Derek Wall examines the "mighty hunter" myth of human
from The Vegetarian, September/October 1988, published
by The Vegetarian Society UK:
Derek Wall, B.Sc., studied archaeology at the Institute
of Archaeology which is part of London University.
Archaeology and vegetarianism are, at first sight, a
rather unlikely combination; most people if asked to consider the diet of
our ancestors would tend to conjure up images of cavemen roasting mammoth
steaks or early medieval monarchs spitting venison over a roaring fire,
not a lentil in sight. Many academics have taken these simplistic visions
to their logical and dangerous conclusion; to argue, that in the past we
have eaten meat, therefore eating meat is 'natural' and that vegetarianism
is an unhealthy regression to the period when we were full fruitarians and
swung from tree to tree.
Perhaps even more disturbing is the view that we have
only become human through eating meat, that according to people like
Robert Dart writing as long ago as the 1930s, it has only been through
hunting, aggression and violence that we have eaten non-carnivorous rivals
in the evolutionary battle of the fittest. According to Dart and others,
changes in human and early hominid dentition show that our teeth adapted
to chewing meat. Happily more recent investigation tells a different
story; Dr Clifford Tolly suggests that the real evolutionary transition
came when our ancestors left the tropical forests of central Africa and
took to the open savannah, shifting from a diet made up mostly of fruit to
one based on seeds and grains, our ancestors' teeth adapting to cope with
the relatively hard particles that needed a lot of grinding down before
they could be digested.
Despite this, nutritionalist John Yudkin claims that for
99% of our existence we have been hunters with an 'ideal' diet where '. .
. people tend to have a quite high proportion of meat.' Yudkin goes on to
draw the conclusion that we suffer nutritional problems today (especially
allergies) only to the extent we have shifted from this all animal diet
with the occasional root or tuber thrownin. A major pitfall associated
with this line of reasoning is the fact that much illness is caused by
over consumption of animal fats; heart disease cancer, weight problems . .
And again the archaeological evidence tells another story as does the
existence of so-called 'hunters' in the modern world.
Groups such as the Kalahari bushmen and the Australian
aborigines are not so much hunters as 'hunter-gathers', gathering much of
their diet in the form of roots and tubers, seed grains, fruit, nuts and
other nutritious plant products. Gould, who spent some time studying the
aborigines of the Western Desert, states quite clearly that, 'The diet is
primarily vegetarian'. In a very detailed study of the Kalahari bushman's
diet it is revealed that: 'The proportions by weight of vegetable food and
animal food in the total diet are, respectively, 81.3 per cent cent and
18.7 per cent. If the plants taken as water sources (such as melons and
tubers) are included in the vegetable food count, the ration of animal
food to vegetable food is even lower . . . Although the proportion of
animal food of the total (18.7 per cent) diet is quite large, the Kade San
can survive in the Kalahari without it, whereas they could not survive
without vegetable food.'
In fact, out of existing hunter-gathers and those
recorded by early anthropologists (before we made them extinct), only the
Eskimos/Innuit, living in a climate where they have little choice, eat
anything like the proportion of meat we consume today in Western society.
This said we can't have it all our own way, there have probably been as
few pure vegetarians as 20th century European style carnivores amongst our
hunter-gatherer ancestors. Even so, if we go by the evidence of modem
hunter-gathers, our ancestors probably ate meat in a more sensible fashion
than that of present. Meat tended to be, as we have seen, only a very
small part of diet, sauce to make the vegetables and grains more palatable
rather than the other way round. Hunter gathers also tend to treat their
prey with rather more respect than the way we treat our poor factory
farmed, hormone and antibiotic ridden livestock. The Ainu of Japan
traditionally pray to the spirits of the animals they kill and ask their
forgiveness; similar practice is known amongst both North American Indians
and African bushmen.
Any way, back to the strictly archaeological evidence.
Can we tell for certain what our ancestors in the very distant past before
the existence of written records ate? Dentition gives us at best only a
very rough idea and anthropology provides only possible parallels. Food
remains found in the course of archaeological 'digs' are a help but tend
to be biased to animal products because, in most conditions, bone is far
better preserved than highly biodegradable vegetable matter, if we
excavated a Kalahari bush camp, abandoned for the sake of argument for 50
years (a tiny span of time in archaeological terms), we would find bones
from the occasionally eaten gazelle but would miss almost entirely the
staple gongo nuts or the 50 other plants exploited from the desert as
Tools used for food preparations may help as well, but
flint 'tool' to take one example, have tended to be misinterpreted by meat
eating archaeologists. Palaeolithic (old stone age) axes originally
thought to be butchering tools would have been just as servicable for
digging up root vegetables. In a paper under the title 'Mesolithic Europe
- the economic basis', Clark shows how middle stone age people in Britain
could have exploited nuts, fungi and a rich variety of plant foods from a
landscape which has since become so degraded by human damage, that we have
overlooked this vegetarian possibility almost entirely. He goes on to show
that flints previously interpreted as tips of hunting arrows, may have
components of composite vegetable grating boards!
Since the arrival of farming, the written word and 'civilisation'
in general some 7,000 years ago, archaeologists have been able to discuss
the diet of our more recent ancestors with more certainty than that of
earlier stone age peoples. The Aztecs and Incas combined maize, beans and
squash, so that the different amino acids in the maize and beans could be
complemented by the carbohydrate content of the squash. Classical India
was vegetarian, as was Japan up until a generation or two ago. The staple
of Egyptian workers building the Pyramids was boiled onions. Pythagoras
was a vegetarian, although he had a weird distaste for beans. Even the
Roman army marched on its vegetarian stomach. It is clear that 90% of
humanity have subsisted on a 90% vegetarian diet. Modern carnivorous men
and women are the exception not the rule.