Rewriting history: The diet of early humans was initially vegetarian

Rewriting history: The diet of early humans was initially vegetarian

For early Andean humans who lived between 9,000 and 6,500 years ago, there is evidence of hunting large mammals to provide part of their food; But a new analysis of the isotopic composition of human bones shows that plant foods formed a major part of the diets of these people, and meat played a secondary role.

In addition, the remains of burnt plants from the sites and the distinctive patterns of tooth wear in the upper front teeth of humans show that plants grown underground, such as potatoes, were probably considered as their main food sources.

Combining methods of isotopic chemistry, phytoarchaeology, and paleozoology provide the clearest and most detailed view of early Andean diets. These findings update our understanding of the earliest foraging economies and the pathway to an agricultural economy in the Andean highlands.

Researchers from several other American universities also joined Haas. Undergraduate students had the opportunity to conduct their own investigations during the initial 2018 excavations at the Vilamaya Pacha burial site. Jennifer Chen, PhD student in anthropology, says:

Food is one of the important and necessary components for survival, especially in high altitude environments like the Andes. Many ancient hunter-gatherer or forager frameworks have been proposed, mostly focusing on meat and game diets; But in this research, we found out that the early hunter-gatherers in the Andes often consumed plant foods.

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Thanks to the tools now available to them to understand the diets of early humans, archaeologists have reached unexpected results. This case study shows for the first time that early human economies were centered on plants, at least in part of the world.

Given the archeological biases that have long misled archaeologists, it’s likely that future isotopic studies in other parts of the world will similarly show the researchers wrong, Haas says.

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