It was found that early humans in the Andes preferred vegetarian diets, distorting the image of hunter-gatherers

It was found that early humans in the Andes preferred vegetarian diets, distorting the image of hunter-gatherers

Neanderthal.  (NASA/JPL)

Representative image


Thinking of the Stone Age brings to mind images of strong men stalking prey with spears in hand. Or perhaps we imagine cavemen and women gathered together and slowly cooking the day's delicious spoils over a fire. While this may have been the case among some groups of early humans, the broad nomenclature of hunter-gatherers cannot be associated with each group of these human ancestors.

A new study reveals that some previously known hunter-gatherers who lived in the Andes Mountains between 9,000 and 6,500 years ago ate a diet consisting of 80% plants and only 20% meat. That's right, they were more gatherers than hunters.

The bones reveal a plant-powered plate

The surprising discovery comes from the work of Dr. Randy Haas, an archaeologist at the University of Wyoming, who analyzed the remains of 24 individuals from burial sites in the Peruvian Andes. By studying the chemical composition of their bones, he was able to piece together what they ate. And imagine what? It turns out that tubers (like potatoes!) were the main source of fuel.

The study used a combination of isotope chemistry, ancient plant analysis, and zooarchaeology to reconstruct the diet in the early Andes. Burnt plant remains found at burial sites indicate that tubers were likely the most important source of food. Furthermore, distinct tooth wear patterns on individuals' upper incisors also support the idea of ​​a vegetarian diet.

These new findings challenge a long-held assumption about early human diets, which were often thought to be heavily meat-based. But as Dr. Haas points out, “conventional wisdom is that early human economies focused on hunting – an idea that led to a number of high-protein dietary fads such as the paleo diet.”

So, what does this mean for our understanding of these ancient societies? Well, it turns out they were probably more adaptable and resourceful than we gave them credit for. Not only did they figure out how to survive in the harsh, high-altitude Andean environment, but they also thrived thanks to a surprisingly plant-based diet.

According to the researchers, the commonly used description of early humans as “hunter-gatherers” should be changed to “hunter-gatherers,” at least in the Andes of South America.

Rethinking the transition to agriculture

This research also has implications for how we think about agricultural development. For a long time, the prevailing theory was that humans moved from hunting and gathering to agriculture because they needed a more reliable source of food. But if early Andean people already got most of their calories from plants, why bother with all the hard work of growing crops?

Dr. Haas suggests that the shift to agriculture may have been related to more social and cultural factors than simply the need for more food. Crop cultivation may have allowed the development of larger settlements and more complex societies. Or maybe it was just a way for people to show their green thumb.

Whatever the reason, this new study is a reminder that the past is full of surprises. And who knows, the early Andes and their plant-based ways might inspire you to add more vegetables to your diet!


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