Proper ancient grains and the real paleo diet

Ringo Starr's Atouk gets kissed by a strange plant in the 1981 film Caveman.

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I’ve got a bit of an issue with fad diets. The “Paleo” is one that particularly irks me, not just for the farcical idea that wealthy westerners eating steak and avocado somehow equates with a caveman diet, but also because evidence is increasingly showing it’s a misnomer.

The familiar narrative of the emergence of modern humanity is that around around 10,000BC, we left behind the hunter-gatherer life of eating mostly animal protein and wild fruits and instead began domesticating animals and cultivating crops.

Our diet shifted to one where grains from members of the grass family (wheat, barley, rice, millet etc) and legumes became the staples. Fast forward 12,000 years and people in California decided such foods make you fat and you instead you have to live on the aforementioned steak and avos, totally ignoring small things like, ooh, the environmental implications of all 7 billion of us shifting to a meat-centric diet.

Anyway, a couple of things in the news recently have caught my attention as they contradict the notion that we didn’t really eat much grain before the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution. I’ve got my dad to thank for notifying me of this one, as there was an inch – just one column inch – in his newspaper last week and not a mention in the papers I read. Weird, considering how many column inches fad diets get.

So, new research indicates that oats were ground to make a rough flour or meal 32,000 years ago. That is, firmly in the Palaeolithic era. This was the conclusion of a team from the University of Florence, based on evidence from a tool found in the Paglicci caves in Puglia, southern Italy. In 1989, a kind of stone pestle or grinding tool was found in the cave. It was carefully stored, and a few years ago a new study began. The researchers were able to isolate and analyse starch residues from the tool. There were five types identified but the most common was Avena barbata, a species of wild oat. Another grass grain was a form of millet.

They also concluded that the oat grains were heated first. This would have dried them out and made them, and any resulting flour, more long-lasting. Such processing would also have made any resulting foods more digestible. There’s no way of knowing how the flour was consumed: mixed with water surely, but whether as a porridge or simple bread we cannot know. Apparently there hasn’t been much research in this area yet, partly as evidence is scarce: plant-based foodstuffs don’t really leave a lot of remains. However, it’s likely that the real paleo diet was more plant-based than the food faddists want to believe.

Some other recent research suggests that as the Homo brain enlarged and developed over the past three million years, it needed more carbs. After all, the human brain accounts for a large proportion of the body’s energy requirements: 25%, as well as 60% of blood glucose. And where do we get energy from most readily? Carbohydrates.

US archaeologist Dr Karen Hardy and her team suggest the focus in studies of ancient Homo diets should shift from animal protein to plant carbohydrates: tubers, cattails (starchy marsh plants) and grains. One indicator that Homo has long had a relationship with starchy plant based foods is the development of the amylase in human saliva within the past million years. Amylase is an enzyme that helps the breakdown of starch.

So when we think of Stone Age man, perhaps we should just envisage some hairy, heavy-browed folk with spears, picture them also with tools for gathering and processing starchy plants.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Proper ancient grains and the real paleo diet

  1. I’m wondering too what role fermented foods had back then – indeed how would we know beyond conjecture that it would have been somewhat inevitable.

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