Scientists find oldest evidence of regular meat consumption by early humans

October 3, 2012, Public Library of Science
A fragment of a child's skull discovered at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, shows the oldest known evidence of anemia caused by a nutritional deficiency. Credit: PLoS ONE 7(10): e46414. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0046414

A fragment of a child's skull discovered at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania shows the oldest known evidence of anemia caused by a nutritional deficiency, reports a new paper published Oct. 3 in the open access journal PLOS ONE.

A skull fragment unearthed by anthropologists in Tanzania shows that our ancient ancestors were eating meat at least 1.5 million years ago, shedding new light into the evolution of human physiology and brain development.

"Meat eating has always been considered one of the things that made us human, with the protein contributing to the growth of our brains," said Charles Musiba, Ph.D., associate professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado Denver, who helped make the discovery. "Our work shows that 1.5 million years ago we were not opportunistic meat eaters, we were actively hunting and eating meat."

The study was published Wednesday in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE.

The two-inch skull fragment was found at the famed Olduvai Gorge in northern Tanzania, a site that for decades has yielded numerous clues into the evolution of modern humans and is sometimes called `the cradle of mankind.'

The fragment belonged to a 2-year-old child and showed signs of porotic hyperostosis associated with anemia. According to the study, the condition was likely caused by a diet suddenly lacking in meat.

"The presence of anemia-induced porotic hyperostosis…indicates indirectly that by at least the early Pleistocene meat had become so essential to proper hominin functioning that its paucity or lack led to deleterious pathological conditions," the study said. "Because fossils of very young hominin children are so rare in the early Pleistocene fossil record of East Africa, the occurrence of porotic hyperostosis in one…suggests we have only scratched the surface in our understanding of nutrition and health in ancestral populations of the deep past."

Musiba said the evidence showed that the juvenile's diet was deficient in vitamin B12 and B9. Meat seems to have been cut off during the weaning process.

"He was not getting the proper nutrients and probably died of malnutrition," he said.

The study offers insights into the evolution of hominins including Homo sapiens. Musiba said the movement from a scavenger, largely plant-eating lifestyle to a meat-eating one may have provided the protein needed to grow our brains and give us an evolutionary boost.

Some scientists have argued that we became human when we became carnivorous-omnivorous creatures.

"Meat eating is associated with brain development," he said. "The brain is a large organ and requires a lot of energy. We are beginning to think more about the relationship between brain expansion and a high protein diet."

Humans are one of the few surviving species with such a large brain to body size ratio. Chimpanzees, our closest relatives, eat little meat and have far less brain capacity than humans, Musiba said.

"That separates us from our distant cousins," he said. "The question is what triggered our meat eating? Was it a changing environment? Was it the expansion of the brain itself? We don't really know."

Four students participating in the CU Denver Tanzania Field School were at Olduvai Gorge when the skull fragment was discovered.

"It was a great experience for them," said Musiba, director of the Field School and a native of Tanzania. "Hopefully, it will inspire even more students to come to Africa and help us find answers to the questions posed by these discoveries."

Explore further: Diet high in vegetables and fruit associated with less weight gain in African-American women

More information: Dominguez-Rodrigo M, Pickering TR, Diez-Martin F, Mabulla A, Musiba C, et al. (2012) Earliest Porotic Hyperostosis on a 1.5-Million-Year-Old Hominin, Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. PLoS ONE 7(10): e46414. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0046414

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Study: Social media sways exercise motivation

January 17, 2019

It's January – a time when students are looking for that extra bit of oomph. For some, time spent on social media might provide the necessary inspiration to get up and exercising – but that time can come with consequences, ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1.5 / 5 (2) Oct 06, 2012
The American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada regard the vegan diet as appropriate for all stages of the life-cycle. They say "well-balanced vegan diets can meet all nutrient requirements and are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence.

Yet the above article says " at least the early Pleistocene meat had become so essential to proper hominin functioning that its paucity or lack led to deleterious pathological conditions,"

It looks like someone has got their science wrong. Was this research funded by the American Meat Institute?
Julian Alien
1 / 5 (1) Oct 07, 2012
All I know is that my mother forced me to be a vegetarian until I was 13.Luckily I got fish every couple of years and a little milk.I am much smaller than all my relatives.I am also twice as grey haired and bald.I have a hard time losing weight now because I make sure that every last grain of rice is gone before I stop eating.In my mind it is wasteful,like I am still starving.It's like forcing a cat to eat lettuce,these are sick,sick people.No one should have to go through what I went through.Now that I see young people doing this voluntarily,it makes me sad.They have no idea how this will affect them and the people who have to take care of you later.They are ruining their lives.
1 / 5 (1) Oct 08, 2012
Very interesting as to why protein uptake? In Chernobyl plants have increased their protein uptake from the soil to defend against radiation.
Our instestines are too short to utilize grasses and even the meat and grain have to be cooked to be utilized. So more correctly the question is when did our fortituous discovery of fire cooked meat arrive? Science says 3x in history we took an intellectual leap, the last being 50,000 y ago when we made art in Chauveax.
I wonder if the Earth has not undergone compression events that periodically and briefly heated the planets core. When the compression released the Earth gases, radon and methane among them flooded the surface. Since these non detectable gases would have had to have been strong to created immediately noticable reactions, we quite possibly live today with amounts we have become adjusted to. We might be radon resistant.
Is this why the lowlands acquired a dangerous reputation?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.