What you’re getting yourself into
Busting a few misconceptions about our ancestral diet
The palaeolithic lies shrouded in prehistory, a time before humanity began keeping records. Before civilization came knocking. This makes it quite challenging to surmise just what our ancestors were getting up to. And yet, it’s critical that we try our best, because the palaeolithic era holds the answers to the most controversial of questions, the question of the optimal human diet.
The Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, all spent the entirety of their existence in the palaeolithic wilderness. As did the cousins of our very own Homo sapiens, the Neanderthals.
Homo Sapiens, in the meantime, got through 97% of their timeline before the first agricultural revolution ushered in the rise of the grain states and steep decline of the way of the hunter gatherer.
This means that our physiology would have been shaped by the climate, the foods, and the threats that would have played out in the palaeolithic landscape. The era of civilisation that came next simply hasn’t been long enough to roll back those changes.
What civilisation has been able to provide, is the emergence of many chronic diseases that were completely absent in the palaeolithic age, and surviving groups of modern hunter gatherers. Diseases like diabetes and coronary heart disease have been rising exponentially over the last hundred years, as the age of industry has pulled us further away from our evolutionary roots.
This is why chronic diseases are also described as diseases of mismatching. And by pinpointing just what our ancestral diet consisted of, we could go a long way towards countering the surge.
Despite lacking any written accounts of the stone age, we have gradually pieced together a solid idea of what life was like for the prototypical hunter gatherer. And it just so happens that we’ve been landing way off the mark.
1. They weren’t all dead by 30
Ever since the revolutionary works of Weston.A.Price, hunter-gatherers have been held up as beacons of exemplary human health. Lean, muscular physiques, strong jawlines, great teeth, happy dispositions, and a distinct lack of chronic disease. But there is one line that always gets thrown up in response.
“If hunter-gatherers were so healthy, why were they dead by the age of 35?”
The life expectancy of palaeolithic humans was estimated to be around 35. But while this is technically accurate, it doesn’t mean that our ancestors were dropping dead before they had a chance to receive their first wrinkle.
Life expectancy in Sweden was 36 only back in 1765. Nowadays it’s up at 82.7. The reason it’s shot up so dramatically, is largely due to effects of medicine and the ensuing drastic cuts to infant mortality. Which would have been understandably high in the dirt and danger-ridden environment of the palaeolithic. In fact, the data shows that infant mortality for hunter gatherers was a staggering 49%.
What does that mean in stone age practice? For every paleo child that died before reaching adulthood, there would be another that survived to reach a very respectable 70. And I’d be brave enough to say that they’d look a damn sight better than most people these days about to hit 70.
While you’d face a stiff challenge of passing puberty, especially with the risk of infectious diseases, life as an adult would be pretty sweet. You certainly would have a great chance of hitting that precious 35th birthday.
2. They didn’t lead miserable lives
As Thomas Hobbes once infamously said, life as a prehistoric hunter-gatherer was “nasty, brutish, and short.” These words were carried forward by many after him, as they painted palaeolithic humans as unlikely survivors of a world that was desperate to erase them. Food was scarce, and existence was pain, until they were domesticated by grains.
In reality, the move towards agriculture was a terrible move for everyone bar the ones who surfaced to the top of the brand new social hierarchy.
In return for a hypothetical surplus of calories produced by harvesting grain, our hunters-turned-farmers received:
- Fewer nutrients
- Less leisure time – Because hunting was far more efficient than farming
- Had more of a risk of starving – Due to famines, botched harvests, or raids
- More infectious diseases – Staying in close quarters with an unprecedented amount of humans and animals wasn’t the smartest strategy.
- Invented chronic disease – Thanks to an excess of sugar.
- Stunted their growth
- Created social order – And the abuse of it that followed.
You’d be right to begin wondering what on earth possessed them to take this terrible trade deal. We’ll be getting to that soon.
3. They weren’t plant based
There are still plenty of people who parrot around the idea that our ancestors followed a garden of eden diet that was filled with tubers, fruits, and fibre. The logic appears to extend from our close relations with plant-based chimpanzees, and the diets of modern hunter-gatherers.
But this is the palaeolithic, not modern day tourist traps, and we have specific evolutionary traits that we haven’t shared with our cousins.
