I was happy to see a new blog post by Kurt Harris over at PaleoNu yesterday. He’s one of my favorite bloggers, and he hasn’t written much over the last several months. Turns out he’s been boning up on evolutionary biology and paleoanthropology to determine what is currently knowable – and unknowable – about how our paleolithic ancestors lived and ate.
He has also been cultivating a relationship with a PaleoNu reader who happens to be a tutor in Zoology at an “institute of prominence” in the UK, with over 20 years of research and teaching in this field behind him. Preferring to remain anonymous, this fellow will be writing occasional guest articles under the pen name “Professor Gumby” (love it).
So what did Professor Gumby and Dr. Harris have to say in this first collaboration? In short:
- It’s very difficult for us to know with any certainty what paleo people ate or how they lived.
- The vast majority of studies of modern hunter-gatherers (HGs) have been ethnographic in nature, and as such are heavily influenced by the researchers own assumptions and objectives. This is a problem in all research, but it’s particularly notable in the anthropological literature.
- Modern HGs are not analogous to paleolithic HGs. Even limited amounts of contact with modern people can have a profound impact on the diet and lifestyle of HG populations. This means we can’t simply study modern HG groups and assume that their habits reflect our distant ancestors.
- Observer bias and influence are also issues with studies of modern HG populations. Professor Gumby (and others) have noted that the people they study will often change their dietary habits while being studied, perhaps to impress the researchers. In my family there’s a funny story about me when I was 8 years old eating a whole plate of spinach when a special guest came to visit for dinner one night. I hated spinach and wouldn’t touch it any other time. Turns out this phenomenon is common in anthropological field studies.
- Along the same lines, modern HGs aren’t living in their traditional habitats. They’ve been displaced from their more optimal habitats by agriculturists and pastoralists. This means the diet they’re currently eating is probably atypical – “more akin to a ‘fall-back’ or ‘subsistence’ diet than an optimal one”, as Professor Gumby put it.
This last point is particularly salient. We can’t determine the optimal diet of a particular group of people simply by observing what they currently eat. As Dr. Harris points out:
It should be instructive to ask apparently healthy HGs what they prefer to eat in addition to what they have to eat. In a population that is healthy and not conditioned to a lifetime of non-foods as in the diet of a westerner with metabolic syndrome, it may have meaning to know what they prefer to eat. Not accounting for costs, how would they apportion their caloric intake from their extant food sources? I see no reason that relative food preferences could not be genetically or epigenetically influenced in addition to culturally influenced. Absent the interference of modern medicine, could a preference for the foods that make one live a healthier, more robust life be selected for and rapidly move through a population in a few generations? Do the Kitavans actually prefer yams/sweet potatoes/cassava over coconut and fish in the same ratio as the proportions they eat them in? Would Inuit happily prefer half their calories as sweet potatoes if they grew in the arctic? Or does each dietary pattern just reflect the preference to avoid starvation?
What we don’t know about paleo
The takeaway is simply this: it’s impossible to know for certain what our paleolithic ancestors ate by studying modern HG people. It’s difficult even to know what modern HG people eat when a bunch of researchers aren’t hanging around watching them.
There’s been a lot of discussion in the “paleo-sphere” about this lately. It comes up every time a fossil study is reported on, such as the most recent one that found starch on the teeth of Neaderthals, suggesting that they may have – gasp! – eaten grains on occasion. Of course these stories are pounced on by the anti-paleo set as evidence that grains have been a regular part of our diet for a long time and that proponents of the paleo diet don’t know what they’re talking about.
So on the one hand you’ve got paleo fundamentalists claiming to know exactly what paleolithic people ate, and stating with apparent certainty that grains and legumes were absolutely not included in their diets. Then you’ve got folks on the other end of the spectrum who claim that paleo is a just another “fad diet”, like the Zone or Atkins, with absolutely no basis in clinical or anthropological evidence.
They’re both wrong, of course.
It should be abundantly clear that we can’t know for certain what paleo people ate. They lived a long time ago, and we don’t have a time machine. Even if we did, and went back to study them, they’d probably pull the equivalent of me eating spinach when that special guest visited.
But this doesn’t mean we simply disregard what we do know about our paleolithic ancestors and modern HGs, nor does it mean that we can’t extrapolate that knowledge into helpful guidelines for what a species-appropriate diet might be for us humans.
