The Paleolithic diet; Health and Historical accuracy

Currently, in our society, we live in a world of fast food, grocery stores, and fast paced convenience. This has grown to the point of a dependency on prepackaged goods. With this trend, obesity, heart disease, and diabetes has become a growing epidemic. Since it has been so many generations of depending on fast food, then suffering from health problems when we reach our golden years has become a normal part of life. Unfortunately, we have reached a turning point in our life where the age at which we develop numerous health problems seems to have become even younger. Fortunately, with our technology, we are able to pin-point to the cause of this problem; our diet, unlike in the times of the Salem witch hunts. Due to archaeological research we were able to conclude that it was bacteria in the wheat crops that caused the people of Salem to fall ill, and not witchcraft.

For several generations now society has been consuming processed foods and to ascertain the impact of this, again, we can turn to archaeology for answers. For example, to this day we’ve never found remains of an 8 year old Neanderthal child experiencing health issues due to diabetes. Discoveries such as these have led some people in today’s society to question the role of diet for keeping our organs and bodies healthy. If the paleo diet and other food regimes which focus on the consumption of unprocessed foods have gained huge popularity among those seeking to stay healthy, it is because influenced by archaeological discoveries there is an assumption that humans are straying too far from what is considered ‘natural’ and that our ancestors were extremely healthy beings due to the purity of their diet and lifestyle. Today many argue that processed foods are unnatural and bad for our health. Although there may be truth to this, it seems this notion has been taken to an extreme. Paleo eaters believe that to be ‘optimally human’, and to keep our organs in an ‘original’ state we should eat a diet consisting uniquely of meats and vegetables. The paleo diet rejects the consumption of starches and grains, as its advocates claim that our paleolithic ancestors did not eat such foods, however we can see that this is an ironic and erroneous assumption. From the Henry et al. report, which notes the survival of starch in the dental calculus of teeth belonging to neanderthals discovered in Shanidar and Spy, we can see that our ancestors did in fact eat starchy food substances.

To add to this paleo fad we also see an organic food and cosmetics fad growing. Again there is a notion that we are moving too far from our human origins by consuming foods that have been treated with pesticides and must only eat that which has been farmed without the use of chemicals. A multi-million dollar industry has burgeoned out of the belief that to be properly human we need to return to what is natural and live in line with the ways in which our ancestors lived. We also see a large number of skincare companies that sell cosmetics that they claim to be made only from pure, organic ingredients with no chemicals added. For example, a popular company for women is Primal Life Organics that claims to sell bathing products that our cavemen ancestors would have used, since they are made out of pure oils, muds, clays and plant sources. These products and others like them are often marketed with the idea that they will not cause cancer or other diseases, nor will they lead to allergies, due to their being derived from natural sources. We witness again the idea that to be healthy humans and keep our skin, our largest organ, in optimal condition we must be like our ancestors, living from the land, bathing in plant-derived products and eschewing any substances that have been processed with chemicals. Once more even though we can see how there might be health benefits to these products, some of the claims might be a bit farfetched. For example, to state that no one can be allergic to them as they are plant-based is misguided, as many people are allergic to plant and mould pollens which are also ‘pure and natural substances. It is claimed by many of these skincare companies that if a substance is from nature it cannot be toxic, yet we know that for example some poisonous ivies, mushrooms or plant saps can be highly dangerous to humans so it seems that there is some exaggeration. Furthermore it is curious that humans today are prepared to go to extreme lengths to eat like their ancestors, bathe like their ancestors, yet we do not go to the same lengths when it concerns using technologies such as mobile phones or wifi which are also potentially bad for our health and which our ancestors could never have dreamt of! People also use cars, buses and planes instead of walking everywhere even if the pollution from these vehicles is detrimental to our health.

More recently due to the discovery of a new hominin ‘Homo naledi’ in South Africa, we were able to conclude that this ancestor of ours was able to sustain itself on a raw plant based diet. Numerous people in contemporary society, having being raised on processed foods and meats, either dismiss the idea that this diet is applicable today labeling it as a fad, or they are only aware of the dietary habits of our ancestors after the march of man, our hunter gatherer ancestors that survived by adjusting to a climate less rich in vegetation by adding local game to their diet, The paleo diet has its basis in this time frame which is only a small splice in the long history of humans and their ever-evolving diet.

