Red meat, Neandertals were meant to eat it

The Meat and Livestock Association (MLA) of Australia has these great television commercials featuring actor Sam Neill (and by ‘great,’ I don’t mean ‘scientifically accurate’). They’re all about how we humans were ‘meant’ to eat red meat. They’re obviously meant to counteract growing concern about red meat in our diet, in the environmental impact of livestock, and other issues, and they use evolutionary arguments to try to get Australians to ‘beef up’ the amount of red meat in their diet, because of course, Australians don’t eat enough meat (trust me if you’re not in Australia — that’s probably not the biggest health issue here, ‘lack’ of red meat in the Aussie diet). For more information on the campaign, check out the MLA’s webpage, ‘Red Meat. We were meant to eat it.’ (You can download the video of the ads from that site if, like me, you want to incorporate it into your lecture on human evolution and diet.)

Especially interesting is the third ad in the campaign, ‘Evolution.’ The text of that ad is:

‘Evolution’ set the scene for the story of red meat and its role in human evolution. It also highlights the bundle of nutrients in red meat making it a foundation food essential for brain development and function. Red meat. We were meant to eat it.

But an article by M. P. Richards and colleagues soon to appear in the Journal of Human Evolution suggests that the evolutionary prize for red meat-eating should have gone, not to Homo sapiens sapiens but to Homo sapiens neanderthalensis (or H. neanderthalensis). Richards and the research team examined carbon and nitrogen ratios in Neandertal bone collagen to figure out what the Neandertals were eating.

We found that the Jonzac Neanderthal had isotopic values consistent with a diet in which the main protein sources were large herbivores, particularly bovids and horses. We also found evidence of different dietary niches between the Neanderthal and a hyena at the site, with the hyena consuming mainly reindeer.

That is, Neandertals opted for bovids and horses even though reindeer were also available in the same niche (probably).

Blogger Matt Rubinstein put together a column in 2006, False naturalists, that I stumbled across while looking for more info on the Sam Neill campaign, and it’s well worth a read. He includes a number of links to important works on the controversy over the role of diet, and which diet, in the emergence of modern Homo sapiens. The paragraph that’s most relevant is the following:

The MLA’s claims seem to derive most directly from UC Berkeley anthropologist Katharine Milton’s theory, published in Evolutionary Anthropology in 1999, that our ancestors introduced red meat into their diets as the African forests receded about two million years ago, and that this new source of energy and nutrition kicked human evolution along significantly. That sounds plausible enough. But Dr Stephen Cunnane reckons it wasn’t red meat but littoral foodstuffs like clams, frogs, bird eggs and fish that gave us our enormous brains. Richard Wrangham writes in Current Anthropology that it was cooked tubers, though it’s not clear that proto-humans were using fire at the relevant time. Simon Mead et al. say we all used to eat each other whenever we got the chance, and this widespread anthropophagy had significant health benefits including resistance to prion diseases like mad cow.

[Rubinstein provides links to material, press releases, or reports on each one of these sources. It’s a great piece, and he also get stuck into the MLA ads.]

So, if Sam Neill wants to go onto the the Neanderthal diet, as Dr. John M Berardi recommends, he shouldn’t just toss a bit of beef on the barbie; he should also get stuck into a bit of horse, at least if he wants to eat like our predecessors did around Charente-Maritime, France. And perhaps the evolutionary diet proposal should be extended by the MLA to frog eggs, cooked tubers, and an occasional cannibal snack.

Of course, the MLA is arguing that we were ‘meant’ to eat red meat, because Evolution (in Her infinite wisdom) didn’t mean us to be vegans or to eat ‘lessor’ protein sources like fish, birds, or small mammals. That’s right, load up on red meat for your brain, says the MLA. But I doubt very much that brain development in Australia is routinely stymied by too little meat protein. The MLA can’t really go with the motto: ‘Red meat, the neandertals ate it and they’re extinct!’ Or: ‘Reindeer meat: the food of hyenas.’

And the other thing that the MLA isn’t going with is a point one of the researchers, Teresa Steele, makes to Jennifer Viegas in a Discovery News piece, that although steak may be what we think of when the MLA interprets this data, in fact the Neandertals were likely eating everything they could off these animals. Again, I don’t think the MLA can go with the motto: ‘Red meat, marrow, tripe, offal: We were meant to eat them…’ Yeah, somehow it doesn’t work so well.

And it points out the obvious; just because some feature was a part of any earlier hominid niche or life experience — it is ‘natural’ in some sense that people like to talk about (and I don’t entirely understand) — doesn’t mean it’s ‘meant’ for us. ‘Life expectancy of forty years: We were meant to live that long.’ ‘Regularly eaten by crocodiles: Australians were meant to be lunch.’ ‘Untreated major injuries: good enough for your ancestors.’ ‘High infant mortality: It’s natural…’ You get what I’m on about, but so much of evolutionary psychology (and advertisers’ evolutionary nutrition, in this case) seems to selectively cherry pick which ‘natural’ traits from evolutionary niches we should be faithful to. For example, is there any reason that we should fight like hell against ‘natural’ infant mortality rates or short life expectancy, defying what Evolution ‘meant’ for us (whatever that means), and yet believe that reproduction patterns should be adhered to religiously?

(H/t): Thanks to Discovery News for making me aware of the Richards et al. piece in the article, Neanderthals at Mealtime: Pass the Meat, by Jennifer Viegas.

M.P. Richards, G. Taylor, T. Steele, S.P. McPherron, M. Soressi, J. Jaubert, J. Orschiedt, J.B. Mallye, W. Rendu, and J.J. Hublin. 2008. Isotopic dietary analysis of a Neanderthal and associated fauna
from the site of Jonzac (Charente-Maritime), France. Journal of Human Evolution (preliminary version available online to subscribers) doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2008.02.007 (abstract)

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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-authored and co-edited several, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

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