Eating meat 'wasn't actually important in human evolution'

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Close-up of Tribe Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherers Trying to Get Warm at the Bonfire, Holding Hands over Fire, Cooking Food. Neanderthal or Homo Sapiens Family Live in Cave at Night.
Did eating meat really make us human? (Getty)

Did human beings grow big brains for the first time after switching to a meat-heavy diet two million years ago?

A new study has thrown this theory into doubt - and the researchers say it could have important implications for people thinking about their diets today.

Large brains began to appear in the human ancestor Homo erectus nearly 2 million years ago - at the same time as abundant archaeological evidence for eating meat.

But the researchers argue that the amount of such evidence is simply due to greater research attention focused on this time period, which has skewed the evidence in favor of the "meat made us human" hypothesis.

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Lead author W. Andrew Barr, an assistant professor of anthropology at the George Washington University said: "Generations of paleoanthropologists have gone to famously well-preserved sites in places like Olduvai Gorge looking for - and finding - breathtaking direct evidence of early humans eating meat, furthering this viewpoint that there was an explosion of meat-eating after 2 million years ago.

"However, when you quantitatively synthesize the data from numerous sites across eastern Africa to test this hypothesis, as we did here, that 'meat made us human' evolutionary narrative starts to unravel."

Barr and his colleagues compiled published data from nine major research areas in eastern Africa, including 59 site levels dating between 2.6 and 1.2 million years ago.

They tracked meat-eating using the number of zooarchaeological sites preserving animal bones that have cut marks made by stone tools, the total count of animal bones with cut marks across sites, and the number of separately reported stratigraphic levels.

They found that there was no evidence for an increase in meat-eating after the arrival of homo erectus.

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Co-author Briana Pobiner, a research scientist in the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, said: "I've excavated and studied cut marked fossils for over 20 years, and our findings were still a big surprise to me.

“This study changes our understanding of what the zooarchaeological record tells us about the earliest prehistoric meat-eating. It also shows how important it is that we continue to ask big questions about our evolution, while we also continue to uncover and analyze new evidence about our past."

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Barr said, "I would think this study and its findings would be of interest not just to the paleoanthropology community but to all the people currently basing their dieting decisions around some version of this meat-eating narrative.

"Our study undermines the idea that eating large quantities of meat drove evolutionary changes in our early ancestors."

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