties of fruits and vegetables were found and given to people. A visit to
any Maya marketplace today in Guatemala or southern Mexico shows that
dozens of species of fruits, vegetables, and dried mushrooms are sold, along
with fresh and dried fish and meat. Archaeological and ethnographic field-
work substantiates the diversity of foods in the Maya diet over the past 1,000
years or more (Saenz de Tejada 1988). Even pataxte and cacao were given
to people by the gods (Figure 6.2). These are fruits from which cocoa and
chocolate are made cochocoholics might recite an extra prayer of thanks to
Sovereign Plumed Serpent before retiring tonighr). A chocolate and hot pep-
per beverage was a drink used in Maya religious ritual. and was usually
reserved for the royal family or other people of high status. Thus, food is
used not only to sustain the body, but also to demarcate social position and
as part of religious behavior.
NUTRIENTS VERSUS FOOD
Nutritional biochemists have determined that there are 50 essential nu-
trients required for growth, maintenance, and the repair of the body. Essen-
tial nutrients are those substances that the body needs but cannot
manufacture. These substances are divided into six classes: protein, carbo-
hydrate, fat, vitamins, minerals, and water. Table 6.1 lists the essential nu-
trients in these categories. One way that nutrients are shown to be essential
is via experiments with non-human animals. A young rat, pig, or monkey is
fed a diet that includes all of the known nutrients except the one being
tested. If the animal gets sick, stops growing, loses weight, or dies it usually
means that the missing nutrient is essential for that animal. Such experi-
ments do not prove that the same nutrient is needed for people. Some
controlled experiments were done in the twentieth century with people,
such as prisoners and residents of villages in underdeveloped nations. Since
about 1980 these experiments have been considered unethical. Certain med-
ical conditions deprive people of nutrients, and social, economic, and po-
litical conditions of life also deprive people of food and nutrients. By using
these " experiments of nature," along with past research, it is possible to
prove the necessity of the essential nutrients.
People do not usually intake essential nutrients directly as pure chemicals,
rather we eat food. This was certainly true for all of our animal ancestors
throughout evolutionary history. Human foods come from five of the six
Kingdoms of living organisms: plants, animals, fungi (e.g., mushrooms), pro-
tists (e.g., species of algae referred to as "seaweed"), and eubacteria (e.g.,
bacteria used in fermented foods). These organisms present us with a daz-
zling array of colors, flavors. odors, textures, shapes, and sizes. The sixth
Kingdom, archaebacteria. are not eaten directly, but are essential in the diet
of other species that people do eat. Herbivores, for example, have archae-
bacteria in their guts to digest the plant cellulose.
Table 6.1 Essential Nutrients
Fat or Lipid
Nonessential amino nitrogen
Vitamin B6, (pyridoxine)
Vitamin B12, (cobalamin)
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid)
Source: Guthrie and Picciano 1995.
EATING A BALANCED DIET
How does a person know which foods to eat so that all of the essential
nutrients are consumed in required amounts. ) Children learn what to eat
because they are dependent on their parents, or other older individuals, to
prepare their food. By tasting these foods, and watching older people prepare
them, children acquire patterns of food preferences, including what should
not be eaten, under what social conditions a food should be eaten, and the
ways to prepare foods. Thus people learn what they like, for not all people
eat all the same foods. For instance, some people in the United States eat
chocolate covered ants, but most Americans do not think of insects as food.
In parts of Africa and South America, however, insects such as ants, termites,
and beetle larva are food, in fact they are considered delicacies. Yanomamo
Indians of southern Venezuela cultivate certain plants in which they know
beetles will lay their eggs. The Yanomamo harvest the beetle larvae and eat
them raw or roasted (Chagnon 1983). From a nutritional point of view insects
are excellent sources of protein, fats, and some minerals. In fact, pound for
pound, grasshoppers have more protein than cattle or hogs, yet this fact is
unlikely to encourage the sale of "grasshopper nuggets" at fast-food outlets
in the United States.
Every group of people has developed a cuisine: that is, an assortment of
foods and a style of cooking that is unique to that culture. Some examples
are Italian cooking, Chinese cooking, and Mexican cooking. Even Americans
have a cuisine, including foods such as corn-on-the-cob and hamburgers.
Despite the differences in specific foods, the cuisine of each human culture
provides all of the essential nutrients. No one knows how cuisines developed
to meet human biochemical requirements. Experiments with non-human
animals and with people indicate that diets, or cuisines, are developed by
learning to avoid foods that produce illness or feelings of malaise and seeking
foods that promote feelings of well-being (Franken 1988:107).
One fascinating aspect of food preferences in different cultures is the way
two or more foods are combined and eaten together to help assure nutritional
adequacy. One example is complimentary protein consumption. Table 6.1
shows that there are nine amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) that
are essential nutrients. There are 11 additional amino acids in nature that
are needed for life but are not essential nutrients. Not all foods contain all
nine essential amino acids, so we must eat several foods to get them all-
the amino acids in some foods complementing those lacking in others. Ce-
real grains, such as wheat and rice, lack some of the amino acids that are
found in beans, peas, milk, and cheeses. Conversely, beans, peas, milk, and
cheeses lack the amino acids found in cereal grains. In the Middle East,
many people eat wheat and cheese in the same dish. In Mexico, beans,
tortillas, and rice are popular, while on the island of Jamaica peas and rice
is the national favorite. In the United States, cereal (grains) and milk are
complementary protein sources popular at the breakfast meal. The biochem-
istry of complementary protein foods has been discovered only recently, yet
the cultural history of this food practice is ancient.
Each culture developed its own cuisine for many reasons. Not all foods
grow in all countries, for instance maize originally comes from Central Amer-
ica and rice originally comes from Asia. But most food preferences cannot
be so easily explained. The isolation of many human cultures, exploration
and contact between cultures, ethnic identity, and social, economic, political,
and religious status are some further explanations. Hindu culture, for ex-
ample, specifies different cuisines for people of different castes. According
to Burghardt's (1990) analysis of Hindu dietary recommendation, not all
castes can tolerate all foods. The intolerance is due to harmful reactions
between the qualities of the food (such as animal meat) and the nature of
the bodies of different caste members. Thus Hindu epistemology does not
identify the universal set of essential nutrients recognized by Western bio-
medical research. Many other unknown factors occurring throughout
thousands of years of human history are also responsible for the development
of culture-specific cuisines.
From the foregoing, two universal observations about human nutrition can
be made: (1) All people have the same basic biological requirements for
nutrients; and (2) Each culture has a unique cuisine that has the potential
to satisfy these nutrient requirements.
In addition some universal features of human food systems have been
complied by Pelto and Pelto (1983):
1. People are extremely omnivorous. eating hundreds of different species of plants.
animals, fungi, bacteria, and even algae.
2. People depend on systems of food transport from the place where foods are found
or acquired to their place of consumption.
3. People make use of systems for food storage that protect the nutritional quality
of foods from the time of their acquisition until the time of their consumption.
That time period may last for months, even in premodern societies.
4. People expend great effort on food preparation. such as cooking, mixing, flavoring,
and detoxifying natural ingredients, and depend on technology to do this prepa-
ration (e.g., the hand-axes and fire used by Homo erectus or the food processors
and microwave ovens of Homo sapiens).
5. People share and exchange food regularly and have cultural rules that order such
sharing and exchanges.
6. People have food taboos; that is, social proscriptions against the consumption of
certain foods based on age, sex, state of health. religious beliefs, and other cul-
turally defined reasons.
One final item must be included in this list of human food behavior.
7. People use foods for non-nutritional purposes, such as for medicine to cure or
cause disease and as offerings in ritual or religious behavior (see the chapter by
Etkin and Ross in this volume). In these contexts food may have some physiologic
function (plants do contain active pharmaceutical compounds), but the foods also
have symbolic meaning for the people using them.
Evidence from fossil and archaeological remains of human ancestors in-
dicates that these universal features of human nutrition and food have been
in existence for at least 35,000 years, and possibly more than 100,000 years.
Yet, until this century, most foods were acquired locally. The most parsi-
monious way to account for these biological and cultural universals relating
to food is to hypothesize that a common evolutionary history for all people
shaped human nutritional requirements, food acquisition and processing sys-
tems, and food behavior. This is a hypothesis that can be verified or rejected
SOURCES OF KNOWLEDGE
There are several kinds of data that may be considered in the study of
the evolution of human nutrition. Archaeological and paleontological evi-
dence provide the only direct data on what our ancestors ate and what effect
diet may have had on our physical and behavioral evolution. However, stud-
ies of living primates and other mammals, living hunter/gatherer societies,
and crosscultural comparisons of cuisines provide indirect evidence that is
useful in reconstructing human nutritional history.
