Humans Were Apex Predators for Two Million Years – Our Stone Age Ancestors Mostly Ate Meat

Caveman Eating Meat

Researchers at Tel Aviv University were able to reconstruct the nutrition of stone age humans.

In a paper published in the Yearbook of the American Physical Anthropology Association, Dr. Miki Ben-Dor and Prof. Ran Barkai of the Jacob M. Alkov Department of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, together with Raphael Sirtoli of Portugal, show that humans were an apex predator for about two million years. Only the extinction of larger animals (megafauna) in various parts of the world, and the decline of animal food sources toward the end of the stone age, led humans to gradually increase the vegetable element in their nutrition, until finally they had no choice but to domesticate both plants and animals — and became farmers.

“So far, attempts to reconstruct the diet of stone-age humans were mostly based on comparisons to 20th century hunter-gatherer societies,” explains Dr. Ben-Dor. “This comparison is futile, however, because two million years ago hunter-gatherer societies could hunt and consume elephants and other large animals — while today’s hunter gatherers do not have access to such bounty. The entire ecosystem has changed, and conditions cannot be compared. We decided to use other methods to reconstruct the diet of stone-age humans: to examine the memory preserved in our own bodies, our metabolism, genetics, and physical build. Human behavior changes rapidly, but evolution is slow. The body remembers.”

Human Brain Evolution

Human Brain. Credit: Dr. Miki Ben Dor

In a process unprecedented in its extent, Dr. Ben-Dor and his colleagues collected about 25 lines of evidence from about 400 scientific papers from different scientific disciplines, dealing with the focal question: Were stone-age humans specialized carnivores or were they generalist omnivores? Most evidence was found in research on current biology, namely genetics, metabolism, physiology, and morphology.

“One prominent example is the acidity of the human stomach,” says Dr. Ben-Dor. “The acidity in our stomach is high when compared to omnivores and even to other predators. Producing and maintaining strong acidity require large amounts of energy, and its existence is evidence for consuming animal products. Strong acidity provides protection from harmful bacteria found in meat, and prehistoric humans, hunting large animals whose meat sufficed for days or even weeks, often consumed old meat containing large quantities of bacteria, and thus needed to maintain a high level of acidity.”

Evolution of HTL During Pleistocene

The evolution of the HTL during the Pleistocene as we interpret it, based on the totality of the evidence. Credit: Dr. Miki Ben Dor

Another indication of being predators is the structure of the fat cells in our bodies. In the bodies of omnivores, fat is stored in a relatively small number of large fat cells, while in predators, including humans, it’s the other way around: we have a much larger number of smaller fat cells. Significant evidence for the evolution of humans as predators has also been found in our genome. For example, geneticists have concluded that “areas of the human genome were closed off to enable a fat-rich diet, while in chimpanzees, areas of the genome were opened to enable a sugar-rich diet.”

Evidence from human biology was supplemented by archaeological evidence. For instance, research on stable isotopes in the bones of prehistoric humans, as well as hunting practices unique to humans, show that humans specialized in hunting large and medium-sized animals with high fat content. Comparing humans to large social predators of today, all of whom hunt large animals and obtain more than 70% of their energy from animal sources, reinforced the conclusion that humans specialized in hunting large animals and were in fact hypercarnivores.

Ran Barkai

Prof. Ran Barkai. Credit: Tel Aviv University

“Hunting large animals is not an afternoon hobby,” says Dr. Ben-Dor. “It requires a great deal of knowledge, and lions and hyenas attain these abilities after long years of learning. Clearly, the remains of large animals found in countless archaeological sites are the result of humans’ high expertise as hunters of large animals. Many researchers who study the extinction of the large animals agree that hunting by humans played a major role in this extinction — and there is no better proof of humans’ specialization in hunting large animals. Most probably, like in current-day predators, hunting itself was a focal human activity throughout most of human evolution. Other archaeological evidence — like the fact that specialized tools for obtaining and processing vegetable foods only appeared in the later stages of human evolution — also supports the centrality of large animals in the human diet, throughout most of human history.”

The multidisciplinary reconstruction conducted by TAU researchers for almost a decade proposes a complete change of paradigm in the understanding of human evolution. Contrary to the widespread hypothesis that humans owe their evolution and survival to their dietary flexibility, which allowed them to combine the hunting of animals with vegetable foods, the picture emerging here is of humans evolving mostly as predators of large animals.

“Archaeological evidence does not overlook the fact that stone-age humans also consumed plants,” adds Dr. Ben-Dor. “But according to the findings of this study plants only became a major component of the human diet toward the end of the era.”

