Until 10,000 to 12,000 or so years ago, humans and our hominin ancestors obtained food through a combination of hunting and foraging. We hunted small or large game and birds. At some point we learned how to catch fish and shellfish. We searched for and gathered up fruits, berries, leafy plants, nuts, seeds, mussels, clams, honey, eggs, and roots.
The range of edible items expanded when we harnessed the power of fire for cooking, which was at least 230,000 years ago and may have been as long as a million years ago.Tools and weapons also expanded our possibilities from the very start of the Paleolithic.
Prior to 10,000 years ago, we weren’t farming or raising cattle and dairy cows. Available foods depended on local climatic conditions, soil, and water availability. Climate, in turn, is heavily dependent on latitude (how far away from the equator) and altitude. East Africa at the dawn of humanity is described as savanna: grass-filled plains with scattered patches of forest, and relatively dry. Plants and animals available there would be much different than the colder but wetter Europe 200,000 years ago.
Humans in Northern Europe tended to eat more animal-based food and relatively less plant matter than savanna-dwellers, perhaps just because there were fewer edible plants growing in the cold climate. Many plants would have been highly seasonal, just as they are now.
Tribes of humans walked or migrated to nearby micro-climates as one plant went out of season and another came into season. Tribes followed prey animals as they also migrated in search of seasonal food.
Due to technological limitations, we wouldn’t have been able to utilize some potential food sources that required much processing, such as cereal grains and legumes. Since we weren’t yet pastoralists (raising sheep, cattle, etc.), we would have access to milk only if we killed a nursing prey animal. Have you ever tried to milk a wild water buffalo? Not advisable. Ability to digest milk beyond infancy was marginal. Even today, two-thirds of humans lose the ability to digest milk after infancy.
The experts debate actively debate how long we’ve been consuming significant amounts of cereal grains and roots. Canadian researchers working in Africa suggest we’ve enjoyed them for over 100,000 years (see Mercader, Julio, et al. Mozambican grass seed consumption during the Middle Stone Age. Science, December 18, 2009.)
Steve Parker, M.D.