The Heretic's Feast - A History Of Vegetarianism
By: Colin Spencer, 1995, Excerpt From The Book:
Fruits of the Past
Sixty million years ago the lower primates first developed, the mammals from
which we all sprang. So much of what makes us skilled as mammals was
developed at this time.
The change from clawed paw to a hand that grips was invaluable for picking
objects up and for using sticks and stones as tools.
Around 18 million years ago came the hominoids. Apes, which lack tails and
have larger brains and bodies than the monkeys. They evolved in Africa and
included one called Proconsul, sometimes referred to as the ‘Daddy of us all’.
It is thought that we share this ancestor with the gorilla and it, of course, is
another famous vegetarian. DNA studies show that we have a close
relationship with the gorilla and the chimpanzee and that we split from one
common ancestor around five to six million years ago.
Because we have the fossilized jaws to study, we know that these primates
were herbivores and ate fruits, nuts, berries and the cambium, which grows in
the spring beneath the bark as the tree begins to swell.
Some of our critics have gleefully leapt upon the fact that our primate ancestors
were not complete herbivores but ate insects and even hunted and killed baby
mammals or tiny monkeys, claims made through observation of primates in the
Yes, they did eat insects and they might even have chosen the fruits, which had
insects in them because of their sweet taste but not in sufficient quantity to
provoke a change in their dentition.
Their canine teeth are small and their molars have a large grinding surface with
a thick enamel covering, making their jaws a powerful crushing, grinding and
chewing machine designed to cope with vegetation.
Their liking for insects did not lead to them trying out other small creatures
such as frogs and lizards.
As to the hunting of the small colobus monkey or baby bush pigs, which was
seen in a David Attenborough film, this research started with Jane Goodall. Her
group of chimpanzees was observed over a period of years so the amount of
meat eaten and the number of animals killed could be exactly recorded.
Over a span of 10 years, the 50 or so chimpanzees killed and ate 95 mammals.
They were all tiny - the young of bushpigs, bushbuck and baboons and most
weighed 10lbs or less. It works out at 2.4 grams per individual per day, about
the size of a pea.
Of all the living primates humans are the only one to eat large animals, the rest
being almost entirely herbivorous.
We sprang out of this genetic breeding pool of largely peaceful groups of
amiable creatures that lived by eating grasses, leaves, nuts, berries, fruits and
There can be no doubt that our metabolism, built up through these millions of
years, is best sustained by a vegan and then a vegetarian diet, in that order.
Three-and-a-half million years ago, Australopithecus Afarensis, nicknamed
Lucy, appeared. She was tiny, strode over the African veldt and through the
forest, lived near water and was also an herbivore.
There were many different types of Australopithecines and one was called
Robustos. He has been labeled a war-like killer and the source of our
aggression. It is nonsense.
He was in fact also a vegetarian but he used the bones of large mammals as
tools to dig up roots and bulbs. It was the discovery of these bones alongside
his own that made anthropologists think they had found the first hunter. They
were at least a million years out.
So when did meat eating begin? We can roughly date hunting because of the
tools needed to kill but before that there were some very basic tools used to
cut, scrape and dig. These were found with the remains of Homo Habilis, who
lived between one-and-a-half and two million years ago.
Anthropologists think it is likely that Homo Habilis first scavenged his/her meat
from the kill of big cats but like so much of what is said on the evolution of
humans, this is just speculation.
Hunting started around one-and-a-half million years ago with the advent of
Homo Erectus, who lived until 200,000 years ago. Carnivore anthropologists
tell us this as if Homo Erectus, from then on, just ate raw meat and nothing
else. There was even a suggestion that our brain development did not begin
until red meat entered our diet.
If there was a correlation between the consumption of red meat and the
enlargement of brain cells, big cats would have the largest brains and be the
dominant species in the world today? There are other reasons for increased
Killing wild animals is far from easy and if early humans had relied on meat
alone they would have gone without most of the time.
The bulk of the diet was what it always had been, gathered from wild plants
and some of it no doubt dried and stored. It is from these years that men and
women must have gathered a huge encyclopedia of knowledge.
It was the women and children who searched for and gathered herbs, flowers
and seeds, recognizing their effect on the human body. Their immense
knowledge would have been passed on from generation to generation.
Today, the Amerindian tribes of the Amazon and Orinoco basins have an
intimate knowledge of the plants of the rain forest and botanists learn a great
deal from them. This storing of a vast amount of information early on in our
prehistory must have required greater and greater intelligence.
Research already shows us that a herbivore diet is by far the healthiest and it
may well be that a raw vegetable and fruit diet, chosen from produce in season,
is the optimum healthy diet, as it is so similar to the diet of our evolution.
I am not denying that human beings became omnivorous, in fact they
colonized the world because they could adapt to the available food sources,
but the truth is that very little meat was eaten compared to today's
Hunting was given a great boost when climactic changes destroyed the food
sources in the northern climes in the great Ice Ages.
But in evolutionary terms this is a very short period and the evidence is that our
bodies have not fully adapted to the change.
Hunting also helped to change our relationship with animals but the biggest
change in that relationship occurred with the move from hunter-gatherer to
livestock farmer, from nomadic tribes to settlement and domestication.
An even bigger change took place with the introduction of factory farming.
The hunter was up against the wild and untamed while the farmer has already
partly tamed the animal in his care. The farmer owns the creature, controls its
life and death - he dominates it and here is where speciesism begins.
Only when domestication began did Homo Sapiens begin to believe that they
were the dominating mammal, free to exploit every other living creature.
For the greater part of our recorded history, however, meat was the prerogative
of the gods and the powerful and the majority of people ate it only on the few
religious festival days throughout the year - they might have been as little as
three or four.
But as far back as 3,500 BC we know that some people scorned meat
altogether and the great thinker and mathematician, Pythagoras, was one of
The majority of people might well revere such a sage but scorn and vilify his
followers. Nothing changes! So why has abstention from meat been ridiculed
From the very beginning meat meant power. Wealth was measured in head of
cattle. Heroism was measured in how much meat you could consume - strong
men were reputed to eat an ox at one sitting.
Wealth meant power and influence in the community; it meant you lead and
controlled that community. The poor ate meat twice a year, maybe at Easter
and at Christmas. The more meat you ate the more you showed everyone else
how well you were doing - it was and still is the gustatory equivalent of the
To those who believe in this measure of status, it is singularly annoying to
notice that for a small group of people this symbol is dismissed, entirely
rejected, even despised.
No wonder vegetarians are resented for they refuse to believe in the majority
tenet, the status quo faith.
But we are not only resented, we are heartily disliked because vegetarians
make meat-eaters feel guilty and everyone hates feeling guilty.
By: Colin Spencer
About the author: Colin Spencer is a novelist, playwright, cookbook writer and
food columnist for The Guardian.