What did our ancestors eat? The case for paleo

THE KEY to my incredible recovery has been my diet. I follow the Autoimmune Protocol which is basically a very restrictive version of paleo. The idea of a Palaeolithic diet can be traced to a 1975 book by gastroenterologist Walter Voegtlin, which in 1985 was further developed by Stanley Boyd Eaton and Melvin Konner, and popularized by Loren Cordain in his 2002 book The Paleo Diet.

There are a lot of myths about this diet, and I’m not convinced that anyone can follow a true paleo diet as not much of the original paleo pantry exists due to human cultivation and selective breeding of crops and livestock. Another criticism of paleo is that humans have adapted and evolved and can therefore eat a different diet. A further argument against paleo is that our stone age ancestors lived shorter lives and therefore our current diets must somehow be better.

I believe the first two points are largely true; it is indeed very difficult to eat a true paleo diet in our modern world, and yes humans are an adaptable species and can eat a far wider range of foods than those available thousands of years ago, just not all of us have adapted quite yet! However, I disagree that our current diet is the key to our longevity. I will investigate that point later.

I have written the following essay on what I believe our ancestors ate. This is not an academic paper and is designed to be easily accessible, however references are provided should you wish to look into my sources further. The photos were taken at the Natural History Museum in London. I can highly recommend visiting.

My paleo diet works for me, it may not suit you. Listen to your own body and do what you feel is best.

Check out my infographic on the evolution of human diet.

The Diet Epidemic

Right now, about two thirds of the Western world is on some kind of diet (1). The rest probably were on a diet but have given up and are now on a binge. Collectively we are overweight, sick and getting worse. Our modern choices about what we eat and how much we eat has gone really terribly wrong. The current trend in diet books tell us we need to return to a sensible, ancestral way of eating, the problem is there are so many diets out there and they offer conflicting, inconsistent and often highly confusing information. One group of self-help books suggests we give up carbohydrates, another that we give up fats, another that counting calories is the best way while others say that eating like a caveman will cure everything or that the world will be a better place if we go vegetarian or vegan.

It doesn’t help that doctors, scientists, dieticians and nutritionists alike frequently identify a single dietary element as the cause of chronic disease. We are told that saturated fat causes heart disease (2) and salt causes high blood pressure (3). However, evidence gathered over the past 30 years now indicates that virtually all so-called ‘diseases of civilisation’ have multiple dietary elements as the root cause, along with other environmental agents and genetic susceptibility.

Coronary heart disease, for instance, does not arise simply from excessive saturated fat in the diet but rather from a complex interaction of multiple nutritional factors directly linked to the excessive consumption of foods introduced in Neolithic and industrial eras (dairy products, cereals, refined cereals, refined sugars, refined vegetable oils, fatty meats, salt, and combinations of these foods) (4). These foods, in turn, adversely influence other nutritional factors, which universally underlie or exacerbate virtually all chronic diseases of civilisation.

A Journey into our past

TO UNDERSTAND why these lifestyle diseases exist, I'm going to take you on an interactive history lesson. Stand up and take a single pace. You've moved about a yard. Consider that distance to equate to 1000 years of history. You're now in the time just before the Norman conquest of England and humans number just 200 million across the whole planet. In that single pace you've arrived before the Magna Carta, Richard III, the crusades, the great plague, Shakespeare, Mozart, Beethoven, the Americas, Australia, the renaissance, the printing press, Newton, Einstein, science, electricity, the computer and indeed almost everything we humans view as our greatest accomplishments. Take another pace, the Roman Empire stretches across most of Europe at a time before Christianity, Islam and the Mayan empire. Take another 2 paces, ancient Egypt is at the height of its power. Take another two and humans have just discovered iron, another two and you reach 6000BC and agriculture has just reached Europe, another three and you've crossed your kitchen into the Neolithic era some 11,000 years ago, just after the last ice age (5).

Anatomically Modern Human
30,000 years old
Let's stop here for a moment. About now, humans are well established across most of the planet, including in Australia and South America (6). We typically live in communities numbering no more than 150 people (7). The agricultural revolution is taking place in southern Turkey and southwest Asia and a huge shift in what humans would eat for the rest of history is underway. Grains will slowly become the staple of our diets (8) along with peas, olives and sheep, we drink milk and some people begin to retain the genes to continue drinking this after early childhood (9), and we will shift from eating animal protein and fat for energy to a carbohydrate led diet. This is not good. The average human life-expectancy will halve to around just 20 years and remain like this throughout the Neolithic until the late 18th century, seldom exceeding 25 years in ‘civilised’ nations (10). From 1750 or so, improvements in hygiene, food production and manufacturing, energy generation, per capita income, shelter, transportation, clothing and energy intakes will then increase life expectancy to and beyond the life expectancy that prevailed before the onset of the Agricultural Revolution.

