Eating Insects May Be Responsible for Our Larger Brains

January 2, 2017 | Posted In: General

The insect-eating trend is spreading across the globe steadily, but what if we’d always eaten insects? How would that change in diet have possibly affected our growth and evolution? According to experts we have been living off of a great deal of insects since we first came to be, and that we may have them to thank for our large brains.

From the very beginning humans have been forced to find a way to survive hunting and eating the animals around us and foraging and later farming plants. Now before civilization arrived and made survival easier with farming and ranching, every meal had to be searched for. Naturally, differing seasons and natural disasters like droughts affect how much food was available for us to hunt down. When plants and animals were scarce we humans turned to insects for sustenance. Researchers are now suggesting that the need to forage for insects could have had a direct influence on our developing larger brains as well as our critical thinking abilities.

Scientists have known for a long time that the challenges early humans had to face in order to get food helped to shape how our brains and cognition evolved. Digging for insects specifically may have affected our cognitive evolution and contributed to our eventual creation and use of advanced tools. Basically, the need to dig for insects could have helped us eventually create the shovel.

Scientists began to form this hypothesis after studying how wild capuchin monkeys behaved and changed depending on how scarce food was and if they had to forage for insects to substitute the other food they usually eat. Embedded insects seem to be the go-to food when other food is scarce, and are an important fallback food. This broader diet would have had a major influence on our evolution. The morphology of teeth and jaws as well as the adaption of our digestive system that can now get nutrition from many different sources is directly linked to having a broad diet. Researchers found that monkeys that had to use insects as a fallback food source were more cognitively advanced in specialized areas such as digging and foraging for food. The cognitively demanding task of finding and accessing hidden and well-protected insect dwellings helps train the brain for these more demanding and advanced tasks. And while it is more cognitively demanding, the reward is worth it, as insects provide the much needed fat and protein that fuel our brains. These tasks deal directly dexterity, using and creating tools, and critical thinking, which is necessary to solve problems. Individuals with more experience and that are more gifted in these areas are more likely to survive.

They may drive us nuts, but insects may just be the reason we learned to survive despite the harsh environment of much this planet.

How do you think humans might have evolved differently if we hadn’t eaten insects and developed these higher cognitive abilities?