Evidence of genetic changes and the appearance of unique stone tools for processing plants led the researchers to conclude that, starting about 85,000 years ago in Africa, and about 40,000 years ago in Europe and Asia, a gradual rise occurred in the consumption of plant foods as well as dietary diversity — in accordance with varying ecological conditions. This rise was accompanied by an increase in the local uniqueness of the stone tool culture, which is similar to the diversity of material cultures in 20th-century hunter-gatherer societies. In contrast, during the two million years when, according to the researchers, humans were apex predators, long periods of similarity and continuity were observed in stone tools, regardless of local ecological conditions.

“Our study addresses a very great current controversy — both scientific and non-scientific,” says Prof. Barkai. “For many people today, the Paleolithic diet is a critical issue, not only with regard to the past, but also concerning the present and future. It is hard to convince a devout vegetarian that his/her ancestors were not vegetarians, and people tend to confuse personal beliefs with scientific reality. Our study is both multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary. We propose a picture that is unprecedented in its inclusiveness and breadth, which clearly shows that humans were initially apex predators, who specialized in hunting large animals. As Darwin discovered, the adaptation of species to obtaining and digesting their food is the main source of evolutionary changes, and thus the claim that humans were apex predators throughout most of their development may provide a broad basis for fundamental insights on the biological and cultural evolution of humans.”

Reference: “The evolution of the human trophic level during the Pleistocene” by Miki Ben‐Dor, Raphael Sirtoli and Ran Barkai, 5 March 2021, American Journal of Physical Anthropology.
DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.24247

29 Comments on "Humans Were Apex Predators for Two Million Years – Our Stone Age Ancestors Mostly Ate Meat"

  1. What about that our teeth structure ain’t meant for meat , what about that we’re closest to primates in DNA and the rest . I’m confused

  2. What a crock. This THEORY places EFFECT BEFORE CAUSE. LOL Apex predators don’t have to worry about getting eaten–maybe murdered by a competeing apex predator (think of Cain and Abel)–but by definition, “apex” places that organism above predation. Humans have always been prey; often to each other; before and SINCE we fell out of the trees and started walking on two legs–if you believe that particular THEORY. But go ahead, be a believer. Your ancestors were knuckle-dragging apes. EMBRACE THE TRUTH but leave me out of that HUG FEST. Farming and animal husbandry were part of intelligent insight. A nomadic lifestyle is stultifying, dangerous and “counterproductive” to raising a family. Humans observed animal behaviour and realized that animal domestication and husbandry was a viable alternative to chasing a chunk of meat; and selective breeding of grain-bearing plants INFINITELY preferable to gleaning miniscule nutrition from wild varieties. Think of corn 🌽 when the husk was no larger than a stalk of wheat grains… but MAYBE the article is correct. I am compelled to allow that. It is just as likely that we are descendants of VELOCIRAPTOR and ATE our way to the top. Human History; particularly in the past 200 years; could easily be “bent” to that theory. It would mesh nicely with Cultural/Economic/Social Darwinism. Dog eat Dog… You are what you eat? Hmmm… HUMAN, after ALL.

    • What you say is wrong in almost every aspect,

      “Humans have always been prey; often to each other…”
      Where did you get that conclusion? humans were the most dangerous and deadly species for the last 2 million years! It is ridiculous to say humans were prey to any other animal.
      And also, homo-sapiens weren’t cannibals, they didn’t hunt and eat each other generally.

      “…and selective breeding of grain-bearing plants INFINITELY preferable to gleaning miniscule nutrition from wild varieties.”
      This is totally wrong too, farming was in all aspects more inefficient and more dangerous than hunter-gathering. Everyone can steal your food stock and all you eat is rice or wheat, and if your crops doesn’t grow, you would probably die of hunger, now if we look at hunter-gathering, you eat protein-rich and fat-rich meat often, no one can steal your food and you don’t have to worry about starving, because you are always traveling and you leave a region when you consume most of its nutrients, then you find another region and you do the same thing again.

  3. The first human was made by God. We were made from God’s likeness. Kindly stop thinking about apes. I believe that what the Bible is telling us are truth.

  4. The 10th Man | April 6, 2021 at 7:04 pm | Reply

    Good approach. The 19th century scientific foundations are bullsh*t. Throw that crap out and try something new. Humans are predators. We do not tolerate other predators and we hoard meat. What else is there. Oh, and to the bible dummies. No one is shoving science at you. You came here to b*tch. Go back to social media where you might get a like or two.

  5. I see very little scientific theory presented here. There’s suppositions aplenty but no proof or any genetic testing. We currently have an acidic stomach, therefore we must have eaten bacteria-laden meat? Science is not simply deductive, circular, or observational reasoning. This article was a waste of my time.

