Paleolithic nonsense

The “paleolithic diet” has gotten more press lately. Paleolithic diet advocates say our ancestors lived in a state of gastronomic innocence, eating mostly meat, before they were seduced by agriculture and fell into eating grain. Some go further and say that not only should we eat like cavemen, we should live like cavemen as well. For example, we should have random bursts of exercise, as if fleeing a saber-toothed tiger, followed by long periods of leisure.

I am amused by how much some people believe they know about paleolithic life. Most of us don’t know that much about how our great grandparents lived, and yet others make confident detailed claims about the lifestyles of pre-historic ancestors. This is convenient since their claims are unlikely to be proven wrong, given how little we know or are ever likely to know ancient lifestyles. Of course those making the boldest claims are not scientists but popularizers who take a hint from the scientists and run with it.

I have no opinion on the actual recommendations of the fans of paleolithic culture. Maybe we would be better off eating more meat or having random bursts of intense exercise; I have no idea. However, I object to the pseudo-scientific rhetoric used to support the recommendations. I also object to the implicit assumption that it would necessarily be good to emulate the lives of paleolithic humans even if we did know how they lived.

Even the little we think we know about ancient cuisine should be called into question. A paper entitled Thirty thousand-year-old evidence of plant food processing was posted online this week which suggests people were making flour 10,000 years earlier than previously thought. Of course this doesn’t mean that people all over the world were living on pasta, but it does underscore how little we know about the real paleolithic diet.

20 thoughts on “Paleolithic nonsense

  1. Matt, yes, the average was around 30 as far as we know. But some argue that the average is misleading. They say that those who survived childhood, and didn’t die violently, could expect to live about as long as people live now or maybe longer.

    That makes some sense, but I wonder how much confidence we can have in any statements about ancient life expectancy. Presumably these figures come from analyzing bones. Are the bones that we have recovered a representative sample?

    And how much do we know about diet? If you find human bones and chicken bones in a cave somewhere, you can infer that one person probably ate one chicken. But does that mean that eating chicken was common? And this new study suggests that some people processed plants a long time ago. But was that practice widespread?

  2. ” If you find human bones and chicken bones in a cave somewhere, you can infer that one person probably ate one chicken”

    How? they might have been vegetarians, eating only the eggs. or vegans and they were worshipping chickens ;)
    just saying, if you argue that you can’t infer anything from bones (regarding life expectancy), you can’t infer anything from chicken bones and human bones found in the same cave either.

  3. John, I’m both a scientist (know how to read scientific literature and separate out the crap) and a follower of the “paleo” diet (I don’t treat it as a religion like other people do). I wrote a rant about that article you mentioned and my wife reposted the rant on her blog over here: (http://knitfitter.blogspot.com/2010/10/guest-rant-did-paleo-man-eat-grains.html). I hope you’ll find it a much more well reasoned argument than the pseudoscience you’re referring to in your post.

  4. Just as bad as the paleo diet is Peter D’Adamo’s theory of eating appropriate to your (ABO) blood group, based on a classification of the human race into 13 ancestral races. It is horrible how people are subjected to this pseudo-scientific crap and confused about the vitally important subject of proper nutrition.

  5. Hi John,

    I think I know which paleo advocates you are annoyed by. FWIW, they do exercise their imagination a bit too much. I don’t subscribe to the Paleo movement entirely (I don’t even eat meat!) but do find many of the underlying principles quite sensible. Interval training does have a place in my fitness regimen as does eating as much real food as possible.

    IMO, the real tragedy is how nutrition is muddied up by vested interests. There is no doubt in my mind that carbs are harmful to some people (as in my case) and the oft-repeated whole-grain advice is deadly. Even the standard medical guidelines for CHD and Diabetes are suspect in light of new research. Yet, a vast majority of professionals who should know better are still engaged in harmful practices. I would think we should be more concerned at this aspect of our health management than the overly-enthusiastic Paleo advocates. I very much doubt that their practices are a danger to anybody notwithstanding their quirkiness.

    My two cents on your rather unexpected blog subject :)

  6. “If you find human bones and chicken bones in a cave somewhere, you can infer that one person probably ate one chicken.”.

    Or that one paleolithic cave-dwelling-man-eating chicken had a breakfast.

  7. You may not know very well what palaeolithic people actually ate, but it should be straight forward to test whether the “modern palaeolithic diet” works.

  8. Sure, the “modern paleolithic diet” may be good for you, and it could be tested. I have no opinion on the diet itself, only the nonsense used to justify it.

    But since we don’t really know what the actual paleolithic diet was, I would expect there are many different diets that claim to be the modern paleolithic diet. You’d have to pick one to test, or test some aspect that most variations have in common.

    Maybe there wasn’t even a paleolithic diet in the sense of worldwide uniform eating habits. There’s certainly no such thing as “the” modern diet. Some contemporary people may even eat like cavemen. :)

  9. Scientific American had an article a few months back on the human bottleneck event presumed to have happened c. 700,000 years ago. The conjecture under test was that humans survived by living in the southernmost part of Africa, where the rich carbs from fynbos and sea life from the sea currents met, helping our species survive. Fynbos and oysters – I should write a new diet book.

  10. 7,000 … 70,000 … 700,000 — just proves I’m a great author for the next great diet book! ;)

    (Thanks for the correction.)

  11. Great article. My main gripe with Paleo is that it’s based on mostly half-baked research and the extremely weird assertion that in order to live a healthy life, we should allow our bodies to lead the way. Excuse me? I’m not a caveman. I don’t wear a loincloth, I don’t use stone tools, my bathroom is fully plumbed, and my brain is the product of millions of years of evolution. Forgive me if I decide to use it when making my dining choices.

  12. John, thanks for covering this topic. I’d read about this stuff and had a vague scepticism (which you put into better, more precise language). I realise now it’s the same scepticism as I have towards evo psych or sociobiology—as well as representations of a golden past (which can be found in Roman literature, where it was probably not appropriate, as well as medieval European literature, where maybe it was).

    I’d love to hear your take on some of the data claims of Tabbata sprints / paleo diets / etc, since you clearly have a good perspective on statistical evidence as well as scepticism on theories/speculations.

    Here’s a small contribution so i’m not totally lazy in investigating this trend:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=aEHX63g1XsYC&lpg=PP1&pg=PA20#v=onepage&q&f=true A Concise Economic History of the World: From Paleolithic Times to the Present
    By Rondo E. Cameron

    The earliest humans, forerunners of Homo sapiens, … probably … supplemented their basic diet of tubers, berries, and nuts with insects, fish, mollusks (where available), the flesh of small game, and possibly carrion.

    late paleolithic humans … made … knives, awls, and chisels, … fishhooks and needles

    tribe was … dozen families … average length of life was no more than twenty years … fewer than 50 percent … surviving to the age of ten … survivors beyond the age of fifty were extremely rare … recurrent rounds of feast & famine … luck of the hunt…in prolonged famines entire communities [perished].

    Doesn’t sound like a lot of meat according to that account. Or like it led to a desireable life. I enjoy my Turkish apricots in Texas (something you mentioned on G+).

    At the risk of “reading history sideways” (cf Arvind Thornton) I posted a video to isomorphismes.tumblr.com/tagged/adi of a BBC presenter travelling to mountainous northeast India and living for a few weeks with some people whose diet is like the above. (tubers, insects, the occasional bird, rat, or sometimes deer)

    (full series at http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/tribe/ — BBC visits with several modern-day “primitive” peoples)

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