What you can learn from a chimpanzee's diet

Given the trend lately to look backwards, historically, in search of the ideal human diet, I found this article by Rob Dunn really interesting. Dunn discusses some new research that gives us a better idea of what our closest relatives—chimpanzees and bonobos—are eating out in the wild.

Some of the takeaways fit neatly into the current human food zeitgeist—chimpanzees eat a diverse and varied diet, only consume small amounts of meat, and (for obvious reasons) focus on what happens to be in season and available. But some of the information is less apparently applicable to us. For instance, chimpanzees fracking love figs. In fact, different species of figs make up nearly half of all the food the chimpanzees in the study were eating. Figs, people. Can't get enough of 'em.

But the larger point, Dunn writes, is that we can't really apply any of the facts about chimpanzee diets directly to ourselves in a "Just So Story" sort of way. Geography, resource availability, and culture don't work like that. Neither does biology.

You are unlikely to eat like a chimpanzee eats. If you are the average American, you eat more meat and more simple sugar. You eat differently because of choices you make and choices our societies have made (e.g., to produce huge quantities of the foods that most simply satisfy our ancient urges). You also eat differently because the species around you are different, unless you happen to own a greenhouse specializing in tropical African trees.

But even if you were to abandon agricultural food and move into a forest in Tanzania you would still not eat exactly like a chimpanzee. By most reports the food chimpanzees eat tastes bad, at least to humans, (though, one hopes, not to chimpanzees). By some accounting the food chimpanzees eat is also insufficient to keep a human alive and fertile.

Read the rest of the story at Scientific American blogs

Via Mariette DiChristina

Image: Female chimpanzee eating banana, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from dkeats's photostream



  1. I’m a Homo sapiens sapiens rather than Pan troglodytes.  If I’m looking for a close example of an extremely similar metabolism and natural diet I’d rather look into habits of Sus Scrofa Domesticus for a comparative example.
    (Not that I don’t like chimps. I find them cute unless they go berserk and rip off my limbs one by one)

    1. I’m a Homo sapiens sapiens rather than Pan troglodytes.

      Exactly. The dramatic difference in dentition and jaws between humans and chimps isn’t just to make us the sexy hairless freaks that we are. We have significantly better premolars for slicing and chewing meat than chimps have, and the difference can be traced waaaay back in the archaeological record. Pre-humans were already more carnivorous than chimps before we got really excited about all this “fire” and “technology” stuff. We evolved to become more carnivorous, it’s not just some weird cultural outgrowth.

  2. Welp, so much for my dream of eating like my simian ancestors.

    I guess I’ll just have to fling poo on the Internet.

    1. Those guys are our simian cousins, not our simian ancestors. Who is to say that our great-(x240,000)-grandparents ate food that would be more palatable to chimps than to us?

  3. No, no no.  Think LEGS.  We are upright, have huge leg muscles and are built for going long distances.  Think about what that might mean.  Yes, we will chase animals a long ways, and extend our ranges to seek out a wide variety of plant matter and trade what we have with other tribes of people.  Subsets of us exist 90% on meat products (think far north Inuit and Plains Peoples of North America) and subsets exist more on plant matter.  In other words, we are made to eat any and every mother fucking thing on the planet that is edible.  If all we have is figs, then that’s what we eat.  But if we know there’s a money tree 50 miles away, you can bet your rotten antelope we are over raking money down off that damn tree!!!

    1.  We’ve also got the lovely primate ability to eat (and enjoy) all kinds of plant toxins. Mmmm. Theobromide…

    1.  I love figs but if I ate them as much as chimps love them I think figs wouldn’t, ummm, love me.  *clutching abdomen*

  4. … or kill and eat other people’s babies. I think I’ll pass… urgh. (The things you see on nature programs cannot be unseen.)

        1. In the 70s, it was blenderized with herbs and served to the guests at the birth.

      1. Well, that would actually be interesting to taste. What, you don’t like eating organ meat? As far as I have understood, placenta would be ok even for a vegan!

        Edit: … although I rather have it cooked than raw… yeah, definitely cooked.

        1. I know a guy whose new-age hippie parents actually did eat his placenta. Apparently they fried it up with onions like a liver.

          Still not sure whether that counts as autocannibalism or infantocannibalism.

      2. I learned the other day that “placenta” was the classical Romans’ name for what we call “pizza.” It’s just a historical accident that we don’t spend our Friday nights bingeing on beer and placenta.

    1. But people and groups that are called “humanitarian” are generally looked up to, aren’t they? You mean the term isn’t analogous to “vegetarian”? 

  5. When people discuss what our ancestors ate, or what our genetic relatives ate/eat, they almost always hold these up to be the ideal diet for modern humans. One thing that almost always gets forgotten is that there is no guarantee that any of these diets are/were actually healthy for modern humans. Our ancestors, for the most part, lived much shorter lives than we do now. A diet that might have been perfectly fine for people that only lived a couple of decades might be totally unsuitable if your objective is to live to be ten decades old. Another thing that gets forgotten is that there are genetic variations in human groups, so that a diet that might be optimal for one may be detrimental to another. Studies have shown that Asian populations that have been eating diets rich in rice for over ten thousand years are now fantastic at digesting the rice starch. Another example are the Pima Indians. Traditionally their diet was over 70% complex carbohydrates. On that diet they were svelte. If you take the Pima and feed them a lot of animal fat and protein, they gain a lot of weight. Having Pima ancestry, I learned this the hard way.