  6. Love how our ancestors are qlways portrayed as white…..aside from that this makes no sense to me. Our teeth structure are not designed for a meat exclusive diet. This is suspect if you ask me

  7. Fascinating and well-researched study. I agree with the main premise. Some of the other comments are disturbing in their reefusal to accept scientific methods. Make the effort to be informed or spare us your ignorant opinions.

  8. How many people offering scathing criticism here actually read the paper?
    It’s mildly disturbing to me that people will just dismiss something they hear of outright. And what, did the study author say that our ancestors were white? I don’t know where that came from. Oh, what, the clip art? See, that’s what I’m talking about. This is an article about an article. How can you be so dismissive of something you haven’t even read?

  9. While the Doctoral study provides evidence of early neanderthal physiology and diet, the analysis also highlights triggers necessary for evolution to install other “human outlets” of omnivorous and herbivorous pathways.
    As a result we inherited alterations of metabolic processes that create higher and lower acidity as well as the restructured fat cells, to better preserve the newer lifestyle choices. Ultimately, the study suggests early humanoids began sustainability efforts by tailoring aspects of life to continue into the next generation of hunters.

  10. Our ancestors were no “apex predators” (it’s ridiculous). They were opportunistic hunter\scavengers, and yes they were often prey to large predators such as big cats. This study sucks big time.

  11. BS!!! Another agenda to dissuade people from going vegan/vegetarian. Probably in cahoots with the meat and dairy industry. An apex predator for 2 million years, and their bone structure of their teeth resembles that of an herbivore??? OK. This is not the Dark Ages. Most people in this era are able to read and comprehend at high levels, and use deductive reasoning. And even if they were only/mostly eating meat that explains why they only lived to be 25 🤔. Try harder next time 🤣🤣🤣

  12. Keep in mind, there is a lot of fake news in science. A good many things cannot be independently verified. We are supposed to just “follow the science”. It offen turns out to be just speculation and guess work.

  13. This study, while it sounds in-depth, is fundamentally flawed because it rests on an unverified assumption which is also part of the conclusion, because there is no data at the start of the time period of the hypothesis and data must be assumed, that human metabolism, stomach acidity, and related traits now, when humans eat a lot of meat but are omnivores, are the same as human metabolism, stomach acidity, and related traits millions of years ago, because there is not enough data on metabolism and stomach acidity from millions of years ago, and concluding that because humans eat meat now then they must have eaten mostly meat to begin with, when the evidence we have from history, both written and fossil, generally show the opposite trend, that humans have historically eaten less meat and have only recently been able to eat mainly meat (and even then eating almost only ever meat generally shortens lifespans).

    I enjoy when people try to learn more about history, but claiming unsupported speculation which disagrees with both historical written accounts and what fossil evidence we have as fact just makes people reading a headline misinformed, which is worse than uninformed.

    A historical account in the Bible, which has proven to me to be the word of God by its abundance of fulfilled, inerrant, prophecies and which has shown to have been written when it suggests, by its many details which were generally lost to time and only rediscovered and verified later by archaeology, says that God created man, and that man was allowed to eat vegetation, but then man sinned, and man and the earth were cursed, that, afterward men became evil (and during this time is silent as to whether one of the things they did was eating meat, but since they were evil, we might assume they also did not care about God’s instructions on eating, and so may have either occasionally or abundantly eaten meat, and people were very evil, and God judged the earth with a global flood, the fossil record of scattered megafauna bones, including a giant “dinosaur blender” of dinosaurs with broken necks and a “mammoth graveyard”, surrounded by sea animals, including fish fossilized while giving birth, all pointing to flash fossilization by mud from a flood, which were a record of the flood. After the flood, God said multiple things to Noah, one being that man can eat animals provided they do not still have their blood (that is their life) still in them.

    And so, this comment is coming from someone who truly enjoys learning about history, and who eats meat almost every day, if not every day, and who believes the Bible, does not believe man evolved from fish nor that fish evolved from mud, who understands that eating meat is a priviledge given to man by God after the global flood, and that men were originally designed to live, forever, happily, eating fruits and vegetables, and that saved humans after the second coming of the Messiah will seem to be herbivores, from my understanding. The good news for herbivores is that french fries and cake is really good, too, so i am sure it will be a good time.

    If one starts studying with true assumptions, evidence falls into place you have never even thought about before when the assumptions were false, in my experience. Evidence just comes at you from everywhere, as if the heavens declare the glory of God and as if the rocks and trees are proclaiming the fact that Jesus is the Son of God as when we look we see the overwhelming evidence that what the Bible says happened really happened.

