Dr Ceren Kabukcu is an archelogy fellow at the University of Liverpool. She is currently investigating the nature of pre-agricultural plant management practices in the Middle East through the study of seed and wood charcoal remains from Turkey and Iraq. She appeared on the University of Liverpool Podcast to discuss how proponents of today’s so-called “Paleo diets” misunderstands the original Paleolithic diet.
6 surprises to chew on about the real Paleo Diet
- There was no single ‘Paleo diet’
Much like different societies today, Paleolithic hunters faced different challenges and had different food opportunities, depending on where they lived. For example, hunters in southwest Asia ate wild almonds, pistachios, lentils and vegetables, while those in Africa were eating sorghum. So it’s incorrect to think of Paleolithic hunters living off one uniform diet.
Ceren says: “It’s very much adapted to the local conditions. The hunting, as well, is quite varied – so they’re in tune with what changes in the climate and the environment around them.”
- Grains and legumes were plentiful
The modern versions of the Paleo diet tend to focus on fruit, non-starchy vegetables, whole foods such as nuts, seeds and olive oil and grass-fed meat, but they usually exclude grains and legumes. But Ceren says there is clear evidence that Paleolithic communities enjoyed these foods as much as we do.
“We're able to detect starch grains on grinding stones from middle Paleolithic sites and upper Paleolithic sites, we're able to detect evidence of roasting wild grains, of processing and possibly cooking wild legumes. It's really not substantiated by the evidence we've got”, she explains.
- Processed foods were part of the Paleolithic diet
One of the main attractions of today’s Paleo diet is the belief that it is somehow going back to nature; that it reflects the foods and practices humans had before large-scale food processing became a part of everyday life.
But from avoiding cyanide poisoning from wild almond kernels through to storing food and improving a food’s flavour, basic food processing like grinding, mashing, soaking or roasting was common for Paleolithic hunters.
“There’s definitely a misconception in that perhaps some people think Paleolithic hunters may have just lived under a tree, opened their mouths and foods just fell inside,” says Ceren. “To say… people didn’t necessarily process foods as much in the past… is very much out of line with what we’re seeing… from archaeological evidence.”
- Food storage was also commonplace
The original Paleolithic diet did not, it appears, leave chance and fortune to guide its way: hunters from that age seemingly started to focus on food storage before the age of farming.
Permanent dwellings and food processing technology are two advances, in particular, that Ceren believes show an unappreciated level of sophistication in Paleolithic hunters.
“We were doing all sorts of things,” she says, “that we would think as complicated behaviours or complex actions to do with planning the use of our food resources much before farming ever came into the picture.”
- Taste was a bigger factor than many imagine
While Paleolithic hunters did not have the choices of a modern-day consumer, Ceren is convinced that enjoyment of food was still a crucial part of families and communities living and surviving together.
Ceren says: “I don’t think people in the past simply ate to survive… There's also attachments we make with the taste and smells of food from a very early age. It's what bonds us together as groups of people living together or as societies. Even today it forms an integral part of our identity, so why not in the past?”
- Paleolithic people might not have enjoyed the “Paleo diet”
The success of the modern Paleo diet is based on the idea that it is healthier because it takes us back to a more wholesome, innocent time, where Paleolithic people simply ate to survive and food was natural and unprocessed, unsullied by modern methods of cultivation and manufacture. But Ceren suggest this is an oversimplification.
“There are definitely things we can learn from the past, in terms of not putting so much sugar in our bodies and preparing most of our foods ourselves or cooking at home. That can change the health of your diet immensely…But at the end of the day, there's no real reason to be puritans about it,” says Ceren.
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