The Silent Ark
12: Aping The Past
My own research had left me in no doubt that we are naturally
vegan, but many people still insist that we are meant to eat meat
and as proof quote the fact that some chimpanzees eat it. This revelation
came in a David Attenborough film in which one particular group
of chimpanzees actively chased and caught colobus monkeys. We also
know that other chimps will push sticks into termite heaps and eat
the insects which adhere to the stick when it’s pulled out
Fortunately, Jane Goodall, the scientist who devoted so much of
her life to observing chimps in the wild, was able to document faithfully
the eating habits of these supposedly carnivorous apes. Over a 10-year
period, the group of about 50 chimps killed and ate 95 small animals,
usually the young of bush buck, bush pigs or baboons. There was
no concerted attempt to hunt them, simply an accidental stumbling
upon them. The total daily intake of meat for each chimp was about
2.4 grams - the size of a pea, which is equivalent to eating an
85-gram hamburger once a month.
Other apes have been seen eating insects, in particular rotten
fruit containing insects, but this is believed to have much more
to do with the sweet taste than any inherent bloodlust for meat.
There is no record of any apes searching out frogs, lizards and
invertebrates on the forest floor, which would be the easiest way
of acquiring meat if that was their desire. The main point remains
that nearly all the great apes, some 80 per cent, are vegetarian
- vegan, in fact. Any meat that individual groups may have eaten
has not been sufficient to change them in evolutionary terms.
Every species of ape is equipped with a body designed to cope
with an herbivorous, vegan diet: grasses, leaves, nuts, berries,
fruits and roots, probably seeds and stems, bulbs and possibly lichen
or the algae from ponds. Cambium, the soft layer on trees which
swells beneath the bark in spring to carry nutrients, is known to
have been an important food for apes and we still eat it but call
it slippery elm.
If you compare the teeth of an ape with those of a carnivore,
or even an omnivore such as a pig or a bear, there is little resemblance.
Apes teeth include small canines and molars which have a large grinding
surface with a thick covering of enamel - pretty much like our own.
The jaw hinge is not fixed, able only to open and close in a cutting
motion as with carnivores, but is movable, enabling the teeth to
slide from side to side in a powerful crushing and grinding motion.
This is all part of the need to begin digestion of tough vegetable
foods in the mouth prior to it even entering the stomach. Carnivores,
on the other hand, bolt their food in mouthfuls, relying on the
much more powerful stomach acids to perform the task of digestion.
The US general practitioner and vegan Michael Klaper makes the
point beautifully. In his talks on veganism and health he suggests
that if you think you are naturally meant to eat meat, try running
out into a field, jumping on the back of a cow and biting it. Neither
our teeth nor our nails would even penetrate its skin.
There’s no reason why we should be surprised by the similarity
between us and apes - we are an ape. It might not fit comfortably
with our Gucci-wearing, Porshe-driving, deodorized and sanitized
image, but a visitor from space would classify us as a type of chimpanzee
without hesitation. It’s quite sickening when you think of
the barbarity we mete out to chimpanzees in laboratories - our nearest
living relatives, with whom we share over 98 per cent of our genes.
The very first primates lived some 60 million years ago and the
important changes which marked our development took place then -
the transition from paw to hand; the development of forward-looking
eyes and overlapping visual fields, providing depth of vision and
the ability to identify predators from a distance.
One of these first primates was the lemur, a vegetarian which
seemed quite happy with its lot and felt no urge to stray outside
its very specific forest habitat. Twenty million years later came
the Anthropoids, the so-called higher primates, including monkeys
and apes. These were much more adventurous creatures and over the
next few million years they began to spread across the globe, inhabiting
even quite cool areas. In their travels they ate many different
types of food, which provided a richer diversity of nutrition leading
to greater intelligence. They were all still vegetarian.
The outcome, about 18 million years ago, was the Hominoids, apes
with larger brains, bigger bodies and no tails. One of them was
Proconsul, still a vegetarian and the likely joint ancestor of the
gorilla, chimpanzee and humankind, variations which came into being
probably about five to six million years ago.
New research techniques can trace the genetic inheritance passed
down to us through the female line. It has come up with a tiny female
nicknamed Lucy as the starting-point for human evolution, three
and a half million years ago. She was, in fact, one of a group called
Australopithecus afarensis who strode across the African veldt,
sheltered in the forests and waded through the waters of estuaries.