The living primates include prosimians. New World monkeys, Old World
monkeys, Asian and African apes, and people. Fossil evidence indicates that
all primates evolved from insectivorelike mammals that lived some 7.5 mil-
lion years ago. The geological context of these fossils indicates that the
general habitat was tropical forest. Primate ancestors may have been those
insectivores that moved into the flowering trees of these tropical forests to
exploit insects, and then the flowers, fruits, gums, and nectars of those trees
(Cartmill 1974; Conroy 1990). The flowering plants and trees, called angio-
sperms, appear in the fossil record about 100 million years ago, and their
appearance opened up new habitats and ecological niches that promoted the
coevolution of other species, including the primates. The earliest primates
of the Paleocence period (65-55 million years ago) exploited an insect-eating
niche. Most species had jaws that moved in a scissorlike motion and teeth
with pointed cusps, both features well suited for catching insects, by rapid
mouth "snapping" and piercing their exoskeletons (the "crunchy" covering
of the body) to extract internal tissues and fluids. By the late Paleocence
many species show some dental traits indicating a mixed diet of insects,
fruits, leaves, seeds, or gums. By about 55 million years ago primate fossils
show changes in jaws and teeth toward those of living forms, with jaws
adapted for greater power in biting and chewing. It seems that by that time
most primates were eating fruits, leaves, and seeds as well as insects.
Thus, the general primate dietary pattern is ancient. That pattern is based
on the ability to eat a wide variety of foods in order to meet nutritional
requirements. Primate nutritional requirements are highly varied; the higher
primates, including people, may be the animals with the longest list of es-
sential nutrients. The reason for this may be our tropical origins. Today,
tropical forests are characterized by having a high diversity of species, but a
low density of any given species. There are thousands of species of tropical
trees and at any one site there may be between 50 to 100 different species
per hectare (Oates 1987), but only a few trees of the same species may be
growing on that hectare. In contrast, temperate and high-altitude forests are
often characterized by a few tree species, such as pine-oak forests, but large
numbers of trees of those species. The diversity and density of animal spe-
cies in tropical forests follows the pattern for plant life. There is no reason
to expect that ancient tropical forests were different than modern tropical
forests in terms of species diversity. Ancestral primates capable of eating a
wide variety of foods would have had a veritable smorgasbord of choices,
and judging by their descendants, the living primates, many food types were
The large number of essential nutrients required in the human diet, then,
is likely a consequence of the tropical primate diet. With a wide variety of
food resources, especially fruit, foliage, and insects, ancestral primates were
able to obtain many vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates, and fats from
their diet. It is metabolically expensive, in terms of energy consumption, for
an organism to manufacture its own nutrients (a process called autotroph-
ism). Thus, through mutation and selection, those early primates that re-
duced autotrophism and shifted to a dependency on dietary intake to meet
nutrient needs would have gained an energetic advantage, one that could
be put to use, for instance, toward increasing reproduction. All mammals,
for example, require vitamin C for maintenance and repair of body tissue,
but only in some mammals, including all members of the primate order, is
vitamin C (ascorbic acid) an essential nutrient. About 25 million years ago a
mutation occurred in the metabolic pathway that produces vitamin C in
primates ancestral to living monkeys, apes, and people. The glucose (car-
bohydrate energy) needed to convert biochemical precursors to ascorbic acid
was released for use by other body systems (Scrimshaw and Young 1976).
The wide distribution of vitamin C sources in tropical environments and the
ability of primates to utilize these sources assured that this nutrient could
be supplied by the diet alone.
Using published data, Harding (1981) divided naturally occurring tropical
forest foods into eight categories and calculated the dietary frequency of
each category for 131 species of primates from all families, excluding people
(Table 6.2). The dietary frequency is defined as the percentage of those
species surveyed "for which a given food category was listed in the diet"
(p. 206). The data show that variety is the rule, and most species included
seven of the eight food categories in their diets ("grasses and roots" was the
category most often missing). The chimpanzee, our closest living primate
relative, eats foods from all eight categories. It is worth noting at this point,
that on a worldwide basis, living people eat more grasses, such as wheat and
maize, and roots, such as potatoes and manioc, than any other foods listed
in Table 6.2.
Dietary Frequency and Major Diet Components of 131 Primate Species
|Food category||Dietary frequency||Major component'|
|Soil plant foods||79||9|
Hunted and scavenged
|Grasses and roots||13||34|
Source: Harding 1981.
Some selectivity in diet is seen in its major components, with fruits, in-
vertebrates, and mature leaves being the most common items. Meat from
vertebrates, either hunted or scavenged, and tree parts (e.g., bark, cambium)
are not reported as major components for any non-human primate species.
Thus it might be best to characterize primates not as omnivores, but as
selective omnivores. There are several reasons for this selectivity. First, pri-
mates are, with few exceptions, diurnal and highly active. Second, primates
have brains that are about four times larger, relative to body size, than the
brains of other mammals. Third, primates have relatively long gestations
prior to birth and are nursed on demand for a relatively long period after
birth. Each of these traits places a high metabolic demand on an animal to
maintain activity, to supply the brain with energy and oxygen (the human
brain uses 20% of the body's energy and oxygen), and to meet the nutritional
needs of a mother primate and her fetus or infant.
Accordingly, primates must select foods that are dense in essential nutri-
ents. Fruits and invertebrates are such foods; fruits are dense in carbohy-
drates, minerals and vitamins, and invertebrates are rich in fats and proteins
(remember those grasshoppers!). Soft plant foods are mostly water and tree
parts are mostly cellulose or lignin, all of which are low in nutrients. Grasses
and roots are good foods for those species that live in savanna-woodland
habitats where grasses are abundant (e.g., baboons), however most primates
live in the tropical forests. Vertebrate meat and seeds are also nutrient dense,
but require hunting skills or specialized mastication or behavior to make use
of them. Of the 131 species surveyed, only some baboons and chimpanzees
regularly hunt mammalian prey (Strum 1981; Teleki 1981), and only two
monkey species, Cercopithecus neglectus and Colobus satanas, include seeds as
major foods. Chimpanzees, bonobos, and baboons have been seen to use
rocks to break open seeds to eat the contents, but this requires much effort
and time, which takes away from feeding on more easily acquired foods.
The human primate, not included in Harding's survey, is unusual in that
seeds, grasses, roots, and vertebrate meat are major components of both
modern and ancient diets. Seeds, grasses, and roots have their nutrients
protected by cellulose membranes that must be mechanically broken. This
can be done either by mastication or by using technology. People, and our
hominid ancestors dating back to Australopithecus, possess the anatomy (e.g.,
small canines, flattened molars, and enlarged pterygoid muscles-the mus-
cles that move the lower jaw from side to side) that allows for a type of
chewing called rorary grinding, which can break cellulose. People, and our
ancestors of the genus Homo, are also dependent on technology (e.g., tools,
fire) for food processing (Figure 6.1). Technology is also required for hunting
at a level that makes vertebrate meat a regular part of the diet.
A second reason for selectivity is the coevolution of primates and their
foods. Coevolution refers to the interactions of different species of living
organisms that exist in the same community, which result in genetic change
in those organisms over time. Predator-prey relationships are a common ex-
ample of coevolution. Animals can move, and animal prey may run, jump,
or fly away to evade capture. Over time, there will be selection for predators
that are better suited to capture their prey and selection for prey that are
better able to avoid capture. In contrast, plants are stationary but not de-
fenseless. Plants produce a host of noxious or toxic substances (called sec-
ondary compounds), such as tannins and alkaloids, to discourage their
predators. Plants may also evolve edible parts with low nutritional content
(Hladik 1981) or seeds and fruits with coverings too hard to pierce (Kinzey
and Norconk 1990), thus making those parts less attractive as food items to
primates. In a review of the literature on secondary compounds, Glander
(1982) found that the rich appearance of the tropical forest may be decep-
tive, for many primate species avoid a large percentage of potential plant
foods. Glander concludes that the selectivity of primates for plant species
and parts of plants must be viewed as a strategy balancing "the nutrient and
secondary compound content variation in these foods" (p. 1.).
A third reason for selectivity is that primates have a worldwide distribution
as an order, but are localized as genera into dozens of populations restricted
to species-specific habitats. Thus it is not surprising that many primates,
despite their evolutionary heritage of an eclectic food base, have, in practice,
species-specific diets. The tamarins and marmosets of South America, for
example, eat insects, fruits, and foliage, which are food items common to
most primate diets, but also require tree sap for survival. The tree sap is the
major source of calcium in their diet (Sussman and Kinzey 1984). These
primates have clawlike nails used to cling to tree trunks and procumbent
lower incisors used to gouge bark and release sap. No other group of pri-
mates has this set of anatomical specializations for tree sap consumption.