What we do know about paleo
We still know, for example, that modern diseases like diabetes, obesity, cancer, autoimmunity and heart disease were rare (or even nonexistent) in paleo people and are still rare in the few HG groups around the world that have been lucky enough to preserve their traditional diet and lifestyle.
We also know that when modern foods like wheat flour, industrial seed oils and sugar are introduced in these populations, the incidence of modern diseases goes up commensurately. And, even more telling, when these groups return to their traditional ways, the modern diseases disappear again. This suggests that it wasn’t some genetic vulnerability that caused them to develop modern diseases with the introduction of modern foods.
So yes, paleo may not actually be paleo. We will probably never know exactly what our paleo relatives ate.
My response to that? I couldn’t care less.
Why? Because we know enough about ancestral diets in a general sense to suggest that they are superior to modern diets for human health. And we know enough – thanks to current clinical research – about modern foods like flour, seed oils and sugar to know that we shouldn’t be eating them.
That’s enough for me.
I really wish there was a word (other than paleo) I could use to describe a nutrient-dense, toxin-free, whole-foods based diet. Because that’s kind of a mouthful, and it leaves a lot open to interpretation. A raw-food vegan could hear me say that and think I’m talking about their diet. I’m not.
So I go on using the term “paleo” to loosely refer to a diet that emphasizes animal protein and fats, starchy & non-starchy vegetables, fermented foods, raw dairy (when tolerated) and fruit, nuts & seeds (in moderation).
I wish there was another term I could use that didn’t evoke a quasi-religious debate. But I don’t know of one, so for now, I guess I’ll just have to deal with all of the baggage that comes with “paleo”.
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Tags: anthropological, dogma, evidence, food, paleo, Toxins
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Nice post, and I’m sorry but I’m going to have to nitpick on one little thing:
“I could care less” should be “I couldn’t care less”.
If you could care less then it implies you care enough to care less. It implies a minimum level of caring. If you *couldn’t* care less then you must really not care. It’s a pet peeve of mine!
Back to the topic: Haven’t there been some detailed account of tribal lifestyle and diets in populations that were only beginning to be touched by civilization? An example would be Weston A Price and Native Americans. See here: https://www.westonaprice.org/traditional-diets/628-guts-and-grease.html
Frankly, I think the distinction Prof. Gumby made is a bit, well, “academic”.
Yes, no HG group today is going to eat exactly what “paleo” people ate, just as a paleolithic-era diet from Africa bore little relation to a paleolithic-era diet from Australia, or Asia. Different fauna and flora, different menu.
But I agree: so what? If the health of the modern HG reflects our paleo ancestors better than ours does, then it’s a useful exercise to learn from his diet, just as Dr. Price went around doing.
He didn’t return with a list of foods that people should eat, but with a list of principles, which are really what we need.
And yeah, from a marketing perspective, calling it the hunter-gatherer diet may have been better than paleo, but again, so what?
Which isn’t to say Prof. Gumby’s post wasn’t fascinating, which it was.
To me, the “Paleo” in Paleo Diet refers to “pre-technology.” It was a time when people ate foods very close to their naturally occurring forms.
And, we can also say with certainty what was *not* eaten in Paleo times. For example: Twinkies, spam, transfats, blooming onions with god-knows-what sauce, etc.
We can be fairly sure that they didn’t eat grains in the huge quantities that modern man does. Mostly because it would be very labor intensive, and hardly seems worth it. If Paleo man had 7-eleven and MiniMarts, sure they’d have eaten Ding Dongs and Wonder Bread. But they didn’t.
Main point being: even though we can’t say what Paleo man did eat or did for fitness…we can say what they didn’t do. And maybe that’s a good place to start axiomatically. In other words, the burden of proof should be on the technologically advanced products and methods.
And another thing. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who wrote The Black Swan, is very much in favour of empiricism and argues we are far too confident in our own knowledge. That book covers those themes. Even so, he is on board with Arthur De Vany’s form of paleo and wrote the afterword to De Vany’s new book.
Empirically, if you eat what we regard as paleo and it increases your health markers, makes you feel better and happier, then you must be on the right track! The most scientific thing is to try it and see if it works on you.
