In scientific circles it was always assumed
that the first people ate meat, says paleontologist
John de Vos from the Naturalis museum in
Leiden, the Netherlands. But two years ago,
sound scientific evidence for this claim was found.
In fossil remains of the Australopithecus
Africanus, the predecessor of man, researchers
found carbon compounds that relate directly
to meat consumption. This puts an end to
all the stories that prehistoric man lived
off fruits and vegetables.
Eating meat is a natural condition of man.
The first human tools were knives to scrape
the meat off bones. 'That doesn't surprise
me at all, says De Vos. 'We know that apes,
such as chimpanzees also eat meat on occasion'.
Neanderthal man, one of the prehistoric
men that didn't survive, had a diet that
consisted almost exclusively of meat.
The following article appeared in the Dutch 'Volkskrant' on 27th March 2001.
By Mac van Dinther - journalist.
'Of old, a generous portion of meat conjures up the image of happy and manful people' (Ruth L. Ozeki: My Year of the Meat).
There is no doubt, that the first man ate meat.
Blissfully ignorant about the consequences his choice would have millions of years later, primeval man sunk his teeth intoa prehistoric Savannah rabbit.
From that moment on, man had blood on his hands.
From the factsheet "Meat", the daily meat consumption in 2007 and projected in 2050:
For the Australopithecus, eating
meat was not so much a choice, as a necessity
caused by evolution. Three million years ago
a long drought occurred in eastern Africa,
the cradle of humanity. The rain forest turned
Then two things happened at once, De Vos explains.
Man started walking upright and eating meat.
'Australopithecus had to travel greater
distances on the Savannah, which prompted
him to walk upright. This cost more energy,
which is easier to obtain from meat than from
vegetable matter. 'On top of that, there was
less food to find on the Savannah than there
was in the jungle. They had no choice.
In this stage of becoming human, the hominid
brain also went through a strong development.
This is the reason why some researchers think
that meat, a rich source of protein, is good
for the development of the brain. To this
day, this theory has not been contradicted
by the Dutch Information Bureau on Meat, but
it is based on nothing according to De Vos.
'Walking upright, gave man free use of his hands. The hands are controlled
by the brain. I think that's what caused the
brain to develop. Otherwise, lions should
have developed super brains'.
Eating meat also changed our teeth. Our long
incisors became flattened. Our jaws turned
into scissors suitable for cutting meat, and
the molars ground it down. A typically omnivorous
set of teeth, says De Vos.
Early man may not have been averse to animals,
he mainly ate meat on certain occasions. He
had meat if he could get his hands on it,
which happened only rarely.
This circumstance only changed when man started
domesticating animals, starting with sheep,
eight thousand years BC. From that moment
on a relationship developed between man and
animal that was characterized by one using
and eating the other.
There are places in the world where people
cannot survive without eating meat, says Adel
den Hartog, senior lecturer on feeding habits
at the University of Wageningen. 'Think of
the tundra. Nothing grows there. The same
goes for the Sahara desert, or Greenland'.
But it is striking that, necessity aside,
literally all the peoples of the world like
to eat meat, says Den Hartog. 'They don't all like to eat the same kind of animal, but the liking of meat is universal'.
'This does makes sense. Basic foods such as
potatoes, rice, and grains have a flat taste.
But meat has a strong, aromatic flavor. Meat
adds a bit of relish to the table, it is popular,
But at the same time eating meat is never without problems.
Meat is cursed with a 'diabolical ambiguity',
says Den Hartog. In every culture there is
a notion that man has to spill blood in order
to eat meat. 'Man is very much aware that he kills to eat'.
Of everything that comes to the dinner table, meat is the most emotionally charged. Meat is sinful.
According to the book of Genesis man started eating meat after the fall from grace.
Cain's fratricide on Abel was the precedent. There is no other
food so much laden with taboos and religious regulations as meat.
Muslims call on Allah when they are butchering,
the ancient Greeks offered meat to the gods,
Jews have specific laws on eating meat.
Not all meat is the same. Hindus worship
cows, Brits don't eat horses, Muslims don't
eat pigs, Mongols are disgusted by fowl
and Europeans don't eat either cats or dogs.
Many food taboos are based on rational grounds.
The horse was taboo for horse riding people,
because they needed the animals. The same
goes for nomadic shepherding people and
their cattle. Shepherds also had great contempt
for peasants who often kept pigs. This is,
according to Den Hartog, the basis for the
later aversion to pork in some originally pastoral religions.
