Vitamin C in Hominin Diet

Professor Emeritus Henry Schwarcz proposes a solution to an old and important problem in hominin (human) evolution: where did our ancestors get vitamin C when they were living in northern Eurasia (for example in the Neander Valley (tal) in Germany)? The answer appears to be: pine needles.


Hominins emerging from Africa in the Pleistocene required sources of vitamins in addition to sources of energy and nutrient substance (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats). Most of their vitamin requirements could be provided by eating the flesh of herbivores but vitamin C is in low concentrations in animal muscle tissue. Lack of vitamin C causes the fatal disease of scurvy. In southern Eurasia, hominins would have been able to harvest fruits and vegetables throughout the year but as they migrated further to the north, they would encounter regions in which no plants were growing in mid-winter. Vitamin C is enriched in organ meats but their mass was probably too low for adequate provision. Storage of summer crops of fruit was possible. Hominins could however fulfil ascorbic acid requirements by drinking aqueous extracts from the needles of pines and other conifers which contain adequate amounts of vitamin C to satisfy human needs. Evidence is shown of pine needle and related consumption in Paleolithic sites.” 


Winter sources of ascorbic acid for Pleistocene hominins in northern Eurasia H. P. Schwarcz. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences (2023) 15:123 https://doi.org/10.1007/s12520-023-01828-y