  14. We also used to live in caves and being in your 30’s was considered old age…we live much more docile lives so chances are we shouldn’t be eating like our ancestors.

  15. Jerry Hernandez | April 7, 2021 at 2:54 pm | Reply

    Not impressed. This is a what if theory. Cherry picking and refining until it fits a narrative. Taking partial evidence and extrapolating to explain an idea. The same thing is done with ufo theories. Is this Dr. Miki Van Dor is Doctor of anthropology or archeology? I suspect it’s Socialogy, philosophy, or art. Gain this is a what if theory. Written as if a wonderous new world changing discovery has been made.

  16. No wonder they didnt live very long.

  17. Yeah. Not apex predators,
    Apex scavengers.
    We ate carrion and used our pint sticks to shoo away birds

  18. Why do people who constantly promote a plant based diet talk about our tooth structure as some kind of proof we evolved eating plants? We’re not like cats who catch prey with their mouths and have to tear the raw flesh with our teeth. We cooked the caught meat by fire for millions of years. The current plant based agenda is absolutely overwhelming and is actually hurting the health of millions. Our brains, in particular, need essential fatty acids derived from animal sources. Vegetarians, in effect, are depriving their brains of essential fatty acids which actually explains a lot!

  19. What’s the truth ?
    Evaluation couldn’t have happened in a vacuum !!

  20. This is such biased garbage that it’s embarrassing. They don’t mention the other traits of our bodies that make us almost certainly omnivores. Notably 1) our intestine length is much longer than carnivores 2) ptyalin in saliva for starch breakdown 3) teeth that look neither herbivorous or carnivorous, but are obviously meant for grinding (our jaws can move laterally for this purpose too) 4) our ability to metabolize cellulose 5) carnivores produce their own Vit C, we don’t. We have plenty of fruit for that. 6) carnivores can eat diets highly saturated with cholesterol without having plague formation, meanwhile we produce almost all the cholesterol we need and plague buildup is an obvious problem 8) blunt nails 9) and for good measure, we have sweat glands on entire body like omnivores vs just the pads for carnivores who mostly release heat by panting. And there’s always more. If you want an actual fair argument, check out the dissection section of this page from someone who actually knows how to properly put aside their biases for the sake of real discussion and doesn’t state their pathetic one-sided article as fact. https://veganbiologist.com/2016/01/04/humans-are-not-herbivores/amp/

    Second, as people have said already here, saying we were apex predators is just a lie. The following article and many others agree on that. “Approximately 6 percent to 10 percent of early humans were preyed upon, according to evidence such as teeth marks on bones, talon marks on skulls and holes in a fossil cranium into which saber-tooth cat fangs fit.” “Sussman points out that the first tools didn’t appear until 2 million years ago. And there isn’t good evidence of fire until after 800,000 years ago… ‘In fact, some archaeologists and paleontologists don’t think we had a modern, systematic method of hunting until as recently as 60,000 years ago,’” https://source.wustl.edu/2005/02/early-humans-were-prey-not-killers/

  21. Cynthia D swinton | April 8, 2021 at 3:06 am | Reply

    actually biblically our race were Kings and queens from our ancestors.we taught the white race who were neandrathals how to clean live eat etc. and matting.the bible talks about the edomites.all races came from Africa Genesis talks about the rivers in Eden where God made made male and female.tigris an ethopia

  22. Trust the Bible brigade to respond.
    cain and able indeed.
    I look for scientific research not religious doctrine opinion.
    Grateful, if these ignorant, self opinion bigots remained in their own fantasy simulcum.

  23. From meat to meat/plant and the next step … plants onl. The survival of earth/mankind depends on it. Perfect evolution!

  24. The earth is only about 13000 years old…this is all theory so 2 million years who was around to confirm this science is just the study of something…..caucasians were the cave man we know that but everyone else was civilized….

  25. Most of this is not true and I question just how reputable the author is.

  26. An article about an article about……
    Question for the Bible hopefuls: do you really want to live forever? Forever is a long, long, long time.
    Question for the Theorists: using accepted definitions,when can theories be taken as fact? I have yet to see that equation.
    Question for the Critics: will you ever tire of slaying the wounded? I wonder how you encourage your children to think.
    Question for All:in the big piture, on the wide screen, does it really f**king matter what our ancestors(?) ate? I’ve probably completed over a hundred serious applications in my day, and I don’t recall this being a question on a single one of them.

  27. after reading the article and all the comments i recommend to all to read the secret life of plants. you may find yourself feeling sympathetic toward carrots (etc…). for myself i have to accept we are a species within the food chain, (albeit with very few active predators) and therefore decide to eat within my ethics and conscience and choose not to feel just plain guilty for having to eat at all.

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