This will not be a post involving deep research, yet.
So I’ve now been doing this paleo/primal lifestyle thing for almost two years now and I’ve lost over forty pounds and kept it off, even with having weekly cheat days à la Tim Ferriss. I’ve gone from eating a bunch of junk to eating freshly prepared foods almost everyday for every meal. I have honestly learned more about the actual nutritional values of foods in the last two years than I have my entire life, including my teen years when I was preparing to enter culinary school. This has gone way beyond caloric content, beyond Nutrition Information panels on packages, way beyond anything any huckster on TV or in a magazine has ever said about eating, and this is information I’ll never forget. And I’ve read a lot of books, blog posts, and articles talking about how our paleolithic ancestors ate and how we need to mimic that and for a while, I hardly questioned these theses, despite the fact that I’m an anthropology student. I figured, anthropologically, these writers must be right (at least, the actual authors, everyone else is just parroting their findings) but over the last few months, I’ve really began to question:
How much of this is absolute bullshit?
I am going to say right up front that I’ve yet to read Cordain’s original Paleo Diet — haven’t found the time! — so I have no idea what kind of anthropological or archaeological data he uses, if any. But this leads me to my next point: every other book I’ve read has no such data in it either, so how much of this idea is mythologizing and how much is based on actual fact? When reading Sisson’s The Primal Blueprint, I understand that he is in fact mythologizing because other than nutritional research, there’s zero historical data he ever references. He’s got to make it a compelling and realistic sounding story, it doesn’t have to necessarily be accurate. I don’t recall any of his references being from archaeological or anthropological studies. Or for that matter, anyone else’s. Most are relying on nutritional hypotheses about what our paleolithic concestors may have eaten rather than what archaeologists, paleobotanists, and a plethora of other scientists who dig in the dirt for a living, have eventually found. And we don’t even need to go back that far, we can figure out what people have been eating for the last four or five thousand years, simply based on archaeological data. Hell, we can go back two or three hundred and tell. Given that junk foods didn’t exist, we do know that ancestral humans ate some pretty crummy stuff. Just look to the Southwestern Indian tribes who regularly made cakes out of maize and ash. Not ash cakes (a type of cornbread) but literal cakes of ash and maize, ground together. Physiologically, the only good thing it did for them was absolutely grind down their teeth to nothing and give them abscesses. There are many such weird recipes from cultures all over the world that, nutritionally, are little more than meager subsistence meals. They keep you alive, barely.
But it makes me circle back to my question: how much of our paleo and primal diet guidelines are based on supposition rather than fact? While there aren’t many real world subsistence tribes or bands any longer, some do still exist, such as the Dobe Ju/’hoansi of Botswana and are quite indicative of what our concestors may have eaten and it’s not terribly instructive for the paleo diet empire. For subsistence hunters living in the middle of the Kalahari Desert, you aren’t picky, you’ll eat just about anything you know won’t kill you. In the ethnographic film Bitter Melons, they describe a melon that the local /Gwi San people consume for little other reason than its water content, despite the fact that they all say it apparently tastes god awful. But hey, you’re in the desert, you don’t have much choice, eat or die. They eat a few other things as well, including a turtle (don’t ask, I have no idea how a turtle lives in the desert, either). But it illustrates a great point: paleolithic man didn’t survive on the purported bounty of meats, fish, nuts, seeds, berries, and fruits that’s written about in paleo books. Every book will tell you they ate a healthy diet of all these things, though there’s no historical references to back it up, but it must have been true because all you could do was hunt and forage (which was more foraging than hunting). Some ancestors may have in fact enjoyed this delicious bounty but many did not since, well, those food stuffs didn’t exist everywhere, all the time. This is pre-agricultural revolution so you’re eating whatever you find or kill, for the most part, gardening — even on a small scale — was incredibly localized to particular climes.
So, where do I go from here? I’m not sure, but there will be research analysis done. I’m currently in one class where we’re actively studying two existing subsistence bands — the Yanonamo and the Dobe Ju/’hoansi — along with some pre-contact Aztecs. I know this won’t reveal much in the overall view of their native foodways but it will provide some insight. Do I doubt everything guys like Sisson, Cordian, Wolf, et al say about what paleo humans ate? No, not entirely, but I do realize they’ve got a story and ideology to sell, so things will get trumped up a bit. I know that supposition and theorizing is a huge part of it because we’ll never know exactly what our ancestors ate, that stuff just doesn’t survive in the record very often, but we can learn far more from their tools because those do survive in the stratigraphic record. I’m going to start researching and see what I can find. I won’t turn the paleo world upside down but it will at least bring me some solace to know how much we’re on the mark or off it.