What did people eat for dinner tens of thousands of years ago? Many proponents of the so-called Paleo diet will tell you that our ancestors’ dishes were high in meat and low in carbohydrates, and that as a result, we’ve evolved to thrive on this type of nutritional regimen.
The diet is named after the Paleolithic era, a period dating from about 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago when early humans hunted and gathered, rather than farm. Herman Pontzer, evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University and author of Burn down, a book on the science of metabolism, says that it is a myth that everyone at this time subsisted on diets rich in meat. Studies show that rather than a single diet, the eating habits of prehistoric people were remarkably variable and influenced by a number of factors, including climate, location, and season.
in 2021 Annual Nutrition Review, Pontzer and his colleague Brian Wood of the University of California, Los Angeles describe what we can learn about the eating habits of our ancestors by studying modern hunter-gatherer populations such as the Hadza in northern Tanzania and the Aché in Paraguay. In an interview with Knowable Magazine, Pontzer explains what makes the diverse and surprisingly seasonal diets of the Hadza so different from popular notions of ancient foods.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What are current paleo diets like? How well do they capture the eating habits of our ancestors?
People have developed many different versions, but the original Paleo diet is quite high in meat. I’d say the same is true of today’s predominant Paleo diets: most are very high in meat and low in carbohydrates, minimizing things like starchy vegetables and fruits that would have only been available seasonally before agriculture. There’s also an even more extreme camp within that, which says that humans used to be almost entirely meat-eating carnivores.
But the diets of our ancestors were really variable. We evolved as hunter-gatherers, so you are hunting and gathering whatever food is in your local environment. Humans are strategic about what foods they seek out, but can only target foods that are there. So there was a lot of variation in what hunters ate based on location and time of year.
The other thing is, partly because of that variability, but also partly because of people’s preferences, there’s a lot of carbohydrate in most hunter-gatherer diets. Sweetie it was probably important throughout history and prehistory. Many of these small-scale societies also eat root vegetables as tubers, and they are very high in starch and carbohydrates. So the idea that ancient diets would be low-carb just doesn’t fit any of the available evidence.
So how did “Paleo” come to represent a high-meat, low-carb diet?
I think there are a couple of reasons for that. You have a kind of idealization of what hunting and gathering was like. There is a kind of masculine caveman vision of the past that permeates much of what I read when looking at paleo diet websites.
There are also biases inherent in much of the available archaeological and ethnographic data. In the early 20th century, and even earlier, many of the ethnographic reports were written by men who focused on the work of men. We know that traditionally that will be more about hunting than gathering because of the way many of these small-scale societies divide their labor: men hunt and women gather.
On top of that, the available ethnographic data is heavily skewed towards northern cultures, such as Arctic cultures, since warm-climate cultures were the first to be pushed out by farmers, and they tend to eat more meat. But the diets of our ancestors were variable. People who lived near the ocean and fast-flowing rivers ate a lot of fish and shellfish. Populations that lived in wooded areas or in places rich in vegetation focused on eating plants.
There is also a bias towards hunting in the archaeological record. Stone tools and bones with cut marks, evidence of hunting, are very well preserved. Wood sticks and plant debris do not.