In this article, you will learn everything you need to know about the early human diet & hunting.
When we get a hankering for meat in this day and age, all we need to do is pay a visit to the grocery store or butcher and buy some of our favorite products, all of which are cut up, filleted, boneless, flavored with spices and sauces, raw or ready cooked.
If you prefer your food be brought to you, you can visit one of the numerous meat-focused restaurants in the States, where you can get your meat between two buns with bacon and cheese, fried with a secret blend of spices, or shredded and covered in barbecue sauce.
However, things were not always this easy. There was a time where the only way a human could feast on some tasty meat was to hunt for it themselves, killing the animal and preparing the meat for cooking.
In this article, we want to take you through the colorful culinary history of humans eating meat and hunting. We will be exploring the early human diet, looking at whether we have always eaten meat, and why we started doing it.
We will also be examining the methods used for butchering, and finding out what sort of animals were hunted by our early ancestors.
We are sure that you will be amazed at how different their meat-eating habits were in comparison to our convenient restaurant eating and barbecue cooking.
So, if you are interested in the meat-eating habits of our very early ancestors, or have been wondering why we humans today eat meat, this article is for you! You will see that the eating habits of these early humans have influenced us in many ways.
The Early Human Diet
Before we begin telling you about the meat-eating habits of humans, it is wise to first take a look at the diet of an early human. It is thought that our early ancestors were on this earth as far back as 6 million years ago.
These ancestors are very different from we humans today, more closely resembling primates. That being said, they still had the same basic needs that we do, and they would have had to have a diet in order to survive.
This is where our research will begin. It is important to gain an understanding of all aspects of the early human diet, in order to see where meat fits into that. As their needs and priorities developed, so did their dietary needs.
It is important to note that the evolution of humans came from primates. Possibly the most notable of these, and indeed close to the humans of today, is the Sahelanthropus.
They were the first species that can be seen as being closely related to us. Therefore, their eating habits are important to understand.
Sahelanthropus resembled chimpanzees. Their features are early-human in nature, with prominent brow bones, an upright body (they were thought to have walked on two legs), and small canine teeth.
The latter two are key in establishing their relation to humans of today. Because of the small canine teeth, ripping flesh and muscle would have been very difficult for early humans.
Partner this with the knowledge we have that evolutions of these early humans had the ability to climb trees, and it becomes clear that the majority of their diet was likely to be plant-based.
By this, we mean that they were likely to have gathered food from trees such as seeds, nuts, roots, fruit, and flowers. The best way to know the answer to this for sure is to investigate the teeth of the remains of these humans.
However, that has not yet been possible. This has led scientists to make assumptions about their diet based on what we know about their environment.
Their diet consisted mainly of what was available to them. They had to eat what they could find, and since their fossils have been discovered near lakes, rivers, wooded savannas, and forests, it is safe to assume that they had a variety of plants that they could feast on.
Did Humans Always Eat Meat?
As explored in the previous section, humans have not always eaten meat. Early humans were likely to have survived on a diet that was, on the whole, mostly plant-based.
The reasons for this are numerous. To better understand why meat wasn’t always on the menu, we thought it would be best to show you in an easy-to-follow list:
- Energy levels — Hunting for meat required lots of energy. This was something that our early human ancestors were unlikely to have had, especially because of their smaller frames. Shorter legs meant that they could not dissipate temperatures as easily, leading them to become overheated and tired with just a small amount of exertion.
- Lack of a small intestine — The stomachs of early humans were not designed for diets laden with meat. It is thought that their guts were more like what we would expect to find in herbivores. They were likely to have had a caecum which is a pouch full of bacteria, just like other plant-eaters. This would have been in the large intestine. The inclusion of a caecum would have rendered it difficult for these early humans to eat meat. In fact, doing so could have made them very ill, and could even lead to death.
