Skip to main content

Feature Articles

Carnivore, Herbivore, or Omnivore: The Prehistoric Menu and the Vegan Future of Homo Sapiens

The debate about the evolution of the human diet is complex and multifaceted. After all, are we carnivores, herbivores, or omnivores? Recent research suggests that the answer is not as simple as a single category. In fact, the human diet has evolved to be flexible, allowing adaptation to a variety of foods available in the environment, including a mix of plant and animal-based foods.


Our oldest ancestors, such as the Orrorin tugenensis, who lived about 6 million years ago, were probably predominantly herbivores, but also consumed insects and small vertebrates. It's interesting to note that current gorillas, who are our close relatives, are also predominantly herbivores. Contrary to what many may think, gorillas are gentle creatures, much less dangerous than chimpanzees, who have been filmed hunting other smaller monkeys. As environmental conditions changed, our ancestors had to adapt, leading to the development of bipedalism and a more omnivorous diet.


Moving forward in the evolutionary timeline, we encounter creatures like the Orrorin tugenensis, who lived more than 6 million years ago. These hominids, depicted amidst vegetation, were still predominantly herbivores, but were already beginning to show signs of a more diversified diet.


With the emergence of the Homo genus, our ancestors began to include more meat in their diet. The Homo habilis, for example, is known for using tools to obtain meat. This species, which lived about 2.1 to 1.5 million years ago, represents a milestone in human evolution. The image of a Homo habilis squatting, holding a rudimentary tool, is a powerful reminder of how our ancestors began to master their environment.


As we move forward to Homo erectus and Homo sapiens, meat continued to be an important part of the diet, but plants were also consumed. Homo erectus, for example, consumed a variety of plant-based foods, including fruits, nuts, and roots.


Early Homo sapiens were hunter-gatherers, consuming a varied diet of both animal and plant-based foods. However, with the advent of agriculture, we began to consume more grains and other cultivated foods. This led to changes in our health and development, including a decline in body size and dental health.


Modern humans, Homo sapiens, are omnivores. We have teeth and a digestive system that can process both plants and meat. However, contemporary studies suggest that a plant-based diet may be the healthier and more sustainable option for humans today.

homem primitivo sapiens

As our ancestors ventured into colder and more inhospitable territories, the need to adapt to these new environments became crucial for survival. In regions where vegetation was scarce due to the icy climate, hunting animals became an essential part of the diet. Early man, armed with rudimentary spears, braved the intense cold and challenging terrain to hunt the necessary prey to sustain their tribe. This shift to a more meat-centered diet was a direct response to environmental demands, demonstrating once again the incredible adaptive capacity of our species.

homem moderno

Evolution doesn't necessarily mean a transformation for the "better," but rather an adaptation to the environment. Armed with the knowledge we have today about nutrition and the harmful impacts of our actions on the environment, our evolutionary path should involve a greater investment in transitioning to a vegan or plant-based diet. This could culminate in the transformation of mankind into a fully evolved being in the broadest sense of the word, the Homo Sapiens Ethicus. This being would use their superior cognitive abilities to implement a lifestyle that minimizes environmental impact and animal suffering, thereby maximizing the sustainable expansion of the human population and taking the reins of conscious evolution. And remember, evolving doesn't always mean improving - as the saying goes, sometimes we might "evolve ourselves into oblivion." So let's choose the evolution that leads us to life, health, and sustainability!

vegetariano na floresta

However, it's important to emphasize that advocating for vegetarianism doesn't need to rely on the fact that there were times when some groups of proto-humans were vegetarians or herbivores. Vegetarianism, with its benefits to health and the environment, has its own merits that go beyond any debate about our ancestors. Choosing a vegetarian or plant-based diet is an informed and conscious decision that reflects a modern understanding of nutrition and sustainability.

darwin vegetariano

In conclusion, the evolution of the human diet is a complex topic that involves many factors, including environmental changes, tool development, and social behavior. Although our ancestors consumed both plant and animal-based foods, it's important to remember that the life expectancy of these early "carnivores" was significantly shorter than ours. Even today, we see examples of populations around the globe that have very meat-centered dietary habits and, consequently, have a shorter life expectancy. In contrast, modern research suggests that a plant-based diet, especially a whole-foods vegan diet, may be the healthier and more sustainable option for humans today. Moreover, this dietary shift not only benefits the planet, but can also provide greater longevity with quality of life to the human animal. It's an exciting prospect, inviting us to look to the future with optimism and to make conscious choices for our health and that of our planet.

Related articles:

alex aquarelaAuthor: Alex Fernandes
Webmaster of IVU and Guia Vegano
About the author: Alex Fernandes has been vegan since 2004 and vegetarian since 1995, volunteered in various projects promoting vegetarianism and veganism, standing out as webmaster of SVB (Brazilian Vegetarian Society), advisor to SVB, advisor to IVU (International Vegetarian Union). He has given lectures at various Vegfests around the world always focusing on the analysis of the behavior of the vegetarian and vegan community.

  • Berners-Lee, M. et al. (2012). "The relative greenhouse gas impacts of realistic dietary choices." Energy Policy, 43, 184-190. Link to the article

  • Poore, J.; Nemecek, T. (2018). "Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers." Science, 360(6392), 987-992. Link to the article

  • Springmann, M. et al. (2018). "Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits." Nature, 562, 519–525. Link to the article

  • Willett, W. et al. (2019). "Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems." The Lancet, 393(10170), 447-492. Link to the article

  • Smith, T. M. et al. (2023). "The Evolution of Human and Ape Hand Proportions." Nature Communications, 6(7717). Link to the article

  • Rehner, J. et al. (2023). "The Effect of a Planetary Health Diet on the Human Gut Microbiome: A Descriptive Analysis." Nutrients, 15(8). Link to the article

  • Burkhard, B. et al. (2023). "A sustainability analysis of environmental impact, nutritional quality, and price among six popular diets." Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, 7. Link to the article

  • Bold, B. et al. (2023). "Assessment of Mongolian dietary intake for planetary and human health." PLOS Global Public Health, 1(1). Link to the article

  • Burkhard, B. et al. (2023). "Novel Lines of Research on the Environmental and Human Health Impacts of Nut Consumption." Nutrients, 15(4). Link to the article

  • Tilman, D.; Clark, M. (2023). "Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health." Nature, 515, 518–522. Link to the article

  • Created on .

Download the Vegetarian Nutrition Booklet for Kids and Adolescents