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Mismatch between Accepted Technological Levels and Dietary Requirements of Early Hominids

I have been a doubter since I can remember and this post is about one of the smaller doubts that have troubled me for years.

There is a massive mismatch between the conventionally accepted levels of technology though to be possessed by pre- H.sapiens (modern human) hominids and their build and lifestyles.

OK, let me explain this in some detail..

While australopithecines were bipedal and omnivorous, they were between 1.2 to 1.4 m (3 ft 10 in to 4 ft 7 in) tall and not especially muscular. Given that they lived in a warm place with little shortage of food, their lack of sophisticated hunting tools or clothes is not noteworthy.

But then we start getting hominid species such as H.erectus, H. hiedelbergenis and H. neanderthalensis. Now, unlike australopithecines these species were not restricted to Africa.

You might remember that the earth had cyclic ice ages for the last 6 million-odd years, and the prolonged survival of these hominid species outside Africa imply that they had some ability to hunt or trap larger animals under cooler climatic conditions. Contrast their environmental conditions to the Australopithecines who could easily obtain fruits, nuts, insects, fish, shellfish and birds in East Africa without a lot of tools.

But the real kicker is their body size as all these pre-modern hominids was larger and they were more robustly built than modern humans. While some “scientists” try to suggest otherwise it is rather clear than adult male H.erectus and H. hiedelbergensis routinely exceeded 6 (1.8m) feet and were significantly more muscular than modern humans. Even H. neanderthalensis was much more muscular than your average athletic H.sapiens.

So here is the problem-

How did such species feed themselves over thousands of years given their large body size, musculature and the lack of efficient hunting tools. Remember that they had to hunt and gather 2-3x more food than we eat today (more muscle + more activity) and did not likely possess the ability to preserve any significant quantity of food. The digestive system of humans can handle meat, fruits, some vegetables along with cooked legumes and grains. We cannot handle cellulose or cellulose type substances unlike ruminant animals and horses

Even if we assume that big game animals were far more plentiful than today, you have to be able to kill them first or scavenge dead ones rather quickly. Today hunting is easy because people have rifled guns, but that was not always the case. Even hunting with muzzle-loading smooth bores and bows/ crossbows exposes you the difficulty experienced by hunters of an earlier era.

Is it possible to hunt enough to eat, for years on end, with the very simple tools and methods supposedly used by these hominids even if you had the physique of those hominids and abundance of large game? While some might spin it as evidence that those hominids were vegetarians, a brief look at the history of agriculture tells you that it actually rather hard to be vegetarians to any significant extent unless you have domesticated a dozen or so plant species. Wild versions of our domesticated crops are neither plentiful nor high-yielding.

I can think of a few possible solutions to this problem-

1. Small size game was much more numerous than today or they spear fished a lot.

2. They were very good scavengers who could frighten away big cats and hyenas from a fresh kill.

3. They got most of their kills through trapping and killing than hunting them down.

4. They possessed far better tools and hunting techniques than we currently believe.

Note that all possibilities in 1-4, especially 2-4 require them to possess far more mental sophistication than we ascribe to them. So what do you think?

and before I forget.. How did they live in cold climates without well-fitting warm clothes? Their physiology was not that different from ours.. and their resistance to cold conditions was therefore not vastly better than ours. After all they were hominids, not polar bears or elk.


  1. Droht
    October 13, 2011 at 2:40 pm

    Other reasons to cast doubt upon the popular idea of ‘calorie intake’ being the determining factor of physical stature:

    -Growth rate of babies and infants far exceeds the mass and energy content of the food they eat. Obviously another anabolic driver here.

    -Massive animals, e.g. whales – as if eating loads of plankton could yield such bulk.

    Even some recent savages lived in conditions that would rapidly kill most civilized Europeans by the effects of exposure to weather alone.

    There is far more in this world than meets the rational gaze.

  2. October 13, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    I keep wondering the same thing about big vegeterian animals like cows and horses.

    Ruminants and similar animals can digest cellulose and convert part of it into protein unlike human and apes. That is why cattle can graze on grass and still gain muscle mass and fat.

  3. October 13, 2011 at 10:09 pm

    cannibalism is taboo, so is eating the meat of long dead animals…..

    probably this is due to health reasons-ie eating human brains will give someone a disease similar to mad cow….

    if these ancient peoples engaged in such a behavior, their digestive systems would have to be able to handle this without disease. Perhaps they had a more robust digestive tract that could extract more calories from a single piece of food and they were better able to handle spoiled meat.

  4. October 13, 2011 at 11:05 pm

    Look at elephants, blue whales or any other very large animal.

    There’s a tradeoff.
    If you have more mass, the lower the population size and overall density. It takes a huge amount of territory to support even a single large animal.
    Humans are one of the larger animals out there and without agriculture, the land does not support very many of them.

    There’s a reason why the megafauna go extinct first, especially when human hunters show up.

    With gestation periods over 1 year and years required to grow to maturity, sustained hunting is going to kill them off for good.

    Cannibalism seems to emerge in cultures where protein sources are relatively scarce as in Polynesian Islands or medieval Mexico. Otherwise the risks of eating flesh that can carry communicable diseases outweigh the gains.

    In particular, there’s the risk of contracting prion infections that attack the brain and nervous system.

  5. October 14, 2011 at 7:24 am

    Is it possible that the metabolism of prehistoric man was evolved to maximize calories more efficiently?

    We presently have an epidemic of obesity in western culture due in main to easily available calories. One could assume that the environmental rigors in the paleolithic led to a more efficiently evolved metabolism in humans. And thus we pay the price of that evolution by getting fat in an environment that doesn’t necessitate the same survival urgency. Another illustration is human beings have an innate unlearned preference for sweet foods because a high glucose content provided quick survival energy.

    This is also why we suffer from stress related illness. Our fight or flight adrenal response that saved our asses in the paleolithic are now a liability when we have the same stress response to prompts in our environment from which we can’t get away.

  6. hans
    October 16, 2011 at 10:46 pm

    Also I think there´s a big misconception in what strength really is compared to being just a muscular calorie burning “gym rat”.

    The whole bodybuilding and fitness craze has totally skewed our perception of what a strong body actually is supposed to look like or how to achieve it.

    There are lone voices like Pavel Tsatsouline or the Paleo Diet followers trying to clue people in.
    Obviously very much needed, as even our supposedly scientific textbook knowledge is supremely skewed.

  1. October 14, 2011 at 12:25 pm

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