Why not call it “tribal” instead of “paleo”. There has been much research into “tribal” diets, from Weston Price and many others. Besides going “Tribal” sounds more fun than going Paleo.
Just my two cents here…Different times, different people, different habitats. We know that tremendous changes have taken place relative to climate since “paleo days.” Many areas that are now desert were once forest. Many lakes, streams, rivers and seas were larger. Animal life is different in numbers of species and abundance. There are too many factors that have changed, including encroachment of “civilization” to make an apples-to-apples comparison. Further, I’ve often wondered whether a lack of technology is more natural or whether technology has enhanced diet by being able to grow, hunt and perhaps cook foods that were not available to ancient man. Early man’s natural limitations do not necessarily add up to a more healthful existence. A simple example would be developing an easier way to climb a tree to reach higher fruit or berries. Are we meant to eat only that which we can reach, catch, hunt or grow without any innovation? just a little innovation?
I do hope they study more about what our ancestors ate. But I’m like you…so what, call it SCD, GAPS, Paleo…all I know is it has been a miracle and a godsend for me and my son. I guess I first learned of it from Elaine Gottschalls book so I think of it as SCD, but I browse SCD, GAPS, Paleo and primal sites for recipes. Perhaps “Grain-Free, Junk-Free” describes it best…who knows. There’s no denying what it’s done for us though.
i know how our “PALEO” ancestors ate. Not every single day. Barely enough. When they could. They where on constant deficit all the time. Finding ample food was difficult, time consuming, dangerous. A once in a week event at most. that’s why intermittent fasting works so well. its in our genes.
Thank you for your thoughts.
Here are mine: A forward thinking but rearward gazing dentist investigated our ancient diets starting with identifying the design of our teeth. He found, that early man was a seed eater and when the HG job became too teedious, developed grains with a better yield. This worked quite well for a long time and even fed armies, that were healthy, strong and successful (Romans come to mind), as long as the WHOLE grain was eaten.
Enter the industrial revolution followed by the technological developments and refinements. Suddenly the need for “refining” our foods removed the very essence of health by concentrating almost exclusively on “shelf-life”. Dr. Schnitzer in Germany has advocated a return to natural foodstuffs as unadulterated as possible, because his impirical studies have proven his assumptions. He had managed to get an entire community in the Black Forest region to switch to his recommended diet with the result, that the incidence of karies and misshapen teeth reduced dramatically. In short, the people regained their true health, but the dental association gave him a hard time! Guess why?
there are a lot of super intelligent and creative minds poking around in the ‘paleo’ world, both bloggers and commenters alike. it seems to me that most of the top experts who propel the paleo movement are not even truly ‘paleo’, exactly as chris’s title suggests. that’s pretty hilarious. stephan g, chris k, chris m, kurt h, mark s, the jaminets, and even the wapf support and believes in consumption of healthy dairy. some of the aforementioned are more ok with grains and legumes when properly prepared (i think dr harris is the most hardcore against grain). and almost all agree [to an extent] on the ‘acceptability’ of certain starches.
so for this group (and i know there are more that i didn’t mention) that is leading the way on this path of figuring out what is the best possible way to eat in our modern world, i think the basic blueprint has already been laid out well even at this point. sure, continual learning and research will commence, but is it possible to unite the general ‘clan’ under one gigantic umbrella term, or is the world of ‘paleo’ destined to remain a foggy generalization of itself? i think it would be very interesting to ask commenters to submit what they think it should be called, in addition to the bloggers themselves. maybe take a massive, multi-blog vote?
to re-iterate chris’s question, what’s the best way to label a nutrient dense, non-toxic, whole foods way of eating to obtain and maintain optimal health?
optimal (or “optimalus”)
pre-industrial (or “predust”)
fun to ponder.
Nice post. I like the point of how we are uncertain of what our paleo ancestors ate.
Paleo is just what our hunter-gatherers ate. That is probably starchy vegetables, meat, nuts, seeds, grains, and animal fat. I hate when people redefine the term to include dairy products and/or eggs.
It’s like a rationalization. If a food is unhealthy, then it’s not considered paleo. It’s rationalized away from being considered to be paleo.
I like Mark’s suggestion of a “tribal” diet.
