One of the arguments proffered by vegetarians is that our primate ancestors were vegetarians and, to be healthy, we should eat the same kind of diet.
An article entitled “The Western Lowland Gorilla Diet Has Implications For the Health of Humans and Other Hominids,” which appeared in a recent issue of Human and Clinical Nutrition, makes this argument. With reference to the authors’ study of the vegetarian diet of gorillas, the research is sound, but to claim that humans would be better off with a vegetarian diet like that of the gorillas is spurious and equivocal.
One misconception about the gorilla diet is that it contains no animal products. On the contrary, all of the great ape groups take in some animal protein, whether overtly or inadvertently, by consuming insects, insect eggs and the larvae that nest on the plants and fruits they eat. In her pioneering work on chimpanzees, Jane Goodall discovered to her amazement, and to the amazement of the rest of the world, that chimpanzees kill and eat monkeys and make a tool to extract termites from their hills (homes), and that they went to considerable effort to obtain these foods. It is also significant that meat is the only food they share with other chimpanzees.
All monkeys, lemurs and apes are classified as vegetarians and/or fruitivors, but they consume a small amount of animal protein by unconsciously eating the small insects, their eggs and larvae on the plant foods they select to eat. The National Zoo in Washington, D.C. tried to breed the near extinct fruitivorian South American golden marmoset in captivity with no result, but when a little animal protein was added to their diet, they began to breed, which proves that they require a small amount of animal protein to be healthy and reproduce.
With the exception of humans, the native habitat of all the primates is in the tropics. By contrast, for thousands of years, humans have inhabited all the land masses of the world, except for Anarctica. The first humans, the Australopithicines, circa 2 million years ago, were omnivorous. Recently, some researchers, in examining their fossil teeth, have claimed that the Australopithicines were vegetarians; but the evidence indicates they were omnivorous. It is clear that by the time “humans” evolved, from Homo erectus through to what is now considered “modern” humans, such as Cro-Magnon man, humans were primarily meat eaters. According to J. Brownoski, (The Ascent of Man), it was meat-eating that led to the rise of modern man. Homo erectus invented stone tools for hunting big game which led to the invention of more advanced stone tools by Cro-Magnon to modern humans.
It was the quest for meat that led Homo sapiens to colonize the world. They followed the herds of animals. When overpopulation caused the animal food supply to dwindle, many moved on, from tropical Africa to North Africa, Asia, Europe, the Americas and Australia. They walked and adapted to the cold climates and were able to do so because meat is compact energy, and one kill of a mammoth or other big game could feed many people and lasted for a long period of time; whereas gathering plants and fruits to eat was seasonal. Until the early part of the 20th century there were peoples who lived almost entirely on animal food. For example, the Eskimos of North America and Lapps of Scandinavia lived almost entirely on animal protein and were very healthy.
However, when we refer to meat, remember that meat entails fats which are necessary for sound health. The protein and minerals in the meat cannot be utilized without the nutrients in the fat. Both Steffanson and Brody, who spent time with the Eskimos and Indians of North America, reported that these people saved the fat from game animals and always ate their meat with fat.
The Eskimos ate raw meat, which is very healthy, but there is a caveat for modern society: fresh meat often contains bacteria and parasites that can cause illness, and even death, therefore it is recommended by the government that all meat should be cooked well enough to kill all such pollutants.
Humans only turned to plant foods as major food sources when, due to the ever-increasing human population, herds of animals became scarce. They learned to domesticate some animals and invented agriculture.
Humans learned to use fire, to any extent, in the Paleolithic age. Cooking certainly was necessary, because grains cannot be eaten raw. It is also interesting to note that when humans began eating a diet high in grains, the incidence of tooth decay increased considerably. Tooth decay increased dramatically when refined grains (wheat and rice) became staple diets for a large percentage of the world’s population.
For normal growth and sound health throughout life, the human species requires eight amino acids which their bodies cannot manufacture, vitamin B12 and some essential minerals. The only viable source of these amino acids and of vitamin B12 is animal protein such as red meat, fish, shell fish, eggs, milk, insects and worms. The lack of these amino acids results in serious illnesses. For example, kwashiorkor is a deficiency disease which impedes the normal development of vital brain cells and stunts growth. People may be getting all they need to eat to satisfy their hunger from grains and other plant foods. They may even become plump on a diet of grains, but their normal growth and development is stunted. For instance, some Maya Indian peasant groups of Guatemala primarily have only corn, beans and squash to eat. They like meat, but are too poor to purchase meats or raise animals. Feeding domesticated animals would sacrifice land needed to grow the grains on which they subsist. This condition is common over much of the world.