Researchers seem desperate to prove that our ancestors were rabid
meat eaters almost as soon as they stood up on two legs and the
discovery of another Australopithecus (robustos) had them turning
cartwheels. Alongside robustos’s remains were discovered the
bones of large mammals and the assumption was that robustos had
eaten them. Closer investigation, however, showed that the bones
had been used as tools to dig up bulbs and roots.
The first real evidence of meat eating was discovered to have
begun one and a half to two million years ago - in evolutionary
terms, almost yesterday - and the beings responsible were Homo habilis.
It’s thought they scavenged meat from kills made by the big
cats but did not actively hunt. It’s all really guesswork.
However, the discovery of tools such as spearheads definitely showed
that hunting started around one and a half million years ago and
the guilty party was Homo erectus, who was around until about 200,000
There seems to be a bizarre assumption that once they’d
tasted meat, our ancestors lived on nothing else. In fact hunting
was often a male social event - the primitive equivalent of going
to the pub - and not that successful. The bulk of the diet was what
it had always been, the produce of wild plants, some of it dried
and stored. The women and children gathered the fruits, herbs, nuts,
seeds and berries. These plant foods have always been the staff
of life. In fact, we developed to almost the creatures we are on
an entirely vegan diet and even after we began to eat meat, it constituted
only a minuscule part of our diet.
There have been claims that without meat we couldn’t have
developed our cerebral cortex, the site of intellect and reasoning.
The neutral fatty acids Omega Three and Omega Six are apparently
the vital ingredients in its development and Omega Six is found
in meat. What has been overlooked is the presence of Omega Six fatty
acids in over 200 plants. Omega Three is also found in some plants,
nuts and seeds, but particularly in sea creatures and plants. It
is where the seas meet the land, in the estuaries of great rivers
with their abundance of sea-weeds and other vegetation, that development
of the brain almost certainly took place. So there was no need to
eat either meat or fish.
As Homo sapiens spread across the world, grabbing their chances
opportunistically, meat obviously did become part of the diet. Hunting
was invented when climactic changes destroyed the food sources in
the northern regions in the great Ice Ages. But in evolutionary
terms this is a very short period ago and our bodies are still vegetarian.
In fact, until well into the twentieth century, meat was largely
the prerogative of the rich and powerful, the peasantry only eating
it at a few religious festivals, perhaps three or four times a year.
But as the rich ate meat, it became associated with wealth and nearly
everyone else eventually copied them. The ethos of the ruling é1ite
will always become that of society in general.
But now, when we have aped our ‘betters’ so well that
we are drowning in a sea of cheap animal flesh, our bodies still
haven’t evolved to cope with it. As a result, as already discussed,
diseases such as cancer and heart disease are prospering. Meat is
so unnatural to us that we usually can’t even eat it without
first cooking it. In fact the thought of eating a lamb or calf raw,
ripping into its heart, flesh and stomach, is revolting to most
people - hardly the sign of a carnivore.
Omnivores and carnivores, on the other hand, have powerful stomach
acids to digest meat. Their gut is extremely short, expelling the
waste products of meat, the toxins and carcinogens, as quickly as
possible. The human gut, an ape’s gut, is the opposite. It
is extremely long and handles large amounts of fibrous material,
which trundles slowly through the bowel, allowing the maximum goodness
to be extracted from it.
Other illuminating differences include: carnivores have no manual
dexterity, we do; carnivores pant to cool their bodies, we sweat;
carnivores lap water, we sip it; and carnivores can manufacture
vitamin C internally, we cannot.
Colin Spencer has written an amazingly detailed book on the history
of vegetarianism called The Heretic’s Feast (Fourth Estate,
London 1994) which greatly expands on all the information here.
But nothing sums up our relationship with another species more succinctly
than a simple slide show. Dr David Ryde, a vegan doctor who was
an adviser to the medical subcommittee of the British Olympic Association
for 15 years, has carried out an interesting little test over the
past decade. He showed slides of a human’s and gorilla’s
digestive tracts and asked medical colleagues at various lectures
if they could identify anything specific about them. They made different
comments about whether they were male or female, but not one has
ever identified one of them as being the organs of an ape.
If we eat nothing but meat and dairy products, we die. If we eat
nothing but a vegan diet, not only do we stay alive but we grow
and become healthier, live longer and prosper. Surely that must
tell us something?
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