HUMAN DIET EVOLUTION
People also have unique requirements and specializations related to nu-
trition and diet. All primates require a relatively high-quality diet, but people
require a higher quality diet than any other species. Leonard and Robertson
(1994) compared the diet of 5 human foraging societies (!Kung, Ache, Hiwi,
Inuit, and Pygmies) to 72 nonhuman primate species and found that diet
quality of the human groups was almost twice that of other primates of the
same body size. The human ability to include seeds, roots, and meat in the
diet increases quality, as these are nutrient-dense foods. Building on the
research of Martin (1983), Leonard and Robertson show that the need for
high diet quality is a consequence of the human brain being several times
larger than expected for a primate their size. Using estimates of brain and
body size for extinct hominids, Leonard and Robertson estimate that hu-
manlike dietary requirements evolved with the appearance of the genus
Homo. But the only way to find out what our ancestors actually ate is to look
at the evidence, which comes from the study of remains of hominids and
ARCHAEOLOGY AND FOSSIL STUDIES
Archaeological methods "include the identification of edible materials,
functional analyses of artifacts employed in food preparation, coprolite [fossil
feces] analysis, information on paleohabitat, and analyses of [hominid] skel-
etal material" (Sillen and Kavanagh 1982). Paleontological data are derived
from the kinds and percentages of fossil remains found at a site. Each type
of evidence contributes some knowledge, but each has serious limitations.
The association of hominid fossil remains with the skeletal remains of other
fossil vertebrates may result from geologic forces, such as rivers carrying dead
carcasses to a central location or a volcanic eruption burying simultaneously
a community of animals, rather than hominid food-gathering behavior. Early
speculation by Dart (1957) that the bone accumulations at the South African
cave sites of Australopithecus represented hominid hunting activity are now
considered incorrect. Rather, Brain (1981) argues that the fossil remains,
including the hominids, represent the activity of nonhominid carnivores, es-
pecially leopards, and geological forces. Dr. Brian aptly names his book on
this subject The Hunters or t/e Hunted, and his conclusion is that the early
hominids were the prey of the leopards.
Research conducted during the 1980s produced a 180-degree shift in the
fossil evidence for the evolution of human hunting. In The Descent of Man,
Charles Darwin (1871) proposed that hunting large game provided much of
the selection pressure for human evolution. That view persisted through the
196Os, and the book Man the Hzmfer (Lee and DeVore 1968) represented
majority opinion that uniquely human characteristics, such as bipedalism,
chapter by Washburn and Lancaster in that volume). Implicit in this argu-
ment is the notion that the type of diet consumed by human ancestors
played a significant role in the evolution of human biology and behavior.
This notion is reasonable, but the explicit assumption of carnivory and hunt-
ing became less acceptable as existing evidence was reevaluated and new
evidence discovered. The existing data, based on fossil and archaeological
remains and the study of living hunting and gathering people such as the
!Kung and Australian Aborigines, showed that gathering and processing plant
foods was the main activity of tropical foragers. Moreover, women in living
foraging societies provided most of the calories consumed by these people.
These observations turned "man the hunter" into "woman the gatherer,"
and the hunting hypothesis was attacked for both lack of data and its male-
biased implications (Zihlman 1981).
The new evidence is based on analyses of bone and stone tool material
associated with early hominids. Potts and Shipman (1981) used scanning
electron microscope images of mammalian long bones dating to 1.7 million
years ago to show that cut marks produced by stone tools were incised above
those made by carnivore teeth and the teeth of known scavengers, such as
porcupines. Assuming that the order of markings reflects the order of use
by hunters and scavengers, the hominids were the last to have at the
bones-even after porcupines. Subsequent analysis shows that hominids
may have been collecting bones for their marrow and brain tissue rather than
for any meat still remaining on the surface of the bone (Binford 1987). Mar-
row and brain are high in fat and protein, but few carnivores have the mor-
phology necessary to break open large long bones. Hyenas have the ability
to exploit marrow and are formidable predators and scavengers but are most
active at night (Schaller and Lowther 1969). Hominids are most active during
the day and thus could scavenge for carcasses with less threat from hyenas.
The invention of stone tools, first manufactured by hominids about 2.2 mil-
lion years ago, may have been a dietary adaptation for extracting marrow. At
Olduvai Gorge there are sites where the bones of large game animals (from
gazelles to elephants) are found together with stone tools. The tools are
called scrapers and choppers. Blumenschine and Cavallo (1992) report that
the bones are mostly from limbs and skulls and that these are precisely the
animal parts that only hyenas and tool-wielding hominids can crack open.
Further, they report that one-half hour's work with a chopper can yield
enough calories from the marrow and brain of a carcass the size of a wilde-
beest to meet an adult's daily energy requirements.
Hominids may also have scavenged for larger pieces of meat. Cavallo
(1990) studied the ecology and behavior of leopards in Tanzania. Most car-
nivores, such as lions and hyenas, leave their prey on the ground and con-
sume most of the internal organs and limb meat within a few hours after
prey over several days. The kill may even be left unattended for up to ten
hours, for other terrestrial carnivores ignore carcasses hanging in trees. Cav-
al10 believes that human ancestors may have scavenged these arboreal caches
of meat. This speculation is supported by the South African cave evidence
of Brain (1981), which shows that australopithecines and leopards Iived to-
gether and that the hominids were often the prey of the carnivores. Cavallo
argues chat by the time of the appearance of Homo, some hominids may
have reversed the predator-prey relationship. There are modern-day reports
of groups of baboons killing leopards as well as confirmed observations of
chimpanzees scavenging tree-cached leopard kills and taking and eating
leopard cubs (Cavallo 1990), stone tool-wielding hominids may have done
the same on occasion.
Perhaps it was the occasional (or regular?) consumption of leopard that
caused the hypervitaminosis A of the H. erectus individual from the Koobi
Fora formation, located on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana, Kenya. The
skeleton is dated to 1.6 million years B.P. (Walker et al. 1982), and analysis
indicates that it was female and has "striking pathology" in the long bones
of the limbs. These bones have a deposit of abnormal coarse-woven bone,
up to 7 mm chick in places, above the normal skeletal tissue on the outer
surface of the bone. Walker and his colleagues consider many possible causes
for this pathological bone growth and conclude that an overconsumption of
vitamin A (hypervitaminosis A) is the most likely cause. Similar cases of
hypervitaminosis A have occurred in arctic explorers who consumed the liv-
ers of polar bear and seal. The liver stores vitamin A, and the liver of car-
nivores, who are at the top of the food chain, usually contain the greatest
amounts of this vitamin. Walker et al. suggest that the cause of the bone
pathology in this specimen of H. erectus was due to eating the liver of car-
Despite rhe evidence for scavenging animal carcasses and, perhaps, prey-
ing on leopards, the bulk of the hominid diet has almost always been from
plants. The stone tools of the early hominids may also have been used to
process plant foods that were difficult to chew, such as seeds. Walker (1981)
and Kay (1985) studied the finer details of early hominid dental structure
and tooth wear using the scanning electron microscope and tooth wear ex-
periments. These researchers propose that the diet of the early hominids,
including Australopithecus and H. habilis, was largely herbivorous, including
softer plant foods (leaves, fruits) as well as the tougher seeds and tubers.
Given all of the evidence now available, perhaps it is safest to say that the
gathering of plants, insects, birds' eggs, and other relatively immobile foods
along with the scavenging of marrow from carnivore kills typified early hom-
inid food behavior.
The early hominid dietary pattern continues through H. erectus times. Bin-
ford (1987) reanalyzed fossil material from Torralba, a H. erectus site in Spain,
and Zhoukoudian, a cave site near Bejing, China, spanning the period from
H. erectus to H. sapiens. During the H. erectus period of occupation (250,000
to 450,000 years B.P.), both sites show evidence of the gathering of plant
foods and scavenging, rather than hunting. The animal bones at these sites
appear to have been processed and consumed on the spot, rather then car-
ried to any sort of "base camp." If this is so, then past theories about the
evolution of human biology and behavior-including bipedalism, large
brains, division of labor, sharing, and intense parental investment in off-
spring-that depended on hunting and "family style dining" at home bases
have to be rejected. Binford (1984) states that convincing evidence for the
regular hunting of big game does not appear in the fossil record until 90,000
years B.P. at the earliest.