Following analysis, it was concluded that‘Homo naledi’ survived solely on numerous vegetable food sources such as grass, berries, nuts, etc. Today when examine the composition of our digestive systems, our appendix is deemed a useless organ, but experts theorize that it may once have served the purpose of helping to break down plant nutrients. Despite the innumerable generations that have been and gone, since the time when our ancestors survived on plant based diets, the appendix that may have been an active organ in plant processing, still exists in our bodies. Some individuals following a raw vegetable diet, such as Annette Larkins who began and maintained a raw food diet for decades of their life, reported an extreme increase in energy to the point of only needing roughly three hours less sleep a night from the standard eight to nine hours and a retarded aging process.(Larkins)(Lazar) For some people, this paints a picture of our ancestors that would have survived on such a diet. Some claim that if they truly only needed two hours of sleep and had extra energy, then they would have had the spare time and energy to progress and advance in their technological knowledge. Yet if homo naledi is now extinct surely this shows that even if it may be possible to live on a raw food diet, perhaps it is not optimal for all humans and at all times, and this hominin no longer exists so we cannot say this is a sustainable diet. Whether it is with the paleo diet or raw food diet or organic natural skin care there seems to be a tendency to wish to emulate an idealized vision of our ancestors and base our notion of the ideal human of today on the hominins of the past. It is almost a glorification of a corporeal version of Rousseau’s Noble Savage.

Unfortunately, currently the majority of the people in our current generation lack knowledge on where food originates. Their idea of where food comes from consists of a restaurant of a grocery store. Trying to piece together the evolution of the human diet, we can roughly pinpoint the beginning of eating prepared foods to about the time when man began to hunt and cook. The exact date of this moment is unknown but could roughly be estimated to around the era of the Neanderthals. Since they lived around harsher climates, the variety of vegetation and game as a food source helped enable their survival during winter months. From this point onward, we’ve continued to process food more and more to the point of it depleting our health. Now that it has reached a crucial point, we are finally looking for a solution. Just recently The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared processed meats to be in the same category as smoking and asbestos when in respect to cancer causing agents.(Petroff) However it seems that sometimes we glorify our past or develop specific ideas of being healthy, maintaining optimal organ function based on a momentary snapshot of the past. As I have mentioned, raw and paleo diets have become very fashionable, both diets assume that our ancestors were healthy due to eating unprocessed foods. Of course this is likely to be true however the paleo diet entirely excludes starches, based on the assumption that our ancestors did not, which we know through archaeological evidence not to be true. The raw foodists believe that only raw vegetables should be consumed and whilst this might be healthy for some, living in warm climates, as homo naledi did, it might not be sustainable or feasible for those living in colder climates, like the Eskimos who need a lot of animal fat in their diet to survive the cold winters. Ultimately humans have evolved diets and ways of being in accordance with their environments. Although our ancestors might point us in the right direction when it concerns our health, we need to adapt our lifestyle to our individual lives today on this Earth and try to be healthy according to common sense, not trying to live according to an image of a glorified human from the past.

Amanda Henry and her colleagues studied Neanderthal dental calculus to derive insight into the Neanderthal diet. The material that Henry and her colleagues were able to uncover from examining dental calculus was that bits of starches, whole grains and sugars were stuck to the teeth of the Neanderthals. This strongly suggests that the Neanderthals lived not only off animals which they hunted but also consumed a wide variety of starches and grains, waterlilies and dates. Henry et al. also concluded that one group of Neanderthals ate fish but that was simply because there was a body of water near their living space. This shows us how the Neanderthals were able to adapt to their surroundings.

The ability to adapt to our surroundings is what has helped us survive all over the world and to develop unique ways of interacting with our environment. Henry’s study revealed that Neanderthals consumed produce that was available in their area. The evidence countered the general public’s assumptions which presumed that the Neanderthal diet and lifestyle consisted of hunting, and heavy meat consumption. Instead, according to the study, our ancestors ate collected and prepared the local plant and vegetable sources available, which consisted of things like grains, seeds and legumes. Furthermore Neanderthals have had the reputation in the public eye of being a simplistic ancestor of today’s humans that ate very simply without taking the time to prepare their foods. However, Henry’s study suggests that Neanderthals developed unique ways, according to their surroundings of harvesting local plants , preparing them and cooking them. They took advantage of each season’s offerings. This reveals that our ancestors were capable of complex food-gathering behaviours. The cooking of plant foods and the expansion of diet into diverse plant foods that are nutritious but require time and labour to exploit has been of tantamount interest in the anthropological studies of mankind. The exploitation of a wide range of plant species began earlier than was initially assumed. Previously many scholars presumed that the harvesting of plant species began with the early humans of the Upper Paleolithic era began or commenced with later modern human groups, deemed to be the first farmers, Henry et al.’s evidence demonstrates that the Neanderthals already began both adaptations during the Late Middle Paleolithic. The Neanderthals therefore maintained a more diversified and locally plus seasonally adapted diet than was assumed.


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