So Long and Thanks for All the Fish – Is Paleo Dieting Finished?

by Paul Rogers on December 22, 2009

The Paleo diet and its many forms has made quite a splash over the last decade on various internet web sites and forums, all supported by books like Neanderthin and The Paleo Diet. But new archaeological research findings have questioned the central theme of the Paleo diet — our genetic incompatibility with grain and carbohydrate foods.

If you’re not familiar with Paleo dieting, it means to eat like humans did before the beginning of agriculture prior to 10,000 years ago. This period is called the Paleolithic and was populated by emerging Homo sapiens hunter-gatherers — cave men in the old vernacular.

The premise of Paleo eating is that we should eat like a cave man because they ate in accordance with their genes, and certain new foods that we started to eat when human agriculture began are actually bad for us. Apparently we have not had enough time to genetically adapt to these foods, so we are actually poisoning ourselves. Fat, but poisoned . . .

The foods Paleo dieting supporters say we should avoid are grains and cereals, milk and dairy, starchy root vegetables like potatoes, beans, and sugary fruits. In fact in more strict versions you’re really only allowed to eat berries — yes, berries — and they better not taste any good because that means you’re getting a near-fatal dose of sugar. An apple a day will actually poison you with glucose and fructose until your pecker drops off. (If you’re a bird of course.) Who would have thought it?

Human grain eaters at least 100,000 years ago

The original and essential premise  of Paleo dieting was that foods like grains are recent — adopted within 10,000 years — and we have not had time to develop genes that would render any toxic principles (like gluten and lectins) harmless. Then a discovery was made at Ohalo 2 in Israel that seemed to put grain eating back to around 30,000 years. Now, Julio Mercader from the University of Calgary’s Department of Archaeology has found evidence of consumption of wild sorghum grains and African potato and other plant foods at a site in Mozambique dating back at least 100,000 years. This revelation, published in the prestigious journal Science this month, is big news in the archaeological community that studies early human nutrition. This would put grain and tuber eating much further back than has previously been postulated in the mainstream — although in other writings I have suggested that it was almost certainly further back than 20 or 30 thousand years.

Grain consumption 4 million years ago?

In the dental record of Australopithecus, a hominid considered perhaps the earliest ancestor of Homo sapiens 4 million years ago, are found traces of C4 grass consumption. C4 plants are mostly grasses and grains. The question as to whether these early pre-humans ate grasses and grains has been somewhat undecided. Some opinion says that the C4 dental record was most likely caused by Australopithecines eating other animals that ate grasses and grains — probably grazing animals. This seems to me an avoidance of the obvious answer.

It’s well  established that Gelada baboons eat grass seeds/grains. It seems that monkeys will as well. It would not surprise me if grain eating by early humans went back a very long way in the Paleolithic.

I’m well aware that modern, improved grains, and the way we process and eat them, are a long way from the wild grains of the African plains. However, first things first. Let’s not confuse dietary quality with the premise of the Paleo diet, which is to avoid all grain consumption because of a perceived genetic non-compliance. That hypothesis is just about dead in the water, or the grass, whichever you prefer.

Mercader J. Mozambican grass seed consumption during the Middle Stone Age. Science. 2009 Dec 18;326(5960):1680-3.

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