Where the Wild Foods Went: A History of Paleolithic Eating

by Dan Schwartz and Dr. S. Leventhal

Imagine a society immune to the diseases of Western living.  Imagine a culture in which people live to a ripe old age with virtually no incidence of cardiovascular disease or dementia.  Where people remain mobile and active as they age with healthy bones and vision.  Where the primary causes of death aren’t the downstream effects of cancer, diabetes or Alzheimer’s disease but readily treatable forms of infection, or complication from pregnancy.  Sounds like a fantasy, right?  

For Staffan Lindeberg, it’s the furthest thing.  An evolutionary nutritionist, professor and doctor at the University of Lund, Sweden, Lindeberg led a team of doctors and researchers in the 1990s to understand why the islanders of Kitava, an island off the coast of Papua New Guinea, are pushing the limits of human health.  Performing an exhaustive medical survey of its 2,300 inhabitants, Lindeberg found the signs of what appeared to be an epidemiological anomaly: there was not a single case of congestive heart failure, stroke, dementia or diabetes.  Excluding shorter life span (average 45-50 years) from infections, complications from pregnancy and accidents, the Kitavans had incomparable vitals, far superior to that of most Westerners.  The list of advantages was infinite: lower body mass index, better visual acuity, lower blood pressure, better bone health, higher insulin sensitivity, better oxygen capacity and more [1].  The study generated a litany of questions - did the Kitavans just have better biology, i.e., could there have been a genetic cause for being so well-adapted to their environment?  Or were there lifestyle factors involved, particularly diet, that allowed them to live free of chronic disease?  

At the crossroads of evolutionary biology, anthropology and nutrition, Lindeberg's research gave rise to what has entered popular consciousness as Paleo eating.  As it turns out, the Kitavans, whose diet closely resembled that of early hominids and consisted mainly of fruits, root vegetables and fish, were onto something.  With more evidence suggesting a fundamental mismatch between a Western diet and human biology, the Paleo diet has emerged as a far more nutritional and disease-combating alternative.  In this three part blog, we will take a closer look at the Paleo trend, discussing the origins of Paleo eating and the diet of our early ancestors (part I), the changes in the way food is processed that have enabled the decline of Paleo eating (part II), and finally the medical evidence in favor of a Paleo lifestyle (part III).

Part I: Were Bushmen Better Off?

Such is the provocative question posed by physiologist and writer Jared Diamond in a 1987 Discover Magazine article titled "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race".  Challenging the view of modern agriculture as a great boon for civilization, Diamond contends that the switch from hunter-gatherer life to farming may have been man's greatest blunder, pushing mankind from relative social stability and well-being to "disease and despotism".  Drawing from the field of paleopathology (ie., the study of ancient human disease), Diamond depicts a precarious transition between millennia of gathering and foraging to agricultural society.  Diamond's argument rests on evidence uncovered by archaeologists working at Dickson Mounds, a site located in the Ohio River valley with human remains spanning the Paleolithic and agricultural periods.  Comparing the remains of hunter-gatherers and farmers, researchers found a noticeable decline in the health of the farmers as evidenced by severe iron deficiency, degenerative spine conditions, enamel defects and bone lesions suggesting parasites and  other infectious diseases.  The Agriculture as Golden Age myth exposed, Diamond turns to the question of how it is possible for a species to experience such a sudden and significant decline in health [2].  The answer lies in diet and nutrition.

Contrary to what Quest for Fire may have you think, the Paleolithic palette was a sophisticated one.  Consuming almost double our current protein intake (93 g on average versus 45 - 70 g), Paleolithic man dined regularly from a plethora of plants, fruit, roots, seeds and animal fats (think Whole Foods on steroids!).  A study surveying the diet of bushmen in Africa estimated an average of 75 different wild plant species.  The transition from foraging to agricultural life was thus a shock to the cultured stomachs of our early ancestors.  With modern farming came monoculture and the simplification of diet to staples that were easier to cultivate.  Out were the roots, tubers, berries and organ meats and in their place came wheat, rice and corn.  Out was a diet rich in nutrition and in was one devoid of the micronutrients and fiber that made man durable enough to persevere  through Ice Ages and famine.  A recent review paper by nutrition professor and Paleo expert Loren Cordain outlines just how staggering the loss was:

1. Micronutrients.  The switch to a cereal-based food supply enabled the erasure of important micronutrients like vitamin B6, biotin, calcium, iron, magnesium and zinc from our diet.  Critical to a number of biochemical processes, micronutrients are now understood to be a major player in preventing the onset of chronic degenerative diseases like heart disease and metabolic syndrome. 

2. Acid load.  A cereal-based diet is net acid yielding relative to the net alkaline diet of our Paleolithic ancestors.  Chronic acidosis is known to be detrimental to bone and muscle health, allowing the escape of vital calcium ions from bone tissues and aiding the onset of osteoporosis and sarcopenia (skeletal muscle breakdown).

3. Fiber.  With fewer vegetables, berries and fruits, the cereal revolution enabled a significant drop in the fiber content of our diet.  Foods with high fiber are crucial for bowel health and play an important role in regulating sugar in the body.  The dietary shift from relatively high amounts of fiber to foods with high glycemic load has allowed for chronic disease to take root and become a major medical concern.  Obesity, insulin resistance, gout, hypertension and fatty liver disease can all be linked to the toxicity of a cereal-based food supply. 

In sum, the diet of our Paleolithic ancestors was far more nutritionally substantive than that of the present day, relying on a diversity of food staples (roots, fruits, seeds, vegetables, etc.) rather than simple cereal grains.  With this severe loss in nutritional content, the Agricultural age engendered a shift in the burden of disease, allowing chronic degenerative illnesses to take root that were not formerly a problem for our Paleolithic ancestors. 


1. http://www.staffanlindeberg.com/TheKitavaStudy.html

2. Diamond, Jared. "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race." Discover Magazine. May 1987: 64-66. Web. 20 Sep. 2012. <http://www.scribd.com/doc/61121031/Jared-Diamond-The-Worst-Mistake-in-the-History-of-the-Human-Race>.

3. Carrera-Bastos, Pedro, Maelan Fontes-Villalba, James H O'Keefe, Staffan Lindeberg, and Loren Cordain. "The western diet and lifestyle and diseases of civilization." Research Reports in Clinical Cardiology . 2. (2011): 15-35. Print.

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