Were Stone Agers Vegetarians?

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

May 2009

The humans who wandered through Europe, the Mediterranean Basin and Africa 50,000 years ago were skilled hunters, not vegetarians. But how about those very distant ancestors who first walked upright some 3 million years ago, long before they had acquired tool making and hunting skills? They probably foraged among hundreds of plant species for berries, leaves, nuts and fruits the way modern primates do. Their animal protein came from insects, very small animals, birds' eggs and carrion.

Are we really best suited for vegetarianism in spite of our history? The human metabolism is so adaptable that there is no obvious answer. We seem to be able to survive and thrive at the most opposite dietary extremes but merely surviving well enough to reproduce is not a measure of success. Some Inuit peoples of North America survived fairly well on the meat of marine animals and almost total absence of plant foods but fossil evidence shows that they suffered from anemia and osteoporosis. There is little evidence for absolute vegetarianism among present-day primitive societies. Among some groups women are not allowed to eat meat for varying periods of time but that is limited.

A true vegan diet certainly does confer several advantages. Vegans have little heart disease and hypertension; they have a lower incidence of cancer of the colon and perhaps of other organs. But there's a trade-off. The quality of today's plant foods is far lower that that which was available in the Stone Age and not nearly as diverse. Early humans had a great deal more variety among edible plants than we do and that variety carries considerable health benefits. It takes some careful meal planning to make up for the difference. Many well-intentioned vegetarians fail to learn how to prevent anemia and they risk complications of pregnancy.

What's the best diet for us now? It certainly isn't what most Americans eat! We overdo it on refined grains, sugar, alcohol, dairy products and most vegetable oils. Not a single one of those food items was available to any human prior to about 15,000 years ago and our health wouldn't suffer a bit if they all disappeared from the planet at once.

You don't have to become a vegetarian but it makes sense to eat more vegetables.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.