Now keep walking until you reach the end of your yard, that's another 120 paces, a distance Usain Bolt can cover in under 10 seconds. Now you've reached the point where behaviourally modern humans, identical to you and me, first appeared some 130,000 years ago.

Early Neanderthal skull
40,000 years old
They were physiologically and anatomically the same as us and genetically almost identical. Their brains were the same size. They used tools and created artworks in caves that we can still see today. We were not alone either, other species of human shared the world with us including Neanderthals and Denisovans. Technically they weren’t a different species, but rather a different type of human as we could interbreed with them and produce fertile offspring (about 2.7% of European DNA is Neanderthal, and mine is 3.3% - they are actually our ancestors) (11). All types of human likely had complex language skills too and as we cohabited with the Neanderthals for over 5000 years, long enough to assume we lived, had sex with, migrated alongside of, fought against, and rather sadly probably hunted and ate our closest neighbours. The Neanderthals disappeared about 30,000 years ago.

What we ate then was very, very different to what we eat today. Other than eating the occasional Neanderthal we also ate plants, bark, piths, roots, seeds, insects and lots of fish and red meat, which we both hunted and scavenged.

Homo Rudolfensis skull
1.9 million years old
Now keep walking down your street for about a mile or so - you've reached the Pleistocene period in the middle Palaeolithic about 2 million years ago. The first known species of human Homo Rudolfensis (12) have evolved from our earlier ape-like ancestors. Homo habilis, erectus and ergaster (from whom us sapiens later evolved) will evolve over the coming millennia and move out of the Rift valley in what is now Kenya into other parts of Africa and will slowly travel beyond as we move into other continents over the next million or so years. Their diets were a little different to those of the later behaviourally modern human, but we were eating an omnivorous diet (13) of plants and meat, although this may have been scavenged (14). Homo habilis (which means handyman) will start to use fire for cooking (15) and tools to hunt and butcher animals.

Homo Habilis skull
1.8 million years old
It is important to remember that the past was no panacea: we ate what we could to survive and breed and this varied depending on season and habitat, which dictated what food was available (16). Until we invent a time machine we will never really know what our ancestors ate. It may also be impossible to follow their diet today anyway due to selective cultivation of crops and animals which have resulted in foods that are physically and genetically different to those of the past, which is why no one can ever really follow a true ‘paleo’ diet (17). It’s also important to remember that most adults of this time only lived to 35 years of age (18) (although some did live to be much older) and sometimes people starved, and death in childhood was common. Average life expectancy today is higher not because of a healthier diet and lifestyle but owing to better sanitation, vaccination, antibiotics, quarantine policies, medical care, political and social stability, and less physical trauma (19).

The Paleo diet – an archaeological perspective

THERE IS a current trend in the dieting community to ‘eat like a caveman’, especially among men. The notion that following a Palaeolithic or primal diet will somehow turn us into a lean, healthy hunter-type like our ancestors from prehistory, only without the spear and loincloth, is of course ridiculous. After all, like all wild species, sometimes our ancestors starved to death and the starving to death diet typically ends badly! However, there is some truth in the notion that an ancestral diet is better for our health. What our ancestors ate is still subject to debate and until someone invents a time machine and goes and asks a caveman what he had for his last meal then that debate will likely continue.

There are many indications suggesting that the evolution of early Homo and its development to Homo sapiens did not take place in the hot, arid and waterless savanna, but occurred in African ecosystems that were notably located in places where the land meets the water (with the land ecosystem possibly consisting of wooded grasslands). Human remains are nearly always found in the vicinity of water and the fossil record of nearby found fish is extensive (20) (21). Unfortunately, because sea levels have risen by up to 150 metres in the past 17,000 years, a substantial part of the evidence for the exploitation of aquatic resources is hidden below sea level, if not permanently destroyed by the water (22) (23). However, in Kenya, a site in East Turkana provides solid evidence that at about 1.95 million years ago hominins enjoyed eating both terrestrial and aquatic animals including turtles, crocodiles and fish (24).The best research suggests it is also likely that early man participated in opportunistic harvesting of the shallow-water flora and fauna, such as molluscs, crabs, sea urchins, barnacles, shrimp, fish, fish roe or spawn, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals, birds or weeds (25) (26).