- Safety — Another factor that may have made it difficult for these early ancestors to eat meat was that of safety. It is unlikely that they would have had the tools to kill and eat animals for food. As well as this, there was the issue of many animals that may have been a possible source of food being bigger and stronger than early humans, especially the relatively small Sahelanthropus.
However, this is not to say that they never ate meat. The fact is, it is difficult to prove either way without solid evidence, such as through investigating the teeth of these early humans. Like many other species’, it could indeed be the case that early humans ate whatever was available.
By this, we mean just like animals that are traditionally thought to be herbivores, there is no reason that they may have occasionally eaten meat.
Chimpanzees, for example, mostly exist on a plant-based diet, but we have evidence that their diet is made up of a very small percentage of the meat of smaller animals.
As we have stated, given that this was millennia ago, it is very hard to get a definitive answer. What we do know is that eventually, meat-eating did become widespread.
So, why did that happen? We have just told you all about the reasons why these early humans couldn’t eat meat, but a few million years later and humans became a group that survived largely on meat. What gives?
When Did Humans Start Eating Meat And Why?
So, we know that many early humans were likely to have had a diet that was largely plant-based. However, we are also aware of the fact that oftentimes, these early humans may have just eaten whatever they could get their hands on.
They had to eat to survive, and if they came across the carcass of an animal, there is no reason why they would not have tried the meat.
Meat-eating seems to have been something that was gradually introduced to the diets of early humans, leading to the meat-eaters that we are today.
When humans started eating meat
By around 2.6 million years ago, the diets of humans were largely meat-based.
These humans were far more advanced than those we explored in the previous section.
Whereas the Sahelanthropus was very much like a primate or chimpanzee, the meat-eating humans are early homo sapiens, sharing characteristics with the likes of you and me.
Humans began to evolve into what we know today as Australopithecus Africanus, Australopithecus Garhi, and Paranthropus aethiopicus.
These three types of hominin (the name given to the species of the human) were all thought to have existed 2.6 million years ago.
Now, these three species have all been theorized to have been meat-eaters. However, the only solid evidence that can indicate this is the presence of fossilized animal bones with evidence of butchery marks.
As such, the only species that have been found to have these fossils are Australopithecus Garhi. There is some widely accepted evidence that the humans of the Australopithecus Garhi group used stone tools which, in turn, suggests that they partook in the butchery of animals.
Evidence of this was found in Gona, Ethiopia, with scientists being led to believe that the most likely culprits were the Australopithecus Garhi people.
Based on this, we can make an educated assumption that meat-eating was likely to have become spread from around 2.6 million years ago onwards.
These early humans developed into the homo habilis species. Homo habilis also partook in the eating of meat.
The group Homo habilis is known as the ‘handyman’. This is because they were particularly adept at using tools. They made use of stone tools for many reasons, meat-eating being one of them.
It is likely that they used these tools to kill prey, cut off their meat, and to access the bones of an animal.
Why humans started eating meat
The reasons why humans may have started eating meat are numerous. There are many factors that need to be considered when thinking about the human relationship with meat-eating.
As we know, it started to become more and more widespread from around 2.6 million years ago, with evidence of meat-eating amongst species such as Australopithecus Garhi and Homo habilis.
However, the most widespread eating of meat occurred in the species known as Homo erectus.
It is in this lineage of the Homo genus that we see some of the vital elements of adaptation for meat-eating. The Homo erectus species had biological features that better lent themselves to a meat-based diet.
Physical developments and adaptations
These features included smaller teeth, a gut that was better equipped for digesting meat, and an overall increase in the size of the human. Also, as we know, the size of the brain dramatically increased in the Homo erectus and is the basis for the brains of humans today.
The bodies of early humans gradually adapted and adjusted to the new needs of the human. At first, a diet of plants was enough to sustain them, but over time, these plant-based diets were not enough.
After all, species of the Australopithecus died out, whereas the Homo genus thrived.
The reason for this is that the Homo genus ate meat. They did so gradually, with bodies that were adapted (and continuously adapting). The ancestors of Homo erectus lived a lifestyle that led them to eat a lot of fats. By this, we mean nuts and seeds.