I think “paleo” as in “old” instead of “paleolithic” stills seems to work best because it has some traction and because whatever term someone comes up there will be someone else with a different interpetation.
I was thinking “pre-industrial” diet might work the other day, but when you google it you see a lot of the sites talking about low animal protein and high fiber.
There might be some merit in something like “Paleo2.0″ that it is saturated and dairy fat (and starch) friendly to distinguish it from more old school thinking like Cordain. You could also always say Cordain Paleo or Harris Paleo or Jaminet Paleo or whatever.
PaleoPlus – That’s the term I use and I’ve also seen it mentioned elsewhere.
There’s got to be some good acronym based ones using Hand in the title – the HAND part referring to High Nutritional Density.
FreeHand – Free of Refining and of the Highest Nutritional Density?
Whether or not a non-processed-food, non-grain, non-sugar diet is healthy, it is VERY significant than every group of primitive people exposed to such a diet abandons their previous diet in favor of processed foods, grains and sugar. And you can’t just dismiss these people as being stupid. They are no different from us. Fact is, potato chips are really, really tasty compared to an all meats and green vegetables paleo diet. And therein is the big problem with the paleo diet. It might work for a year or so, especially if you blog about it and join a group and get all sorts of moral support to keep you on the wagon. But eventually you will fall prey to the lure of grains. The more sensible approach is thus to accept grains into the diet from the day one, and in large quantities, but in a form that doesn’t cause problems, meaning whole grain. Go ahead and eat 5 pounds of potatoes a day, but boiled potatoes, not potato chips. Or a pound of steel-cut oats, not granola bars filled with HFCS.
Also, anyone who has spent anytime outdoors in the temperate climates (the most desireable places for humans to live) knows that the easiest food to get is carbs. Acorns, chestnuts, walnuts, pine nuts, tubers–it is pretty obvious that most HG’s got most of their calories from nuts and tubers, plus a small amount of meat. Catching prey animals is not that easy, other than where top predators are kept under population control by other forces (such as in the arctic, where cold limits top predators, or from fishing in the sea, which were inexhaustible in paleo times, because paleo humans lacked sophisticated fishing technology like we have nowadays). In a mild temperate climate, population reaches the carrying limit in no time and the supply of easy-to-catch prey animals is greatly reduced, so that humans end up eating like black bears. That is, greens in the spring, fruit in the summer, nuts and grains in the fall, body fat in the winter, stored nuts and tubers year-round for humans (but not bears), and meat only occasionally. This may or not be a healthy diet. All that evolution cares about is whether we can make it to age 40 or so and leave healthy offspring behind.
We evolved in Africa, which is a climate which does not have any seasons. The temperature is hot year around.
Also, in hot climates, nuts and seeds only have trace amounts of polyunsaturated fat.
I think fruits, tubers, and herbivorous animals were our main foods.
“Also, anyone who has spent anytime outdoors in the temperate climates (the most desireable places for humans to live) knows that the easiest food to get is carbs. Acorns, chestnuts, walnuts, pine nuts, tubers–it is pretty obvious that most HG’s got most of their calories from nuts and tubers, plus a small amount of meat. Catching prey animals is not that easy”
You seem to have decided on what humans must have eaten based on what seems obvious to you…
1. No one said catching animals was easy, but it’s quite possible that the extra energy expenditure was worth it for the rewards: greater nutrient density, certain nutrients that were not available in plants (particularly brain-related like B12) and the avoidance of antinutrients secreted by plants to discourage animals from eating them.
2. We are talking about people with a similar genetic base to modern day humans. They had a lot of brainpower and capability for abstract thought. They used it primarily to get food (as with most wild animals), and a big part of that could involve hunting. Imagine if all the neurons we use to read, write, use computers, negotiate contracts, program software etc. were used for hunting? Imagine if your grandfather’s primary role was hunting, and he passed on everything he knew to your father, who passed everything on to you and you spent your entire life doing it. You would be an amazing hunter by today’s standards and probably average by pre-civilization standards. Look at accounts of Aboriginal hunting techniques. They are quite amazing and fascinating to read about. Aboriginals tend to greatly outperform “civilized” people in visual memory tests. Their brains are wired for tasks that are useful to them such as navigating across terrain to track animals.
