Thursday, April 24, 2014

Why did we start eating meat?

That's been the question on my mind today.  I am a meat eater, although sometimes I do eat a meatless meal.  But I'm wondering why humans ever started eating meat in the first place?  Or have humans always eaten meat?

It's kind of a difficult question.  This article gives opposing views.  One side points out how humans are more similar to herbivores than carnivores (ex. herbivores have longer intestinal tracts than carnivores, and human intestinal tracts are closer in length to herbivores), but the other side points out  reasons that indicate humans are omnivores (ex. the stomach's production of hydrochloric acid, which isn't found in herbivores).

So were humans always omnivores?  Some of the ancient Greeks believed there was once a Golden Age where humans were non-violent and there was no hunting or livestock breeding.  I don't think there would have been any meat eating in the Garden of Eden in the Bible either.  So perhaps there was a time when humans didn't eat meat?  According to this article, "hominins" (early humans) have been eating meat for 2.6 million years.  That's a pretty long time, but it sort of leaves open the possibility that "hominins" living before that time may have been herbivores.

According to this National Geographic article, eating meat triggered a genetic change in humans that enabled a better processing of fats.  The great apes, for example, cannot handle high fat diets like humans can.  Crooked teeth is also blamed on eating meat.  Apparently our jaws have gotten smaller and supposedly our teeth are too big for our jaws now which is why people end up with crooked teeth (and oftentimes have their wisdom teeth removed).

But I'm not really questioning whether or not humans should or shouldn't eat meat now.  I'm just wondering why humans ever started eating it in the first place?  The Nat Geo article linked above suggests hominins may have started eating meat for ecological reasons -- competition from other species, perhaps.  I guess it's possible, but is it also possible that they just observed carnivores doing it and decided to try it for themselves?  Is there any chance it could have been for religious purposes?

Throughout recorded history, there are records of animals being sacrificed to the gods (or God, in the case of ancient Judaism).  The supposed purpose of the sacrifice was to win favor or make amends with the gods.  But the meat would still be eaten.  So an animal sacrifice was basically like a big barbecue or pig pickin'.  Some might say that very early hominins probably wouldn't have had any religion.  Maybe not, but there is plenty of evidence for prehistoric sophistication, so who knows?  But I doubt humans started eating meat for religious purposes anyway.  I think it is more likely that early accounts of animal sacrifices to the "gods" were an excuse for the priestly class to have free meat brought to them.

So there may not be a definite answer as to why hominins started eating meat.  Competition for food is one possibility.  Sheer curiosity as to what it might taste like is another possibility.  But maybe the bigger question here is where did carnivores come from?  What was the first species to become an aggressive predator?  Why did that species feel the need to hunt down another species and eat it?  From a symbiotic point of view, I could see where there may be a need for scavenging carnivores -- plants get energy from the sun, herbivores get energy from the plants, and carnivores get energy from the herbivores.  A scavenging carnivore could eat other dead animals, so from a symbiotic perspective, they could be cleaning up the dead carcasses they come across.  But is there really a need for predatory hunter in that symbiosis?  What is that need?  Is it to stop overpopulation?  If so, what came first, the predator or the overpopulation?  And who got to decide what "overpopulation" was for a certain species?  Did overpopulation of a certain species really exist?  Or could it be that herbivores who were victims of predators only started to reproduce more often because the predators limited their numbers?  In other words, did overpopulation lead to predatory animals or did predatory animals lead to an increased rate of reproduction in other species?  Was there ever a time where there was a symbiosis of life on earth that didn't include predators?  Did that non-violent golden age the Greeks spoke of ever really happen?

I may be a meat eater, but I like the idea of getting back to a non-violent golden age.  And I guess that is what this post was really all about.

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