How The Ancient Human Diet Evolved Throughout History

In the 1970s, a gastroenterologist created an eating plan that was supposed to imitate the Paleolithic diet. But he got many things wrong. For instance, he assumed that ancient people didn’t eat wheat. This proves that many people don’t understand how ancient humans ate.

The human diet progressed far earlier in history than most people think. For instance, people have cooked for at least one million years, and Neolithic people processed milk. You may be surprised how early people hunted, cooked, and farmed. Read on to learn how diet evolved throughout human history.

Early Humans Could Not Eat Fruit

A woman holds a variety of fruits and eats an apple.
Goffredo di Crollalanza/FilmMagic
Goffredo di Crollalanza/FilmMagic

There is some evidence that ancient humans skipped fruit and ate vegetables instead. In 2009, researchers analyzed the teeth of Australopithecus anamensis, the same hominid that Lucy is. They lived in Africa around 4.2 million years ago.

Dental studies showed that early human teeth were not strong enough to handle the acid from fruit. Scientists believe that the ancients preferred vegetables, roots, and insects. According to this theory, humans did not develop strong enough teeth to eat fruit until thousands of years later.

The Ancients Loved Carbs

A farmer harvests wheat in Afghanistan.
FARSHAD USYAN/AFP via Getty Images
FARSHAD USYAN/AFP via Getty Images

Contrary to popular belief, ancient people didn’t only eat meat, produce, and nuts. In 2018, archaeologists examined teeth fossils and concluded that the ancients loved carbs. When they dissected the stomach of a 5,000-year-old man, Ötzi, they found that the last thing he ate was goat and wheat.

Archaeologists determined what people ate by the plaque buildup on their teeth. They believe that ancients ate similar carbs to today, from oats to wheat to soybeans to potatoes. In short: we have always loved eating carbs.

They Ate Bread 400 Years Earlier Than We Thought They Did

Carbonized bread from Pompeii is on display in a museum.
Carlo Hermann//KONTROLAB /LightRocket via Getty Images
Carlo Hermann//KONTROLAB /LightRocket via Getty Images

Although many people believe that humans made bread late in history, this is not true. Researchers from the University of Cambridge concluded that people ate bread back in the Stone Age. That’s 400 years earlier than our oldest evidence of farming.

Archaeologists discovered evidence of bread from the plaque on human teeth. Specifically, they found red wheat, barley, and millet with starchy material from beans or peas. That may explain how the ancients made bread so early in human history. In this sense, humans have always eaten “processed” foods.

Human’s Oldest Barbecue Dates Back One Million Years

A woman points at a picture of ancient people cooking in the Indus Valley.
Pallava Bagla/Corbis via Getty Images
Pallava Bagla/Corbis via Getty Images

So far, our oldest evidence of using fire for cooking dates back one million years. Archaeologists found charred remains in a cave in South Africa, including burnt animal bones and plants. The fire was small: only a few twigs and grasses.

Scientists still don’t know whether these early humans–a species called Homo erectus–started the fire intentionally. Dental records suggest that H. erectus may have begun cooking around 1.9 million years ago. But until we have more evidence, we will never know when humans first started cooking.

Hunters Or Scavengers?

Rock petroglyphs depict men hunting while riding horses.
Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis via Getty Images
Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis via Getty Images

Although scientists agree that humans have eaten meat for a long time, they don’t know how much meat early humans ate. Anthropologist Joseph Ferraro believes that humans were both hunters and scavengers. For instance, the ancients would pick up animal bones to eat the marrow for an essential source of fat.

If humans took down a zebra, they received 33 pounds of meat for their tribe. But depending on the number of resources available, ancient humans may have scavenged more than they hunted. Humans might have gone through long periods without eating animals if none were available.

Humans Have Fished For 500,000 Years

A man fishes.
David McNew/Getty Images

According to fish fossils, Homo habilis and Homo erectus were fishing around 500,000 years ago. It is unclear if they developed tools to do so because the earliest fishing tools we’ve found date back over 40,000 years.

In ancient Egypt, the net, spear, and fishing rod appeared around 3500 BC. However, humans were likely eating fish well before they developed tools for fishing. They may have scavenged or caught fish by hand as early as the Upper Paleolithic period.