3. Some pre-civilization populations may have had much bigger and stronger individuals than is usual today (see Weston A Price’s account of Native Americans).
Basically, I’m saying that the difficulty of catching animals doesn’t mean that it wasn’t done. We have more technology now but we have lost many techniques and we have less powerful bodies. It may have been worth using our seemingly unique human advantage for strategy and abstract thought to get the “best” food.
@Luming Zhou: they do have seasons in Africa, it was probably much cooler there during the Ice Ages, and humans are more adapted to the higher and drier and more temperate grasslands than the jungles, which is why we are different from our ape cousins (better at walking and running long distances, can’t swing from trees, able to sweat profusely and thus tolerant extreme daytime temperatures).
@TheQuickBrownFox: I’m not saying that primitive humans aren’t intelligent. But catching prey isn’t easy even with intelligence. Read the diaries of Lewis and Clark. Even with rifles, they often had extreme difficulty getting game to eat, other than in the Yellowstone area, where there was plenty of game except it was defended by ferocious grizzly bears who could take 10 direct hits from their muskets before dying. The only reason there was much game left in the areas populated by indians was that the Indians lacked muskets. As soon as the whites armed with muskets entered these areas, most of the remaining game, that the Indians couldn’t capture with primitive weapons and traps, was soon wiped out. Top predators always tend to reproduce to the point where they on the verge of starvation. Most feline cubs starve to death, for example. That is nature’s way. Once the population rises and the game becomes hard-to-catch, which won’t take long, humans would have been forced to a diet resembling the other omnivores, meaning mostly vegetables, which is precisely what you see in New Guinea. The natives there love meat, but they weren’t able to eat it often because of overpopulation (even after resorting to warfare to keep the overpopulation down, and note that the warfare lead to cannibalism–humans do like meat, that I’ll grant) and so they eat mostly tubers.
Also you don’t need to eat big animals for B12. There is plenty of B12 in insects and grubs. Again, compare with bears and apes, who eat far more insects and grubs and other small animals than big animals. Catching an antelope is quite difficult compared to catching termites and grasshoppers.
Also, eating lots of grains and tubers doesn’t imply intense agriculture. Read the diaries of the Spanish captured and enslaved by Indians in coastal Texas in the 16th century. Most of what these indians ate was cattail tubers, which are difficult to harvest which is why they wanted the spaniards as slaves. But there wasn’t any agriculture. You just go out and dig the cattails up from the marshes. Likewise, the indians in the Lake Superior area harvested wild rice. Grains grow wild all over the world–if they can be made edible by grinding or cooking or soaking or other processing, and if the energy content justifies the effort of harvesting them (and this is certainly true for things like wild rice), then humans will figure out a way to process them. Any human with intelligence can figure out that all you have to do to get blackberries to flourish is to burn down a piece of forest and then scatter some blackberries from elsewhere on the burned land, then come back a few months later. Ditto for all sorts of other plants–you kill the plants that are useless by fire or girdling, and that leaves space for the plants you want. The Hunter Gatherers who live in an enviroment most similar to that in which huamsn evolved is probably the Bushmen of the Kalahari. And they eat mostly nuts. The men, especially, TALK big about catching antelope and the men do indeed spend most of their time hunting, but they seldom catch anything. When they fail to catch anything, they fall back on nuts and other plants gathered by the women.
I’m not saying humans didn’t eat meat when they could get it or that they didn’t try to get meat. Bears, pigs, raccoons, and other omnivores eat meat when they can get it and meat is also their preferred food (at least if they haven’t eaten meat in a long time). If they can’t get meat, they do without. And that’s what humans did for the most part, other than in a few isolated places near the ocean where sea animals, fish and shellfish were extremely abundant for those willing to risk drowning to obtain them.
Again, the issue is not whether we are adapted to eating meat. Clearly, we are, just like bears, pigs and raccoons. We are also adapted to eating Twinkies and potato chips and other junk food, and indeed a diet of junk food appears to lower the age of menarche and lead to higher reproductive rates. The issue, at least for me, is what diet leads to a long life (like 90 years) with health and fitness maintained right up to near the very end, whether or not this diet corresponds to the diet we ate during the evolutionary stage. Evolution wants us to survive to age 40 and reproduce and then die to make way for the next generation, not to live to age 90. Someone who fails to have children (like me, intentionally) and then lives to age 90 and thereby uses up resources that could be used by people who do plan to reproduce, is an evolutionary abomination. So what? I’m doing what I want, not what Nature wants, and I strongly suspect that a mostly meat diet, like some Paleo types advocate, and especially fatty meat, is mostly definitely NOT the way to live to age 90 without health problems.
