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The application of evolutionary frameworks onto modern world issues has proved popular in a range of spheres with particular mention given to evolutionary medicine, psychology and even social policy. To avoid improper interpretation by non-specialists in this field, archaeologists and anthropologists should encourage knowledge and awareness to avoid stereotypical assumptions and sometimes dangerous conclusions.
Misinformation is particularly a problem in the case of the health and fitness industry. The popularity of the Stone Age Diet and ‘ancestral eating’ plans such as Neanderthin has soared over the past ten years. Eating ‘primally’ has gathered celebrity backing from actresses such as Cameron Diaz who purports in The Body Book that our bodies are still that of ‘hunter-gatherers’ and struggle to align with modern ways of eating.
The idea of attempting to eat like our ancestors did was pioneered by medical doctor Walter Voegtlin in the 1970s. The degree to which the recommendations of the diet are backed up by archaeological and ethnographic evidence, however, is debatable.
The basic principles of the diet as stipulated by Voegtlin are as follows:
- Any type of meat
- Any type of fish
- Only canned or cooked vegetables allowed
- No vegetable or fruit juice
- Only black coffee allowed
This is all very theoretical, is there any archaeological evidence to support this?
Paleolithic diet reconstruction comes in the form of environmental reconstruction, coprolite, and isotopic analysis. The remains of some large animals that were likely hunted, such as Mammoth and big game, can also give us some clues as to the types of meat our hominid ancestors were eating. However, the pattern in which they were consuming these animals likely differed considerably to modern interpretation.
If we were consuming pure meat from muscle alone, we would quickly become malnourished, as it does not provide all the required essential nutrients. Fats and other essential nutrients are gathered through the accessing of bone marrow and the consumption of the partially digested stomach contents of the hunted animal. This is a significant shortcut to biomass that our ancestors used as a means of bypassing the need to digest difficult-to-process plant foods. In turn, humans were able to invest more energy into growing larger brains (a process known as encephalisation) and evolve a simpler digestive system that consumes significantly less energy.
This corresponds with the expensive tissue hypothesis (Aeillo and Wheeler 1995). Animals of larger size that are herbivores, such as cows, have two stomachs that are able to digest difficult-to-process resources such as grasses. Digesting plant material takes significant amounts of energy that could be directed towards brain development.
It makes sense to assert that our ancestors ate meat as it was efficient source of energy; however, the degree to which meat featured prominently within their diet is debatable. High consumption of meat is associated with a range of health conditions including heart disease and obesity. Bacon, a component of the Paleo diet which is heavily publicised, has recently been named a carcinogen and processed meat by the WHO.
Aiello, L.C., Wheeler, P., 1995. The Expensive-Tissue Hypothesis: The Brain and the Digestive System in Human and Primate Evolution. Current Anthropology.
Diaz, C. 2013. Hunter, Gatherer, Drive-Thru-er. In: The Body Book: The Law of Hunger, The Science of Strength, and Other Ways to Love Your Amazing Body. New York: Harper Collins.
Voegtlin, W.L., 1975. The stone age diet: Based on in-depth studies of human ecology and the diet of man. New York: Vantage Press.