Unlike humans, the digestive tract of gorillas is equipped to manufacture the essential amino acids and other vital nutrients. The human digestive system is not so equipped and we must rely on animal proteins.
It is interesting to note that advocates of vegetarian diets who use the diet of apes as a rational to support their food choice–asserting that the ape diet is more “natural”–fail to advocate eating a diet of all-raw plant foods as the apes do. The basic plant foods that humans eat must be cooked. Vegan advocates also say that by combining grains with legumes, one can get the essential amino acids. Though this may be theoretically possible, in practice it is not viable and extremely difficult or impossible to accomplish, particularly if robust health is to be achieved and maintained generation after generation. Of course, due to modern technology, many of the essential nutrients can be supplied by synthetic or processed products, but these merely duplicate what is naturally in animal protein and are often extracted from them. To be on the safe side, it is wise to procure essential nutrients from their best source–animal protein.
Anthropologists have wondered why certain foods came to be prohibited by some religions. The anthropologist, Dr. Marvin Harris, in his two extremely readable, informative and enjoyable books, Cannibals and Kings and Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches, shows that the prohibition of pigs (pork) by the Jewish religion and cows by the Hindu religion came about due to the ever-increasing pressure of population growth.
Pigs eat grain. It takes lots of land to grow grain for wheat which could feed more humans than it could feed pigs that require the grain to become meat on the human dinner-table. So wheat was in competition with pigs and the wheat won out when human referees decided wheat was more efficient in feeding the growing population. So pork wasn’t worth the grain and was prohibited by the religious leaders as a strategy to feed the population more efficiently.
Likewise, in India where beef was widely eaten at an earlier time in history, the Hindu religion prohibited it because the cow was more valuable for its milk and dung than as edible beef. Milk from the cow provided animal protein and the dung provided fuel for the fires to cook food. Religious sanctions are a very powerful societal force of control. (In these books by Harris, only a few pages are devoted to this subject, but the books are highly recommended for gaining insight into human behavior.)
In economically diverse societies where animal protein is scarce among the poorer classes and more abundant in the increasingly affluent sectors of society, it is interesting to note the differences in body height that seems to reflect the way people are forced to eat. The less affluent sectors subsist primarily on grains and a few vegetables and lack the height that is found among the more affluent ruling classes. This situation can develop as a result of overpopulation because too many humans inhabiting in a region can deplete the carrying capacity of the land upon which the food is produced.
The ancient Maya of the Classical Period used the slash and burn strategy to create more arable land as their population outgrew the surrounding forest. In order to create fields in which to grow corn, squash, beans and chili peppers, forest land was cleared by the destructive method of cutting down trees and burning the debris. This is a very brutal strategy within a fragile ecosystem that rapidly exhausts the soil. The Mayan diet consisted chiefly of the vegetables they grew, a few fruits and game. But the game became scarce as the forest was cleared for farm land and only the tiny ruling class had access to animal protein. (They had the domestic turkey and dog, but these animals ate the same food as humans.) This ecologically unstable situation led to the collapse of the Classical Maya civilization when they abandoned their great cities. The point for this article is that the skeletons unearthed from the Mayan burial grounds reveal that the ruling class was taller than the masses. The nobility supplemented their basic diet of corn, beans and squash with what animal protein was available; whereas the masses had practically none.
So what can the diet of gorillas tell us about what constitutes a healthy diet for humans? Little if anything. Humans are omnivores and need animal protein as well as plant foods to maintain sound health. The author of this article and Dr. Melvin E. Page recommend, as presented in their book, Your Body is Your Best Doctor, the following as a sound diet to help maintain optimal health: Eat a variety of fresh animal protein and fats, a wide variety of fresh vegetables, fruits and nuts and whole grain breads and cereals.
For a complete bibliography on this subject, see “The Relevance of Paleolithic Diet in Determining Contemporary Nutritional Needs,” H. Leon Abrams, Jr. The Journal of Applied Nutrition. Vol. 31, Numbers 1 and 2.
Editor’s Note: Many practitioners still recommend the use of raw meat for its health-building properties, pointing out the careful handling and protective factors in the diet can minimize the risks of parasite and microbial infection.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2000.