A Modern Myth: The Paleolithic Diet
“You’ll be proud of me! I am on the paleo-diet,” reported Ed, a former staff member. “I eat 25% meat – no dairy- and all the rest greens. No grains. You know, there were no grains then!” Ed came back to Mendocino to say hello and check in. He had recently adopted the paleo-diet and I had no idea why he thought I would be proud of this unless it was because he no longer ate dairy products. I had recommended he quit eating dairy for allergies and for animals. (Read about the philosophies and practices of the dairy industry. When I read them I became vegan.)
The Paleolithic diet also includes mushrooms, nuts, and fruit; but not grains, legumes, dairy products, processed oils, and condiments such as salt and sugar. Underlying this theory of diet is the concept that, if it was readily available, not purposely cultivated (potatoes, grain, milk from goats, cows, reindeer), processed (grains and some seeds) it was in the diet of early man.
But, then, why the reliance on animal protein in today’s Paleolithic diet? During the Paleolithic period, animals might have been plentiful – but they certainly weren’t easy to eat. Man had to hunt, kill, and prepare the organs and carcasses
When I first heard of the diet, I found it an excuse to eat meat – an elaborate excuse and one that was not based on a sound understanding of the science of archaeology. I remembered my first university anthropology class: the professor stood before us, trying to explain the experience of early man. He called man’s environment those tens of thousands of years ago “promiscuous”. He meant that man found himself in a world of readily available foods. With little effort required to procure dinner humans had time for leisure and family. He explained that life was not hard as we might have thought by observing groups more recently contacted by the now dominant Western society. These people, he pointed out, had been pushed into marginal areas, like the Inuit, who adapted to the harsh artic environment.
The paleo diet is based on assumptions of what might have been the human diet during the 2.5 million year Paleolithic period that essentially ended 10,000 years ago with the advent of agriculture. However, many of the assumptions are based on thin evidence.
Recent analysis of archaeological artifacts and human remains suggests that early humans were primarily plant eaters and not just greens as our former staff member told me. Neanderthal disappeared from the archaeological record 25,000 to 30,000 years ago and apparently they were not the club swinging animal hunters we have been led believe. Amada Henry at George Washington University scraped calculus off 35,000 year old Neandertal teeth. What she found is not a part of the “paleo-diet” – residues from cereal grasses, cooked starches, “legume like” starches and remnants of date palms. The news here, Neandertal ate porridge! Science quotes archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef of Harvard University, “Here you have good research putting nails in the coffin of the ‘meat-eating Neandertals.’”
In school, we were taught that agriculture began 10,000 years ago; perhaps by our ancestors but not all humanity’s ancestors. During the last decade, archaeologists found stone tools used for cultivating yams in the highland forests of Papua New Guinea at a site dated 44,000 to 49,000 years before present. These tools show evidence that they were used to create clearings in the forests to grow yams that were a significant component of the growers’ diet. Another component was pandamus nuts from trees within the forests. There are rodent remains associated with these sites, however, there is no substantive evidence that these rodents were a significant part of their diet.
We do not seem to be the hunters imagined when we think of our early history. A new view is emerging – one of groups living on the land, exploiting the abundant fruits, seeds, grains, tubers, leaves. We were people who cooked their food – making porridge and other cuisine, releasing the plants’ nutrients and enhancing their taste.
Most of us do not understand who we were and not knowing our history may be contributing to our degradation of the planet.