Cooking May Date Back 1.5 Million Years

A stone fireplace appears in Pompeii.
Getty Images
Getty Images

Humans have cooked for thousands of years. The earliest hearth dates back to the Stone Age, around 790,000 years ago. But some researchers believe that cooking began far earlier, over 1.5 million years ago.

When did humans discover fire? Archaeologists still aren’t sure. Traces of ash in a South African cave date back one million years. However, 1.9 million years ago, human physiology changed. Some scientists believe that these changes resulted from cooking food, which helps people absorb more nutrients.

Humans Weren’t Built To Digest Milk

A girl drinks milk.
Grabowsky/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Grabowsky/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Teeth from a Neolithic farmer suggest that early humans consumed animal milk at least 6,000 years ago. But initially, humans couldn’t drink milk. As infants, humans produce an enzyme called lactase that can break down lactose from a mother’s milk. Later in life, many people lose lactase production.

As humans drank more animal milk, their bodies adjusted. They developed more lactase to break down dairy throughout life. Throughout the generations, this “lactase persistence” changed human DNA to help them eat dairy. According to research in Annual Reviews, lactase persistence first pervaded in Europe around 5,000 years ago.

Neolithic People Processed Milk

Processed cattle milk pours into a container.
Andia/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Andia/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Although lactase persistence developed 5,000 years ago, humans were drinking animal milk longer before that. So how could they drink milk over 6,000 years ago? According to researchers from the University of York, ancient humans may have processed milk.

A BBC report showed Neolithic pottery that was likely used to heat animal milk. By boiling milk or fermenting it into cheese, ancient humans could digest it better. This way, the ancients could consume milk from different animals, but they seemed to prefer cattle and sheep.

The Ancients Not Only Ate Roots But Also Cooked Them

Horseradish root sits in the soil.
Patrick Pleul/picture alliance via Getty Images
Patrick Pleul/picture alliance via Getty Images

Archaeological remains from 120,000 years ago suggest that the ancients dug up roots and cooked them. Inside the Klasies River Cave in South Africa, archaeologists found charred food remains in hearths. It seemed that humans were eating plant roots, such as tubers and rhizomes, during the Middle Paleolithic period.

Tubers are root vegetables similar to potatoes. Ancient roots were likely more tough than modern potatoes and needed to be cooked over a fire. “Despite changes in hunting strategies and stone tool technologies, they were still cooking roots and tubers,” said study author Cynthia Larbey.

They Likely Ate Insects

A woman eats dried mealworms.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
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“If you asked a paleoanthropologist, ‘Did early hominins eat insects?’ … Ninety-nine percent of them would say, ‘Yeah, sure,’” says anthropologist Julie Lesnik. But the evidence isn’t that simple. Insects leave behind little archaeological evidence, so research can’t confirm how many insects the ancients ate.

Primates commonly eat insects such as ants, bees, butterflies, locusts, and crickets. Even today, people in Africa, Asia, Australia, and Latin America eat insects such as crickets. Many experts assume that at least some ancient humans consumed bugs when they needed more protein.

We’ve Eaten Meat For At Least 2.6 Million Years

A raw beef steak is on sale.
David Silverman/Getty Images
David Silverman/Getty Images

How long have humans eaten meat? While we don’t know for sure, the earliest evidence dates back to 2.6 million years. Based on dental records, archaeologists know that humans ate an omnivorous diet similar to chimpanzees. However, we ate different meat than chimpanzees did.

While chimpanzees only hunted small mammals, early humans ate large animals such as elephants, buffalo, rhinos, and giraffes. Butchery cuts on ancient bones suggest that early humans used tools for hunting, skinning, and dissecting large mammals. This is also around the time when stone tools became common.

The Grain That Changed Human History

Millet is stored in a large container.
Kirill KukhmarTASS via Getty Images
Kirill KukhmarTASS via Getty Images

Today, rice and wheat are the world’s most popular grain products. But that wasn’t always so. In 2016, researchers determined that millet–a tiny round grain–may have changed the course of human history. The use of this Chinese grain dates back 10,000 years.

Millet was the perfect grain for early humans to farm. It had a short growing season and could sprout on hills with little water. Compared to other crops, it was also disease-resistant. Millet likely helped many hunter-gatherer people transition to farming in the Neolithic era.