H. erectus added fire to its repertoire of technology. Fire, which may have
been used as early as 1.4 million years ago and was certainly controlled by
750,000 years B.P., provided warmth, light, protection, and a new way to
process foods. Where and how cooking was invented is a matter for specu-
lation. Cooking, by roasting or boiling, increases the nutritional benefit of
many vegetable foods by helping to break down the cellulose in those foods,
which is undigestible to people. Fire may be used to open large seeds that
resist even stone tools. Cooking, especially drying or smoking, helps to pre-
serve foods for storage. Fire may also be used to obtain foods, especially
when used to drive game toward a convenient killing site. All of these uses
of fire did not appear simultaneously, and many appear to be the invention
of H. sapiens rather than H. erectus. What is certain is that the controlled use
of fire was a significant addition to hominid technology with profound con-
sequences for nutritional status.
Coprolite analysis might seem to provide unequivocal evidence of dietary
habits, but it too is subject to misinterpretation. First, the coprolite must be
identified as unambiguously being from a hominid. Second, coprolites can
only verify that a particular substance was eaten. That substance may or may
not have been a food item itself, it may have been ingested coincidentally
along with a food, such as a seed or insect clinging to an animal or plant.
Third, only undigestible substances will be found in feces and those sub-
stances must be suitable candidates for fossilization to be preserved in a
coprolite. Thus, coprolite analysis may provide a very biased picture of the
true dietary intake. Even so, considerable information has been obtained
about the diet of prehistoric humans, and limited information about the diet
of hominid species ancestral CO modern people, using coprolite analysis. The
animal affinity of desiccated coprolites can be determined by placing the
specimen in a trisodium phosphate solution for 72 hours. Human coprolites
produces this effect (Bryant and Williams-Dean 197.5). Other characteristics
of human feces are inclusions of charcoal and the presence of undigested
animal parts from a wide variety of species. Charcoal comes from cooking
food over a wood fire. Since people cook their food and other animals do
not, the presence of charcoal in feces is indirect evidence of a unique human
behavior. People also have an eclectic diet compared to most other mam-
mals, so undigested parts from a wide variety of species is another indicator
of the human affinities of a coprolite. More than 1,000 paleoindian coprolites
from the American southwest have been identified and analyzed. One group
of specimens nas collected from Texas sites that date from 800 B.C.E. to 500
C.E., representing the temporary camps of hunting and gathering peoples
(Bryant 1974). By comparing the pollen content of the coprolites with that
of the adjacent soils, it was determined that the people had consumed high
quantities of flowers. Because the physical characteristics of flower pollens
are unique to each species, it was possible to determine that flowers of agave,
sotol, yucca, prickly pear cactus, gilia, and leadtree were popular foods. Also
found were remains of wild onion bulbs, bark, grasshoppers, fish, small rep-
tiles, and snails. Although not the current cuisine of Texas, this diet is typ-
ically human in its diversity of species. The flower pollen even provides a
time frame for the occupation of the sites of spring and early summer.
Coprolites from paleoindian sites in New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas
contain pollen from plants of known pharmacological value, suggesting that
people have a long history of consuming plants as medicines as well as foods
(Reinhard 1989). Willow, an analgesic with essentially the same active in-
gredient as in aspirin, Ephedra, an antihistamine, and creosote, an antidi-
arrheal, are the most concentrated pollens in the samples. Ethnographic
evidence shows that these three species were, and are still, widely used as
medicines by Native Americans (Moerman, 1986, 1989). Willow tea is used
for the treatment of many aches and pains, Ephedra tea is prescribed for the
stuffy noses of the common cold, and creosote is indicated for any type of
loose bowls. Reinhard (1989) states that the analysis of these coprolites
"demonstrates the antiquity of folk remedies and provides circumstantial
evidence of certain disorders suffered by prehistoric peoples" (p. 2).
The oldest verified coprolites of a hominid species are from the H. erectus
site of Terra Amata located on the French Mediterranean. These coprolites
may be as old as 300,000 B.P, and they are heavily mineralized. They have
only a slight reaction to trisodium phosphate rehydration (Bryant and Wil-
liams-Dean 1975). The specimens contain sand grains, charcoal, and mollusk
shell fragments. The sand and shell are expected, since Terra Amata is a
beachfront site, and the charcoal helps establish that foods were cooked
before consumption (maybe evidence for a prehistoric clam bake!).
modern (e.g., modern people have more gracile skeletal features than archaic
forms). Care was taken to control for differences in the amount of calcium
and strontium in the soils of different fossil sites and other confounding
geological variables. It was found that Sr/Ca ratios in bone increased with
time, suggesting more plant food in the diet, but the increase occurred
20.000 vears after the modern human form appears in the fossil record.
Schoeninger concludes that the morphological transition from archaic to
modern H. sapiens was not due to the utilization of new foods, rather it was
due to "alterations in the means of procuring or processing the same kinds
of foods that had been utilized earlier in time" (p. 37). In other words, be-
havioral and cultural changes were more important than diet change per se
in bringing about the biological form of modern humans. This along with
the other examples of trace element and stable isotope analysis clearly shows
the biocultural nature of people and food.
STUDIES OF LIVING HUNTERS AND GATHERERS
Today, 99.9 percent of people derive their food from some form of agri-
culture. However, from the time of the Australopithecus until about 10,000
years ago, a time period that covers 99 percent of human evolution, all hom-
inids lived by foraging-the gathering, scavenging, and, more recently, hunt-
ing of wild foods. Most human physical traits, and perhaps many behavioral
Propensities, evolved during the time that hominids lived as hunters and
gatherers. That biobehavioral evolution includes current human dietary re-
quirements, adaptations for food acquisition and processing, and biocultural
responses to food intake. Studies of the few remaining cultures of hunting
and gathering peoples offer an indirect view of that style of life, now nearly
extinct. These ethnographic and ecological studies complement the infor-
mation derived from paleontological and archaeological sources.
Foragers are a diverse group geographically and culturally, ranging from
the arctic Inuit and Eskimo, to the tropical forest Ache (Paraguay), to the
dry scrub San (Africa) and the desert Australian Aborigines. Yet research
shows some consistencies in behavior and diet. The diversity of food re-
sources utilized is high among gathering and hunting peoples compared with
agriculturalists. The !Kung San of southern Africa, for instance, eat 105 spe-
cies of plants and 144 species of animals (Lee 1984). The Australian North
Queensland Aborigines exploit 240 species of plants and 120 species of an-
imals (Gould 1981). The Ache forage on fewer species, about 90 types of
plants and animals (Hill and Hurtado 1989). Even the Dogrib, residing in
the subarctic of Canada, gather 10 species of plants and 33 species of animals
(Hayden 1981). That is a small food base for hunters and gathers, but still
a large number relative to agriculturalists who, on a worldwide basis, subsist
largely on four species of plants and two species of animals. Of nine species
of staple plant foods, wheat, rice, potatoes, and maize together account for
Table 6.3 Hunters and Gatherers
|Group (location)||Group size||Population density/per 100 mi2||Freq. Of moves|
|Paliyans (India)||24||200||As needed=45 days?|
|!Kung San (Africa)||20||41||14-21|
|Hazda (Africa)||9||40||14 days|
|Giwi San (Africa)||55||16||21 days|
|Ache (S. America)||48||8||Daily,143 days|
|Guayaki (S. America)||16||7||3 days|
|Western Desert Australia||20||3||7-14 days|
|Mistassini (Canada)||15||1||180 days|
Source: Hayden 1981. Ache data from Hill and Hurtada, 1989.
1,680 of the 2,284 million metric tons consumed (sorghum, sweet potatoes,
barley, millet, and cassava are the other five staples, [Garine 19941). Of the
animal foods, cattle and hogs account for 80 out of every 100 metric tons of
domesticated animal meat. Poultry, lamb, goat, buffalo, and horse make up
the bulk of the remaining 20 metric tons (Bogin 1985).
- A second common feature is that gathered foods (plants, insects, birds'
eggs, turtles, etc.) are the primary subsistence base in most foraging societies.
Lee (1968) compared 58 forager groups and found that the primary subsis-
tence source was gathering for 29, fishing for 18, and hunting for 11. Ten
of the hunting groups and 16 of the fishing groups lived north or south of
the 40-degree parallel. Thus, not only is gathering the most common sub-
sistence pattern, it is correlated with tropical, subtropical, and low-temperate
habitats. Such habitats were the home for all species of hominids until the
middle to late Paleolithic period.
