How Our Adaptive Diets Let Us Conquer the World

What has made the human species so different, so able to conquer the world?

 

From the deep Amazonian jungles to the icy landscapes of Northern Europe to the harsh Sahara desert, human civilizations have survived and thrived in regions as different as possible.

 

And yet, we all evolved out of the same ancestors; those early humans who had the will and the curiosity to walk out of Africa and spread themselves literally around the globe.


As our ancestors encountered new environments, the main key to our survival was our species' ability to quickly and successfully adapt.

 

These changes occurred physically, mentally, and culturally. Northern climates taught humans to sew and wear thick animal skins. Harsh desert climates required that we become experts at finding, collecting, and storing water.

 

But it was our ability to adapt our diet that truly gave us the keys to the world.

 

Some animal species have evolved to perfectly survive in their limited habitat. Pandas are a great example, an animal whose diet is almost exclusively bamboo. Take a panda and drop it in the middle of a lush bamboo-free jungle and it would starve, despite being surrounded by edible plants.

 

Humans, on the other hand, will eat practically anything edible if they are hungry enough.

 

 Diversity of foods eaten around the world

 

It is not just our love of food as a whole that has protected us and given us free reign on the planet. Our bodies have also adapted perfectly to each region of the world's unique food landscapes.

 

Fans of trend diets, like the raw-food diet or the Paleo diet, like to point out that humans have evolved very little in the last 10,000 years, since the rise of the agricultural era.

 

That is true, however -

 

Subtle and important changes have occurred in the human species in the last 10,000 years.

 

These adaptations are directly in response to our changing diets and our spread to new and more challenging environments.

 

Our ancestors in Africa were almost entirely lactose intolerance and yet, within just the last few thousand years, a genetic mutation has evolved that allows some humans to continue breaking down dairy after childhood. This adaptation is found throughout Europe and other regions of the world where animal herding was common.

 

A new food source, animal dairy, meant that humans could survive and thrive in more difficult environments. This genetic mutation is not however as common in Native Americans or East Asian populations, who didn't rely on a diet so tied to raising and herding animals.


Another great example is the bacteria living inside of us.

 

The ability to break down food sources and absorb their nutrients is highly tied to the "helpful" bacteria present in the human gut. While human evolution and genetic changes happen slowly, these bacteria are much quicker to change and evolve.

 

As our human ancestors moved around the globe, they quickly adapted to their new diets thanks to the bacteria inside of us all.

 

Studies have shown that the indigenous of Northern Canada, Greenland, and Alaska have gastrointestinal systems more capable of breaking down fats, a large part of their hunting based diet.

 

Children tested in both West Africa and in Southern Africa are found to have gut bacteria that optimizes the digestion of high fiber food staples found in their traditional diets. 

 

 Ancient cultures worshipped gods of the sun and rain to ensure bountiful crops

 

Beyond the physical adaptations, humans have also adapted to their various food environments culturally.

 

The earliest agricultural communities worshiped gods of the harvest season and gods of rain, worshipping to ensure a consistent and plentiful food supply.

 

During the deep cold winters of the Northern Hemisphere, early humans were able to survive not by hibernating or migrating south but by learning to preserve their food and stockpiling for the winter.

 

Across the globe and across human history, cultures and communities tended to develop around the dominant crop of their region, that which was easiest to grow, high in caloric intake, and plentiful.

 

In Mexico corn was more than just a food staple, it was the symbol of the Mayan culture. Ancient Egyptian tombs are decorated with images of wheat harvests, side by side with the images of their gods. In the East, rice became such an important part of society that at some points it was even used as currency.

 

In addition to adapting our physical bodies and cultures to new food environments, we also adapted our food environments to better fit us.

 

Over thousands of years, we have bred and changed key ingredients in our diets, from their wild roots to the modern versions we find today.

 

Modern chickens produce more eggs, cows more milk, the corn we eat now is much larger than the wild varieties our ancestors first found, and almost all the fruits we consume today are significantly sweeter than their wild counterparts.

 

We found edible plants everywhere we roamed on earth and once settled, began to perfect them for human consumption.

 

 Diversity of foods grown around the world

 

To claim there is one "true" human diet, one diet that is best for our species, is missing the point entirely.

 

Humans have adapted to new foods from the very beginning and have continued to do so as they traveled and settled in every corner of the world.

 

That is the true human diet - the diet of diversity, of change, of adaptability, and of survival.

 

Today, in our modernized world, as we rush to urbanization, as we idealize the Western diet, as massive food corporations start to dominate around the globe, the human “diet” is at its most vulnerable.

 

Adaptations that have taken thousands of years to cultivate are being lost in a matter of one generation. The problem is that the information being lost might just hold the keys to our long-term survival as a species.


Diversity goes hand and hand with adaptability.

 

Diversity in our food sources, in what foods we grow, in what foods we know how to cook, in what foods our bodies are adapted to digest - this is what ensures the human species survives, even if one food source or another is lost.

 

We are losing the diversity that has protected us for millennia, at the same time as serious risks, like climate change, affect our world.

 

Add to that growing evidence that the Western diet probably isn't that good for us anyway - i.e. diabetes, heart disease - and there might come a time when we wish we hadn't tossed out so much cultural knowledge on what our distant relatives ate.

 

We will adapt, as we always have, but why not have a few thousand years of human ingenuity, knowledge, and cultural adaptations to turn to for a bit of help?