Human Diet: Its Origin and Evolution
Peter S. Ungar
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Diet is key to understanding the past, present, and future of our species. Much of human evolutionary success can be attributed to our ability to consume a wide range of foods. On the other hand, recent changes in the types of foods we eat may lie at the root of many of the health problems we face today. To deal with these problems, we must understand the evolution of the human diet.
Studies of traditional peoples, non-human primates, human fossil and archaeological remains, nutritional chemistry, and evolutionary medicine, to name just a few, all contribute to our understanding of the evolution of the human diet. Still, as analyses become more specialized, researchers become more narrowly focused and isolated. This volume attempts to bring together authors schooled in a variety of academic disciplines so that we might begin to build a more cohesive view of the evolution of the human diet. The book demonstrates how past diets are reconstructed using both direct analogies with living traditional peoples and non-human primates, and studies of the bones and teeth of fossils. An understanding of our ancestral diets reveals how health relates to nutrition, and conclusions can be drawn as to how we may alter our current diets to further our health.
Health in Foragers 41 Figure 4.2 Height-for-age in selected populations in which a portion of children are mildly to moderately undernourished. The zero line represents the median for international reference data based on U.S. children. Heights are presented as standard deviations from the U.S. median (Z scores). Height is most similar to international reference data in the first year of life, but at older ages, most children are substantially shorter. Data for Mali are from Dettwyler (1991)
l998). The physiological processes of wild primates appear to be carried out with generous amounts of fresh vitamin C continuously present in the body. Other than vitamin C, information is scarce on the vitamin content of wild plant foods monkeys and apes eat, but they likely are rich in vitamin E and provitamin-A— like vitamin C, regarded as potent antioxidants—as well as vitamin K and folic acid (Potter and Hotchkiss, 1995; Booth and Suttie, 1998). As anthropoids tend to fill up each day
all, biologically meaningful levels of Sr/Ca and 87Sr/86Sr can be extracted using appropriate pretreatment procedures. CARBON ISOTOPES IN THE ANCIENT SWARTKRANS ECOSYSTEM The foundation for reconstructing the diets of fossil taxa using stable carbon isotope (δ13C) analysis lies in isotopic discrimination during photosynthesis by plants at the base of the food web. In African savannas, trees, bushes, shrubs, and herbs (C3 plants) discriminate more markedly against 13C during CO2 fixation than do
support to Brain’s proposal that they shifted their predatory attentions from hominids to Antidorcas bondi, a small grazing antelope (included in the grazing class) (Brain, 1981; Lee-Thorp et al., 2000). Values for Homo and Paranthropus are almost identical, suggesting that both hominids had a similar mix of C3- and C4-based foods in their diets (~75% and 25%, respectively) (Lee-Thorp et al., 2000). The δ13C pattern can be explained only by direct consumption of enough grass (as blades, rhizomes,
those with smaller front teeth tend to feed on smaller foods or those that require less extensive incisal preparation, such as berries or leaves. Since then, numerous workers have looked to incisor size in early hominins and other fossil primates for clues concerning diet. Incisor size might give us some clues to diet and tooth use for the early australopiths, and we have consistent weight estimates from independent studies for many of these taxa (Jungers, 1988; McHenry, 1992; McHenry and