This will be the last installment in the Ancestral Health series, and I may indulge myself and expound a little. I have been getting quite a lot of mail in response to this series, and a question that has come up repeatedly has been: Is there a right way that the Paleo diet can be practiced? I am going to address that, but first, I want to point out that the whole idea of trying to eat like the Caveman is, for lack of a better term, a romantic idea, and by romantic, I mean imbued with imagery, idealism, and even idolatry. But, before you let the romance go to your head, keep this in mind: Paleolithic Man was a cannibal.
I first became aware of that from reading Women, Sex, and Food in History by Soledad de Montalvo- a book I have mentioned before. It is actually a four-volume series, an unvarnished and politically incorrect history of western civilization. And she starts with Paleolithic Man and provides evidence that he was, indeed, a cannibal.
Evidence of cannibalism centers around finding butchering marks on human bones- the same kind of marks found on the bones of food animals, breakage of long human bones for marrow extraction, cutmarks and chopmarks resulting from the skinning, defleshing, and evisceration of humans- just like those seen on the bones of food animals. The identification of human tissue in fossilized human feces has also confirmed the practice of human cannabilism.
Such evidence of cannibalism has been found at Gran Dolina a paleolithic site in Spain, Moula-Guercy a Neanderthal site in France, Klaises River Caves a paleolithic site in South Africa, Fontbrgoua a mesolithic site in France, and Sierra de Atapuerca, another Spanish site, and many more. Cannibalism was practiced widely in primeval Great Britain, with evidence of it found, for instance, at Gough’s Cave. And there is ample evidence that cannibalism was practiced in the Americas and by the Australian Aboriginals and New Zealand Maoris.
Why did people eat people? A better a question might be, why not? After all, we have a taboo against it, but why should we impart that taboo to Paleolithic Man? He didn’t have our hangups. And even our taboo is not absolute. Today, there are people in many places who devour the human placenta after birth. Tom Cruise said he was going to eat the placenta after his wife gave birth in 2006. In 1998, a prominent French chef cooked human placenta on television and served it to dinner guests. I was invited once to a post-birth celebration where placenta was being served. I didn’t attend.
Paleolithic Man may have regarded the eating of human flesh as a natural consequence to winning in battle. He may have given ritualistic meaning to it- a way to absorb the spirit and energy of his foes. Or, he may have hunted people just like any other prey- to secure a meal. Obviously, today, we don’t kill and eat each other- unless we are as deranged as Jeffrey Dahmer. However, I think it’s worth noting that- argumentatively- cannibalism is as consistent with the paradigm of the paleolithic diet as anything else.
And it’s just one reason why I think we should reject the whole paradigm. Paleolithic Man had his conditions, resources, and faculties, which led to his choices and actions, and we have our conditions, resources, and faculties, which should lead to our choices and actions. He was stuck in an ice-age; we are not. He had no way to exploit, concentrate, and expand the best of what Nature had to offer; we do. He had instinct and cunning but no knowledge. We have vast knowledge and extraordinary means that he was incapable of even dreaming of. The idea that we should take dietetic lessons from him makes no more sense than that we should take science lessons, music lessons, or any other kind of lessons from him.
But, what about the Theory of Evolution? Doesn’t that force our hand? No, of course not. Hopefully, I have convinced you that the Theory of Evolution is the biggest fraud in the history of science. It’s even bigger than the one about steel skyscrapers collapsing straight down at free-fall speed due to fire. The idea that the complexity of life was brought about my random mutations undergoing natural selection is a mathematician’s nightmare. They don’t buy it, and neither should you.
I think it’s altogether whacky for us to try to eat like the Cavemen. But, I don’t overestimate my powers of persuasion. I realize that some people are enchanted by the lore of it all and will remain so. Do I have any practical advice for them? Yes, I do.
First, if you are going to eat like a hunter/gatherer, do a lot more gathering than hunting. It may have been the opposite for the Caveman, but he didn’t have a choice, and you do. Plant food is abundant in your world, available year-round, so make the most of it.
You have no reason to eat a lot of meat. You don’t need all that protein, and you don’t need all that iron. Paleos like to talk a lot about genetics, but remember that, by virtue of genetics, human mammary glands make the lowest protein milk on the planet- with less than 1% protein by weight. And that’s true across the whole Family of Man and regardless of what diet is eaten by the mother: the amount of protein in breast milk always remains low.
And remember, an excess of dietary protein is the most burdensome dietary excess that there is. That’s what strains your liver and kidneys. In animals, it has been shown to accelerate aging. You should eat enough protein to maintain structure and function but not for fuel. You don’t want to throw it on the fire like a log. And the fact is: most of the calories we consume are for the purpose of burning fuel.
So, even if you want to go paleo, build your diet around plants. Eat fruits, berries, and melons. Eat vegetables of all kinds, both raw and cooked. And include some tubers in your diet. Tubers are not anathema to paleolithic eating. It is widely recognized that hunter/gatherers, of the past and the present, have eaten and do eat tubers. I realize that there is a lot of bias against white potatoes today, which I think is unfounded. But, if you are influenced by it, then eat sweet potatoes instead. Sweet potatoes are very nutritious. They are one of the highest antioxidant foods, including carotenoids and Vitamin C. And they are completely unrelated to white potatoes.
Then, eat raw nuts. Nuts have been human foods for countless millennia. Walnuts, just like those eaten today, were growing profusely in Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, over one million years ago. And, we know for a fact that our ancestors were eating them. They even stored them in their caves.
