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edible insects and human evolution

9 april 2019

Chimpanzees eat insects, and people eat insects. It's a reasonable inference that the common ancestor of chimps and humans ate insects, and used tools like the ones we and apes use to get at the tasty parts of anthills and termite mounds. Proving that inference is harder, but Julie Lesnik has made it her research agenda. She sums up the current knowledge on hominids and insect-eating in a recent book from the University Press of Florida.

Insects, says Lesnik, "are nutrient dense. … It is much simpler to acquire them than it is to obtain other similarly nutritious resources" (2). And Homo sapiens did not get to the top of the food chain by overlooking easy meals. Early-human insect diets probably resembled those of modern apes. Termites are favorites – heck, I bet many a modern homeowner has wished they could eat termites out of sheer payback. Apes also eat ants and sometimes bees, grubs, and caterpillars. They are opportunistic feeders, and will sometimes take in a good deal of insect protein incidentally while eating vegetables and fruits – contrary to the habits of their pickier human cousins, who see the worm in the apple as a bug, not a feature.

Modern humans eat far more crickets and grasshoppers than any other kinds of insects. I can't get my mind around that diet any more than most of my Anglophone readers. It is of course a prime example of cultural relativity that Westerners will eagerly eat prawns, calamari, crawfish, oysters, and escargot, but turn up their noses at fried locusts. Grasshoppers in particular are foods of opportunity, and sometimes of necessity. When a plague of locusts prevents you from eating grain, you can just eat locusts, as many a farming culture has found. If it worked for John the Baptist, why not us – with a little honey, of course.

Lesnik combines contemporary ethology and paleoanthropology to triangulate the insect eating of early humans. Like all good science writers, she knows how to take the reader on a careful, fascinating train of inference. Insects don't fossilize well, so we can only learn indirectly about how they figured in australopithecine and early-Homo diets. One way is to study the chemical composition of human remains for clues to the vegetable/animal balance of those diets. Another is to make minute examinations of tools and teeth to see what foods they might have been used on. "It is my deepest hope," says Lesnik, "that a termite leg will be found in dental calculus some day!" (142) Presumably apart from world peace, true love, and some watchable DC superhero movies.

Gender is central to Lesnik's investigation. Studies of insect-eating give her an opportunity to make some feminist corrections to Man-the-Hunter scenarios. Woman the Gatherer is a long-standing counterargument, but gathering insects rarely figures much in thought about gathering (again, because insects, and the ephemeral tools and baskets that might have been used to collect them, aren't well-preserved). Females of all the relevant species, including humans, often eat more insects than men do, and often eat them on the spot instead of bringing them home to prepare and share. One line of thought sees insect protein as important for pregnant and lactating women. But there are problems with seeing insect eating as central to the rise of woman. Female apes seem to have access to shared meat, and may not be eating insects to compensate. They may simply like them. One imagines bands of early women gatherers snacking on termites in a kind of what-man-the-hunter-doesn't-know way, keeping their finds just among themselves.

Lesnik is appropriately withering about the fad of the "paleo" diet. Most adopters of caveman cuisine think of it as an excuse to eat drippingly rare meat all day long. Lesnik points out that if you really want to go paleo, you should probably cultivate a taste for termites and grubs.

And we should probably all bring ourselves to try grasshoppers and crickets. They are cheap, abundant, nutritious, and have a small carbon footprint. Lesnik realizes that the challenge, in the West anyway, is to present insect foods in ways that eaters can relate to. An unadorned plate of crickets (which she displays in a photo on p. 149) is just not going to cut it for most Americans. Lesnik argues that "people are most likely to try and to respond positively to insect-based foods that are in a form they are already familiar with, such as chocolate chip cookies" (150-51). I would certainly eat a cricket-flour chocolate chip cookie. But eating too many of them might counteract the benefits.

Lesnik, Julie J. Edible Insects and Human Evolution. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2018. GN 409.5 .L47