In turn, this likely encouraged the development of the small intestine, a vital player in the digestive system needed for the digestion of meat.
This, in turn, led to the gradual decrease in size of the caecum (remember that from earlier in the article?) and prepared the body for a diet that was more meat-based.
Change in climate
As well as the changes in the bodies of the early humans, another factor that influenced the gradual shift to the consumption of meat was that of the climate.
Early humans once existed in environments that were rich with plants and vegetation. However, the gradual heating up of the earth led to hotter climates.
With hotter climates came the emergence of grasslands. Forests decreased, but grasslands thrived. This meant green plants became less common, but grazing animals populated the areas where forests once stood.
These grazing animals were attracted to the grassy landscape, grazing on the plants that grew there. Whilst these plants were suitable for them, they were not well-suited to our early human ancestors.
However, the animals were attractive. As the population of grazing animals increased, so did the number of dead animals, naturally. These dead grazing animals were likely to have become a source of food for the early humans.
At first, early humans were unlikely to have been great hunters. Of course, they would have learned the skill of hunting over time, but at first, it is likely that they feasted on the flesh of already dead animals, making do with what they could find.
The discovery of humans eating meat
The earliest known discovery of humans eating meat is thought to be around 1925. A professor in South Africa discovered the first evidence of the species known as Australopithecus africanus.
This professor, named Raymond Dart, also came across evidence that these early humans had a diet that included meat.
This evidence was found on the same site as fossils of the humans themselves and came in the form of a skull with butchery marks. This skull was a baboon skull and seemed to have evidence of marks on there that looked like small punctures caused by tools.
Further discoveries were made many years when excavators were at a site in Gona, Ethiopia. Here there were more artifacts found, specifically tools made from stone that would have been used for the purposes of cutting meat and tearing animal flesh.
Whether they were used for hunting is unknown, and many experts think that early humans did not gain hunting skills until later down the line.
As we mentioned in the previous section, it is more likely that these first humans feasted on animals that were already dead, whether through natural causes or the leftovers from other predators.
However, over time humans, as we know, became adept at hunting, earning the title ‘hunter-gatherer’.
Early Human Hunting
In this section, we want to take the time to explore the process of hunting. We have mentioned already that, at first, early humans were likely to have got their meat from animals that were already dead rather than hunting for them.
However, as time drew on, they became skilled hunters, eventually taking down animals more than twice their size!
So, what caused this shift? What made these once meek humans who survived on meat scraps from dead animals and whatever plant they could get their hands on, turn into blood-thirsty hunters with a taste for anything that moved?
Was it the case of ‘eat or be eaten’, ‘kill or be killed’? Perhaps the evolution of the human body meant that they had more energy to begin hunting? And when exactly did this shift occur?
We will be exploring all of this in this section of the article, learning about early hunting methods, why early humans started hunting, what sort of animals they hunted, and how they prepared the meat they got from hunting.
When Did Humans Start Hunting?
Questions of when exactly humans started hunting are filled with disputing answers. There are some experts who seem to think that hunting occurred as far back as the first records of humans eating meat.
However, others note that hunting likely started much later, when there are records of the very first tools. Then there are other experts that point out the methods of hunting that required no advanced tools.
On the other hand, as we have already explored, there are a large number of experts who think that early humans scavenged for meat from already-dead animals and did not start hunting until much later.
The concept of scavenging is important as it is almost like an early form of hunting.
Scavenging vs Hunting
This was perhaps done through passive or active scavenging.
Passive scavenging is obtaining elements of a dead animal when the predator has left, and active scavenging is confronting the predator after they have killed the animal and fighting the predator off to gain the meat for themselves.
Eventually, these forms of scavenging led the way for active hunting from early humans and turned us into the meat-eaters we are today, and whatever the belief over when hunting first occurred, one fact remains and that is that it did not take long before humans became the dominant species.
