Vegetarians International Voice for Animals

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 again.

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 years ago.

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?