    1.  And the other way around, arctic circle native peoples eating a traditional diet of a lot of animal tissue (organ, fat, muscle) and the modest low-starch tundra plants do fabulously… but eating a “southern” diet with starches and sugars develop diabetes like it’s going out of style.

      I suspect it doesn’t take all that much of a mutation to really wonk up a human’s digestion – we’re omnivore-supreme, so there has to be a heck of a lot going on in our guts to get as much as we do out of such a wide variety of sources. Any complex system is vulnerable to all kinds of quirky “slightly nonstandard” behaviour…

      1. Historically we’ve assumed food will be scarce and so every bit of nutrition had to be extracted and retained from what we could get.  Now scarcity is not a problem for most people but our bodies still treat food as if it were.

        I’ve read a theory that Polynesians tend to get fat easily because those that could exploit and retain calories the most were selected for by the scarcity of food on islands and by sea travel.

  6. people are like rats, pigs and roaches,,, were opportunists

    in lack of normal food we will eat the most messed up crazy garbage, and we can live on it, its really amazing, they have shows on TLC about people who have been living on nothing but pizza or french fries for their whole lives, sure they are going to die when they are 45 but they still reached and surpassed breeding age eating the same garbage over and over again

    how incredible is that? we are an amazing species

  7. “and (for obvious reasons) focus on what happens to be in season and available.”

    There is the long standing question of how earlier humans made the transition from a social structure of hunter gatherers organized as “bands” (the human equivalent of monkey/chimp “troops”) to a more hierarchical structure containing a hereditary leader class (kings, chiefs, etc.).

    I favor the “protection racket” explanation where one band started raiding their neighbors for their food supplies rather than directly obtaining it from nature. This scheme then evolved into a system where the losing bands eventually wound up paying protection not to be raided.

    For this scheme to arise, early humans first had to store excess food for hard times, and since chimps don’t store food it can’t arise for them and thus there will never be any “King of the Chimps”.

    There are some claimed modern and near-modern human bands, though there are questions whether they derive in an unbroken chain from early human bands, or whether they devolved from more structured societies.

    One telling thing is that all the modern bands live in the tropics and engage in very little food storage which makes them unpromising targets for raiding to gain food supplies.

    1.  There was very recently also band culture in the harsher areas of Australia. In fact, groups as small as a dozen humans, which is a really frigging small group of humans when you think about it. There, it’s due to sheer lack of resources to sustain any density of population… and again, no food storage. Nothing surplus to store.

      Of course, then everything went higgledypiggledy when European settlers displaced whole populations.

  8. So chimps like food that is absolutely packed with calories?  I bet they go nuts for dates too. 

    This doesn’t seem to be especially surprising to me. 

  9. This might irritate the raw food types out there in Boing -Boingland, but we can’t eat what chimps eat because we have evolved to eat cooked foods.


    A fuller examination of this cooking/evolution link is in Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human  a book by British primatologist Richard Wrangham.


    1.  We definitely have enzymes in our saliva designed to break down grain starches in much much larger quantities than chimps have. Yes, we’re in fact well adapted to eat bread.

  10. My father grew up over the ridge from a valley full of fig orchards. He reported that not only are they delicious, but over ripe figs are ideal for throwing at your friends. Something about the skin unwrapping and inverting itself as it impacts with the back of the head being a particularly pleasing aspect of throwing the fruit.

  11. Fig Tree: “Hey Jesus! Yer closest biological ancestors were picking of my fruit again the other day!”

  12. The chimp, bonobo gorilla and organ-utang  are all evolutionary dead ends. The pattern that ends inevitably in extinction is clearly there. The die is cast. The most we can do is forestall the inevitable. Each extinction creates an opening into which a new species can evolve.

    We know the following:
    1) Life in the ocean is more diverse, and widespread then we ever let ourselves believe.
    2) We do not know what even half the  invertebrates that inhabit the tropics right now are.
    3) Life is EVERYWHERE. even in places until recently thought impossible.

    We know, but refuse to admit: It’s NOT about intelligence or technology!! It’s about ADAPTABILITY!!   The neanderthal perished because he was so perfectly evolved to live in the forest that , as the climate changed, and the forest broke up, into patches, with grasslands in between he was hosed. Modern man was less perfectly evolved. He was able to survive(sometimes barely) in EITHER forest or grassland, with some individuals able to spend part of their lives in each. That was why modern man survived and neanderthal didn’t.

    The fact is the canine species has already beaten us at the game of evolution and we are too stuck in our own world to see it. There are currently 9 distinct species of canines in the world, and only one species of human. Exactly ONE species of canine has evolved to be part of our pack, and to survive dependent on us. As for the rest, every continent except Antarctica has at least ONE species of wild canine. (YES there ARE still foxes in the Pyrenees, at least,and possibly the Alps. There seem to be wolves in the Urals, at least if not further south.)  So they are able to survive with or without us.
    I have no idea how or when man will do himself in. When he does, however, there is zero doubt in my mind that several species of canine will survive in reproductive numbers, and those numbers will rise fast when man is not around any more.

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