Larger brains and smaller guts – Which drastically increased energy requirements and had to come with some cost-cutting to the digestive tract, which reduced our capacity to digest high-volume fibrous foods. But it did help us design the tools needed to make up the rest of the difference.
Keto adaptation – As the only species that can get into ketosis without needing to go into a calorie deficit, and by adding physiological insulin resistance, we became highly suited to going long periods without eating, and gained ready access to a fuel that the brain operated best on. Perfect for the logistics and effort required to hunt large prey, that incidentally were the ones with the fat required to sustain ketosis.
More acidic stomachs – We have stomachs that are more acidic than many known carnivores, and more on the level of scavengers. This gave our ancestors the ability to use those furnaces to break down tough tissues and eliminate pathogens in rotting carcasses. This wasn’t just our likely entry point into the carnivorous diet, but also enabled us to store meat for weeks at a time.
Smaller jaws – Less fibre and more meat meant less chewing, and therefore reduced the need for the humongous jaws that our pre-carnivory -predecessors would have had.
These adaptations helped turn us into the ultimate big game hunter, and the apex predator of the planet. The archaeological evidence supports this, with isotope analysis pointing to hyper carnivory, and extensive evidence of hunting tools, along with a scarcity of cave paintings of broccoli farming.
As for the comparison to present-day hunter gatherers, some of whom have copious amounts of fibre and fruit, that deserves its own chapter.
4. Their diet didn’t resemble modern hunter gatherers
Here’s the thing, as warm and fuzzy it is to peer at the lives of the few hunter-gatherer tribes nestled beyond the oppressive reach of civilisation, you can’t read too far into them. While they technically have remained relatively untouched by the processed foods of the west, and as much as they continue to practise ancestral living, these last vestiges of nomadic living simply don’t represent the palaeolithic diet.
Because now we get to address why our ancestors took such a terrible trade deal that caused most adopters of agriculture to lead a miserable existence. They’d simply run out of food. Humans had evolved to require large amounts of fat to prop up the energy demands of the brain.
This meant that hunting rabbits, even deer, simply wouldn’t have cut it. They had to target the mega herbivores, or megafauna, that carried larger amounts of fat reserves. They were big game hunters, and they proved to be a little too good at their job.
By killing the megafauna and steeper rates than their populations could reproduce, humanity went on a catastrophic path from continent to continent, being the chief cause of the quaternary extinction event that wiped out half of the mammals over 44kg. This left humans with rapidly dwindling resources, and that made the inclusion of carbs through the advent of agriculture, a necessity.
Before the tragedy of the megafaunal extinctions came to a close, the palaeolithic would have been teeming with colossal mammals trampling over any sapling that dared to break into a vast steppe that stretched out from the Iberian Peninsula, over to Alaska.
In such an environment, there wouldn’t have been much opportunity for gathering. And there certainly wouldn’t have been much of an inclination when their evolutionary foods of choice were shaking their tails in the distance.
Compare that with the Hadza, a hunter-gatherer tribe in Tanzania that still lingers on, and you’ll be treated with slender, athletic men roaming through their cordoned off slices of wilderness, making do with whatever baboons, birds, and squirrels they come across.
Maybe the odd wild pig or antelope if their luck is well and truly in. The fat content in these slim pickings is drastically lower than the plump carcasses that their palaeolithic forebearers would have been treated to. With less fat in the diet, they have no choice but to make the rest up with tubers, fruit, and honey.
The few megafauna that remain, are barred from being hunted.
Incidentally, the honey that the Hadza prize so dearly, is only available in the quantities it is, because the main predator of its host, the baobab tree, is barely around anymore.
Yes, I’m talking about the elephant.
The major issue with research into the palaeolithic diet is that it often gets bogged down by comparisons to modern hunter-gatherers, and that in turn leads to an erroneous picture of our evolutionary cuisine. On one hand, the modern chronic disease epidemic is a result of mismatching between humans and the environment, and the palaeolithic diet is the best solution we have.
But on the other hand, what has come to be known as the ‘paleo diet’ is way off the mark due to its over reliance on fruits, honey, tubers, nuts, and seeds. Foods that were only available for a few weeks in the year, weren’t anywhere near as edible as they are now, and took a firm backseat to the nutritional powerhouses that were the megafauna.
So while I do appreciate the crusaders of paleo for putting ancestral eating on the map, they didn’t quite stick the landing.
Carnivore is the real paleo.
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