Compared with terrestrial hunting and/or scavenging in the savanna, food from this land-water ecosystem is relatively easy to obtain and is rich in iron, iodine, selenium, vitamins A and D, and long-chain omega 3 fatty acids (27) (28) (29).  High fruit and vegetable intake containing potassium and magnesium and minimal grain and dairy consumption in the Palaeolithic diet may have led to a greater alkaline environment in the human body and a beneficial effect on bone health (30) (31). This is in stark contrast to the Western diet which leads to an acidic environment in the human body, which some claim leads to an acceleration in the aging process, although research is sparse and largely observational.

Figure 5 - Paleo and modern diets compared
The best research suggests that our ancestors diet was likely 35% animal fat, 30% animal protein and 35% plant carbohydrate. For comparison, the typical American diet is about 50% carbohydrate, 15% protein, and 35% fat (32) which is very different to that of our ancestors and the recommended daily intake guidelines issued by the governments in the US (33) and UK (34).

As much as 50% of Palaeolithic man’s energy came from uncultivated fruits and vegetables, as compared with the present level of 16% energy intake for Americans. Vitamin, mineral intake was up to eight times that of today except for that of sodium (from salt) which was much lower than the 3,400mg Americans consume daily (35). Sugar intake came from honey and comprised only 2-3% energy intake as compared with the 15% added sugars contribute today. Fibre consumption was also much higher. Saturated fats contributed approximately 7.5% total energy and harmful trans-fatty acids contributed negligible amounts. Polyunsaturated fat intake was high and cholesterol consumption was substantial (36). The ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acid was 1:1 as opposed to 20:1 in the typical American diet (37).
Figure 6 - Calorie sources in adult Americans

Before Humans

Kenyanthropus Platyops
3.5 million years old
IF WE WERE to continue our journey into the past and keep walking, we would need to travel another 2.5 miles to see the very first hominins appear. These were the very earliest upright apes, but their diets were quite different to those of their later Homo descendants, eating mostly soft fruits and seeds.

Just to give you a sense of scale for how recently the earliest humans arrived on the planet, which if you recall was the equivalent of walking just one mile, you’d have to walk 35 miles to see the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago and 127 miles to see the first ones evolve. Around this time the earliest mammals also appeared, from which every mammal, including us, evolved. If you wanted to see the earliest multicellular life you’d need to walk over 1051 miles to 1.85 billion years ago, that’s like walking from Miami to Washington DC. To see the origins of life on earth 3.8 billion years ago you’d need to walk a total of 2159 miles, which is like walking from San Francisco to Mexico City. The Earth itself formed some 4.6 billion years ago and you’d need to walk 2600 miles to see that, which is the width of the USA. Just to put that all into context, if you wanted to see the big bang when our universe exploded into existence you’d need to travel back 13.7 billion years which is 7840 miles or the distance from my house in Central London to the southern tip of South Africa.

If the thought of all that walking has made you tired, then it’s probably time to turn around and start heading home. Let’s stop off again one mile from home and see our earliest human ancestors one more time. For the final mile or approximately 2 million years our diets are unchanged, right up until those last few steps in your kitchen. In the last 200 hundred years (or the last 18cm of our trip home) our diets changed significantly and in the last 50 years (or 4 centimetres) the Western diet became industrialised and changed even more. What we eat in our diet today would probably be unrecognisable to your great grandmother, let alone our prehistoric ancestors!

When did we start to get sick?

The change in our diet appears to have occurred too recently on an evolutionary time scale for the human genome to adjust to our new diets (38). In just 400 generations humans have gone from a diet that was ideal for our ancient, genetically determined biology to something unsuited to our physiology and with this rapid change in diet has come new diseases and health epidemics (39). In the United States and most Western countries, diet-related chronic diseases represent the single largest cause of reduced life-expectancy and mortality (40) (41). These diseases are epidemic in contemporary Westernised populations and typically afflict 50 – 65% of adults, yet they are rare or non-existent in hunter-gatherers and other less Westernised people. These new and widespread illnesses are collectively known as the ‘Diseases of Civilisation’ or lifestyle disease (42). Some of the most common types of lifestyle disease are:

  • Atherosclerosis
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Some types of cancer
  • Asthma
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Liver cirrhosis
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Dental caries (tooth decay)
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Heart disease
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Chronic renal failure
  • Stroke
  • Osteoporosis
  • Obesity
  • Depression & mental illness

Study of human fossils show that our health started to decline after the Neolithic period about 10,000 years ago (43). This decline coincides with the agricultural revolution, although there is some evidence indicating that some genetic adaptation has begun taking place as human evolution begins to accommodate this change (44).

