What did people eat for dinner tens of thousands of years ago? Many advocates of the so-called paleo diet will tell you that our ancestors’ dishes were meat-heavy and low-carb — and as a result, we’ve evolved to thrive on this type of diet.
The diet is named after the Paleolithic, a period from roughly 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago when early humans hunted and gathered, rather than farming. Hermann Pontzer, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University and author of burn, a book on the science of metabolism, says it’s a myth that everyone at this time was dependent on meat-heavy diets. Studies show that rather than following a single diet, the eating habits of prehistoric people were remarkably variable and influenced by a number of factors, such as climate, location, and season.
In 2021 Annual Nutrition Review Bonzer and colleague Brian Wood, of the University of California, Los Angeles, describe what we can learn about the eating habits of our ancestors by Study of modern societies that depend on hunting and gathering, such as the Hadza tribe in northern Tanzania and Aché in Paraguay. In an interview with Knowable Magazine, Pontzer explains what makes the surprisingly varied and seasonal Hadza meals different from popular notions of ancient meals.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What do paleo diets look like today? How well did they understand the eating habits of our ancestors?
People have developed many different versions, but the original Paleo diet is full of meat. I’d say the same goes for the paleo diets that are prevalent today – most of them are very meat-heavy and low-carb, underestimating things like starchy vegetables and fruits that were only available seasonally before cultivation. There’s also a more extreme camp in that, which says humans used to be almost entirely carnivores.
But the diets of our ancestors were really changeable. We evolved as hunters and gatherers, so you hunt and collect all the food in your local environment. Humans are strategic about the foods they follow, but they can only target the foods that are there. So there was a lot of variation in what fishermen ate depending on location and time of year.
The other thing is that, partly because of this variance, but also partly because of just people’s preferences, there are a lot of carbohydrates in most hunter-gatherer diets. honey It may have been important throughout history and prehistoric times. Many of these small-scale communities also eat root vegetables such as tubers, and those that are high in starch and carbohydrates. So the idea that ancient diets were low in carbohydrates doesn’t fit with any of the available evidence.
So how did the term “paleo” come to represent meat-heavy, low-carb eating?
I think there are two reasons for that. You have a kind of romanticized hunting-and-gathering look. There is a kind of macho caveman view of the past that permeates a lot of what I read when I look at the Paleo diet websites.
There are also biases inherent in much of the archaeological and ethnographic data available. In the early twentieth century, and even earlier, many ethnographic reports were written by men who focused on the work of men. We know that would traditionally focus more on hunting than gathering because of the way many of these small communities divide up their labor: men hunt and women congregate.
Furthermore, the available ethnographic data is strongly skewed towards very northern cultures, such as Arctic cultures – since warm weather cultures were first expelled by farmers – and they tend to eat more meat. But the diets of our ancestors were variable. The inhabitants who lived near the ocean and moving rivers ate a lot of fish and seafood. People who lived in forested areas or in places rich in vegetation focused on eating plants.
There is also a hunting bias in the archaeological record. Stone tools and cut bones – evidence of hunting – preserve very well. Wooden sticks and plant debris do not.