Often the use of many species for subsistence is correlated with the high
diversity, low density, or seasonality of food items in the environment. In
habitats where low density is combined with the wide dispersal of foods,
foragers must be mobile and live in small groups. Thus a small, mobile social
group is a third typical feature of forager societies, but, as shown in Table
6.3, it is not a universal feature. Leaving aside the Nootka, average group
size ranges from 9 to 55 and average densities range from 1 to 200 people
per 100 square miles. Mobility ranges from daily movement from camp to
camp in the case of the Ache to seasonal sedentariness at one camp (e.g., a
winter lodge) in the case of the Mistassini (hunters of the Canadian boreal
The Ache are unusual in their daily movement, but contemporary Ache
The Nine Universal Features of Human Nutrition and Food Behavior and
the Sources of Evidence Used to Study Their Evolution
Sources of evidence
|1. Large number of essential nutrients||Primate studies, biomedical research|
|2. Each culture has a cuisine||Archaeology, ethnography|
|3. Extreme omnivory||Primate studies, hunters& gatherers|
|4. Transport of foods||Archaeology, ethnography|
|5. Storage of foods||Archaeology, ethnography|
|6. Complex technology for acquisition & preparation||Archaeology, ethnography|
|7. Sharing and division of labor||Primate studies, hunters& gatherers|
|8. Food taboos||Ethnography|
|9. Non-nutritional use of potential foods||Archaeolog, ethnography|
SUMMARY OF EVIDENCE FOR THE EVOLUTION
OF HUMAN NUTRITION
Table 6.4 lists the nine universal features of human nutrition and food
behavior. Also listed in the table are the sources of evidence that allow an
understanding of the origin and function of these universals. The human
place in nature as primates explains our broad requirements of essential
nutrients. Fossil and archaeological evidence accounts for the development
of cuisines and the technology for food acquisition, preparation, and storage.
The study of living hunting and gathering peoples complements and sup-
ports these other sources of evidence. Five features of food and behavior
are typically found in hunting and gathering societies: (1) a high diversity
of food types; (2) greater dependence on gathering over hunting; (3) small,
mobile social groups; (4) dependence on technology for acquiring and proc-
essing foods; (5) and division of labor and sharing. Additionally, forager stud-
ies detail the nature of human food transport for exchange and sharing and
provide some information on the origin of food taboos and nonnutritional
uses of foods.
Using the methods of research described here, archaeological and pale-
ontological evidence, ethnographic studies of living hunting and gathering
people, and the nutritional analysis of wild plant and animal food, Eaton
and Konner (1985) reconstructed the diet of Paleolithic people living during
The Paleolithic Diet of 15,000 Years B.P., the Current American Diet, and
One Set of Dietary Recommendations for the United States
|Daily Intake Paleolithic American' Recommended2|
|Daily intakes M W|
|Total dietary energy (%)|
|Ascorbic acid [mg]||392||121||87||60|
|Simple sugars [g]||Trace||=154||=154||=50|
`.Amcrican diet for adults E-29 years old surveyed between 1988 and 1991, published by the
Centers for Disease Control, 1994: hl = men, W = women. Based on a diet of 3,025 cal-
orirs per day for men and 1,957 calories per day for women.
`Recommendations of I1.S. Senate Select Committee and Food and Nutrition Board, National
Academy of Sciences. Values for adults, sexes combined.
`Ratio of polyunsaturated to saturated fats from ail foods.
Soure: Paleolithic diet: Eaton and Konner 1985: American diet: Guthrie and Picciano 1995,
the last glacial period in western Europe, about 15,000 years ago. Garn and Leonard (1989)
point out that this diet was not typical of the majority of
people alive at that time. The majority lived at tropical or subtropical lati-
tudes and consumed more wild grains and less animal meat-recall Schoen-
inger's (1982) analysis of Paleolithic diets from Israel. Garn and Leonard
state that "many of our ancestors ate poorly,. . . and they were often at risk
for vitamin deficiencies, food-borne diseases, and neurotoxins" (1989: 337).
Despite these caveats, the Paleolithic diet reconstructed by Eaton and Kon-
ner offers some useful data, especially when compared with the modern
Table 6.5 compares this Paleolithic diet with that of modern Americans
and U.S. government recommendations for a safe and healthy diet. These
glacial people ate more protein and less fat than we do. Eaton and Konner's
analysis of living foragers indicates that the average diet consists of 3.5 per-
cent of calories from meat and 65 percent of calories from vegetable foods.
Although plants contribute protein to the diet, Eaton and Konner estimate
that most of the protein was from animals, including fish, insects, and other
invertebrates. Fat intake was lower in the Paleolithic due to the low content
of fat in wild game. The average carcass fat content of 15 species of wild
herbivore surveyed by Eaton and Konner is 3.9 percent compared to an
average of 25 to 30 percent in domesticated carcasses (cattle, hogs, etc.).
Moreover, compared with domesticated meat, the fat of wild game is about
five times higher in the polyunsaturated form. Along with plant foods rich
in polyunsaturated fats, the paleolithic diet has a high ratio in polyunsatu-
rated to saturated fats. Cholesterol intakes appear to have been higher in
the ancient diet. In the early 1980s. however, the ancient and modern diets
contained similar amounts of cholesterol, and fat intake of the American diet
was about 42 percent of total calories. It seems that Americans have learned
to eat foods with less fat and cholesterol. Unfortunately, Americans are also
eating more total food (i.e., calories) than in 1980. So, despite a decrease in
fat consumption there has been an increase in body weight, mostly due to
fatness, for both average and obese children and adults (Yip and Scanlon
The modern ethnographic data and the archaeological data indicate that
Paleolithic people would have gathered a wide assortment of wild plant
foods and many species of animals, ensuring variety in both vitamin and
mineral content and in taste and appearance. In contrast, the many people
living in agricultural and industrial societies eat from an extremely narrow
range of food options. Modern people eat more wheat, rice, potatoes, and
maize than the next 26 most often consumed plants combined (when did
you last eat a turnip?). There are many reasons for this. For most of the
world the reasons are associated with economics. Wheat, rice, potatoes, and
maize are grown on a large scale to make profits for national or multinational
agribusiness corporations. The intensive production of these and a few other
crops is very efficient in terms of business practices and profits. These crops
may be produced relatively cheaply, making them more affordable to the
80 percent of the world population who live in less-developed nations and
who are at or near the poverty level. The more affluent 20 percent of the
world's people, living mostly in the more-developed nations of Europe, Ja-
pan, Australia, and North America, can eat a much wider variety of foods.
They can afford to buy more expensive foods that are produced in limited
quantities and often shipped long distances. The Japanese and French, for
example, eat dozens of species of animals, including many mammals (rabbits,
sheep, horses) and ocean species (shell fish, sea urchins, fish) as part of their
regular diet. The modern American diet, on the other hand, is much more
restricted in food choice. A survey of most supermarkets will reveal a limited
variety of animal protein sources (when did you last eat horse, rabbit, or
even fish?). Americans eat more ground beef, usually in the form of ham-
burgers, than any other animal protein food. It is estimated that 12,000 ham-
burgers are consumed each minute in the United States-a rate of 200 per
second (Lieberman 1991). The consumption of ground beef also accounts
for about one-half of the total fat and three-fourths of the saturated fat in
the American diet. Surveys of food consumption generally find that the uni-
formity and limited variety of offerings available at fast-food restaurants de-
picts the current American diet very well.
The Eaton and Konner reconstruction also indicates that our ancestors ate
much more fiber, calcium, and vitamin C, but far less sodium. Our ancestors
ate simple sugars only in natural forms, for instance from fruits, but today
we each eat about 124 pounds of simple sugar (mostly sucrose and corn
syrup) a year. Paleolithic foragers consumed no dairy products, except for
mother's milk during infancy, and little alcohol. Consumption of dairy foods
is a by-product of animal domestication, and thus less than 12,000 years old.
Even today, dairy products are staple foods in only a few societies. Most
adults lack rhe enzyme lactase needed to digest the milk sugar lactose
(Kretchmer 1972). Some societies do eat cheeses or yogurt, for these foods
have their lactase digested by bacteria, but these foods are often too expen-
sive for most of the world's people. The wealth of the developed nations
allows [their populations to consume large quantities of dairy products. In
the [United States, 20 percent of protein, and most calcium, comes from milk
and cheeses. These foods, unfortunately, also contain high amounts of fat
and sodium, which also typify the American diet. Alcohol is, basically, also
a product of domestication-the domestication of grains such as maize and
barley. Some alcoholic beverages (beer, mead, wine) contains some nutri-
ents, but alcohol itself provides no essential nutrients. Even so, alcohol con-
tains energy-seven calories per gram-and contributes a measurable
percent of calories to the American diet.
