Human beings as we know them have come a long way. We have been born of a long line of evolving beings — hominins — millions of years old. It’s wild (and sort of beautiful!) to think about, but science has proven that we’ve morphed (literally) over time, becoming the bipedal, big-brained, thumb-bearing beings we are today.
The form we hold today comes from a long line of developmental, physiological, and behavioral changes.
The homo erectus period saw the most dramatic changes. In fact, our ancestors, H. erectus, had bigger brains, longer legs, shorter arms, and a super useful precision grip, meaning they could better apply pressure and grasp things. Suddenly, that finger on your hand isn’t “just a finger,” huh? It’s an evolutionary miracle, huh?
Homo erectus — which literally means “upright man” — is actually one of the many species (there are nearly 20, according to the Smithsonian) of archaic humans.
The fossils belonging to these first humans have been found in Africa as well as in other locations, such as Spain, China, and Indonesia, according to LiveScience. This indicates that the homo erectus may have been the first human species to migrate out of Africa, and also shows the importance of using fossils when it comes to documenting our history.
The homo erectus lived a very long time ago.
About 1.8 million years ago, during the Pleistocenegeological epoch, to be precise. However, they’re actually pretty new in the grand scheme of things, since the earth, just for context, is about 4.5 billion years old. Me and you are homo sapiens, and we’ve been around for about 200,000 years now, making us a blip on the human radar. Interestingly, some believe that the last of our homo erectus ancestors lived up until about 50,000 years ago, according to Brittanica.
Before that, it’s assumed that the root of hominins comes from an apelike species that lived up to 16 million years ago.
Back to our ancestors, though: When homo erectus arrived on the earth scene, what were they up to?
Homo erectus came a long way, so what did they do? And most importantly, what did they eat? When we hear about ancestral diets like Paleo, is it true that homo erectus were snacking on whatever they could hunt, gather, and fish? In short, yes. Homo erectus focused heavily on meat in their diet.
This may seem obvious, but it’s a pretty big deal, historically.
According to National Geographic, homo erectus weren’t plant eaters like many ape-like species.
Instead, they were omnivorous — although it’s hard to identify how much meat they ate. Remember that big brain the homo erectus had? Their meat-eating is a critical point of data because they certainly would have needed meat to take in “enough extra energy at each meal to help fuel a bigger brain,” says the National Geographic.
Talk about being carnivorous.
Our ancestors actually had smaller guts because they weren’t taking in as much fiber from plants (and smaller guts require higher-quality, easy-to-digest food).
Instead of all of their energy going right to the gut, it then went to the brain — making us much smarter beings. Why does this matter? The brain requires energy to function. According to Scientific American, “It is well established that the brain uses more energy than any other human organ, accounting for up to 20 percent of the body’s total haul.” Essentially, this means that when homo erectus was around, they needed loads of energy-rich food, like meat protein, to fuel its energy needs.
Just one little problem: According to the Smithsonian, homo erectus’ small teeth would probably make it very, very difficult to chew food.
In fact, they’d end up spending forever chewing on whatever hock of meat they might find.
So how do we reconcile that knowledge with the fact that we know they were meat eaters?
The conclusion is simple… Homo erectus loved meat tartar …and probably learned to tenderize their meat with the use of stone tools. It probably wasn’t frigerated or garnished with flavorful spices, but, you know, it got the job done. So, what kind of meat did they eat and pulverize? According to American Scientist, they ate a lot of different kinds of meats — from small animals to huge ones, like elephants and giraffes:
“The earliest evidence of meat-eating indicates that early humans were consuming not only small animals but also animals many times larger than their own body size, such as elephants, rhinos, buffalo, and giraffes.”
Homo erectus probably got a lot of this meat from scavenging and not hunting, though.
This means they probably found their meat sources somewhere where an animal had died. There’s even evidence that, instead of eating it on the spot, they took it back to their “homes,” and pulverized and shared it. That is another big difference from our chimpanzee ancestors, who ate food on the spot.
We’ve certainly come a long way when it comes to food preparation.
It wasn’t until millions of years later when agriculture took form and humans could feed themselves with loads of grains of the land…
…but when meat was lean, they did forage some plants from the land to feed themselves. There is some evidence that homo erectus ate from the hackberry tree, as well. According to Sciencing.com, “The hackberry produces small, pea-sized berries that change from light orange to dark purple in color when ripe in early fall.”
If nothing else, at least we’re all aware that something called a “hackberry” exists.
Some believe that homo erectus also enjoyed aquatic food, too.
According to Psychology Today, they may have been eating mollusk species and fishes found in shallow water. They may have been choosing the larger mollusks, eating what was inside of them — which would have been easy for them. This fish food may have contributed to homo erectus’ brain growth, as well.
According to Discovery, “If the hominins of this time dined on the bounty of the sea… they could have ingested the calories and fatty acids needed for accelerated brain growth.”
Homo erectus were probably eating turtles and crocodiles, too. The evidence comes from the fact that thousands of animal bones and tools have been discovered, lending credibility to the idea that homo erectus was killing and eating aquatic life. There was also evidence that honey, bird eggs, and underground tubers may have been food sources.
So they weren’t lacking when it came to different ways they could obtain food.
However, they were particularly serious when it came to honey.
When it comes to the honey consumption, experts believe that many a homo erectus had a pretty serious sweet tooth. According to an Sapiens, “A fragmentary partial Homo erectus skeleton (called KNM-ER 1808) from Koobi Fora, Kenya, had diseased bones consistent with hypervitaminosis A—a disease caused by overconsumption of the vitamin.”
Move on over, Winnie the Pooh!
And guess where that vitamin comes from? Yep — all that honey!
Although the idea of honey-obsessed homo erectus is funny, it’s the underground tubers which are of greater importance in the conversation around evolution, as odd as that may sound. Tubers include foods like potatoes, turnips, rutabagas and the such. According to a piece published in Science, “A small but enthusiastic band of anthropologists argues that these homely roots were also pivotal in human evolution.”
Homo erectus was nothing if not resourceful.
Rather it being solely the work of nutrient-dense meat, there’s some belief that these tubers may have enabled archaic humans to develop, prompting the “evolution of large brains, smaller teeth, modern limb proportions, and even male-female bonding.” There’s even some belief that homo erectus learned how to cook these tubers, increasing their tastiness and nutrition.
Lots of experts believe that homo erectus did have the ability to control fire, although many people believe fire use came much later.
As for their typical menu:
So, if we were to compile a daily homo erectus menu, it might consist of mollusk, berries, honey, bird eggs, some plant-based foods (whatever could be foraged) and a considerable amount of some sort of pulverized meat. In other words, they were eating whatever could be foraged from the great outdoors. Maybe they’d take it back to their cave site, sit under a hackberry tree and use their stone tools to smash their meat into a smooth, easy-on-the-teeth paste.
With every bite, their brains got bigger and bigger, literally contributing to the evolution of our species.
Hackberry, honey and, giraffe tartar, anyone?
We’d bet plenty of upscale restaurants would charge an arm and a leg for a three-course, homo erectus-inspired meal like this. If so, you’re welcome.