In most respects, the changes in diet from hunter-gatherer times to agricultural times have been almost all detrimental. With the much heavier reliance on starchy foods that became the staples of the diet, tooth decay, malnutrition, and rates of infectious disease increased dramatically over Palaeolithic times, further exacerbated by crowding leading to even higher rates of communicable infections.

Skeletal remains show that height decreased by four inches from the Late Palaeolithic to the early Neolithic, brought about by poorer nutrition, and perhaps also by increased infectious disease-causing growth stress. Signs of osteoporosis and anaemia, which was almost non-existent in pre-Neolithic times, have been frequently noted in skeletal pathologies observed in the Neolithic peoples of the Middle East.

Chronic low-grade inflammation and the metabolic syndrome (also named the insulin resistance syndrome), which are risk factors for many of the diseases and conditions typical for affluent countries, such as CVD, type 2 diabetes mellitus, osteoporosis, certain types of cancer (notably colon, breast, prostate), fertility problems (polycystic ovary syndrome), pregnancy complications (gestational diabetes, pre-eclampsia), some psychiatric diseases (major and postpartum depression, schizophrenia, autism) and neurodegenerative diseases (Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease) (45) (46) (47).

The genetically determined flexibility to adapt to a changing environment appears to have been exceeded and the genetically most vulnerable have become sick first, but ultimately all individuals will become sick with increasing dose and exposure time.

Early bio-markers of degenerative diseases such as obesity, high blood pressure, atherosclerosis and insulin resistance are also less common in younger, age-matched, members of present hunter–gatherer societies compared with members of affluent societies (48) (49), while measurements indicative for ‘good health’ such as muscular strength and aerobic power are more favourable in the former (50). Moreover, even the oldest individuals in hunter–gatherer societies appear virtually free from chronic degenerative diseases (51) (52) (53).

After the transition from hunting and gathering to farming about 10,000 years ago, life expectancy dropped from about 40 years (as it is in recently studied hunter–gatherers, but also was among students of the Harvard College Class born in 1880 (54) to about 20 years (55) (56) (57). This seemingly evolutionary disadvantage, secondary to a decrease in nutritional quality, is substantiated by a decrease in general health that has become noticeable from a decrease in final height, while skeletal markers of infection and nutritional stress became more common in archaeological finds (58) (59). These setbacks were eliminated by a net increase in population growth, secondary to an increased productivity per land area that resulted in more energy intake per capita. Life expectancy remained stable throughout the Neolithic until the late 18th century, seldom exceeding 25 years in ‘civilised’ nations (60). From this time, improvements in hygiene, food production and manufacturing, energy generation, per capita income, shelter, transportation, clothing and energy intakes substantiated an increase to and beyond the life expectancy that prevailed before the onset of the Agricultural Revolution.

But our ancestors died young, didn’t they?

There is evidence that our Palaeolithic ancestors lived short and often brutal lives and frequently died in childhood. However, although our ancestors had much lower life expectancies, the current evidence does neither support the misconception that during the Palaeolithic there were no elderly nor that they had poor health - the default assumption should be that healthy ageing posed an evolutionary advantage for human survival (61).

However, tell someone that the lifestyle of our ancestors was healthier, and they’ll tell you that we live much longer, so surely the way we live is better! The problem with this common counterargument is the short average life expectancy at birth of hunter–gatherers is that it is influenced by fatal events (eg, accidents, warfare, infections, exposure to the elements) and childhood mortality (62). Average life expectancy today is higher not because of a healthier diet and lifestyle but owing to better sanitation, vaccination, antibiotics, quarantine policies, medical care, political and social stability, and less physical trauma (63). A recent assessment of the mortality profiles of hunter–gatherers concluded that “adult life span is 68–78 years, and that it was not uncommon for individuals to reach these ages” (64).

The solution

If we look back to our genetically identical ancestors who evolved from early species of hominin (human-like species) in East Africa some 200,000 years ago, humans remain adapted to the food our ancestors ate then, and continued to eat until relatively recently. Profound changes in our diet and lifestyle only began with the introduction of agriculture and animal husbandry about 12-10,000 years ago (65).

It therefore stands to reason that a diet free from processed foods, refined sugars and oils and with a drastically reduced consumption of grains would be a good place to start when addressing any chronic health condition. Complimented by the latest medicines and treatments available today I believe that the combination of an ancestral diet and the application of our modern medical practices is the best way to begin addressing all diseases of civilisation.


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