Bugs, beetles and the human diet: The exploitation of insects by human and non-human primates

The investigation of human diet throughout our evolutionary past has focussed almost exclusively on the changing importance of meat and other carcass products. In part, this is due to the preservation and recovery of large quantities of animal bones at sites of various age at a global scale. Recently, such a “meatcentric” view of human evolution is being challenged through new techniques including isotope signatures, recovery of plant resources and study of lithic tool residues (to name but a few).  This is an exciting time for those interested in palaeodiet and its evolutionary roots; into this arena a new review study seeks to once again shift our focus away from terrestrial meat resources and emphasise the importance of invertebrates.

The new paper published in Journal of Human Evolution compares and attempts to link data not only from the archaeological record but also from modern day observations of human and non-human primates. In recent years, much focus has been paid to the exploitation of molluscs, due to the preservation of the shells from Palaeolithic sites. This study emphasises that these species are exploited by numerous animals (e.g. sea otters) though the larger molluscs are most commonly marine species, only exploitable within the littoral zone. In contrast, this study references modern observational data that indicates that insects are a far more readily available and consumed group compared to molluscs and largely archaeological invisible.

The study emphasises the variation in exploitation of insects producing detailed information about species and intensity of exploitation. The author notes that Chimpanzee populations often utilise tools to fish for termites though tool using by other non-human primates is limited and sporadically recorded. The study illustrates that non-human primates frequently exploit seasonally available insect resources (e.g. locust swarms), often ignoring more staple dietary sources, due to the large payoff. Also during times of hardship other species may exploit other insect products such as honey.

In contrast to the wealth of information on non-human primate insect exploitation, there is a limited amount of data on human use of this resource. Nevertheless, the author stresses the payoff that these resources provide being high in both fat and protein and often requiring limited technology to exploit (though honey exploitation may have necessitated more complex technology/behaviour). The paper concludes by attempting to link this modern observational data to the archaeological record in terms of methods to identify such exploitation throughout human evolution. The poor preservation of insect remains on Palaeolithic sites requires new approaches including: lithic technology and residue analysis, dental microwear, coprolites, isotopes and even [potentially] DNA. This is an excellent paper that seeks to advance our understanding of and study into the evolution and importance and evolution of non-meat based resources in past human diet.

Full reference:

McGrew, W.C. 2014. The ‘other faunivory’ revisited: Insectivory in human and non-human primates and the evolution of human diet.  Journal of Human Evolution.

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jhevol.2013.07.016

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