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The Paleo — prehistoric, or early human — diet seems to create more questions than answers. This is because its premise is based on a theory that eating like primitive humans is the closest diet to perfect. But the biggest problem comes in an attempt to identify what early bipeds really ate without considering a host of other important factors ranging from stomping grounds to food availability and everything in between.
Back into the misty past
Paleo diet theory takes us back into the misty past, prior to the advent of civilization. What is not theory is that most of today's "modern" diets have roots in the crossroads of history when humans stopped wandering and began to settle down, roughly ten thousand years ago.
During this stage of cultural evolution it was discovered that, by growing food, humans no longer had to solely brave the travails of hunting, fishing, hiding, being eaten or fighting the whims of the weather spirits. With successful agriculture, human beings could settle down in one place and begin to build empires, wage big wars, conquer other tribes, take slaves and create a division of labor.
Division of labor makes it possible
It was this last point — division of labor, combined with availability of natural resources — that made advanced technology and the growth of cities and kingdoms/queendoms possible. Clearly, if you didn't have to spend your days hunting, you could spend them managing multi-faceted growth. Some of your people could wage war, others could build structures, some could grow food and others could make pottery. Finally, not everyone had to worry about where his/her next meal was coming from.
There's much more to this idea of the birth of civilization, and it is quite fascinating, but to delve any further we risk falling off topic, which is the ever-contested Paleo diet.
The prehistoric diet is said to be better for human health because early human diets did not include the foods that sprang from civilizations— wheat, caged animals, domestically raised livestock, mass produced food and hybrid food.
Historical revisionism and make-em-up science
Many "experts" have written about the advantages of the prehistoric diet. Some of these experts tout the health advantages of the diet while making erroneous claims about early humans' eating habits.
Author of The Paleo Diet, Loren Cordain, PhD, is one such "expert." He makes statements that aren't accurate, anthropologically-speaking, and many of his dietary suggestions defy good health practices. He includes diet soda as a suggested drink within the context of his Paleo diet, he infers that low fat diets are most healthful, and he suggests that wild game available to early humans was low-fat.
Neither Cordain's early human or his diet are real, and his caveman is someone who's been taught misguided lessons regarding the dangers of saturated fats, natural salt and the usefulness of artificial ingredients. So he's way off the mark and his book isn't helpful if you want to be healthy.
Then there's PETA, the pro-vegan group, that merely invents the truth about our early ancestors by reporting, "During most of our evolutionary history, we were largely vegetarian. Plant foods like potatoes made up the bulk of our ancestors' diet."1 This astoundingly baseless statement flies in the face of anthropological evidence gathered by actual scientists who have no motive to massage the truth in favor of meatless diets. While vegans and vegetarians may be sincere in their convictions, they are not entitled to rewrite history.
What do we really know about the diets of early humans?
We know that early human diets were varied and not as limited or simple as some Paleo diet advocates lead us to believe. Archeological finds of teeth, killing sites, ancient garbage dumps, campfires and other discoveries show what kinds of foods were eaten, including the obvious animal food as well as fruit, tree bark, nuts, leaves, and sedges, plants, papyrus and cypress. Anthropologist Darryl de Ruiter, Texas A&M, tells us that early humans had access to more food sources "than we had previously established."
An international team of researchers reported in Nature magazine that Australopithecus sediba, an early relative of modern-day humans, enjoyed a diet of leaves, fruits, nuts, and bark, which meant they probably lived in a more wooded environment than is generally thought.1
Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News, writes, "Our human ancestors did not eat much fruit, but instead consumed a lot of root vegetables, nuts, insects and some meat, according to a new study [of early hominid teeth published in Journal of Human Evolution]."3
An article in Cosmos online, entitled "Fossil causes rethink of early human diet," explains, "University of Utah and National Museums of Kenya researchers examined the Paranthropus boisei skull found in Tanzania in 1959, using pulverised tooth enamel to analyse the carbon isotope ratios that revealed what food these extinct human relatives were munching on. 'It most likely was eating grass, and most definitely was not cracking nuts,' said lead author and geochemist Thure Cerling from the University of Utah of the study published in the current edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences."4
Would the Flintstone Diet be any less accurate?
If we continue along this path, it becomes very clear that what early humans ate is a matter of great complexity, dependent upon myriad factors such as where they lived, the availability of their food sources, their state of technology, and other rather obvious but defining variables. If we followed The Flintstone Diet it would (sadly) be as valid as many attempts at reproducing the early human diet, especially the ones that are jumping on the fad bandwagon.
Underlying all of the confusion, rewriting of history, poor research and bias there are some basic truths we come away with by studying the anthropological literature on the diets of early humans. We know with certainty that early humans did not eat these modern-day foods that lead to disease and decay: processed foods, refined salt, refined sugar, diet soda, artificial ingredients, foods in plastic containers, factory farmed chickens and cows, farm-raised fish, GMO foods, fluoridated and chlorinated water, and Bob's burgers.
All said, it's best to use the Paleo diet as a metaphor for getting back to nature. Integrative medicine practitioner (and rather gifted blogger) Chris Kresser, LAc, does a good job of getting to the root of the issue: "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, [but] 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."6
1. "The Natural Human Diet," PETA website, http://www.peta.org/living/vegetarian-living/the-natural-human-diet.aspx
2. Early Human Diet Shows Surprises, Tamu Times, Texas A&M University, Jun 27, 2012
3. Viegas, Jennifer, EARLY HUMANS SKIPPED FRUIT, WENT FOR NUTS — Tooth analysis reveals our human ancestors preferred root vegetables, nuts and insects in their diets. Discovery News, Nov 9, 2009 http://news.discovery.com/human/human-ancestor-diet-nuts.html
4. Amanda G. Henry, Peter S. Ungar, Benjamin H. Passey, Matt Sponheimer, Lloyd Rossouw, Marion Bamford, Paul Sandberg, Darryl J. de Ruiter & Lee Berger, "The diet of Australopithecus sediba," Nature, Published online 27 June 2012; "Fossil causes rethink of early human diet," COSMO online, http://www.cosmosmagazine.com/news/4278/fossil-causes-rethink-early-human-diet
5. The Bradshaw Foundation online, http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/journey/agriculture2.html
6. Kresser, LAc, Chris, "Is Paleo even Paleo? And does it even matter?" http://chriskresser.com/is-Paleo-even-Paleo-and-does-it-even-matter Jan 7, 2100