And although it took much longer for humans to reach North America, when they got here, they had no problem taking to the native pecans, beechnuts, hickory nuts, butternuts, black walnuts, and chestnuts. And don’t forget about the nut-like seeds, such as sunflower seeds, which the hunter/gatherers of North America gathered long before there was agriculture.
I can understand your resistance to grains. After all, grains are grass seeds, and we have no visceral attraction to grass as food. And in Nature, cereal grains are commonly eaten by birds which have gizzards to grind them. And even after soaking and cooking, whole grains are texturally difficult for humans to eat. It’s no accident that none of the vast human populations that adopted rice as a staple went for brown rice. It was all white rice- even in antiquity. Why? I suspect it’s because humans have an inborn sense about how long foods should be chewed and masticated. The urge to swallow kicks in long before brown rice is thoroughly broken down and liquefied. And, I know for a fact that a large percentage of the brown rice people eat goes right through them- unchewed and undigested. And, it probably doesn’t matter for most adults- it may even be an advantage- but what about for growing children? Inadequate growth has been documented among European and other children raised on the so-called “macrobiotic” diet, which includes a lot of brown rice. Kids just don’t chew it up enough. It’s also noteworthy that dentists have reported that the teeth of brown rice eaters get worn down a lot, and I mean to an extraordinary degree. I still eat brown rice, but not very often. And when I do eat it, I consciously think about chewing it up carefully and resisting the urge to swallow too soon.
But, let’s forget about grains. I don’t expect any paleo to eat them. But what about legumes? Legumes do not start off as grass. Legumes start off as vegetables, podded vegetables. And when we use them in the dry state, we are really just reconstituting something that was originally a vegetable.
I used to live in the small town of Yorktown, Texas, which is about an hour’s drive southeast of San Antonio. In Yorktown, vegetable gardens were very common because the native soil there is very good: deep, black, and loamy. And at the start of the growing season in late February, people would plant pinto beans. But, they grew them as vegetables, not beans. Pinto beans make a wonderful green bean, and they are truly a “string bean.” You have to pull the strings off before cooking them. We don’t see string beans any more in the markets. Farmers have all gone to hybrid, stringless, green beans because that’s what people want. But, the old-fashioned string beans were much more flavorful, including pinto beans. They are absolutely delicious.
I have not tried to grow pinto beans where I am now in Buda, Texas, which is just a little south of Austin. For one thing, the native soil here is terrible, horrible. It won’t grow anything. You have to import this man-made blend of rice hulls, granite dust, manure, and other ingredients that they call soil, but which looks nothing like real soil, and then grow in a raised bed. It does work to some extent, and I have grown successfully another vegetable from my Yorktown days: black-eyed peas. Black-eyed peas are beautiful. The bushes are very dark green with shiny leaves. The blossoms are pearly white. And the “fruits” are very striking: long pods with large, elliptical seeds that strain and bulge the jackets like a series of bicep muscles. You can see the strength in it. If you water them, black-eyed peas will grow and produce all summer long- even in 100 degree heat. And they are a delight to eat. I eat the whole thing, pods and all. I just plop them in the steamer and let them steam for 10 or 15 minutes. They’re delicious, and they go down easy. It’s not like eating brown rice. They dissolve in your mouth readily, and there is no disconnect between the amount of chewing needed and your urge to swallow. And I’m willing to bet that, except for Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D, fresh black-eyed peas have some of everything that the human body needs. They are very close to being a complete food.
And why anybody, in our time or in paleolithic time, would not consider this good eating is a mystery to me. For me, it has a visceral attraction as food.
And, I suggest you don’t get caught up in the fuss about anti-nutrients in beans and legumes. They are well neutralized by cooking. And, legumes are one of the most nutritious foods on the planet. According to the USDA, of the 5 foods highest in antioxidants, 3 of them are legumes.
Boyd Eaton, in The Paleolithic Prescription, one of the first paleo diet books, did allow legumes. Subsequent paleo writers, such as Loren Cordain, have trashed them, but it’s interesting that some paleo advocates have allowed dairy products. Michael Eades, for example, speaks of preparing food in butter. And Mark Sisson speaks of eating Greek yogurt and certain cheeses, and it makes no sense to me. You can’t milk a wild animal. Animal husbandry went along with agriculture- not with hunting and gathering. I suppose, if asked, they would admit that they are cheating when they eat dairy products. However, I say if you are going to cheat on pure paleoism, ditch the milk, and fix yourself some nice beans. Get yourself some Anasazi beans, which are red and white and oh so tasty. Cook them up with onions and garlic and tomato paste; maybe use a little extra virgin olive oil; and then at the end, add some basil and oregano. That is tasty eating. That is good, satisfying, hearty eating.
Oh! But, what about meat in your paleolithic diet? Well, if you want it, just eat it moderately, certainly not more than once a day. Just a have a several-ounce portion, and eat it with a large quantity of vegetables. Or, have fish that way instead. There is no reason to eat flesh-food more than once a day. And avoid dairy products completely. Why eat them? It isn’t paleolithic, and it isn’t healthy. But, if your cholesterol isn’t too high, and you enjoy eggs, you could eat a high-quality egg sometimes. But , I suggest limiting it to one. Don’t push your luck. Make plants the bulk of your diet and the bulk of every meal.
Well, that completes our look at the paleolithic diet- for now. Thank you for reading, and I hope you enjoyed the ride. Next time, we’ll tackle a new subject.