All human hunter-gatherer groups that have been studied incorporate meat in their diets. Studies have shown that the total dietary contribution of meat varies a great deal, and seems to increase with latitude so that foragers in subarctic and arctic regions eat a lot of meat while those living near the equator eat less. It is probably true that tropical and subtropical foragers obtain more of their calories from plants than from meat over any reasonable amount of time. The meat consists primarily of mammals for most groups, but fish, birds, reptiles, and invertebrates can reach high proportions, especially seasonally. Most forager groups make use of dogs in their meat acquisition, and it may well be the case that dogs are as important in the forager tool kit as any projectile, spear, or butchering tool.
All traditional forager groups incorporate hunting and butchery into a broader cultural context. There is often ritual associated with hunting. Animals, especially mammals, are dismembered in stereotypical ways ways with some sort of meaning associated with the process. In many cases, meat goes through a process of “distribution and redistribution” whereby specific body parts are distributed to individuals based on their role in the hunt, and then, these parcels of meat are redistributed among the group on the basis of need, generally very evenly.
It appears that foragers value meat above other sources of food even if those other sources are more life-staining by being a larger part of the diet. The word “hunger” may sometimes really mean “hunger for meat” more than simple hunger for food. Although anthropologists have tried to link hunting success to reproductive success, this link is unclear. But, some concept of hunting ability or reliability seems to be associated in many cultures with one’s value in the group.
Almost all hunting of mammals is done by men in all foraging societies, with a few exceptions. The exceptions do not make up a large percentage of the meat acquired, and are rare even within the societies in which they occur. A majority of non-meat foods are obtained by females, but a larger percentage of non-meat foods are obtained my males than meat obtained by females. Many reasons have been given for this but few of the seemingly pragmatic reasons seem to hold up well to further scrutiny, such as “hunting is dangerous and women have kids.” Women engage in all sorts of dangerous foraging activities. It may be that the best explanation for the sexual bias in foraging vis-a-vis animal and plant foods is to be found in the cultural roles of hunting.
Dietarily, meat is probably very important for most groups as food for pregnant and nursing women and young children. There are special dietary demands for such individuals that may not be well met with only wild plant foods, but that are easily addressed with meat. Putting this all together, one might suggest that obtaining and distributing meat by men is an important form of parental investment.
The archaeological record shows a long association of chipped stone tools made of selected conchoidally fracturing rock and meat acquisition. Early sites have both stone tools of this type and bones that seem to show marks of butchery with these tools. This has led many archaeologists to emphasize the role of hunting in human evolution. However, chipped stone tools do not leave preservable evidence of use on plant foods or other materials, because these foods and materials are not found on archaeological sites. The wear patterns on the tools themselves can sometimes be studied and these indicate that many stone tools were used extensively on plant material, either food items or objects of use (i.e., digging sticks or some other wooden implement). It may be that most stone tools were used for tasks other than hunting and butchery. Also, both stone tools and cut-marked bones are rare prior to about two million years ago, so piecing together a good prehistory of tools and animal acquisition is probably asking too much of the data. Nonetheless, we see evidence of the use of animal products quite early in human evolution; this is not a practice invented by modern humans, but rather, one practiced by human ancestors as well.
Modern chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) hunt mammals and eat them. The total amount of meat consumed by a group of chimpanzees over the course of a year is much lower than the typical amount of meat in the diet of modern human hunter gatherers, but it is a regular addition to the diet. There are a lot of groups of chimpanzees for which we can not say hunting is documented, but every group of chimps that has been studied by primatologists exhibit this behavior. There is a large amount of variation across chimpanzee groups in how hunting is carried out and how much meat is typically obtained. Most of the meat is in the form of other primates (monkeys) but other mammals are taken. Non-mammal sources are also used by chimpanzees including birds and eggs and other vertebrates (but no fish, probably). When chimpanzees hunt monkeys, and are successful, the level of attention given to the captured food source is inordinate compared to, say, finding a good source of fruit. Chimpanzees of both sexes are excited about the prospect of getting a bit of monkey flesh.
Insect food is obtained by chimpanzees and also by many other primates. It may be the case that virtually all primates eat some insects (some eat mostly insects), though there are several species not especially known for it.
We think that the last common ancestor (LCA) of chimpanzees and humans was more chimp like than human like. Also, we think that this LCA was more like a common chimp (Pan troglodytes) than a bonobo (Pan paniscus). Since modern chimps across Africa, including those that have been separated from each other for a very long time, hunt mammals, and modern human foragers and their immediate ancestors are clearly documented as hunters of mammals, it is reasonable to postulate that the LCA also carried out this behavior.
Eating mammalian meat and other animal products is probably part of our evolutionary heritage at least since the chimp-human split. Modern foragers and, perhaps, modern chimps seem to attribute an importance to meat greater than one would expect from meat’s caloric contribution to the diet, and in modern foragers, hunting, butchery, and consumption of meat is tied in with numerous cultural practices.
Meat is probably an important contribution to the human “palaeolithic” diet and an even more important contribution to the human cultural repertoire. The invention of certain technologies, starting with chipped stone tools, allowed for the increased role of meat in our diet, though whether or not that increase happened in any given time or place is difficult to ascertain. For well over a century, mostly male archaeologists have held a fascination with the often phallic looking implements of hunting found in prehistoric cultures around the world, and in doing so have communed with the mostly male (we might guess) producers and users of those implements in the past. The human practices of hunting, butchery, and the associated often elaborate technologies are embedded in a meaning-drenched symbolic system that speaks to the role of males vis-a-vis females and children. If systems of kinship, marriage, and social power are characterized by an ever present though differentially strong patriarchy, hunting and butchery, and the tools of that trade, are material manifestations of that patriarchy.
Photograph (c) 1991 by Greg Laden