Brain-specific lipids from marine, lacustrine, or terrestrial food resources: potential impact on early African Homo sapiens

Comp Biochem Physiol B Biochem Mol Biol. 2002 Apr;131(4):653-73. doi: 10.1016/s1096-4959(02)00002-7.


The polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) composition of the mammalian central nervous system is almost wholly composed of two long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (AA). PUFA are dietarily essential, thus normal infant/neonatal brain, intellectual growth and development cannot be accomplished if they are deficient during pregnancy and lactation. Uniquely in the human species, the fetal brain consumes 70% of the energy delivered to it by mother. DHA and AA are needed to construct placental and fetal tissues for cell membrane growth, structure and function. Contemporary evidence shows that the maternal circulation is depleted of AA and DHA during fetal growth. Sustaining normal adult human brain function also requires LC-PUFA.Homo sapiens is unlikely to have evolved a large, complex, metabolically expensive brain in an environment which did not provide abundant dietary LC-PUFA. Conversion of 18-carbon PUFA from vegetation to AA and DHA is considered quantitatively insufficient due to a combination of high rates of PUFA oxidation for energy, inefficient and rate limited enzymatic conversion and substrate recycling. The littoral marine and lacustrine food chains provide consistently greater amounts of pre-formed LC-PUFA than the terrestrial food chain. Dietary levels of DHA are 2.5-100 fold higher for equivalent weights of marine fish or shellfish vs. lean or fat terrestrial meats. Mammalian brain tissue and bird egg yolks, especially from marine birds, are the richest terrestrial sources of LC-PUFA. However, land animal adipose fats have been linked to vascular disease and mental ill-health, whereas marine lipids have been demonstrated to be protective. At South African Capesites, large shell middens and fish remains are associated with evidence for some of the earliest modern humans. Cape sites dating from 100 to 18 kya cluster within 200 km of the present coast. Evidence of early H. sapiens is also found around the Rift Valley lakes and up the Nile Corridor into the Middle East; in some cases there is an association with the use of littoral resources. Exploitation of river, estuarine, stranded and spawning fish, shellfish and sea bird nestlings and eggs by Homo could have provided essential dietary LC-PUFA for men, women, and children without requiring organized hunting/fishing, or sophisticated social behavior. It is however, predictable from the present evidence that exploitation of this food resource would have provided the advantage in multi-generational brain development which would have made possible the advent of H. sapiens. Restriction to land based foods as postulated by the savannah and other hypotheses would have led to degeneration of the brain and vascular system as happened without exception in all other land based apes and mammals as they evolved larger bodies.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antioxidants / pharmacology
  • Biological Evolution
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Fatty Acids, Unsaturated / metabolism
  • Fishes
  • Hominidae
  • Humans
  • Iodine / metabolism
  • Linolenic Acids / pharmacology
  • Lipids / chemistry*
  • Meat
  • Middle East
  • Models, Chemical
  • Nutritional Physiological Phenomena
  • Shellfish
  • Species Specificity
  • Vitamin A / metabolism


  • Antioxidants
  • Fatty Acids, Unsaturated
  • Linolenic Acids
  • Lipids
  • Vitamin A
  • Iodine