Ice Age man offers food for thought

In the ranks of zealotry vegetarians come low. Far above them in terms of nastiness are the anti-smokers and you have to descend through several layers of manic political correctness before you come to the nibbling herbivores.

They are not, however, without their extremists. It would, for instance, be hard to find an animal rights activist who enjoyed a mixed grill.

Nor is vegetarianism without its proselytisers for whom heaven on Earth cannot be attained until all mankind has forsworn meat. For them, the carrot is the creed and the cause an article of faith, which makes heretics of dissenters.

Even so, the most ardent vegan must on occasion resort to rational argument. Preaching is fine but, in an age when science has taken over from religion, people want proof.

Fortunately, just as primitive religions have their witch doctors, zealots have their bogus scientists. The anti-smoking lobby, for example, has made much use of cynically manipulated and often shamelessly inaccurate statistics to support the concept of passive smoking.

The vegetarians, being by and large a meek and enfeebled lot, tend to eschew that kind of chicanery. They are not, however, beyond a bit of duff science. Not long ago on the radio , I heard a woman vegetarian claim that the human constitution was not equipped for meat eating. Early man, she said, confined himself to fruit and nuts and felt better for it. Moreover, the human gut was not made to handle meat. It takes, she said, an entire week for a traditional English Sunday lunch to make the journey from the oral to the anal orifice.

That struck me then, and strikes me now, as nonsense. But who among us has the time to gather the evidence necessary to refute counterfeit science? And all the while, the veggies win new converts, mainly among impressionable young girls who, if they are to break their way through glass ceilings, need a bit of protein in them.

It was, therefore, with some dismay that I read the news that Otze the Ice Man was in all probability a vegan. Otze, you may recall, was taking a stroll across an Alpine ridge some 5,000 years ago when he unaccountably dropped dead. Nature took a hand and encased his corpse in ice, where it remained, quite well-preserved, until its recent discovery. Since then, the scientists have been prodding it and analysing it and drawing various conclusions from it, the latest of which is that his diet was lacking in meat and dairy products.

How do they know? Well, the hair on his head gives it away. “You are what you eat, and clues to what people ate thousands of years ago are stored in their hair,” explains Stephen Macko, professor of environmental science at the University of Virginia. “It is a terrific archive of information. Today’s breakfast is next week’s hair.”

If that were true, vegetarians would have straw on their heads. It cannot be denied, however, that, if Otze really was a neolithic vegan, the cause of vegetarianism is thereby advanced. Or is it?

We carnivores can point out that all we know for certain about what happened on that alp all those millennia ago was that he pegged out. Had he set out on his mysterious journey with a couple of pounds of bison in his stomach, things might have turned out differently.

Moreover, Otze was carrying a bow and an axe, neither of which item is necessary if you are out picking herbs and gathering nuts. True, he may have carried them in self-defence. Then again – and here the mystery deepens – the arrows for the bow were not finished and the bow was not strung.

Here we must perforce enter the realms of conjecture. Could it be that he was in the process of inventing the bow and arrow and had trekked into the wilderness to find the bit of peace and quiet needed to focus his mind on the concept of string?

After all, you can’t invent something with screaming kids under your feet and one of those humans with two lumps on the front telling you to get off your backside, stop messing about with bits of twig and do something useful for a change, foraging for nuts for instance, if it isn’t too much trouble.

On the other hand, the bow and arrow might already have been invented and Otze may have been a pacifist. Was his the first example of unilateral disarmament, the first practical protest against the futility of war? Did he deliberately set out with an unstrung bow and a quiver of duff arrows, to show the faint-hearted that it could be done?

There is,of course, the other possibility, that he was carrying them purely for decorative purposes, as matching accessories without feathers, in which case he might have been a vegetarian, pacificist, and gay. This Otze has the makings of an icon, the next Joan Collins.

We shall probably never know the answers, but one item of research might help. Is it possible for the scientists to create a model to show us the face of Otze? We might then apply a test first outlined in Finley Peter Dunne’s book, Mr Dooley’s Philosophy, in 1900. “Most vigitaryans I iver see looked enough like their food to be classed as cannybals.”

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