How different were ancient people to us today?

05 March 2020

CAVEMAN_NEANDERTHALS_LANDSCAPE

Snowy landscape with a group of early humans.

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Question

How different were people tens of thousands of years ago to us today?

Answer

This question comes from Adam, and bioarchaeologist Emma Pomeroy has an answer...

Emma - That's a great question. So if we're talking about modern humans, our own species, we've been around for about 300,000 years. And actually for much of that time we were hunter-gatherers. So we got our food by hunting and gathering rather than by cultivating crops and things like that. And so some of the characteristics that our ancestors would have had would be that they were much more active than us, so their bones were actually rather stronger than ours, because our bone strength depends on how active we are during our life. We imagine that people in the past were much shorter, right. And that we're taller today, but actually that's probably not the case. Up until about 10,000 years ago. People were similar in height, actually, certainly in Europe to what we are today, partly because the nutrition was good, but they didn't have the disease burden that we have. And that really comes about with agriculture and settling down.

Chris S - Did you see the paper, Emma, that came out of the U.S. by looking at hundreds of years worth of medical records and found that our temperatures today are a bit lower?

Emma - Yeah, I mean that's absolutely fascinating research, and I think it sort of fits in with the pattern. So maybe tens of thousand years ago people were not much shorter, but if we go back a few hundred years, people were substantially shorter. And perhaps one of the things that was using up the energy that they had, was fighting off infections and having this higher body temperature all the time. So super interesting.

Chris R - Have the changes been genetic or have they been environmental.

Emma - The answer to that is possibly a bit of both. It's very hard. So with things like stature, it's very hard, because it's determined by many different genes, hundreds even. We find it hard to actually track how that's changed. But some recent work is suggesting that actually, the genetics of height has changed, but things like height and the robusticity of our skeleton, so how strong our skeleton is, have a big environmental component to them as well.

Phil - Nadia?

Nadia - If we are quite different than our ancestors, how relevant is the Palaeo Diet?

Emma - That's a really interesting question. So I think from our perspective as sort of, evolutionary biologists, the Palaeo Diet's not really something that ever existed, so human populations have lived all over the world with all kinds of different diets, as hunter-gatherers. And there's no one diet that we can say: This is what we ought to be eating. So yeah, unfortunately the Palaeo Diet, it's not really a very convincing argument.

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