Just over 10,000 years ago, humans made the worst mistake in their history and the collective trauma was recorded in their myths. In the poem of Gilgamesh, a Mesopotamian legend from more than 4,000 years ago, the story of Enkidu is told, a primitive and wild being who lived in harmony with nature. A priestess taught him the mysteries of love, made him wise, and took him to the city, where Enkidu lost his connection with other living beings and could no longer walk naked. In the Judeo-Christian story, the loss of paradise, where Adam and Eve lived without working, happily gathering the fruits of the garden of Eden, sounds similar.

The transition from the nomadic life of hunter-gatherers, which was sufficient for our species for tens of thousands of years, to another based on agriculture and livestock, sedentary, which gave rise to great inequalities and submission to the work that defines Today human existence is one of the most important moments in history. But the fall did not happen overnight, with the simple bite of an apple, and scientists are still working to reconstruct the story behind the myth. An international group of researchers publishes today, Monday, in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, a work in which they provide information about this revolutionary period in a little explored region.

The researchers have carried out their work in the Taforalt caves, in northern Morocco, one of the largest burial sites of this period. There are accumulated remains of animals, plants and human fossils from a time, about 15,000 years ago, when the Earth was warming rapidly after the last ice age. Analysis of isotopes of elements such as zinc, strontium or carbon in the enamel of the teeth or the collagen of the bones revealed that, although the consumption of meat was common, with the Atlas mouflon as the preferred game, the diet of those North Africans relied on plants such as nuts or wild cereals.

The results suggest that less meat was consumed in this region than in other areas at the end of the Stone Age and that vegetables were stored to guarantee food throughout the year. However, the awareness that it was important to save for lean days did not drive the development of agriculture or, at least, evidence that they grew their food has not survived until today. The inhabitants of that region were increasingly sedentary, and there was a progressive increase in the consumption of vegetables, but their way of life still depended on gathering and hunting and they did not make the technological changes that would take humans out of paradise.

Despite the nostalgia for the semi-wild past that stories like that of Gilgamesh exude, the transformation occurred in many places in response to environmental changes that complicated the lives of those people. The arrival of humans has been associated with the extinction of large mammals and it is possible that the lack of hunting favored the incorporation of more plants to the menu at the end of the Paleolithic. Long before the beginning of plant domestication, at the Israeli site of Ohalo II, about 23,000 years ago, there are already signs of an early increase in grain consumption, and in that same region, about 10,000 years later, in the Sites of the Natufian culture have left traces of the intentional cultivation of wild cereals. Humans, with their own flexibility, adapted their diet when necessary and, with their characteristic daring, sacrificed paradise to have what must have seemed to them at the time to be greater security. But this did not happen in the same way around the world and at the same time.

One of the theories about the origin of agriculture in the Middle East attributes it to a scare that Paleolithic humans got when they believed they had already emerged from the last ice age. A return to previous temperature levels, just over 10,000 years ago, reduced the availability of wild plants to which those humans had already become accustomed and could have been an incentive to begin agriculture. In North Africa, however, there was no local development of this technology, despite living in similar conditions and having close genetic connections with the Natufians, who did cultivate their grains.

There is a natural tendency to see more clearly things about which we have little information, but there is no reason to think that the diet of Paleolithic humans was less diverse than that of modern humans. Concepts such as the Paleolithic diet or some explanations about the origin of agriculture are a simplification that is possible because we are talking about a remote time and about humans whom we dehumanize a little. “The conception of human groups prior to the Neolithic as hypercarnivores has been evolving in recent years. Diets are usually very diverse and adjusted to the environmental environment where they live. It would be something similar to what we see today at an ethnographic level,” explains Ruth Blasco, researcher at the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES). “Currently, we can find groups of hunter-gatherers distributed in various geographical and climatic locations, from the Arctic to tropical rainforests. Depending on environmental conditions and resource availability, their diets undergo significant adjustments, even becoming practically opposite in their basic composition,” she adds.

Although there is no conclusive evidence that humans from previous periods of the Paleolithic accumulated food to manage their consumption, Blasco considers that it cannot be ruled out, because it has already been seen more than 300,000 years ago, in the Israeli site of Qesem Cave, that they stored bone marrow. bone to eat later. He also does not rule out the possibility that the processes seen at the end of the Stone Age and leading to the agricultural revolution took place, at least to some extent, at an earlier time. And even that they were carried out by Neanderthals. These relatives were long painted as crude, subhuman hunters, but accumulating evidence has changed that image.

“There are several studies that argue for the consumption of vegetables among Neanderthals, and even the use of medicinal plants to treat some conditions and pathologies, such as at the Sidrón site in Asturias,” says Blasco. “I believe that dietary diversity has been present since ancient times, and the consumption of vegetables, depending on the environmental environment, has played an important role in human diets,” he says.

Berta Morell, CSIC researcher, values ​​the study for its contribution to the reconstruction of this period in a region where there is still little information and proposes a path between the life of hunter-gatherers and agrarian societies as something very gradual and “almost unconscious.” ”. “They had a very deep knowledge of the environment in which they moved, they knew the rhythm of the seasons and how they were related to the growth of plants,” she indicates. And she recalls studies that show that there are groups of hunter-gatherers who selected when to collect mollusks to obtain maximum benefits and manage their production. Unlike myths, which offer complete and satisfying stories, science continues to accumulate evidence that it is not easy to simplify the history of a revolution that lasted tens of thousands of years.

You can follow SUBJECT in Facebook, x and instagramor sign up here to receive our weekly newsletter.