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.

21 thoughts on “Paleolithic nonsense

  1. Wasn’t their life expectancy around 35 years or so? Or at least I remember an exstimate of that.

  2. 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?

  3. ” 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.

  4. 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: ( I hope you’ll find it a much more well reasoned argument than the pseudoscience you’re referring to in your post.

  5. 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.

  6. 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 :)

  7. “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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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. :)

  10. 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.

  11. 7,000 … 70,000 … 700,000 — just proves I’m a great author for the next great diet book! ;)

    (Thanks for the correction.)

  12. 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.

  13. 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: 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 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 — BBC visits with several modern-day “primitive” peoples)

  14. Paleolithic man did not run away from saber-toothed tigers. more likely they eat them. Basically once man left the tree everything wa on the table… and steered clear of man. For the most part.
    Of course the man of today although clearly outmatched physically but most animals will stay clear if the can or unless they are very hungry young and/or inexperienced

  15. So…Paleo diet.
    They (paleolithic man) lived to about 35 years to 50 years.
    We live much longer now with a really cruddy diet and lots of meds and surgeries to correct the ravaging effects of obesity and diabetes. Diobesity.

    Diabetes is absolutely caused by fast releasing carbohydrates/sugars. most of which are absent in the current recommended paleo diet. (except for sweet potatoes and a couple other items.) But on the whole the diet is pretty good at decreasing repeated insulin spikes and repetitive fat storage and eliminating processed foods (enriched flours processed with sodium bicarbonate a potential cancer causing agent outlawed in Mexico, Canada europe) The grains in the U.S. today are not the same as they were even 50years ago. We have clients that come from europe eat the U.S. diet and become obese and those same clients can go back to europe on vacation and lose weight very quickly eating the same things they eat here.

    We feel paleo takes it a bit further than needed, there are some safe foods that are excluded from the typical recommendations, but it’s pretty good.

    Paleo plus current medical techniques can increase longevity for many people and keep them out of the diabetic and obesity statistics long term.

    Check out this low tech video we put together on low glycemic eating and you’ll understand pretty quickly why paleo is working and gaining popularity.

  16. I’m not arguing that the paleo diet is a bad idea, only that it’s not paleo. We don’t really know what paleolithic people ate. There were probably different diets in different places, some which may be good for us, some bad.

    I agree that cutting out refined sugar is almost certainly a good idea. That’s about the only thing that people who are outspoken about diet agree on.

  17. Here in Australia we have recent and even current evidence of the lifestyles and diets of a mid Palaeolithic society, the Australia Aboriginals who had been isolated here for around 60,000 years. Of course in Australia which is large enough to have a climatic range from wet temperate, to tropical and sub tropical and also to hot desert, the diets of our indigenous peoples vary quite a bit. Fruits, berries, tubers and leafy plants were all eaten to varying degrees, as were/are various reptiles, birds, fish, insects and mammals, according to availability. A form of basic bread made from ground native seeds also appears in the diet in some areas. Clearly depending on climate and factors such as coastal or inland localities, one “typical” paleo diet could not be considered as representative, though the general break up of food groups to indicate a large proportion of fruits, berries, nuts and vegetation, along with varying amounts of fauna dependant on availability, seems to broadly cover things.

    My problem with modern paleo diets as recommended by fashionable chefs and cook book writers, is that what they claim to be “cave man food” is in fact modern agri crops and genetically modified livestock types fed in an wholly unnatural way. Palaeolithic humans weren’t eating grain and antibiotic fed cattle, battery chickens and sow stall pigs, along with glass house raised tomatoes and lettuces, or pesticide and fungicide sprayed crops. Also the benefits of a paleo diet are not proven, in another 60 years that might be the case, but telling me I’ll live a better, longer and healthier life based on someone’s 5 year experience of a new diet, please. I’m old enough to have seen dozens of “healthy diet revolutions” come and go. This one seems to sound pretty sensible, but only if the hype is ditched and some serious thought about the quality of food, not just the type of food is included.

Comments are closed.