Are Humans Natural Herbivores?

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Were humans herbivores historically?

Check out this answer from Consensus:

The evidence from taphonomic studies and human-megafauna interaction models indicates that early Homo sapiens were not strictly herbivores. Instead, they were opportunistic omnivores with a significant reliance on animal protein and fat, particularly from medium to large-sized herbivores. These findings highlight the adaptability and efficiency of early humans in securing diverse food sources, which played a crucial role in their survival and evolutionary success.


The dietary habits of early Homo sapiens have been a subject of extensive research and debate. Understanding whether our ancestors were primarily herbivores, carnivores, or omnivores provides crucial insights into their survival strategies, social structures, and evolutionary adaptations. This article explores the evidence from various studies to determine the historical dietary patterns of Homo sapiens.

Evidence from Taphonomic Studies

Taphonomic studies, which analyze the processes affecting animal remains from the time of death to discovery, offer significant insights into the dietary habits of early humans. One such study conducted at the Xujiayao site in northern China reveals that archaic Homo sapiens were successful predators of large game during the latter part of the Early Paleolithic. The faunal assemblage at this site is dominated by equid remains, and the analysis of bone modifications indicates that these hominins had primary access to high-utility, meat-bearing, and marrow-rich long bones. The presence of both tooth and butchery marks on the bones suggests that humans were efficient hunters with little competition from other carnivores1.

Human-Megafauna Interactions

Another study focusing on the Late Pleistocene period in Eurasia examines the relationship between humans and megafauna. This period was marked by the extinction of many large-bodied terrestrial mammals, coinciding with the dispersal of technologically advanced Homo sapiens. The study models spatial and temporal patterns in habitat suitability for 24 megafauna species and humans, finding that humans often settled in areas with abundant medium-sized herbivores rather than megafauna. This suggests that while humans were efficient predators, their hunting practices were not the primary cause of megafauna extinction. Instead, they exploited their prey in a cost-effective manner, focusing on species that were more readily available and easier to hunt2.


Are humans natural herbivores?

Camille Parmesan has answered Extremely Unlikely

An expert from Centre National de Recherche Scientifique in Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, Environmental Science

Humans are omnivores, meaning we have always eaten both animals and plants. We have digestive systems that are “in-between” in design – having neither the very short digestive tracts of 100% carnivores (like cats) nor the very long digestive tracts of 100% herbivores (e.g. large grazers, such as the many species of wild antelope or deer). In addition, we lack the complex digestive machinery that many herbivores have evolved to deal with tough plant material – e.g. gizzards in birds to break down hard seeds, and extra stomachs and processes (e.g. fermentation) in ruminant animals (e.g. cows) to help them digest high-fiber plants like many grasses.


Are humans natural herbivores?

Kate Pechenkina has answered Extremely Unlikely

An expert from The City University of New York in Biological Anthropology

Humans are not natural herbivores, because we have a fairly short digestive track, which is notoriously bad in processing plant fiber.

Imagine your diet without domesticated plants. What would you eat? What would your diet consist of if you were lost in a forest or trapped on an island without any access to domesticated plants. Of course you could pick some berries or dig for roots and tubers, or perhaps collect nuts and acorns. However, some of these would be toxic and the rest would be small, fibrous, and difficult to digest and would not provide enough calories for you to survive long term. Therefore, you would likely try hunting. If you are not a skilled hunter, you will likely start collecting small animals such as lizards, snakes, worms, snails, or tortoises. If you are near a large water-body, you will likely take on fishing or gathering shellfish.

The process of plant domestication ensured that some plants became more easily digestible. Studies of human skeletons from early farming communities show that early farmers suffered from many dietary deficiency diseases, such as iron deficiency anemia, scurvy–vitamin C deficiency, and rickets, suggesting that plant based diet could not supply early farmers with an adequate composition of nutrients.


Are humans natural herbivores?

Michael S Singer has answered Near Certain

An expert from Wesleyan University in Ecology, Evolutionary Biology

Yes, human beings are natural herbivores, but that doesn’t mean we are not also natural carnivores. The totality of evidence, including what people eat today, shows that human beings are omnivores. That is, we are capable of eating species from multiple trophic levels (levels in a food chain), such as plants and animals. The healthiest diet for any individual person will depend on a combination of environmental and genetic factors, but most people grow best and maintain good health on a diet that includes a variety of food from plants (leafy greens, cooked greens, roots, grains, nuts, fruits) as well as some animal products (dairy, eggs, meat, fish). Such a diet ensures a good mix of essential nutrients in addition to various other compounds, such as antioxidants, that studies increasingly show are important for preventing cancer and other diseases.

Evolution does not specify what people are “meant” to eat because there is no designer. What people actually eat and how they grow and maintain health on diets is the best measure we have to address this issue. One hallmark of omnivores is ability to eat and grow on a broad range of food types. Therefore, people have many choices of diet, unlike some animals with very specific diets, and we see that some people maintain good health on a diet with relatively large meat content, while others maintain good health on a diet without any meat. This flexibility is especially true for adults. Human infants are far less flexible, having high protein and fat requirements. Adolescents and pregnant women typically need more protein as well, and often this manifests as a craving for meat.


Are humans natural herbivores?

Sergey N Fedosov has answered Extremely Unlikely

An expert from Aarhus University in Vitamins

Humans cannot synthesis vitamin B12 and obtain it exclusively from food of animal source (from the true herbivores, who get B12 from microorganisms of their digestive tract under fermentation of grass).


Are humans natural herbivores?

Michael C Singer has answered Extremely Unlikely

An expert from Centre National de Recherche Scientifique in Evolutionary Biology

Length of gut indicates a history of omnivory.. mixed diet. herbivores have much longer and more complex digestive tracts than humans so meat has historically been part of our diet. That said, it’s also clear from modern evidence that a diet high in red meat and especially preserved, smoked or blackened meat, increases risk of cancer.

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