There was no one meal plan in prehistoric times. A modern group of hunters and hunters known as the Hadza has taught researchers surprising things about the ever-changing menu that humans once consumed.
What did people eat for dinner tens of thousands of years ago? Many paleo diet advocates 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 well-known magazinePontzer explains what makes Hadza’s surprisingly varied and seasonal diets so different from popular notions of ancient diets.
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.
Moreover, the available ethnographic data is strongly skewed towards very northern cultures, such as Arctic cultures – since warm weather cultures were first pushed 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 severed bones – evidence of hunting – are well preserved. Wooden sticks and plant debris do not.
Focus your research a lot on a group called the Hadza. Who are the Hadza, and what has their study of their diet taught us so far?
The Hadza people are a community of a few hundred traditional fishermen in northern Tanzania. They live in a semi-arid type of savannah landscape. Some residents began to do some farming or live in villages. But a quarter of them still hunt, gather, and get all their food from wild animals and plants. Men hunt with a bow and arrow, and women gather vegetable foods by hand or with sticks. They are a really great community of people to work with, but they are also very valuable in terms of giving us a quick glimpse of what hunting and gathering looks like, day in and day out, in real life.
It was people Working with Hadza For decades now, we have these long-term records, papers published 30 or 40 years ago until today. We can understand from this data how variable the diet can be: we have seen how the amount of meat changes with the seasons. It is more inclined towards plants during the wet seasons, for example. We have seen how different plant species, such as berries and tubers, contribute to the diet in different ways throughout the year. We’ve also learned that honey is a really big part of their diet.
What does the overall picture of their diet look like?
It is a balance between calories from animals and calories from plants. The long-term average is around 50:50, but it varies. Sometimes they eat a lot of meat, sometimes very little. The only amazing thing about working with the Hadza – and not just the Hadza, but a lot of work out there that kind of sparked this – is how important honey is. They can make up up to one-fifth of a group’s calories, on average. Honey is only sugar and water – it’s very high in carbohydrates and certainly not part of most modern “paleo” diets.
Why does Hadza eat so much honey?
It tastes really good, and it’s full of calories. So they search for it, just as we search for good-tasting food in our environments. And in many of these habitats, it is available year-round in large quantities.
Some members of the Hadza tribe make use of a bird called the honey guide bird, whose entire place in the search for honey depends on humans collecting honey. I had the opportunity to hang out with the Hadza while they were working with these honey guides. Guys seem to whistle absent-mindedly as they walk, but they aren’t. They do this to attract the honey guide bird. When they hear one of these birds, which makes a kind of buzzing, chirping sound, the Hadza men walk straight toward the sound—and the bird will call out and make a big noise in the tree where the bees are.
Young Hadzas will look at this tree and confirm that there is indeed honey. Then they chop off the tree limbs with their axes to get to the hive. Honey guide birds are good not only at pointing out hives – they are good at pointing out large hives. Therefore, the Hadza get more honey when they are able to use the honey guide bird. Of course, as they cut into the tree and get large pieces out of the hive, many of the comb pieces and larvae unfold and become the honey guide bird’s meal. It’s a beat mode.
Birds have adapted to a world where humans get a lot of honey. I think this is really expressive.
How can you ensure that the way people hunt and gather today looks the same as it did thousands of years ago? Historically, hunters and pickers may have eaten more meat.
Lately, there’s been some really cool work looking at a little bit of plaque and tartar sticking to teeth in human fossils. If you look at it, you will find plant residues and starches. So we’ve already preserved the evidence that early humans ate a lot of starchy plant foods. There is even some evidence of a primitive flour-like substance made from the grain. This kind of thing is anathema to most paleo diets, which says you can’t eat grains because grains are a cultured food.
And you can look at the human body and see how we have adapted in relation to our ape relatives – what has changed in us in terms of how we digest food. You can look at things like the anatomy of the gut and the shape of the teeth. And if you look at it, again, the signal is kind of omnivorous. It’s not particularly heavy meat.
What can societies like the Hadza teach us about what we should – or shouldn’t – eat?
I think this adds to the evidence that humans can be healthy on a wide variety of diets. I hope this helps reduce some of the shouting on both sides about how to have a vegan diet or have a meat-based diet, or have to have another type of diet. These are really narrow opinions about what a person should consume.
Humans have evolved to be adaptable. We rely heavily on learning and developing these complex storage strategies to survive. Different people follow different paths. I think this adaptability is part of this whole package of how we live as a species. We are built to be flexible. Flexibility means diversity.
This is why people who follow this “paleo diet” that is not really paleo can often be healthy. And vegetarians, who don’t eat meat at all, can do just fine, too.
I think the one thing they’ve never had in a hunter-gatherer diet is the heavily processed foods we’re surrounded by. In processed foods, you get these combinations of sugars, salts, and fats that never occur in nature. You take a lot of things like fiber and protein that make you feel full, and you put a lot of things that make your brain’s reward systems light up, like flavor. Processed foods appear to be the main driver of obesity.
So maybe the one thing we can all agree on is avoiding that junk. But then, eat whatever type of diet works for you and keeps you healthy.
#ancestors #ate #paleo #diet #carbohydrates