Should Humans Model our Diets after Apes?

This question has arisen a few times for me lately, and I thought the readers of this blog might be interested in the topic.

My personal opinion is that the evolution of apes and humans diverged long enough ago that significant differences in optimal nutrition have manifested themselves, and the value of looking at the diets of apes, in comparison to the nutrition research that has been performed on humans, is very minimal.

Even in regards to looking at our human ancestors, I would not assume that the most natural diet of humans (if that can even be defined or determined) is the optimal diet. Diets can be tweaked and improved in unnatural ways.

In their article Cooking as a Biological Trait, Richard Wrangham and NancyLou Conklin-Brittain, of the Department of Anthropology at Harvard, suggest that it only takes 5,000 years or less for the human body to adapt to different methods of eating. In some cases, some populations can adapt much more quickly, such as during periods of famine when only those whose bodies are most efficient at storing energy survive.

Some interesting articles about the diets of non-human primates and to what extent they are vegetarian can be found on

4 Responses to “Should Humans Model our Diets after Apes?”

  1. Johnnyvegan Says:

    How did you get 5000 years or less exactly?

  2. Jack Norris RD Says:

    I got it from the paper I cited by Wrangham and Conklin-Brittain. Here is an excerpt:

    “Current evidence, however, does not support the notion of cooking as being too recent to have had evolutionary effects. The typical duration of a speciation event is considered to be 15 000–25 000 years, and mammalian species can evolve in as little as 5000 years (Gould, 2002). Human biology is also known to be capable of rapid adaptation (e.g. to malaria, Durham, 1991) and specifically in response to a change in diet. Thus populations with a high frequency of genes responsible for lactose absorption (LA) in adults are those with a history of dairying. Populations are estimated to have adapted biologically to milk-drinking in 5000 years or less (i.e. LA genes increased from 5 to 70% of population, Aoki, 1991; Cavalli-Sforza et al., 1994). These points suggest that for cooking to have been practiced too recently to have had evolutionary effects, it must have been adopted less than 5000 years ago.

    “But cooking is undoubtedly older than 5000 years. For example it is necessary for the processing of cereal grains, which were being harvested 20 000 years ago by people skilled in fire management and grinding (Brooks, 1996; Bar-Yosef, 2001). Previous to grain-eating, the pattern of food preparation by Neandertals appeared essentially modern in Kebara Cave, Israel throughout the period from 60 000 to 48 000 years ago (Speth and Tchernov, 2001). Large numbers of bones were burned there, similar to patterns in a New Mexico village around 1300 AD.”

  3. Hugo Pottisch Says:

    My understanding is that evolutionary adaptations can happen quickly, over thousands of years, but a core genetic base changes only over millions. We might still be able to reproduce with chimps – they for sure can be blood donors to us. We do not change basic anatomy and psychology over night. Or do we?

    No wolf has ever eaten cooked food in the wild and yet my dogs have adopted to eating almost only cooked food… not in 5000 years.. but in a mere 1 day. And they are perfectly healthy – living vegans lives. What is going on here? Why have 20-30% of humans evolved a protection for lactose intolerance in mere 5000 years and our dogs can do an even wilder jump over night? Are they super-mutants?

    No, I strongly believe that our dogs could go back to eating raw animal products and be save. I am not saying they should as long as the raw animals we could find for them are coming from hell – but I do believe they could eat 100% raw again. Being able to cope with lactose and cooked food does not mean…

    I strongly believe that we humans could still eat raw and be more than safe. All animals who have ever lived have eaten 100% raw.

    Yes the Indian Elephant has a different diet from the African, yes a house cat eats differently than a tiger and a tiger eats differently than a lion and a chimp eats differently than a bonobo and an orangutan differently than a gorilla.. but… there is a limit to difference that can occur over mere thousands of years.

    For most of the last 5000 years we have eaten less than 10% from animal products. It was within the last 200 years it seems that we have reached today’s 50% in the West. I don’t know how much of our food we have cooked over the last 150,000 years – but I would be surprised if it was 95% like today in the West?

    If I had to chose between something that we have eaten for millions of years like raw fruits and something we have adopted to over thousands or hundreds like milk… I know my choice. I want to be on the safe side.

    I have personally never managed to eat 100% raw food for more than a few days and have never managed to eat 50+% raw food for more than months. I am not trying to have optimal health right now. I am convenient and lazy regarding food – right now that is.

    The context of such discussions to me is always optimal health – as most here are already vegan and understand the ethical and ecological issues? I am not after optimal health right now – just ok-to-good health. I am doing fine on a vegan diet based on grains, beans, legumes and some fruits and vegetables. I also eat chocolate, drink alcohol (wine is raw) and do other things….

    But if I needed optimal health – say I were diagnosed with some nasty disease or I wanted to do the Ironman… I would definitely consider going 50+% raw.

    Every-time I have managed to increase my raw intake to over 50% for months – I have lost years of age. My own experience does not classify as science and just like there are unhealthy vegans there are unhealthy raw vegans (you cannot substitute raw fruits with raw olive oil for ever). It is tough switch – maybe just like for a full-hearted meat-eater going vegan. The motivation must be right. But for me – it is the only thing that has made me look and feel younger.

  4. Jack Norris RD Says:


    > For most of the last 5000 years we have eaten less than 10% from animal products.

    Do you know where you heard this from?

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