5 Rules for the Paleo Diet from Actual Paleolithic Humans

rez-art/iStock via Getty Images
rez-art/iStock via Getty Images

The paleo diet, also known as the hunter-gatherer diet or the Stone Age diet, recommends eating lean meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, and nuts—foods available to our Paleolithic era ancestors—for optimum health in the modern era. The regimen excludes grains and dairy products, since paleo enthusiasts believe those foods emerged in the human diet less than 12,000 years ago, after the advent of agriculture.

But the Paleolithic era began at least 2.5 million years ago, and human diets have altered over that time. Just in the past decade, our impression of what ancient humans ate has changed drastically. If you’re seeking diet advice from some actual paleo humans, try these five rules based on recent archaeological findings that have revolutionized our understanding of the real paleo diet.

1. Scavenge your meat.

Our first tip takes us to Ethiopia, the cradle of humanity. In 2009, paleoanthropologists there found 3.4-million-year-old animal bones with cut marks from stone tools that indicated butchering. The marks were particularly significant because they suggested that the Paleolithic era, or Old Stone Age—when early human ancestors created and used stone tools—began 800,000 years earlier than previously thought. The animal bones were so old that the beings using the tools weren’t even human; they were early hominins, probably Australopithecus afarensis. Previously, stone tool use was attributed only to our genus, Homo, which emerged about 2.5 million years ago.

The two animal bones came from “an impala-sized creature, the other from one closer in size to a buffalo," researchers reported in Nature. They concluded that our early ancestors didn’t hunt the game; they scavenged it by butchering the meat from an existing carcass, likely the prey of another large predator. Scavenging is an important step in human evolution that differentiated hominins from apes. "Chimpanzees do not recognize large animals or carcasses killed by other animals as food," Paleolithic archaeologist David Braun told Nature at the time. "At some point, hominins did.”

2. Cook your dinner over an open fire.

A 300,000-year-old hearth in Israel, reported in the Journal of Archaeological Science in 2014, is the earliest physical evidence of humans consistently building fire over a period of time. The hearth demonstrates that humans controlled fire for their daily needs, which also suggests that the people had a social structure and increased intellectual capacity. Stone tools for butchering and charred animal bones found nearby indicate that the people were cooking meat.

But our cooking skills may go back even further: A deposit of 1-million-year-old ash was found in South Africa’s Wonderwerk Cave. Anthropologist Richard Wrangham has proposed a theory—the Cooking Theory—that suggests learning to cook our food promoted the development of brains that are massive compared to those of other primates. By unlocking nutrients and reducing the time we had to spend chewing, cooking allowed hominins to spend time learning other skills. For this theory to correlate with our known evolutionary path, humans would have had to be cooking with fire about 2 million years ago.

3. Eat your starches and veggies.

The paleo diet, and other low-carb diets, are famously meat-heavy. That M.O. reflected the prevailing theory that early humans, particularly Neanderthals, ate meat almost exclusively. But our understanding of paleo human dining changed in 2014 after the discovery of some fossilized human poop in southern Spain, reported in the journal PLOS ONE. The 50,000-year-old coprolite is the oldest-known human feces. Chemical analysis revealed that the donor did eat meat, but also ate his or her share of vegetables.

Evidence of plant consumption has also been found on Neanderthal tools, and even in their calcified dental plaque. In 2017, Australian researchers analyzed dental calculus dating to 50,000 years ago and turned up a variety of carbohydrates and starch granules from plants, but very few lipids or proteins from meat. Neanderthals seemed to be broadly omnivorous, and in some areas, primarily plant eaters.

4. Go ahead, gorge on grains.

The modern paleo diet forbids all grains, arguing that grain production was a result of the development of agriculture about 12,000 years ago and came after the optimal paleolithic period. The no-grain rule, however, doesn’t reflect the diet of actual paleo humans.

At another ancient site in Israel, Ohalo II on the Sea of Galilee, occupied about 20,000 years ago, researchers found uncultivated wheat and barley alongside an oven-like hearth. The wild grains were harvested with flint blades, processed, and baked. Additionally, analysis of 40,000-year-old dental plaque obtained from human teeth found in Iraq and Belgium indicated the presence of cooked grains.

Both of these discoveries predate the development of agriculture by tens of thousands of years, showing humans living in different places were consuming grains, and perhaps some version of bread, during the Paleolithic era.

5. Eat sweets sparingly.

Paleo humans liked the sweet stuff when they could get it, including wild treats like dates and honey. How do we know? Then as now, one of the effects of sugar in one’s diet is the appearance of tooth cavities. In 2015, Italian researchers found the oldest known evidence of dental work in a 14,000-year-old molar, which showed markings from sharp tools used to dig out rotten tissue. Two years later, the same team of scientists discovered the oldest known filling, dating back roughly 13,000 years. An incisor showed a cavity that had been drilled and plugged with bitumen, a semi-solid form of petroleum. Cavities were not thought to be a major part of human experience until after the advent of agriculture, but these paleo chompers suggest otherwise.