High intakes of fat, especially saturated fat, simple sugars, sodium, and al-
cohol are linked with health problems, such as obesity, heart disease, and liver
disease. Apparently, Americans are aware of a problem, for example, millions
of dollars are spent annually for weight loss programs. The weight loss pro-
grams usually have little long-term success, indeed the average weight and
fatness of Americans has increased in the last few decades. A narrow diet is
also a risk for nutrient deficiencies, such as the low calcium intake of many
Americans. The response of the people is to purchase nutritional supplements
and special "health foods." The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (note
that food and drugs are lumped together by American culture) estimates that
40 percent of adults regularly take at least one vitamin and mineral product
(Moss et al. 1989). Taking vitamin pills to compensate for a narrow diet was
not the nutritional behavior followed by our ancestors. Consumption of vita-
mins via pills is not bad, or harmful, in and of itself. Our bodies make no dis-
tinction between the vitamins in food and those synthesized by chemists.
Eating food, however, provides the physical and emotional satisfaction of
taste, aroma, and a full stomach, along with other nutritional factors that are
linked with good health, such as fiber. Of course, one can also buy and con-
sume "fiber pills." Indeed, there are pills to reduce high serum cholesterol
levels, induced by all those hamburgers, and to lower blood pressure, induced,
in part, from our sodium overload. Perhaps it is best to view American nutri-
tional habits as part of a biocultural system with its own internal logic. The
system works, in the sense that there are fewer nutritional deficiency diseases
in the United States today than ever before.
Nutritional oversufficiency is the single biggest dietary problem in the
United States. In this regard, it is important to mention one other major
difference between Paleolithic people and contemporary Americans. The
former were required to perform high levels of both aerobic and anaerobic
exercise, while the latter are sedentary ("couch potatoes" in the vernacular).
Foraging people of the past and of today have the physique and cardiovas-
cular conditioning of athletes. No amount of diet change or pill consumption
for Americans and people of the other developed nations will improve health
without a simultaneous increase in physical activity.
AGRICULTURE AND THE DECLINE OF HUMAN
NUTRITION AND HEALTH
Some of the nutritional problems of modern world societies are: (1) a
narrow food base, leading to deficiencies for some essential nutrients, (2) an
inadequate supply of energy (i.e., undernutrition of total calories from all
food sources) for about 60 percent of the world's population, especially the
poor in the least-developed countries, and (3) an oversupply of energy, lead-
ing to obesity and related diseases in the developed nations and, increas-
ingly, among the more affluent in the developing nations. The immediate
causes of these problems include a host of social problems, such as poverty
and other economic inequalities, political unrest (such as civil and ethnic
wars), inadequate water management, and unregulated population growth.
Although these are significant proximate causes for the world's current nu-
tritional crisis, there is a more fundamental explanation that had its origin
at the end of the Paleolithic period.
The major culprit of the nutritional dilemma is agriculture. More recently,
industrialization and urbanization have compounded the effects of agricul-
ture on the nutritional status and health of human populations. Agriculture,
industrialization, and urbanization are often stated to be the hallmarks of
"progress" of the human species. Although progressive in a technological
sense, each of these achievements has had negative consequences for human
nutrition and health.
There is much evidence from the developing nations of the world that
the food production systems of rural people correlate strongly to their nu-
tritional status. The classic study of Indonesian peoples by Geertz (1963)
shows that simple horticulturalists have the most abundant variety and
amount of foods, while food shortages and frank malnutrition are most com-
mon in areas of intensive rice agriculture. Whyte (1974) extended these
findings to much of tropical Asia. Whyte's analysis shows that foragers, hor-
ticulturalists, and fishing societies have diversified diets, but often inade-
quate calorie intakes. These societies are better nourished, however, than
peoples practicing mixed agriculture-pastoralism and intensive irrigation ag-
$eulture, especially of rice. The agriculturalists suffer marginal to serious
malnutrition for total calories and many vitamins, minerals, and protein.
The dilemma of modern agricultural societies has deep historical roots.
Studies of archaeological populations show that several indicators of biolog-
jal stress increase with the transition from foraging to horticulture and ag-
riculture (Cohen and Armelagos 1984). These stress indicators include bone
lesions due to anemia (called porotic hyperostosis), deficits in enamel for-
mation in teeth (hypoplasias), loss of bone tissue from the skeleton, bone
lesions due to infectious disease, such as tuberculosis (called periosteal re-
petjon), and reduced skeletal growth in children and adults (Goodman et al.
1988). The Dickson Mounds site of the Illinois River Valley provides a
classic example. From C.E. 950 to 1300 the human population of that area
hanged from mobile foragers to sedentary intensive agriculturalists. During
"this short time period, "the shift in subsistence led to a fourfold increase in
iron deficiency anemia (porotic hyperostosis) and a threefold increase in in-
fectious disease (periosteal reaction). The frequency of individuals with both
iron deficiency and infectious lesions increased from 6% to 40%" (Goodman
et al. 1988~180).
' The incidence of enamel hypoplasias (malformations of the tooth crown
that include pitting, linear furrowing, or complete lack of enamel) also in-
creases from the forager to agricultural period. These dental deficiencies
occur when malnutrition or disease disrupt the secretion of enamel-forming
material. For the permanent teeth that process takes place during infancy
and childhood. Thus enamel hypoplasias leave a permanent record in the
teeth of nutritional or disease stress that people experienced in early life. In
the Dickson Mound skeletal material the prevalence of hypoplasia increases
with time, going from 45 to 80 percent of individuals affected. Furthermore,
the number of hypoplasias correlates to mortality. Individuals with one hy-
poplasia died, on average, five years earlier than people with no hypoplasias.
With two or more hypoplasias age at death was reduced by nine years (Good-
man et al. 1988~180). Since peoples' teeth form in a fixed pattern that is
Virtually the same in all human beings, it is possible to correlate the frequency
of hypoplasias found on different teeth to the age of the individual
n the disease stress occurred. At Dickson Mound that correlation indi-
cates that infants and young children were especially subject to health stress
at the age of weaning- (about two to four years of age). Deficiencies in the
weaning diet, combined with increased exposure to infections and other
diseases at the time of weaning, were very likely the cause of the hypoplasias
Goodman et al. 1988).
With the development of agriculture the Dickson Mound people shifted
from a diverse food base to one dependent on maize. The emphasis on
monoculture reduced the supply of essential nutrients, especially amino ac-
ids and vitamins not found in maize, and this compromised the health of
the people. Compounding these nutritional problems was rapid population
growth. Despite a lowering in the average age at death at the Dickson
mound site, population sizes increased due to a shorter interval between
births (about two years as compared with four years in forager populations).
Larger populations and sedentarism gave rise to the conditions favorable for
the spread of infectious disease, and the poor nutritional state of the people
made them more susceptible to these diseases.
POLITICAL ECONOMY, FOOD, AND HEALTH
There are other archaeological examples of decline in human health with
the spread of agriculture, including sites in Africa, the Middle East, Latin
America, and Asia. But, not all people living in agricultural societies suffered
health problems. The social organization and political economy of each so-
ciety played a major role in the distribution of resources, especially food and
health care. One example comes from nearly three decades of research on
ancient and medieval Nubia (Van Gerven et al. 1995). Nubia is region of
the Nile River valley from southern Egypt to northern Sudan, bounded by
the First Cataract at Aswan to about the Fourth Cataract in modern Sudan.
For the past 5,000 years the people of Nubia lived by the agricultural pro-
duction of "sorghum, millet (locally known as dura), barely, beans, lentils,
peas, dates, and wheat. In addition, a few cattle, sheep, and pigs were kept,
but animal products appear to have been a minor part of the Nubian diet"
(ibid: 469). While the dietary base remained stable for millennia, the political
base of Nubia changed many times. From about 350 B.C.E to C.E. 350, called
the Meroitic period, there was political unification of all Nubia under a cen-
tralized, militaristic state society. The Meroitic state had great wealth, great
urban centers, but also great social stratification. The following Ballana pe-
riod (ca. C.E. 350-550) was politically decentralized, with people living in
smaller but more self-sufficient settlements. Overall, health status, as re-
vealed from skeletal and dental indicators, was better in the Ballana period
than in Meroitic times. People also lived longer during the Ballana period.
