Meat-eating could be behind the evolutionary success of humankind. When early humans started to eat meat and eventually hunt, their new, higher-quality diet meant that women could wean their children earlier.
Women could then give birth to more children during their reproductive life, which is a possible contribution to the population gradually spreading over the world.
The connection between eating meat and a faster weaning process has been shown by a research group from Lund University in Sweden, which compared close to 70 mammalian species and found clear patterns.
Learning to hunt was a decisive step in human evolution. Hunting necessitated communication, planning and the use of tools, all of which demanded a larger brain. At the same time, adding meat to the diet made it possible to develop this larger brain.
"This has been known for a long time. However, no one has previously shown the strong connection between meat eating and the duration of breast-feeding, which is a crucial piece of the puzzle in this context.
Eating meat enabled the breast-feeding periods and thereby the time between births, to be shortened. This must have had a crucial impact on human evolution", says Elia Psouni of Lund University.
She is a developmental psychologist and has, together with neurophysiologist Martin Garwicz (also in Lund) and evolutionary geneticist Axel Janke (currently in Frankfurt but previously in Lund) published her findings in the journal PLoS ONE.
Breast feeding duration
Among natural fertility societies, the average duration of breast-feeding is 2 years and 4 months. This is not much in relation to the maximum lifespan of our species, around 120 years.
It is even less if compared to our closest relatives: female chimpanzees suckle their young for 4-5 years, whereas the maximum lifespan for chimpanzees is only 60 years.
Many researchers have tried to explain the relatively shorter breast-feeding period of humans based on social and behavioural theories of parenting and family size.
But the Lund group has now shown that humans are in fact no different than other mammals with respect to the timing of weaning. If you enter brain development and diet composition into the equation, the time when our young stop suckling fits precisely with the pattern in other mammals.
This is the type of mathematical model that Elia Psouni and her colleagues have built. They entered data on close to 70 mammalian species of various types into the model – data on brain size and diet. Species for which at least 20 per cent of the energy content of their diet comes from meat were categorised as carnivores.
The model shows that the young of all species cease to suckle when their brains have reached a particular stage of development on the path from conception to full brain-size. Carnivores, due to their high quality diet, can wean earlier than herbivores and omnivores.
Psouni is careful to emphasise that their results concern human evolution. The research is about how meat eating can have contributed to the human species' spreading on earth and says nothing about what we should or should not eat today in order to have a good diet.
(EurekAlert, April 2012)
Diet & Nutrition