In honesty, it is difficult to prove the start of hunting either way especially when you consider the fact that there is also the question of whether scavenging and hunting occurred alongside one another.
Whilst we have no definitive answer for you, what we can do is provide you with the different schools of thought concerning the matter of hunting for meat.
As we know, there were stone tools found at the sites of many early humans (or hominins to be accurate).
These stone tools would likely have been used during scavenging, whether passive or active, as they provided a ‘second set of teeth’ for these early humans, allowing them to tear any flesh that they could get from their scavenged carcass.
The use of these stone tools dates back to around 2.6 million years ago. Whether these were used as weapons for which to hunt with remains to be seen, but there is certainly a school of thought that suggests this.
Other experts theorize that early humans and certainly those of the Homo erectus species would have used a method of hunting called persistence hunting.
This is where a person or group would track their prey through walking or running to the point of exhaustion. By this, we mean that they would chase it continually until the animal collapsed in exhaustion and would then attack it and bring it back for meat.
This way of hunting could be done without any advanced tools, and so, in theory, could have been done at any point in time.
It is hard to put an exact date or time-stamp on this method, but from our understanding of the evolution of the bodies of these early humans (hominins), it is not likely to have occurred before the Homo erectus species.
This is because the evolutions before them would not have had the energy or ability to run or even walk for these very long periods of time for the purpose of capturing prey.
One thing that we do know is that hunting quickly became one of the most important aspects of daily life for these early humans.
Hunting allowed them to bring back food, as well as giving them access to furs, hides and bones that could all be repurposed and used.
Hunting with tools
The earliest known use of tools for hunting occurred many years later. Spears have been found dating back to around half a million years ago. Of course, this is much later than the time periods we have discussed thus far.
However, as we know, meat-eating occurred long before this time, and so it is not impossible to think that hunting may have happened, too, using the perseverance method.
As tools began to develop, humans’ hunting techniques advanced quickly. One of the most impressive hunting techniques is the use of bow and arrow. It is thought that bow and arrows were invented around 71,000 years ago! There are cave drawings that depict them.
When exactly bows and arrows were used for the purpose of hunting is widely debated, but we know that there is solid evidence from Sri Lanka dating back 48,000 years ago, where animal bones were molded into arrowheads.
This is the oldest known evidence of bow and arrow hunting outside of Africa (previously, evidence was found within Africa from around 64,000 years ago).
This method of hunting would have been ideal for catching tree-dwelling creatures such as the squirrel. This is what the humans in Sri Lanka likely did 48,000 years ago.
As well as this, bows and arrows were the weapon of choice for hunting sea mammals, and are still used today in native communities such as the Aleut community.
Those primitive weapons were far from being perfect. Nowadays, the best compound bows are technically so advanced that speeds of up to 360 feet per second are not uncommon.
Bows and arrows are also closely related to hunting weapons such as the harpoon and spear, both of which were (and still are) used to great effect by tribes of people all over the world.
Clearly, when it comes to hunting, it is very difficult to pinpoint an exact date that it began to occur. It is more likely to have been something that developed over time, rather than just a group of hominids waking up one day and becoming skilled hunters.
It is a skill that would have been developed as their psychological and physical capabilities developed.
What Animals Did Early Humans Hunt?
The types of animals we eat today are relatively unvaried, at least in the western world. The main types are poultry, game, red meat (pork and beef), and seafood.
Of course, there are examples of other types of animals being eaten, but these that we have listed are the most common in many areas of the world.
However, our ancient ancestors had very different diets to that of humans today.
They were not feasting on the same types of meat every day, not least of all because they did not breed animals for food.
They were hunters, and so it was really a case of eating whatever they could get a hold of – literally!
The types of animals hunted by early humans are varied, from big to small, from sea creatures to land dwellers – the list could go on. The best way to explore some of these animals is to list them for you.
This will allow you to easily scan the list to see if there are any similarities with the animals you eat.
