Edible Insects and Human Evolution

Julie J. Lesink

University Press of Florida 2018
A book review by Danny Yee © 2023 https://dannyreviews.com/
The bulk of Edible Insects and Human Evolution is an introduction to the role of insect-eating in human evolution, an attempt "to reconstruct the dietary and behavioral components of insect foods for hominin life".

Anthropologists have not always paid attention to insects, so the evidence from ethnographic studies is limited and not easy to aggregate. But "social insects such as ants and termites and seasonally abundant insect larvae from moths and beetles seem to hold the highest value across foraging cultures".

There are alternative "conflict" and "cooperative provisioning" hypotheses for the gendered division of labour — in this context, for women consuming more insects than men. Studies of the nutritional value of insects suggest they provide similar nourishment to hunted animals, which supports the "conflict" hypothesis.

Chimpanzees are our closest relatives and their termite "fishing" is well known, but there is also useful evidence from other primates, from bonobos, orangutans, gorillas and monkeys. These exhibit a range of insect consumption, but females tend to eat more insects.

Bone tools used by early hominins (Australopithecines) have traces of wear that suggest they were used for digging into termite mounds. There is also tantalising evidence from isotope analysis of their tooth enamel, used alongside analysis of the nutrient composition of primate diet items.

"Hominins could have benefited from consuming protein-rich Macrotermes soldiers in the same amounts as chimpanzees today. It is difficult to estimate how many termites a chimpanzee manages to collect when visiting a termite nest, but one estimate suggests that the daily rate of insect consumption is 14 grams of dry matter. This ... would yield almost 12 grams of protein."

The evolution of Homo — of Homo erectus, Neanderthals, and modern humans — involved innovations such as cooking, carrying vessels, and domesticated crops.

"Direct evidence of insect consumption is scarce across the entirety of the fossil record, but with the Neanderthals and contemporaneous modern humans, we begin to see evidence of the consumption of other invertebrates. Shells of marine mollusks..."
"Although insect consumption today is still most common in the tropics, the presence or absence of this food in any culture can only be truly understood through their local histories."

There is some discussion of methods in this, but a separate chapter suggests possible angles of attack for reconstructing diets, using standardisation of ethnographic data, tools and their wear, food residues, dental microwear, and coprolites (and the sequencing of DNA found in them).

There are also two chapters addressing current concerns. "Understanding the Ick Factor" looks at the European aversion to eating insects and possible ways to overcome it. And "Going Forward: Getting Over Our Obsession with Meat" argues for going beyond "paleo diet" ideas to look at the broader gains to be had from incorporating insects into our diets.

Edible Insects and Human Evolution does have some fairly dry chunks of information, but they are small enough that they are never indigestible. It is clearly written and doesn't assume any technical background, and while its primary focus is on human evolution, it has some fascinating insights into diet and sustainable food production.

March 2023

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Related reviews:
- more insects + entomology
- books about food
- more primates + paleoanthropology
%T Edible Insects and Human Evolution
%A Lesink, Julie J.
%I University Press of Florida
%D 2018
%O paperback, notes, references, index
%G ISBN-13 9780813064314
%P 184pp