Plant diversity in the human diet: weak phylogenetic signal indicates breadth
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Worldwide, humans have access to a greater range of food plants than does any other species. Examination of phylogenetic patterns in plants consumed by animals has recently uncovered important ecological processes. The same techniques, however, have not been applied to our own species. Here we show that although humans tend to eat more species in certain families (e.g., Rosaceae) and fewer in others (e.g., Orchidaceae), the proportion of edible species in most families is similar to random expectations. Phylogenetic patterning in angiosperm edibility is also weak. We argue that the remarkable breadth of the human diet is the result of humans’ huge geographic range, diverse food-collection methods, and ability to process normally inedible items. Humans are thus generalist feeders in the broadest sense. Cross-cultural analyses of diversity in the plant diet of humans could represent a fascinating new field of research linking ecology, anthropology, history, and sociology.