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.

The Disputed Origins of Publix’s Chicken Tender Subs

Josh Hallett, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Josh Hallett, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

After Popeyes released its new chicken sandwich last week, a heated battle broke out on Twitter over which fast food chain offers the best one. Favorites included Chick-fil-A, Wendy’s, and KFC, but the Publix chicken tender sub was mostly absent from the dialogue. Maybe it’s because Publix is a supermarket rather than a fast food restaurant, or maybe the southern chain is too specific to Florida and its neighboring states to warrant a national ranking.

Either way, the chicken tender sub is a cult culinary classic among Publix customers—there’s even an independently run website devoted to announcing when the subs are on sale (they aren’t right now), and affiliated Facebook and Twitter accounts with tens of thousands of followers. So whom do sub devotees have to thank for inventing the Publix food mashup from heaven? A Facebook user named Dave Charls says, “Me!,” but Publix begs to differ.

The Tampa Bay Times reported that in May of this year, a man named Dave Charls posted a message on the “Are Publix Chicken Tender Subs On Sale?” Facebook page recounting his origin story for the menu item, which allegedly took place in 1997 or 1998. At Charls explains it, he and his co-worker Kevin convinced their friend Philip, a deli worker at the Fleming Island Publix location, to assemble a sub with chicken tenders and ring it up as one item—something that deli workers had refused to do for Dave and Kevin in the past. According to Dave, Philip then convinced his manager to make it a special, publicized it via chalkboard sign, and the idea spread like hot sauce.

“You’re welcome,” Charls said. “It was actually Kevin’s idea and Philip brought it to life.”

Publix, however, told the Tampa Bay Times that its recorded documentation for a chicken tender sub recipe and procedure goes all the way back to 1992 or 1993. Based on that information, Publix spokesperson Brian West confirmed that Charls's heroic account of the origin is more fairytale than fact (though West, unfortunately, doesn’t have an equally thrilling origin story—or any story at all—with which to replace it).

Charls didn’t respond to a request from the Tampa Bay Times for comment, so we may never know how much of his claim is actually true. It’s possible, of course, that Publix’s 1992 (or 1993) chicken tender sub recipe hadn’t gained momentum by the time Kevin’s moment of culinary genius struck in 1997 (or 1998), and the lack of date specificity suggests that neither party knows exactly how it went down. What is incontrovertible, however, is the deliciousness of Publix's beloved sub sandwich.

"I'm just happy to live in the same timeline as this beautiful sandwich," says die-hard Pub Sub fan (and Mental Floss video producer/editor) Justin Dodd. “Copyright claims aside, it's truly a wonderful thing."

This London Pub Might Be the Most Ethical Bar in the World

Ridofranz/Getty Images
Ridofranz/Getty Images

Pub owner Randy Rampersad is doing his part for sustainability. In June, he opened the Green Vic—a play on the fictional Queen Vic pub in the soap opera EastEnders—in the East London neighborhood of Shoreditch. The Telegraph reports it’s aiming to be the world’s most ethical pub: Rampersad eschews plastic and paper straws and opts for gluten-free wheat “straws.” He sources the bar's 100 percent recycled toilet paper from green-minded company Who Gives a Crap, and the communal wooden tables are upcycled.

“I wanted to make the world a better place and run my own business, but I was waiting for that eureka moment,” Rampersad told The Telegraph. He discovered no one had done anything like this before.

There’s no meat on the menu—the food is totally vegan, healthy-ish pub grub. You can add CBD oil to the “chkn" bites appetizer, and the burgers are made from ingredients like soy, seaweed, and sweet potato. The beers are produced by ethical brewers, too: Toast Ale uses unsold loaves and crusts of bread; Good Things Brewing crafts its beer from 100 percent renewable energy; South Africa’s Afro Vegan Cider donates money to an organization that funds equal pay for female farmers; and Brewgooder donates to water projects.

In fact, everything the Green Vic does has charity in mind. “We don't care about the money, I’m planet first and profit after,” Rampersad told The Telegraph. Up to 80 percent of its profits will go to charitable causes, including local food banks. As for the staff, one in four are from marginalized groups. The Green Vic plans to operate as a three-month pop-up pub while scouting for longer term investment.

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