Updated 12 October 2015

Maropeng – mankind's nutritional roots

DietDoc explains how being omnivores gave homo sapiens the edge.

I have always been in favour of eating a varied diet that contains all the main food groups, and have always opposed cutting out whole food groups for purposes such as slimming.

(Please note that cutting out certain foods or food components because of allergies or intolerances, religious observance, or respect for the environment can still be accommodated in a varied diet.)

I therefore felt highly vindicated when a friend and I visited Maropeng in the Cradle of Humankind last week.

Read: Are low carb diets better for weight loss than a balanced diet?

Humanity’s roots

Maropeng is proof that modern human beings originated here in Africa, in what is now called the Cradle of Humankind. The Maropeng exhibition is a hands-on, interactive experience that helps us to understand how 7 billion humans came to inhabit the earth.

The versatile hominid

Hominids, or members of early branches of the human family tree, had certain traits that made them unique and helped them to control their environment and expand their brain capacity.

Read: Our ancestors preferred salads

These traits included bipedalism or “the condition of having two feet and using two feet to stand and walk”, which combined with binocular vision permitted these very small individuals to see further and spot food at greater distances; an opposable thumb which helped us make tools and easily pick up a variety of food items; and perhaps most important of all, being omnivorous.

As omnivores, humanoids are able to eat and digest not only plant foods and meat, but everything, ranging from seeds and roots, fruits and sedges, to eggs and milk.

Read: What our ancestors really ate

This versatility not only helped to ensure a better chance of survival than the exclusive herbivores (plant eaters) and carnivores (meat eaters), but also boosted the growth of our brains.

Read: Eating meat made our ancestors smarter

According to one of the exhibits at Maropeng, an increased intake of protein helped expand the human brain, making us even more versatile and adaptable.

Homo sapiens is indeed omnivorous. Flying ants, scorpions and mopani worms, tubers, leaves, shoots, offal, porridges and even semi-poisonous foods that require treatment to make them edible like cassava – you name it, we eat it!

Read: The healthy hunter-gatherer 

What does this mean?

·    Human beings are omnivores, so unless you are allergic/intolerant to certain foods or have ethical or religious convictions that prevent you from eating all type of foods, try to apply the most important Food-Based Dietary Guideline (FBDG), which states: “Eat a variety of foods.”

·    Avoid diets that exclude whole food groups such as the high-protein, high-fat, zero-carbohydrate diet, or orthorexic diets that encourage users to strive to eat only “pure” foods, or strict macrobiotic diets that restrict food intake to a few foods and can end up causing major nutritional deficiencies.

·    Beware of diets that are unbalanced in any way because this leads to loss of nutrient balance and can result in disease.

·    Please note that I am not promoting the “Paleo Diet”, which is a modern interpretation of what ancient man may or may not have eaten.

What I did realise during my visit to Maropeng is that human beings undoubtedly need a varied diet, containing all the foods groups, to continue developing as a species.

Read: A breakfast high in protein curbs hunger the longest

Our potential downfall

I also realised very clearly when we returned to the recreation area, and saw what a restaurant was serving a group of students, that we may soon lose our vitality as a species if we don’t stop eating fast, high-fat food at every opportunity.

Each student was served a hamburger with chips and a cold drink for lunch – refined carbohydrates, liquid sugar, artificial colourants and flavourants, and loads of fat!

Read: Should junk food be banned?

As I watched this spectacle, I wondered if we are not perpetrating our own extinction, one mouthful at a time.

There have been five great mass extinctions through the aeons and some scientists believe that we humans, in addition to killing ourselves, are causing the sixth mass extinction of other life forms by our unprecedented wasteful utilisation of resources.

I also wonder what “Mrs Ples”, one of our “ancestors”, would say if she could see her “offspring” gorging on such dangerous food.

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