An archaeologist looks at the paleo diet

What does this have to do with herbs and plant medicine? Is this another weird post like that one about horses? I imagine you asking.

Paleo diet fail.

Paleo diet fail.

I’ve always looked at food and plant medicine as inextricably intertwined. As Hippocrates said, “Let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food.” Humans eat plants; plants contain substances that affect our body chemistry and processes. Many of us humans also eat animals, which ate plants, and thereby those plants are still affecting us, though indirectly. Even though we may not look at, say, broccoli as medicinal, as long as we regard it as “good for us,” why shouldn’t we view it as medicine? I try to look at all my food as medicine, and rather than think about the things I “shouldn’t” eat, I generally try to focus on the many things I should eat to get all the medicine I need to maintain a healthy body.

Also, on a less-abstract, more personal note, this is something I have been forced to think about because I have started seeing an acupuncturist who made some dietary suggestions. I opted for an acupuncturist as a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine, and I did this because there are no other healers in my area who approach health in such a holistic way. Over the years I’ve consulted many MDs (including all my friends from college except the two who are lawyers) about the things that are “wrong” with my body, and each symptom was treated in isolation from all the others–unsuccessfully. As a result, some of these symptoms have been plaguing me since puberty. I do not want to be still dealing with them when menopause comes a-knockin.’ Anyway long story short (too late), I’ve had to do my own research over the years and that led me to suspect that many, if not all, of my long-term symptoms were related and were due to the same cause…whatever it might be. Through a combination of a Western holistic practitioner and an acupuncturist, I finally seem to have gotten a handle on it. I expect I’ll write about it in more detail later, because it is a major part of my herbal education to date.

ANYWAY, the acupuncturist said that I was suffering from what is called “blood deficiency” in traditional Chinese medicine (which encompasses what is called chronic fatigue and adrenal burnout in quasi-conventional Western medicine, and is called “there’s nothing wrong with you” in fully-conventional Western medicine). She suggested that I might benefit from the paleo diet.

So now you see we’re getting to the meat of the story (sorry, couldn’t help myself).

I didn’t know much about the paleo diet (henceforth PD because I’m lazy) except that it purported to be similar to the diet of our ancient ancestors. And based on this, and because I’m an archaeologist, I admit I totally rolled my eyes at it. Because:

  • Which ancestors are we talking about here? Pre-agricultural, ok, but that means different things in different places and 15,000 years ago was very different from 50,000.
  • Exactly why are some–and only some–agricultural foods supposed to be bad for you? White potatoes bad but cabbage good?
  • What you hear about human evolution and hunter-gatherers in the popular media is largely crap.
  • We know almost nothing about dietary details in the wayback. I mean, we can certainly identify whether a species was an omnivore vs. a herbivore vs. a carnivore, but the thing to remember here is that most bones don’t survive to become fossils. Even less survives of plant remains. We are working with very small samples here.

In case you have been living on the moon and haven’t heard of the PD (remember that’s paleo diet, not police department), there are many variations, but the basic outline is that one’s diet should include meats, fish, fats, and vegetables, and smaller quantities of fruits and nuts. No grains, no white potatoes, no legumes, and no refined sugars (some say no sugars at all). Some say no dairy. The meat should be grass-fed and -finished and the fish wild-caught. Organic veggies, natch. “Paleo” of course derives from “Palaeolithic,” as in, around 250,000-12,00o years ago. (That’s the part of the Palaeolithic when anatomically modern humans were around.) You know, the time of cave paintings, Neandertals, and woolly mammoths.

Paleo dos and don'ts.

Paleo dos and don’ts.

Well, it turns out that I am just too poor to do the PD. (And don’t tell me, “Really? Couldn’t you just skip your Starbucks latte once a week?” because are you kidding me?!, I can’t afford Starbucks ever, let alone once a week.) The fact is that the two cheapest categories of food are starches and legumes. I could give up one, but not both. For me this is made more difficult because raw foods are also off limits for me right now, so no salads. And there are no local producers of affordable pastured meats or animal fats.

But also, while I think the general PD guidelines are probably pretty healthy (disclaimer: I am not a nutritionist), I remain skeptical of the total package simply because it doesn’t pass my prehistorical accuracy test.  Allow me to elaborate…

Palaeolithic diet, hunter-gatherer diet

The parts of the Palaeolithic in which anatomically modern humans existed are the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic. Much of that time, though not all, was a period of intensely cold climate (the ice ages). We have some fossils, both of people and of animals they killed, but we really don’t know much about what plants or small critters they may have eaten. So we conjecture based on what is known of the diets of modern (i.e., since the 19th century) hunter-gatherer cultures. The problem with this is that modern hunter-gatherers are barely eking out an existence in marginal environments. All of them have been living near and interacting with farmers for the last 10,000+ years. Also, in modern times we haven’t had any ice ages of the sort that dominated much of the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic periods. My point is modern hunter-gatherers are not an exact analogue for prehistoric humans.

We just don’t know that much about human diet before the inventions of agriculture (separate inventions in China, Mexico, and the Fertile Crescent). We know that among modern hunter-gatherers, gathered plant foods and small game make up the vast majority of the diet. We also know that all humans crave salt (a necessary nutrient) and sugar and fat (dense sources of energy). We also can’t synthesize Vitamin C in our own bodies so we require plants that have it (berries and other fruits). That’s about it for dietary universals.

