Moroccan cave sheds light on Stone Age man's vegetable-rich diet

Discovery challenges idea that cave dwellers were predominantly meat-eaters

The Taforalt cave in Morocco, where a human tooth was unearthed. Wikimedia Commons
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The diet of ancient Moroccans included a “significant proportion” of plants, a new study has found, challenging the idea that people who lived before agriculture was developed primarily ate meat.

A team of researchers based in Germany, France and Morocco made the discovery after examining a human tooth found in the Taforalt cave, believed to be the oldest cemetery in North Africa.

Bodies of at least 34 Iberomaurusians, a prehistoric human population who lived in North Africa 11,000 to 25,000 years ago, during the North African Later Stone Age, lay untouched at the site near Oujda until they were discovered in 1908.

The researchers used existing techniques to examine collagen present in the tooth, as well as a new approach which analysed zinc isotopes in the dental enamel to determine the diet of Iberomaurusians.

The study showed that the diet of these hunter-gatherers included a “significant proportion” of plants belonging to Mediterranean species, predating the advent of agriculture by several millennia.

Botanical remains found at the site in north-eastern Morocco, including acorns, pine nuts and wild pulses, further bolsters the idea, researchers said.

They concluded that plant foods were also fed to infants and may have served as weaning products for the population.

They said the results challenge the idea that the diet of pre-agricultural human groups was heavily based on meat, while questioning the lack of agricultural development in North Africa at the beginning of the Holocene.

Lead study author Zineb Moubtahij from Geosciences Environnement Toulouse said: “Our findings not only provide insights into the dietary practices of pre-agricultural human groups but also highlight the complexity of human subsistence strategies in different regions.

“Understanding these patterns is crucial to unravelling the broader story of human evolution.”

Studies show that ancient Iberomaurusians seem to be related to Middle Easterners and other Africans, sharing around two thirds of their genetic ancestry with Natufians, who lived as hunter-gatherers 11,000 to 14,500 years ago in the Middle East.

The other third of their DNA came from ancient sub-Saharan Africans. North Africans today share a much larger proportion of European DNA.

Agriculture was developed about 10,000 years ago. Before then, all people got their food by hunting, gathering and fishing.

Evolutionary nutritionists, such as Loren Cordain, who wrote The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Foods You Were Designed to Eat, said about three quarters of indigenous societies, such as tribes in South America, derive more than half of their calories from meat, suggesting their diet is similar to that of ancient hunter-gatherers.

Some experts believe eating meat was crucial to the development of ancestors’ larger brains.

The brain of a human at rest uses about 20 per cent of their total energy, whereas this figure is only 8 per cent for an ape, which led to the belief that, due to the emergence of our species, H. erectus, calorie-dense meat became people's primary energy source.

Updated: April 30, 2024, 2:46 PM