Why Do We Eat Candy on Halloween?

Jupiterimages/iStock via Getty Images
Jupiterimages/iStock via Getty Images

On October 31, hordes of children armed with Jack-o'-lantern-shaped buckets and pillow cases will take to the streets in search of sugar. Trick-or-treating for candy is synonymous with Halloween, but the tradition had to go through a centuries-long evolution to arrive at the place it is today. So how did the holiday become an opportunity for kids to get free sweets? You can blame pagans, Catholics, and candy companies.

Historians agree that a Celtic autumn festival called Samhain was the precursor to modern Halloween. Samhain was a time to celebrate the last harvest of the year and the approach of the winter season. It was also a festival for honoring the dead. One way Celtics may have appeased the spirits they believed still walked the Earth was by leaving treats on their doorsteps.

When Catholics infiltrated Ireland in the 1st century CE, they rebranded many pagan holidays to fit their religion. November 1 became the “feasts of All Saints and All Souls," and the day before it was dubbed "All-Hallows'-Eve." The new holidays looked a lot different from the original Celtic festival, but many traditions stuck around, including the practice of honoring the dead with food. The food of choice for Christians became "soul cakes," small pastries usually baked with expensive ingredients and spices like currants and saffron.

Instead of leaving them outside for passing ghosts, soul cakes were distributed to beggars who went door-to-door promising to pray for souls of the deceased in exchange for something to eat. Sometimes they wore costumes to honor the saints—something pagans originally did to avoid being harassed by evil spirits. The ritual, known as souling, is believed to have planted the seeds for modern-day trick-or-treating.

Souling didn't survive the holiday's migration from Europe to the United States. In America, the first Halloween celebrations were a way to mark the end-of-year harvest season, and the food that was served mainly consisted of homemade seasonal treats like caramel apples and mixed nuts. There were no soul cakes—or candies, for that matter—to be found.

It wasn't until the 1950s that trick-or-treating gained popularity in the U.S. Following the Great Depression and World War II, the suburbs were booming, and people were looking for excuses to have fun and get to know their neighbors. The old practice of souling was resurrected and made into an excuse for kids to dress up in costumes and roam their neighborhoods. Common trick-or-treat offerings included nuts, coins, and homemade baked goods ("treats" that most kids would turn their noses up at today).

That changed when the candy companies got their hands on the holiday. They had already convinced consumers that they needed candy on Christmas and Easter, and they were looking for an equally lucrative opportunity to market candy in the fall. The new practice of trick-or-treating was almost too good to be true. Manufacturers downsized candies into smaller, bite-sized packages and began marketing them as treats for Halloween. Adults were grateful to have a convenient alternative to baking, kids loved the sweet treats, and the candy companies made billions.

Today, it's hard to imagine Halloween without Skittles, chocolate bars, and the perennial candy corn debates. But when you're digging through a bag or bowl of Halloween candy this October, remember that you could have been having eating soul cakes instead.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Make Your Own Mouthwatering Pizza With Tomatoes From Frank Pepe’s

eugenesergeev/iStock via Getty Images
eugenesergeev/iStock via Getty Images

If you live in a rural area, the hunt for a quality slice of pizza—especially at a late hour—can be enough to make you consider moving to a pizza capital like New York. But what if you had the secret ingredient for a perfect pie right in your own kitchen?

Frank Pepe Pizzeria Italiana, the iconic New Haven establishment recently crowned America’s best pizzeria, is selling cans of its hand-selected tomatoes that you can purchase online or at any of its locations across Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York.

Like any good "secret" ingredient, the tomatoes that Frank Pepe’s chefs use in their critically acclaimed sauces are a little different than your regular grocery store pickings. Food & Wine reports that each year, Frank Pepe’s grandsons (now restaurant co-owners) conduct a blind taste test of several different tomato varieties harvested from farms in Naples, Italy, and decide which ones are worthy of being used in their pizza products. According to the pizzeria's website, “It’s not just a matter of taste, but of the tomatoes’ density, texture, and transition of flavor once they are cooked.”


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Of course, there’s more than one reason Frank Pepe’s pizzas are considered the gold standard in America. To achieve that famous “crisp, charred, chewy crust,” the pizzas are baked in a coal-fired oven rather than a wood-burning one. There’s also the fact that Frank Pepe and his ancestors have been perfecting the Neapolitan art of pizza-making for nearly a century (the pizzeria was founded in 1925). In other words: Don’t be disappointed if your first crack at a heavenly homemade pizza doesn’t come out exactly like the mouthwatering pictures on Frank Pepe’s website. Having said that, the magic of hand-chosen Naples tomatoes is sure to make your creation considerably better than any of its frozen, store-bought brethren.

You can order a pack of three cans of tomatoes for $10 here.

[h/t Food & Wine]

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