Mirroring the sin of meat, vegetarian food
is often given an aura of moral superiority.
The first things ascetics ban from their
lives is sex, alcohol and meat. The Indian
Brahmins were more or less forced to abstain
from meat because the ascetics threatened to morally surpass them.
Vegetarianism played a role in the Medieval
Christian sects that avowed the 'pure
doctrine' and split off from Rome.
The British vegetarians who founded the
Vegetarian Society in 1847 claimed that
eating meat 'incites animal passions' and leads to immoral behavior.
Not that the common people were very much
bothered. Most of them were happy if they
could get meat. The Roman binges are notorious,
as are the feasts held by rich medieval
people. At the occasion of Henry IV of England's
coronation in 1399 almost forty dishes came
to the table, almost all of them meat dishes:
wild boars, baby swans, capons, cranes,
herons, curlews, partridges, quail and meat
balls. But the common people ate bread and porridge.
For a while there was the idea that eating little or no meat leads to weakness.
Baron Liebig, the inventor of the meat extract,
claimed that muscular strength used in exertion
could only be regenerated by eating meat.
The French gastronome Brillat-Savarin attributed
the British conquest of India to the meatless
diet of the Indians. Mahatma Gandhi, vegetarian,
tried eating meat six times during his youth
to see if that was where the British got their
strength. But then he was plagued by remorse
in his sleep. 'It was as if a living goat
was screaming inside me'.
But those who worked hardest, were given the
least meat. Meat was status, a sign of wealth.
It was only in the twentieth century that
meat started to work its way into all ranks
of society. This started at the beginning
of the century, says Den Hartog. 'But the
great wave started after the second World War, in the fifties'.
The welfare state brought cars to people's
houses, a television set in every living room
and meat on the table every day. This was
a dream come true for every worker, says Den
Hartog. 'Marcus Bakker, a former leader of
the Communist Party, said: 'What's good
for the bourgeois child, is good for a working man's child'.
It was only in the middle ages that meat consumption
of some magnitude started to come up in Europe.
After the plague epidemic that wreaked havoc
among the population in the fourteenth century,
there seems to have been a period of relative
abundance. There were plenty of pastures for
animals and few people to divide the meat.
But starting in the seventeenth century, the
population grew and people had to cut back
on meat. Meat was once again a luxury commodity
for kings and the rich. The common man and
woman ate salted meat, stockfish and a bacon
rind in the stew. Only the best paid workers
could afford meat, wrote Friedrich Engels
in 1844 on workers in England.
From the same time also dated pleas to let
the population eat more meat. G. Mulder, one
of the first Dutch food experts in 1847 made
mention of a 'lack of resilience'
of workers. According to Mulder this was caused
by a shortage of meat in their diets.
The ideal has been reached:
eating meat is democratized: it's cheap,
available to everyone and nothing special.
There seems to be no end. Year after year
the consumption of meat slices, sausages
and cutlets increases. Never in history
was meat consumption higher than it is now.
But since recently there seems to be a slight
countertrend. The number of 'meat dropouts'
and vegetarians is growing, and meat consumption
is stagnating. In the year 2000 there was
an average reduction of meat consumption
in the Netherlands of three kilos per head
compared to 1996 when meat consumption was
at its height.
At the same time, meat has lost its claims
to health. The claim that meat is healthy
has been scientifically outmoded, says food
expert S. de Waard of the Dutch Vegetarian Union.
'Two years ago, the Oxford university compared
the state of health of vegetarians with
that of meat eaters. Vegetarians had better
body weight, less cholesterol and therefore
a smaller chance of contracting heart and
vascular disease'. Eating a lot of meat is unhealthy.
The social views on meat have also changed,
says Den Hartog. It used to be a sign of
poverty if you didn't eat meat. 'Now it
is nothing to be ashamed of'. On the contrary, it seems. Meat eating on a large scale is
on its way back.
For now, this only holds true for western
countries, Den Hartog is quick to add. We
are on the eve of a great 'meat revolution'.
The western world may become saturated,
but the developing countries are starting
to make up their arrears in the field of meat consumption.
According to the American International
Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) the
demand for meat in developing countries
will double over the next twenty years.
In 1995 world wide meat consumption was
198 million tons, the IFPRI expects this
number to rise to 313 million tons in 2020.
This will have enormous consequences for
the environment and the use of land in the
world. If Australopithecus had known this,
he would never have left the rain forest.