Humans Have Farmed For At Least 12,000 Years

Artwork shows Egyptians farming on an ancient tomb.
Getty Images
Getty Images

Scientists believe that humans began farming around 12,000 years ago based on archaeological evidence from the Middle East. During the Pleistocene ice age, humans started to form feasts and burial rituals. Hunting and gathering could not feed these larger communities.

Early crops included peas, lentils, and barley. In 2016, a study suggested that different communities began farming around the same time. Although these farmers never interacted, they had similar DNA. As farming tools and crops intermingled, the human diet became more complex.

We’ve Used Stone Tools For Over Three Million Years

Drawings depict stone arrowheads from the Mesolithic period.
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

In 2010, the California Academy of Sciences analyzed the oldest tools ever made by humans–over 3.4 million years old. Before then, researchers thought that tool use began a million years later. But before humans carved stones, they used bone tools to eat meat.

Archaeologists examined a well-preserved body, named Selam, and found tools for carving meat off animal bones. The tools were crafted from ribs of cow-sized or goat-sized mammals. The ancients used them to cut meat and break open bones for their marrow.

The Paleolithic Diet Was Almost Vegetarian

A pile of vegetables appear in a farmer's market.

Although Paleolithic humans were omnivores, they ate a lot of vegetables. Edible plants are hard to find in archaeology because they don’t preserve as well as bones. But scientists from the University in Ramat Gan, Israel, studied a wide array of vegetables that ancient humans ate. As it turns out, they consumed at least 55 different plants.

Paleolithic humans ate dozens of different nuts, seeds, stems, roots, and leaves. Researcher Naama Goren-Inbar claims that our modern diet is restricted compared to the ancient human diet. Because plants were easier to gather and provided essential nutrients, early human diet most likely relied on vegetables.

Some Humans Ate Completely Different Food

An archaeologist cleans an ancient human skeleton.
SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images
SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images

An ancient human’s diet varied depending on their location, weather, and contact with other humans. Hence, archaeologists have found some humans with a vastly different diet than others. One was a two-million-year-old African hominid called the “Nutcracker Man.”

In 2012, scientists from the University of Colorado, Boulder found a human skeleton with massive teeth and jaw. Further research discovered that he ate grasses and tree bark. This is entirely unlike other early humans who consumed roots and fruits from trees and bushes. Who knows how many different diets existed two million years ago?

Humans Could Fish The Deep Sea 42,000 Years Ago

An Egyptian carving depicts men fishing in a boat.
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

Although archaeologists knew that ancient humans fished, they assumed that they couldn’t get deep-sea fish until 12,000 years ago. But new research from 2016 countered that. Ancient fish hooks from East Timor indicate that humans fished in the deep sea over 42,000 years ago.

East Timor is a Southeast Asian nation bordering the sea. Ancient humans likely went out to sea to fish for more food. The site included bone tools and remains of turtles, fish, bats, and pythons. They even caught tuna, which is very difficult if you don’t have a net.

The Oldest Diet Was Well-Balanced

A fossilized human jawbone from Ethiopia is on display.
Minasse Wondimu Hailu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

In 2005, researchers published their findings on one of the oldest human remains that have been discovered so far. They came from the Omo River around Ethiopia and Tanzania over 200,000 years ago. After analyzing their diet, researchers found that prehistoric meals were well-balanced.

Researchers determined that the ancients ate around 30% protein, 30% to 40% fats, and 40% carbohydrates. Protein and fat came from fish, hunted mammals, and milk. Carbohydrates likely stemmed from grains, root vegetables, nuts, and other plants.

Stone Age Food Processors

A reconstruction of a Neolithic kitchen shows how ancient humans cooked.
DEA/G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini via Getty Images
DEA/G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini via Getty Images

Contrary to popular belief, “processed foods” are not a new invention. People from the Stone Age likely processed their food. They cut, mashed, and even prepped vegetables for cooking. Harvard researchers have found evidence that prepared their meat for easier eating.

According to scientist Katie Zink, processing meat–usually using stone tools–made it easier to chew and absorb nutrients. Sometimes, early humans would mash meat with root vegetables. They had flatter teeth than we do today, so ancient humans needed to process meat. When cooking became widespread, meat became more common and desirable.