Insects have always been a part of human diets. They were one of the first sources of animal protein that we ate and they continue to be a vital food source for millions of people today. In this blog post, I would like to explore the fascinating possibility that it was the ability to access the fat-rich larvae in
termite mounds that allowed our ancient ancestors to evolve our large, energy-hungry brains. The pioneering research in this field is being led by Dr. Julie Lesnik paleoanthropological researcher at Wayne State University and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
One of the earliest known hominid species, Homo habilis, had a brain size of about one-third of that of modern humans. However, by 1.8 million years ago with the emergence of Homo erectus, there had been a dramatic increase in brain size. One possible explanation for this sudden growth is access to high-quality protein sources like termite larvae. The use of tools to access termite mounds, as evidenced by Homo habilis's ability to do so, would have provided a reliable source of fat-rich food that could fuel the growth of our brains.
This hypothesis challenges the commonly held belief that it was hunting large game animals that allowed for brain growth. While it is possible that Homo erectus eventually began to hunt, the finding that they were able to access termite mounds suggests that insects may have played a significant role in brain development. It also calls into question the emphasis put on man as the hunter when, in reality, women were just as likely to provide nutrient-dense animal proteins and fats from insects.
Fatty acids are essential for brain development. The brain is made up of 60% fat, and it relies on fatty acids for energy and function. The ability to access termite mounds would have been especially important in sub-Saharan Africa, where food resources were scarce. In this arid region, termites were one of the only sources of fat that was available year-round.
In addition to providing important nutrients, the ability to access termite larvae would have also required advanced cognitive abilities such as tool-making and planning. This suggests that insect-eating may have played a crucial role in the development of human intelligence and problem-solving skills. By matching wear marks on Homo habilis bone tools with marks etched into termite mounds Dr. Julie Lesnik was able to demonstrate that early man could break open these nests to harvest the nutritious termites within.
In addition to being a nutrient-rich food source, insects were also used for other purposes in early human societies. They were used as medicines, as well as for adornment. Insects were even used as a form of currency in some early societies!
Insects have undoubtedly played a significant role in the evolution and survival of humans, and their importance should not be underestimated or overlooked. So the next time you eat a delicious, crispy, cricket snack, remember that you may be participating in a behaviour that has played a crucial role in human evolution.