The list is not exhaustive, and we have tried to only list the animals that have been proven through fossil and bone evidence. However, a simple search will yield even more results and will uncover some surprising ones.
You may even be surprised to find animals you have never even heard of! This is because many of these animals are long extinct.
See our list of animals that were hunted by early humans below:
- Monkeys – macaques and langurs were common
- Tree squirrels
- Reptiles (crocodiles are an interesting discovery for this list, in our opinion!)
- Buffalo (and other bovine animals)
- Elephants (specifically the long extinct straight-tusked elephant)
- Fallow deer
This list, as long as it is, is not exhaustive. In fact, there are probably dozens more that could be added. However, these are just some of the animals from the period that it was discovered humans first began to eat meat that has been linked to consumption.
Many of them, for example, elephants, have been found on sites with early human remains, yielding marks on them that suggest humans were hunting them for their meat.
How Did The Humans Butcher The Animals They Killed?
When it comes to butchering techniques, it is likely that early humans already had a number of skills from when they would scavenge for food.
These skills were what allowed them to crack open the skulls of animals they came across when scavenging in order to access their brains.
Remember, they also were already using stone tools, and so these would have provided them with experience of tool-making and usage.
These skills undoubtedly set the par for hunting and allowed them to develop the skills further to suit their ever-changing needs.
It seems that the skills they used for the acquisition of meat from scavenged prey were very much the same as the skills used for prey that they hunted and killed themselves.
These skills involved the use of sharp tools. For example, tools that had thinner, very sharp edges would have been used to cut away the flesh from a carcass. These sorts of tools may also have been used to get any furs or hides that were on the animal.
In order to break bones or crush the skull, it is likely that they would have used large, heavy stones. These would have allowed them to access organs and the brain which could also be eaten for energy.
They would also have used this method to crush the bones and extract the marrow from inside them.
As their tool-making skills developed, around half a million years ago, we began to see the development of spears and points that would have also been used to kill the animal.
They would have thrown the points at their prey and used the tool as a way of tearing open the flesh (or using other tools specifically for this purpose).
Some of the oldest tools known to us are those found at the Oldowan site at Olduvai Gorge. These tools were early cutting tools and were undoubtedly used for the purpose of cutting the flesh of prey.
In fact, they have been called the earliest ‘butchery’ tools by experts at Berkley, University of California.
Evolutionary History Of Meat Eating By Humans
As the consumption of meat became the most common method of eating for humans and the main source of nutrition, so did the other skills that the humans developed.
One major turning point in the evolution of the eating habits of humans is that of finding new ways to eat their meat. By this, of course, we mean the act of cooking!
What do you mean “what were they doing up to now?”? For a very long time, early humans ate their meat raw! In fact, they likely tore it right off the animal, or at least cut off big chunks to tear away at! Gives a whole new meaning to steak tartare and sushi, right?
Cooking meat revolutionized the diets of these early people, and it was one of the most important points in the evolution of humans. Cooking meat made it easier to eat, easier to digest, and was safer for the early humans in terms of consumption.
But when did they start cooking meat? And how did they do it? In this section we will be exploring these questions and examining ancient cooking methods that would have been used by our early hominin ancestors.
When Did Humans Start Cooking Meat?
The turning point that led to the cooking of meat was fire. However, it is uncertain when exactly fire began to be used by these early humans.
There is very little evidence to suggest that fire was used for cooking before the era of Homo erectus, and many experts suggest that even Homo erectus did not utilize fire in this way.
There is certainly much debate over the use of fire for cooking and when it first occurred.
Traditionally, it was thought that using fire for cooking originated around 250,000 B.C.
This is around the time that we have found evidence of the earliest examples of hearths.
However, there has since been a discovery that pushes this date back around one million years. Charred remains of animals have since been found at a site known to have belonged to some of the later Homo erectus hominins.
This has led some scientists and archaeologists to believe that the charred remains are evidence that these hominins were cooking their meat.