By the end of sixth century AD. Nubia was again unified under a series
of Christian kingdoms. The Christian period ended in C.E. 1365, following
the ascension of a Moslem prince to the throne in C.E. 1323. Van Gerven
and colleagues analyzed skeletons from a Christian period cemetery located
in the town of Kulubnarti, near the Dal Cataract. The early Christian period
was highly centralized and socially stratified, and the people of Kulubnarti
"were but a small and contributing satellite to a centralized and distant
authority" (Van Gerren et al. 478). The people contributed taxes in the form
of food surplus and labor. By the late Christian period, the central state
authority was in decline and satellite communities like Kulubnarti were es-
sentially ignored and independent. The populous of Kulubnarti reverted to
subsistence agriculture, local political control, and were free of taxation. The
skeletons from the cemetery show that infant and child mortality was
greatest during the early Christian period. Enamel hypoplasias occurred at
earlier ages and were more frequent. and there was more evidence of anemia
during early Christian times. Late Christian-period people suffered from all
of these indicators of poor health too, but less so. All of this shows, again,
that the political economy of a society interacts with the food base to shape
the pattern of health of the people.
CONQUEST, FOOD, AND HEALTH
Colonization of the New World, Africa. and Asia by the Spanish and other
Europeans introduced new plants. animals. foods, and diseases. Europeans
also introduced a new political economy. Generally, the diet and health of
native people suffered. A book edited by Larsen and Milner ( 1994) provides
up-to-date reviews of the biological effects of New World conquest. The
colonizers, however, also suffered from the introduction of new foods to their
diets. Pellagra is a nutritional disease caused by a lack of niacin (vitamin B3,).
The word pellagra is Italian, meaning rough or painful skin, and was used
to describe the disease when it first appeared in the eighteenth century in
chat country. In Spain the same disease also appeared at that time, but it
was called mal del sol ("sun disease"). Pellagra's classic symptoms are the
four D's-dermatitis, diarrhea, depression, and dementia. The early symp-
tom of light-sensitive dermatitis gave the condition its Spanish name. How-
ever, sunlight only aggravated the real cause, a diet based on the
consumption of highly refined maize. Maize was domesticated in the New
World and exported to Europe after contact with native American people.
Maize grew well in Europe and quickly became an abundant and inexpen-
sive food that replaced many traditional grains. This was true especially in
rhe diet of the poor of southern Europe which. by the 17OOs, was predom-
inantly based on maize, molasses (derived from sugarcane, which is of Asian
origin), and salt pork.
Maize is naturally low in the amino acids lysine, tryptophan, and cystine,
and in the vitamin niacin. Molasses and salt pork are also deficient in these
same nutrients. Milling the maize removes the husk and germ, further re-
ducing the niacin content, from 2.4 mg per cup to 1.4 mg per cup. The
minimum daily need for niacin in adults is set at 13 mg per day by the
World Health Organization. For cultural reason, Europeans preferred the
bleached white appearance of the highly milled maize, as it imitated the
more expensive wheat flour consumed by the wealthy. For the poor, who
followed a monotonous diet based on maize flour, pellagra was the result.
Pellagra spread to the United States as Europeans and their diets became
the dominant cultural force. It was confined to cotton producing and cotton
[SOME TEXT IS LEFT OUT DUE TO LENGTH]
indoor air of homes was established. In 1978, due to an excess of miscarriages
by women from Love Canal, the state of New York evacuated 235 families.
In 1980 the Federal government of the United States evacuated the re-
maining 800 families.
Prior to the 1980 evacuation, Paigen and colleagues measured the height
and weight of 921 children between the ages of 1.5 and 16.99 years from
424 households of Love Canal. A second control sample of 428 children from
Niagara Falls was also measured. The children of the control sample were
from homes in noncontaminated neighborhoods but similar to the Love
Canal sample in terms of socioeconomic and ethnic background. No differ-
ence in weight was found between the Love Canal and control samples.
However, children born and residing in Love Canal for at least 75 percent
of their lives were significantly shorter than the children from Niagara Falls.
That difference could not be accounted for by statistically controlling the
effect of parental height, socioeconomic status, nutritional status, birth
weight, or history of chronic illness. The authors of the report conclude that
chronic exposure to the toxic industrial wastes is a likely cause of the growth
retardation of Love Canal residents.
One does not have to live on top of a toxic waste dump to suffer the
effects of industrial pollutants. Lead dust in the air, water, and soil of in-
dustrialized countries affects virtually all of the population (Schell 1992).
Toxic levels of lead causes neurological disease in both children and adults.
The lead dust comes from a variety of sources, especially leaded gasolines
and water pipes joined with lead solder. The nutritional impact of lead is
that food grown in areas with high levels of automobile traffic may be con-
taminated with lead from the soil. Even worse, anyone living in an older
home is at risk for lead in drinking water. Even though lead was virtually
removed from gasolines in the 1980s and banned from plumbing solder in
the United States in 1986, the accumulation of lead in water and soils is so
great that all Americans have measurable lead accumulations in their bodies.
DIET AND THE DISEASES OF MODERN LIFE
After the year 1900, the affluent people of industrial areas in Britain and
other Western nations begin to achieve adult heights greater than those of
people in rural areas. The technology of Western nations, including efficient
transport of regional and nonnative foods, refrigeration, nutritional supple-
mentation, treated water, and public sanitation, allowed their people to over-
come some of the nutritional and health deficits of agriculture,
industrialization, and urbanization (Bogin 1988b). Other evidence for the
improving conditions of life in developed nations comes from mortality sta-
tistics. Prior to 1850, deaths from epidemic diseases were a leading cause of
mortality in the cities of Europe and North America. Death rates were so
high that urban populations required massive migration from rural areas just
to maintain constant numbers (McNeil1 1979). Between 1850 and 1900 death
rates in urban and rural areas began to equalize, and since 1900, urban mor-
tality rates, for all ages, have been lower, generally, than rural mortality rates.
The process of modernization in developed counties that resulted in better
physical growth and lower rates of mortality for urban populations is now
taking place in developing nations. Conditions for life in many Third World
cities are still abominable for the poor underclass. However, current trends
in some Third World countries indicate that these nations may follow the
historical path toward modernization that occurred in Western nations (Bogin
Improved physical growth and longer life do not mean that modern urban
populations are free of the specter of malnutrition and disease. Rather, as
the threat of undernutrition and infectious disease relaxed, a suite of new
diseases related to the diet and life-style of industrialized/urbanized people
developed to burden modern affluent people. Data from 1990 show that
cardiovascular disease and cancer are the two leading causes of death in the
United States. They are followed by cerebrovascular disease (e.g., stokes),
accidents (mostly motor vehicle and firearm accidents), pulmonary diseases,
and diabetes. The literature on the relationship of diet to heart disease,
cancer, and diabetes is abundant and controversial. Alcohol, a dietary com-
ponent as well as a drug, contributes substantially to accidents and many of
the other leading causes of death.
The increase of cardiovascular disease in developed nations in this century
can be linked to diet in several ways. An intriguing hypothesis to account
for the epidemic of heart disease that occurred after World War II is pro-
posed by Barker (1992). Using both geographical analysis and the health
history of thousands of individual people, Barker and his colleagues show
that babies with some indication of growth retardation (low birth weight,
small but normal size, or small head circumference) have a higher risk of
cardiovascular disease as adults. Growth retardation at birth is very often a
nutritional problem. Either the mother is poorly nourished, or, despite ad-
equate maternal nutrition, not enough nutrients cross the placenta to the
Poor nutrition during childhood may add to the risk of heart disease. Fe-
llague-Ariouat and Barker (1993) interviewed women from England and
Wales aged 80 years or older about their food habits when they were 10 to
1.5 years old (spanning the years 1899 to 1924). All of the women grew up
in families of lower economic status. The women who lived in areas that
today have low cardiovascular mortality tended to be rural, "to eat four meals
a day rather than three, to live in households which had gardens, kept hens
or livestock, and to go into domestic service, where diets were generally
good. Those who grew up in areas which have high cardiovascular mortality
tended to eat less red meat, live in houses without gardens, to enter indus-
trial occupations and have higher fertility rates" (p. 15). The high mortality
[BREAK IN TEXT HERE]
Nubian mummy (D. Moerman, personal communication). A carcinogen (can-
cer-causing substance) is usually needed to provoke a cancer. Many carcin-
ogens are industrial products, but some are found naturally in foods. Cancer
rates for modern people change as food preferences change. Takasaki and
colleagues (1987) studied the rates for different types of digestive system
cancer in the Japanese population during the period 1950 to 1983. The re-
searchers argue that between 40 to 60 percent of the incidence of cancer
may be attributable to diet, especially in those cases in which carcinogens
come into direct contact with the gastrointestinal tract. In the earlier years,
the typical Japanese cuisine was based on rice seasoned with highly salted
condiments, some green and yellow vegetables, and very little milk or diary
products. Takasaki et al. report that this type of diet is linked with stomach
cancer, and stomach cancer is the most frequent type of digestive system
cancer in Japan. During the 1960s the postwar industrialization and eco-
nomic recovery of Japan proceeded rapidly. One of the consequences of that
expansion was a shift from the traditional cuisine to one that included sig-
nificantly more dairy products and fat. Between 196.5 and 1983 rice con-
sumption dropped from about 300 gm per person per day to about 200 gm/
person/day. Milk and dairy products increased from about 75 to 150 gm/
person/day. Diets high in fats are associated with cancers of the intestine
and colon. In Japan, mortality rates (age adjusted) per 100,000 population
for stomach cancers dropped from about 37 to 22, while the same rates for
intestinal cancer increased from about 2 to 4.5.
