The Evolution of a Diet – What Our Ancestors Ate

 

BY ANN GIBBONS – For National Geographic

Some experts say modern humans should eat from a Stone Age menu. What’s on it may surprise you.

It’s suppertime in the Amazon of lowland Bolivia, and Ana Cuata Maito is stirring a porridge of plantains and sweet manioc over a fire smoldering on the dirt floor of her thatched hut, listening for the voice of her husband as he returns from the forest with his scrawny hunting dog.

With an infant girl nursing at her breast and a seven-year-old boy tugging at her sleeve, she looks spent when she tells me that she hopes her husband, Deonicio Nate, will bring home meat tonight. “The children are sad when there is no meat,” Maito says through an interpreter, as she swats away mosquitoes.

Nate left before dawn on this day in January with his rifle and machete to get an early start on the two-hour trek to the old-growth forest. There he silently scanned the canopy for brown capuchin monkeys and raccoonlike coatis, while his dog sniffed the ground for the scent of piglike peccaries or reddish brown capybaras. If he was lucky, Nate would spot one of the biggest packets of meat in the forest—tapirs, with long, prehensile snouts that rummage for buds and shoots among the damp ferns.

This evening, however, Nate emerges from the forest with no meat. At 39, he’s an energetic guy who doesn’t seem easily defeated—when he isn’t hunting or fishing or weaving palm fronds into roof panels, he’s in the woods carving a new canoe from a log. But when he finally sits down to eat his porridge from a metal bowl, he complains that it’s hard to get enough meat for his family: two wives (not uncommon in the tribe) and 12 children. Loggers are scaring away the animals. He can’t fish on the river because a storm washed away his canoe.

The story is similar for each of the families I visit in Anachere, a community of about 90 members of the ancient Tsimane Indian tribe. It’s the rainy season, when it’s hardest to hunt or fish. More than 15,000 Tsimane live in about a hundred villages along two rivers in the Amazon Basin near the main market town of San Borja, 225 miles from La Paz. But Anachere is a two-day trip from San Borja by motorized dugout canoe, so the Tsimane living there still get most of their food from the forest, the river, or their gardens.

I’m traveling with Asher Rosinger, a doctoral candidate who’s part of a team, co-led by biological anthropologist William Leonard of Northwestern University, studying the Tsimane to document what a rain forest diet looks like. They’re particularly interested in how the Indians’ health changes as they move away from their traditional diet and active lifestyle and begin trading forest goods for sugar, salt, rice, oil, and increasingly, dried meat and canned sardines. This is not a purely academic inquiry. What anthropologists are learning about the diets of indigenous peoples like the Tsimane could inform what the rest of us should eat.

Rosinger introduces me to a villager named José Mayer Cunay, 78, who, with his son Felipe Mayer Lero, 39, has planted a lush garden by the river over the past 30 years. José leads us down a trail past trees laden with golden papayas and mangoes, clusters of green plantains, and orbs of grapefruit that dangle from branches like earrings. Vibrant red “lobster claw” heliconia flowers and wild ginger grow like weeds among stalks of corn and sugarcane. “José’s family has more fruit than anyone,” says Rosinger.

Yet in the family’s open-air shelter Felipe’s wife, Catalina, is preparing the same bland porridge as other households. When I ask if the food in the garden can tide them over when there’s little meat, Felipe shakes his head. “It’s not enough to live on,” he says. “I need to hunt and fish. My body doesn’t want to eat just these plants.”

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