Letter | Published:

Impact of meat and Lower Palaeolithic food processing techniques on chewing in humans

Nature volume 531, pages 500503 (24 March 2016) | Download Citation


The origins of the genus Homo are murky, but by H. erectus, bigger brains and bodies had evolved that, along with larger foraging ranges, would have increased the daily energetic requirements of hominins1,2. Yet H. erectus differs from earlier hominins in having relatively smaller teeth, reduced chewing muscles, weaker maximum bite force capabilities, and a relatively smaller gut3,4,5. This paradoxical combination of increased energy demands along with decreased masticatory and digestive capacities is hypothesized to have been made possible by adding meat to the diet6,7,8, by mechanically processing food using stone tools7,9,10, or by cooking11,12. Cooking, however, was apparently uncommon until 500,000 years ago13,14, and the effects of carnivory and Palaeolithic processing techniques on mastication are unknown. Here we report experiments that tested how Lower Palaeolithic processing technologies affect chewing force production and efficacy in humans consuming meat and underground storage organs (USOs). We find that if meat comprised one-third of the diet, the number of chewing cycles per year would have declined by nearly 2 million (a 13% reduction) and total masticatory force required would have declined by 15%. Furthermore, by simply slicing meat and pounding USOs, hominins would have improved their ability to chew meat into smaller particles by 41%, reduced the number of chews per year by another 5%, and decreased masticatory force requirements by an additional 12%. Although cooking has important benefits, it appears that selection for smaller masticatory features in Homo would have been initially made possible by the combination of using stone tools and eating meat.

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We thank R. Carmody, P. Lucas, J. Shea, T. Smith and R. Wrangham for helpful discussions, and E. Castillo and S. Worthington for statistical guidance. This research was funded by the National Science Foundation (#0925688) and by the American School of Prehistoric Research (Peabody Museum, Harvard University).

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  1. Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, 11 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA

    • Katherine D. Zink
    •  & Daniel E. Lieberman


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K.D.Z. and D.E.L. designed the experiments; K.D.Z. collected and analysed the data, with help from D.E.L.; D.E.L. and K.D.Z. co-wrote the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Katherine D. Zink or Daniel E. Lieberman.

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