Miki Ben-Dor: The complete and unifying explanation of human evolution (Introduction)
The title of the article really says it all, doesn’t it?
One of my favorite palaeoarchaeologists, Miki Ben-Dor (what, you don’t have a favorite?), recently finished publishing a four-part series that presents a unifying hypothesis for human evolution.
Spoiler alert: the overarching conclusion of the papers is that humankind’s bioenergetic needs (i.e. our diet) are what drove many of the adaptations that resulted in Homo sapiens.
I have been wanting to dive deep into this topic for a while, and I know many of you want to understand human evolutionary history better as well. So, I’m going to try a little “public learning” experiment.
In my next four articles, I am going to work my way through each of Ben-Dor’s papers and break them down, concept-by-concept. This should give us an excellent understanding of (a) what our species ate throughout our evolutionary history, and (b) how that resulted in who we are today.
But why does this series matter?
I’m glad you asked.
We all know that nutrition is a controversial topic. Everyone has an opinion about what the ideal human diet looks like.
However, it’s curious that we don’t see that same diversity of opinion regarding other animals. Pick any animal you want: whales, bears, chimpanzees, tortoises, snakes, you name it. I can all but guarantee you that, regardless of which animal you choose, zoologists and wildlife biologists will have an answer for what a species-appropriate diet means.
So why all the confusion regarding human nutrition?
More and more, I believe the confusion stems from a lack of understanding regarding human evolution.
As far as we know, humans did not magically show up on this planet. Our species is not exempt from the evolutionary forces that shaped all life on Earth. Every other species on this planet has a species-appropriate diet, and when they consume it, they live normal, healthy lives.
Humans are no different.
By the time we’re done with this series, you will have a better understanding than 95% of people about what humans evolved to eat. That knowledge will arm you with the information you need to begin optimizing your health.
What you choose to do with that information, of course, is up to you.
Here’s what I will be covering in this series (scroll down to the end to find the links to each of my articles):
Supersize does matter: The importance of large prey in Palaeolithic subsistence and a method for measuring its significance in zooarchaeological assemblages
According to Ben-Dor, “the first and second papers are intended to present the hypothesis that humans evolved as large animal hunters…[the authors] list four reasons that have led humans to specialize in hunting large animals as a source of animal food…[Additionally], the first paper discusses the underrepresentation of large animal bones in archeological sites.”
The importance of large prey animals during the Pleistocene and the implications of their extinction on the use of dietary ethnographic analogies
In addition to the points addressed in the first paper, the second paper “deals with the “mother of all evils” of the reconstruction attempts of the human trophic level, i.e., what percentage of the calories were provided by plants and animals.” The paper explains why 20th-century hunter-gatherer groups are a poor proxy for the majority of human evolution during the Stone Age.
The evolution of the human trophic level during the Pleistocene
I’ll let Miki say it in his own words: “The third paper was written, together with the biologist Raphael Sirtoli, to reconstruct the relative share of plants and animals in ancient humans’ diet without relying on 20th-century hunter-gatherers. For the first time, in this paper, we have presented a broad paleobiological approach as a source of evidence.” You don’t want to miss this one.
Prey Size Decline as a Unifying Ecological Selecting Agent in Pleistocene Human Evolution
The fourth and final paper wraps up the tour-de-force with this gem: “Just as in economics, the best way to understand human behavior is to follow the money; in evolution, the best way to understand the reason for the change is to follow energy, the “currency of life.”” The paper demonstrates how a bioenergetic model can explain numerous adaptations in human evolution, including the increase in human brain volume, the appearance of spoken language, changes in stone tools and hunting techniques, the domestication of the dog, and more.
We will start with Part 1 here, and you can find Parts 2, 3, and 4 at these links (I’ll update the links as I finish them).
Alright, see you in Part 1!