There is a lot of good debate here. I was wondering what people would be saying after the recent news of findings on the teeth of these ancient people.
I just want to remind that most of the HG were probably moving around. They likely would have used some food preservation methods to save meat and fish such as drying. Food preparation is an important part of most diets, including I suspect the HG. I don’t assume that they stayed in one place long enough to cultivate much. I don’t discount that they may have eaten wild grains, fruits and vegetables that they came back to again and again on their nomadic rounds.
I think preparing foods (and cooking?) for storage, travel and future use was likely part of the process of the HG diet. That alone allows them to eat whatever was in their particular geographic area without them having to be either farmers or purely hunters.
I personally like the thought they they were hunting and preserving the kill, and also adding gathered fruits, seeds, and the few grains they found growing wild. In addition they probably using alternate protein sources such as bird eggs, insects, grubs to add fresh food when no fresh meat was available.
We don’t cook much in our culture and I feel that people forget (in these debates) that preparing foods was/is as important to the diet as eating them. In my opinion of course:)
I like where GeeBee was going with the word mixing.
Somehow take all the words that most accurately describe the best way to eat and then make an acronym.
Nutrient Dense or
High Nutrition Density
hmm. not enough first letter vowels here….
Nutrient Dense Whole Foods = Nuden Woofoo
High Nutrition Density Optimal Whole Foods = Hindop Woofoo
Pre-Industrial Nutrient Dense = Prindy Nuden
Ha ha……. some more….
GARFeD = Genetically Appropriate Real Food Diet
FREE SOWS = Free of Seed Oil Wheat Sugar
The PENIS diet will sweep the country!
I like Genetically Appropriate. (Genap, Ga)
anon, that is absolutely hilarious. i am crackin up over here thinking about what people would say improved their health the most.
Terminology does not matter. Diets will be modified by scientific evidence. Be open-minded. Labels restrict your diet. So ditch labels.
nah. trying to come up with an appropriate name is way more fun. keep em coming
There was not just one paleo diet. The food composition surely very much depended on where a HG lived and on the time of year. I agree that it is best to focus on and avoid what they surely did not eat. I stick to a (low-carb-side) Loren Codain type of diet. VBR Hans
someone commented on dr harris’ forum about his use of the term “pastoral” in his side bar summary. i posted the below comment over there so i figured i’d just copy/paste it here too…
Pastoral refers to old school shepherd’s life, most specifically with raising livestock and moving around according to availability of fresh pasture and pure water. Pastoral is a pretty decent description actually. Since dairy and meats make up such a large portion of our diet, much of what we eat should ideally be pasture based. Plus it’s very non-industrilaized, meaning there really wouldn’t be poisonous seed oils, grain agriculture, and loads of silly fructose laden concoctions.
start with a little observation – he’s not eating the phone…
having poked around on vegan sites fer fun looking for signs of dementia, i have to say that paleo-type discussions are definitely considerably more intelligent and “meaty” (sorry fer that)
it’s kinda clear, yes – there is no single paleo diet even if we could time-machine our way back – i’m quite sure ever couple thou years the diet varied widely – but i think it’s safe to conclude that what was eaten was variations on a theme (kinda like the painfully endless tunes of vivaldi – what was that? oh yea – he wrote the same piece… 650 some odd times…)
that then begs the question how much of which of that collection of foods available in the environment did our evolutionary heros eat? probably widely varying amounts at all different times resulting in evolutionary adaptation to the “musical scale” of possible foods, but in fact – there was never the perfect concerto of foods. For example i think it totally possible that we have husbanded (and wived…?) animals off and on for a hell of alot longer than there is evidence – thus our easier digestion of goat milk over cow–
so paleo is what exactly? in my world – it’s a starting point with no finishing point ‘cept what i find works and doesn’t make me sick or kill me–
PS – love the PENIS diet – is that a raw food diet…?
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