Epidemiological studies such as Takasaki and colleagues' Japanese re-
search show many links between cancer and specific foods or cuisines. The
same holds true for heart disease, diabetes, and the other diseases of modern
life. This research negates the belief that these diseases are the natural
consequence of aging. Rather, these diseases are potential indicators of the
environmental quality of life and the well-being of human populations. The
fact that heart disease, cancers, and diabetes are the major causes of death
in developed nations belies the notion of "progress" that is a central belief
of European and American culture. While it is true that the average age at
death has increased steadily in developed nations in this century, most of
the increase is due to the control of infant and child mortality from infectious
disease. Adults suffer as much, or more, disease than 100 years ago, and may
suffer these diseases from an earlier age.
Food is safer today than 100 years ago in that processing, refrigeration,
and other technologies prevent spoilage and food poisoning. However, the
processing that increases short-term safety also adds salt, sugar or artificial
sweeteners, and, often, fats (both natural and artificial) to our diet that may
lead to long-term health risks. Advances in food technology also permit pro-
ducers and consumers to eat more preferred foods. Preferred foods may be
"good" or "bad" for people depending on the scientific, philosophical, and
moral code of a society. Many Americans, for example, abhor horse meat
Energy Inputs for Processing Common Food Items of Industrial Societies, the Energy Provided by Eating These Same Foods, and the Energy Cost to Produce the Container for These Foods
|Processed food Energy input Energy return Container|
|(kcal/kg) (kcalkg) (kcal)|
|Instant coffee 18,948 2,645 2,213|
|Chocolate 18,591 5,104 722|
|(corn flakes) 15,675 3,877 722|
|Beet sugar (= 17% sugar|
|in beets) 5,660 4,000 =400|
|Cane sugar (= 20% sugar|
|cane) 3,390 4,000 =400|
|Fruits and vegetables|
|(frozen) 1,815 =500 722|
|Fish (frozen) 1,815 1,058 =400|
|Baked goods (white bread) 1,485 2,680 559|
|Meat (hamburger) 1,206 2,714 =400|
|Ice cream (vamlla) 850 2,015 722|
|Fruit and vegetables|
|(canned) 575 =500 2,213|
|Flour (enriched, sifted) 484 3,643 =400|
|Milk (3.7% fat) 354 643 2,159|
Source: Energy inputs and containers: Harris 1993: energy rccums: Guthrie and Picciano 1995,
both for reasons of food safety and morality-horses are "pets" not "food."
The French, in contrast, insist that horse meat is best for making the dish
steak tartar, prepared from ground meat, which is seasoned with many spices
and flavorings and then eaten uncooked. The French state that horse meat is
safer to eat, as it is "free of parasites" (D. Moerman, personal communication).
The ability to produce virtually unlimited quantities of preferred foods
may be one reason that people in the developed nations, especially the
United States, tend to eat more food than ever before. In addition to the
technological advances in food production, there are social and ideological
reasons for this. In the more developed nations, food production and con-
sumption have become part of the industrial and commercial social structure
of the society (Lieberman 1991). Food is part of "big business," that is, the
economic, social, and political organizations that structure social organization
in industrial nations. Consider the social impact of the fast-food industry,
McDonald's Corporation for example. In the United States, the industriali-
zation of food production has reached the point where far more energy is
expended by the machines that harvest, process, and transport food than is
returned as food calories. Listed in Table 6.6 are several processed foods,
the amount of energy it takes to manufacture them, the energy return from
the foods themselves, and the energy cost of the container used to package
the food. To manufacture one kilogram of instant coffee, for example, re-
quires 18,948 kilocalories. Drinking all that as coffee, slightly more than 529
six-ounce cups, provides 2,645 kilocalories. The metal and plastic container
that the coffee is packaged in costs an additional 2,213 kilocalories to man-
ufacture. Chocolate, breakfast cereals, table sugar from beets and sugar cane,
frozen fruits and vegetables, and frozen fish also require more, or as much,
energy to produce and package than they return as food energy. Hamburg-
ers, the bread they are sandwiched into, and ice cream provide relatively
high-energy returns for the cost to processing these foods. But people do
not live by hamburgers and ice cream alone, not even Americans. Less-
processed foods such as fruits, vegetables, flour and milk provide as much
or more energy than they cost to process. This energy profit is countered
by relatively high-energy losses for manufacturing the container that holds
these foods. The figures in Table 6.6 do not include the costs to grow,
harvest, and transport the foods, nor the cost of operating factories and stores
that process and sell the foods. From an ecological perspective, one that
measures energy flow through a society, industrial food production systems
operate at an energy loss. Every other species of living things would go
extinct under these conditions. People living in industrial societies manage
to survive because industrial and business activities are able to generate
substantial financial profits, which can be used to offset food production
costs. Unfortunately, these financial profits often come at the expense of the
biologically evolved nutrition needs of the people.
Evidence of the commercialism of food and diet is easy to find. Print and
electronic media bombard people with the message that food promotes plea-
sure. This is especially true of foods that are high in fats and sugars. Igor
de Garine (1987) a French anthropologist of food, observes that the style
of food consumption today in wealthy nations reflects more a quest for plea-
sure and increased social status than a desire to fulfill human biological ne-
cessity. Of course this has been the case since at least the time of the ancient
Maya and Romans. Only recently, however, are people able to eat any food,
in any quantity, as often as they wish, if they can afford the price. This may
make people happier, and even more productive, in some sense, but there
are biological consequences of this sensual and socioeconomic pursuit of
satisfaction. There is an increasing body of research that shows that in ad-
dition to the body fat that accumulates from overeating, the chemical by-
products of excessive food digestion are themselves harmful. This includes
the digestion of any food, including low fat foods, sugar-free foods, and any
other so-called health food. These digestive by-products may cause cellular
damage that induces metabolic disease, such as diabetes, and accelerate ag-
ing (Weindruch 1996). Maybe today is a good time to go on that diet that
you have been thinking about.
This chapter offers one perspective on the evolution of human nutrition.
The mammalian and primate background for human nutrition, the hominid
fossil and archaeological evidence, the behavior and diet of human foraging
societies, and the development of modern foods and life-styles are treated
in some depth. Other aspects of human evolution related to food and nu-
trition are neglected here, such as a detailed discussion of food taboos, ritual
and profane foods, and the effect of seasonal periods of food shortage and
abundance on human biology and behavior. Also neglected are connections
between food production systems and diseases that are not directly caused
by food or diet. Malaria, for example, spread to human populations following
the introduction of agriculture in Africa (Livingstone 1958). Malaria kills
more people. even today, than any other infectious disease, and, conse-
quently, is a potent agent of natural selection and human evolution. There
is evidence that some African societies have developed biocultural systems
to produce and consume food, especially cassava, that reduce the threat of
malaria (Jackson 1990).
The most pressing nutrition problem of the twentieth century is also
barely mentioned. This is the undernutrition and starvation that afflicts
three-fourths of the world's children-nearly two billion people. The toll
that this takes on human health, productivity, and happiness is virtually
unmeasurable. The cause of this suffering lies in the social economic, and
political inequalities between rich and poor; inequalities that the affluent
populations are unwilling to change (Foster 1992; Shields 1995). These and
other topics dealing with human nutritional biochemistry, genetics, history,
ethnology, and psychology relating to food may be pursued in other sources
of reference, including other chapters in this book. The primary message of
all of these sources, and this chapter, is that food is central to human life.
From a biological perspective food is central because of the essential nutri-
ents needed for growth, repair, and maintenance of the body. From a soci-
ocultural perspective food is central because of the behaviors and beliefs
that have evolved around foods and their use. From a medical perspective
food is central because of the consequences of diet and food behavior for
human health. Combining these discrete perspectives into a single holistic
framework leads to the conclusion that human nutrition is a biocultural phe-
Professor Daniel Moerman and Dr. Alan Goodman read earlier versions of this
chapter, offering many suggestions to improve the presentation and correct errors of
fact. Their help and friendship is much appreciated.
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