The evolution of the human trophic level during the Pleistocene
Abstract The human trophic level (HTL) during the Pleistocene and its degree of variability serve, explicitly or tacitly, as the basis of many explanations for human evolution, behavior, and culture. Previous attempts to reconstruct the HTL have relied heavily on an analogy with recent hunter-gatherer groups' diets. In addition to technological differences, recent findings of substantial ecological differences between the Pleistocene and the Anthropocene cast doubt regarding that analogy's validity. Surprisingly little systematic evolution-guided evidence served to reconstruct HTL. Here, we reconstruct the HTL during the Pleistocene by reviewing evidence for the impact of the HTL on the biological, ecological, and behavioral systems derived from various existing studies. We adapt a paleobiological and paleoecological approach, including evidence from human physiology and genetics, archaeology, paleontology, and zoology, and identified 25 sources of evidence in total. The evidence shows that the trophic level of the Homo lineage that most probably led to modern humans evolved from a low base to a high, carnivorous position during the Pleistocene, beginning with Homo habilis and peaking in Homo erectus. A reversal of that trend appears in the Upper Paleolithic, strengthening in the Mesolithic/Epipaleolithic and Neolithic, and culminating with the advent of agriculture. We conclude that it is possible to reach a credible reconstruction of the HTL without relying on a simple analogy with recent hunter-gatherers' diets. The memory of an adaptation to a trophic level that is embedded in modern humans' biology in the form of genetics, metabolism, and morphology is a fruitful line of investigation of past HTLs, whose potential we have only started to explore.