Early agriculture

In many ways, agriculture seemed like a great idea but actually was not.

Farmers have to work long and hard for their food–way harder than hunter-gatherers (even though my students always seemed convinced that people adopted farming to save time…clearly these students didn’t know any actual farmers).

In order to get a good yield from farming, you really have to commit to it, and once you’re committed you don’t have time to do all that hunting and gathering and you end up with a greatly reduced variety in your diet. This means poorer nutrition and that you are at the mercy of blights, soil depletion, and bad weather, where a hunter-gatherer would have hundreds of food resources and could, if necessary, pick up sticks and go somewhere with more food or water.

Farmers also keep livestock–in some regions, livestock herding pre-dates plant domestication–and when you live up close and personal with critters you get their diseases–flu, chicken pox, cow pox, smallpox, polio, etc. etc. etc.–and their parasites.

There are, of course, benefits to agriculture. All the early domesticated crops are ones whose seeds can be dried and stored indefinitely, or traded. And you can make booze with them (and indeed this seems to have been one of the major motivators in the spread of agriculture.) Different types of livestock provide various resources–dairy, honey, eggs, wool, transportation, traction, pest control, or burden-carrying.

The thing is, humans have been doing this now for upwards of 10,000 years. Not in all regions, of course. There has only been agriculture in Japan for about 3,000 years, for example. But even before the local population had adopted farming, they were often trading food with farmers; in other words, they were eating grains and legumes too. Hunter-gatherers, at least as observed in modern times, just do not say no to a calorie-dense food source. What that means is that we’ve had a lot of time to adapt to a diet that includes domesticated plants and animals. I’m not arguing that it’s perfect for our health–but the claim that our ancestors from 15,000 years ago were somehow more authentic than our ancestors from 9,000 years ago or 2,000 years ago or indeed 20 years ago is both arbitrary and specious. People didn’t stop evolving right before they invented farming. It’s a popular fantasy, though–that we have somehow lost the wisdom possessed by our noble-savage forbears. Even the ancient Greeks believed they had “fallen” since the old days.

Speaking of the ancient Greeks, this is something I’ve mentioned before in the context of herbalism, but Western cultures have a real fondness for the concept of detoxing that goes at least as far back as Hippocrates. We are not so much interested in health as harmony and balance, as Chinese medicine is, for example. We are addicted to the idea that our bodies are infiltrated by organisms and substances which are the cause of illness, so that we must be cleansed periodically. I believe this is why “diet,” for Westerners, typically means abstention from specific substances. I find it telling that we even refer to bulimics “purging” themselves, because what else do you purge? Sin. Toxins.

Rest assured that this toxing-and-detoxing cycle is part of a culturally-specific view of healing, and is neither universal nor an especially faithful representation of reality. I’m not denying the existence of germs or toxic chemicals, but I wonder if we’d ever have even thought to look for them if we didn’t have a preconception of the body as subject to invasion and a view of disease that is, fundamentally, poisoning.



The facts are loud and clear–our diet today is very poor compared to 100 years ago, but this isn’t because we eat delicious baked beans on toast. It’s because we eat species of plants that have been stripped of nutrients in favor of sugary sweetness, blandness, or resistance to bruising in transport, and grown on depleted soils; animals that have been fed food they can’t readily extract nutrition from, along with hormones and antibiotics, and which have had very little lean-meat-building exercise in their short lives–animals which have been bred for generations to be fattier; we rely on too few species/varieties of plants; we don’t ferment as much; and we’re lazy about cooking our own food.

If you have access to meat, bones, etc. from pastured animals and organic heirloom fruits and vegetables grown on rich soils, then I think the paleo diet is probably great. I suspect, however, that the benefit comes not from the foods you’re not eating but from the nutrient density of what you are eating. Avoiding sugar is probably all for the best, since we get waaaaaaay too much of it (although you’ll have to pry my raw honey from my cold, dead hands). But if you’re eating food from an ordinary supermarket you’re losing most of those potential nutrients, and in that case I doubt the paleo diet is really that much better than any low-glycemic-index diet. I confess the idea that the paleo diet–which appears to be based on an ice age climate where the available edible species could only be viewed as suboptimal for a creature that evolved in tropical Africa–is supposed to be better for us seems silly to me.

Now, you may have tried the paleo diet and had great results–I might have great results too if I could afford it. It’s also possible that there are nuances that I don’t understand, because I gave up researching its variations when I discovered it was prohibitively expensive. I don’t know. Again, let me stress that I am not trying to talk anyone out of the paleo diet. Rather, I am pointing out the errors in the just-so story that underpins the regimen. Accept the diet if you want, but take the story with a massive block of salt. The paleo diet could be right–but if so, it’s right for the wrong reasons.


6 thoughts on “An archaeologist looks at the paleo diet

    • They absolutely do eat insects, as do some people who aren’t hunter-gatherers. Who knows what I’m missing out on…

  1. An impressive share! I have just forwarded this onto a coworker who had been conducting a little research on this.
    And he in fact ordered me dinner due to the
    fact that I stumbled upon it for him… lol. So allow me to reword this….
    Thanks for the meal!! But yeah, thanks for
    spending some time to discuss this topic here
    on your website.

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