What Did Prehistoric Humans Eat?

From big game to other humans, our ancestors ate a wide variety of foods that aren't found in grocery stores.

"Ardi" steered clear of abrasive, hard foods, such as nuts, tubers and tough grasses. Instead this ancestor seems to have gone for meat and large amounts of soft fruits from its Eastern Africa home.

A. afarensis

was another early East African member of the human family tree that walked upright, but still looked a lot like a chimp. It had "robust jaws and large, thick-enameled molars," according to new research in the journal Biology Letters that helps to explain what it, and other early human-ish species, ate. 

 The diet might have included seasonal consumption of very tough foods, such as dried grasses, in addition to wild-bird eggs, nuts, seeds, tubers, small prey and fruits.

"Nutcracker Man," also from East Africa, got that nickname due to powerful jaws and huge molars. Nuts were clearly a major part of its diet, along with bugs, fruits and probably whatever else it could sink its big teeth into. There's also evidence that the roots of papyrus, a plant later used to make paper, were on the menu.

Handy Man, from eastern and southern Africa, was not too proud to eat woody plants, leaves and the guts of hunted animals, teeth suggest.

The large and wide molars of East Africa’s

Homo rudolfensis

indicate that this species could do some major chewing, but the jaw -- smaller than that of earlier humans -- would have been a limitation.

Upright Man, living in parts of Africa and Asia, made stone tools suitable for butchering game of all sizes. There is also speculation that Upright Man had a sweet tooth, gorging on high-energy honey whenever lucky enough to find it. 
 Additionally, this human probably cooked some foods. 

"Cooking is what makes the human diet 'human,' and the most logical explanation for the advances in brain and body size over our ape ancestors," Richard Wrangham of Harvard University explained. "It's hard to imagine the leap to

Homo erectus

without cooking's nutritional benefits."

Butchery tools and bones of animals associated with Heidelberg Man suggest that this human hunted -- among other animals --- hippos, rhinos and megaloceros, one of the largest deer that ever lived. Heidelberg Man lived in Europe, Africa and possibly parts of China.

Hailing from parts of Europe and Asia, Neanderthals were meat lovers to the max, hunting mammoths, elephants, deer, reindeer, muskox and more. They also included some fruits, nuts and veggies on the side. Food wasn’t always plentiful for early humans, though. "Looking at these fossilized teeth, you can easily see these defects that showed Neanderthals periodically struggled nutritionally," says anthropologist Debbie Guatelli-Steinberg. She determined, however, that the struggles were no worse than those confronted by modern Eskimos, so lack of food probably didn’t do in Neanderthals.

Living on the Island of Flores, Indonesia, gave this "Hobbit" human access to some unusual prey. Animal bones associated with the Hobbits suggest they ate the pygmy elephant Stegodon, giant rats and possibly huge lizards, such as Komodo dragons.

Cooking techniques, sophisticated tools and an educated palate all added to the broad diet of our species. There is some evidence that early

Homo sapiens

killed -- and ate -- Neanderthals. The idea is perhaps less shocking when one considers that primate meat is still regularly consumed by certain people. Cannibalism has occurred in human history but was usually a last resort during a famine. The bottom line is that, for better and worse, humans and those who came before will eat almost anything.