The thing is, it is very difficult to pinpoint an exact date that cooking first began to occur. It is possible that different types of early humans started cooking at different rates, of course.
Some of the best ‘solid’ evidence we have comes in the form of earth ovens. Earth ovens gave evidence that, around 30,000 years ago, humans began to use more advanced cooking methods that were a step-up from cooking on a fire.
Earth ovens were dug into the ground and laid with stones. These stones were then topped with hot ashes and coal from a fire, allowing the stones to get hot.
Food was then placed on top, and it is theorized that this food was wrapped in leaves to be left to roast over a long period of time. It is also thought that the food was covered with earth whilst it was roasting, perhaps to speed up the process.
Benefits of cooking meat
Earth ovens have been found with remains and bones of animals as big as the mammoth, indicating that hunting was likely to have occured at the same time.
It is also pertinent to note that the act of cooking food in this way was likely to have made the meat much easier to chew and digest as it broke down the tissues of the meat far easier.
Having meat that was easier to digest, as well as being more flavorful (think of these earth ovens as the first type of barbecue) allowed early humans to be able to eat more and take more pleasure from eating, whilst still being able to get the calories they needed to do more hunting, gather firewood and defend themselves if needed against predators and other humans.
It was not long before other methods of cooking started to be used, such as boiling food in hot water and making containers for food.
The first utensils and containers were likely made from animal hides and other perishable means, but certainly paved the way for the first sophisticated cookware around 20,000 years ago.
One thing is for sure, and that is the fact that cooking meat in this way is something that has remained strong to this day. No longer do humans need to tear into the flesh of a freshly killed animal for our meat.
Instead we can buy it ready-cooked, or cook it ourselves using one of the plethora of cooking methods we have available!
Whilst we humans today may not need meat, it is clear that the millions of years of eating meat are still very much ingrained in us. Our ancestors needed meat. Indeed, the consumption of meat is thought to be one of the main factors in the growth of the brains of early humans.
Their bodies adapted from being adequate for plant digestion, to be able to digest meat from other animals with ease.
The methods of hunting have grown from merely scavenging the leftovers of other predators, to humans becoming the dominant species, able to hunt much bigger animals such as elephants.
Nowadays, hunting for food is not needed in the majority of the world (with the exception of the wonderful hunter-gatherer societies that still exist today), and we get our meat cut and ready for use in stores and restaurants.
However, it is no secret that the hunting habits of our early ancestors shaped us into the humans we are today. Their meat-eating habits are the reasons we have a small intestine after all.
As well as the physical adaptations the consumption of meat developed, it also had huge effects on the psychological development of humans.
Developing tools, using hunting strategies, protecting each other from other predators, and challenging predators and competing tribes over food all led us to become the people we are today, with advanced skills concerning communication and thinking.
What we mean by this is that there are many experts that have concluded that early humans were able to form relationships with other members of their groups through the passing down of knowledge of tool-making.
In the words of experts at Berkley, it gave an “evolutionary edge to human communication”.
To summarize the wealth of knowledge that we have provided you within this article, we want to draw your attention back to the title of the article. The history of humans eating meat and hunting is a long and vivid one.
Whilst seemingly linear, it is not surprising to find that some of the practices of the very first humans such as scavenging for plants (nuts, seeds, roots, and fruits) are still very much alive in we humans of today. We are omnivores, surviving on a diet of plants and animals.
The plant-based diet was no longer enough to help our early human ancestors survive, and so they adapted to consume meat. With this adaptation came the changing of bodies, tools, ways of living, and the development of society as a whole.
We hope that this article has provided you with ample information about the history of humans eating meat and hunting. It is certainly a fascinating topic, and in all honesty, we feel that we could write a whole thesis on the topic for you and still have more to say!
With that in mind, we hope that you appreciate that we have packed this article with as much information as possible, but for obvious reasons, we have not been able to include everything – besides, this is more than enough to give you quite an extensive knowledge on the subject!
Thank you for reading!