For years, the common belief has been that pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer societies relied heavily on meat. However, new evidence from a groundbreaking study reveals a surprising twist in the dietary practices of ancient human groups in Morocco, suggesting a marked preference for plant-based food over 15,000 years ago.

The study, conducted by a team of international scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, Géoscience et Environnement Toulouse in France, and the Institut National des Sciences de l’Archéologie et du Patrimoine in Morocco, offers compelling isotopic evidence indicating that early hunter-gatherers in Morocco had a significant plant-based component in their diet.

This revelation challenges the prevailing notion that meat was the predominant source of sustenance for early human societies before the advent of agriculture.

The research team employed a comprehensive multi-isotopic approach, incorporating zinc and strontium isotope analysis in tooth enamel, along with carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur isotope analysis in collagen. The study also examined amino acids in human and faunal remains from the Taforalt cave in Morocco. These innovative techniques provided the first clear measurement of plant consumption in a pre-agricultural population.

Human tooth from the cave of Taforalt, Morocco, showing severe wear and decay
Human tooth from the cave of Taforalt, Morocco, showing severe wear and decay. Credit: Heiko Temming

The findings showed that the diet of these ancient hunter-gatherers included a significant proportion of Mediterranean plant species, a discovery that predates the emergence of agriculture in the region by several millennia. Archaeobotanical remains discovered at the site, including acorns, pine nuts, and wild legumes, further corroborated this idea. Additionally, the study suggests that plant-based foods were also part of the diets of children and might have served as weaning products for this ancient human population.

This insight into early human diet has far-reaching implications, indicating that plant-based foods may have played a more crucial role in pre-agricultural societies than previously believed. It also prompts a re-evaluation of the early Holocene and raises questions about the lack of agricultural development in North Africa during that time.

Zineb Moubtahij, the lead author of the study, remarked, Our findings not only shed light on the dietary practices of pre-agricultural human groups but also highlight the complexity of human subsistence strategies in different regions. Understanding these patterns is crucial for unraveling the broader history of human evolution.

The study’s innovative use of zinc isotopes in tooth enamel is also a first in determining the diet of ancient African populations. Given the critical role North Africa plays in the study of human evolution and the spread of modern humans, this new tool offers a unique opportunity to explore human dietary patterns and adaptability in various environments.

Looking ahead, the research team intends to explore other Paleolithic sites in North Africa and apply these groundbreaking techniques to better understand ancient dietary practices and their implications for human evolution.


Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology | Moubtahij, Z., McCormack, J., Bourgon, N. et al. Isotopic evidence of high reliance on plant food among Later Stone Age hunter-gatherers at Taforalt, Morocco. Nat Ecol Evol (2024).–024–02382-z

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