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Paleo Timeline and Foods that were eaten

Answered on September 12, 2014
Created November 02, 2011 at 10:39 PM

Can anyone point me to a good website or book describing the general history of our human ancestors for the past 2 million years, what foods would be available to them and what was likely eaten and for what reasons.

ie, I have read that no seeds have been found in human feces remains until the neolithic era, meaning it is highly unlikely that we ever consumed these until that time. Also, something like 70% plus of foods wouldn't be available either because they were from the new world (tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, etc), or they were too unpalatable in their natural form (broccoli, kale, cauliflower, cabbage, apples etc) and took many years of selective breeding to make edible (I was going to say tasty but besides apples the other things require a heavy dose of sauce or spices to taste good - again making it unlikely they were eaten).

So what was truly available and likely to be eaten by paleo humans? As far as I can see:

  • Various meats/fats Fish/Shellfish
  • Insects/larvae Eggs Seasonal fruits- that were much less sweet and had far more seeds
  • Mushrooms/fungi Onions, any other root vegetables that don't require cooking?

It seems to me that a lot of the Paleo community is still trying to stick with conventional wisdom - that vegetables are ultra healthy. I know natural plants contain toxins because they don't want to be eaten. From what I have heard their nutrients are also poorly absorbed in most cases, sometimes less so when combined with a fat (I can't picture paleo humans doing that). What I'd like to know is what actual vegetables were available, and would they have been eaten due to their taste?

As mentioned above most vegetables today wouldn't be around, or if they were in a very unpalatable form - they would be more bitter and we weren't spicing them or dousing them in sauces. In order to meet our energy requirements, we would have had to had the vast majority of our diet as meat. But this is all my conjecture, can anyone point me to information one way or the other?

--

D12142c8cafb16d9af10b3362cb8fb62

(1590)

on September 07, 2013
at 01:28 AM

We didn't evolve in a particually seasonal climate; we're a tropical animal. Is it cold outside? Might wear a coat then; funnily enough we didn't need coats for the majority of hominid evolution. :-)

Medium avatar

(19479)

on November 30, 2011
at 08:15 PM

Arid grasslands therefore would have been novel to the original proto-human population and it is where we spent many formative generations. This environment provided different food resources (larger herbivorous game, tubers, etc.) than did the jungle.

Medium avatar

(19479)

on November 30, 2011
at 08:14 PM

Finbar, I'm sure humans, like coastal monkey species, capitalized on marine resources such as shellfish, crabs, etc. as soon as we came upon them. The point that I was making, however, is that our shared ancestor with the chimp likely lived in an environment similar to that of modern chimps (which is why chimps have changed less than we have) and as such likely consumed a similar frugivorous dietary. The great rift valley may have been the original geographic barrier between our shared ancestral population, with the chimp lineage on the forest side and us on the arid grassland side.

96bf58d8c6bd492dc5b8ae46203fe247

(37227)

on November 30, 2011
at 06:47 PM

The link is a fascinating read!

96bf58d8c6bd492dc5b8ae46203fe247

(37227)

on November 30, 2011
at 06:00 PM

The fruits that have been bred to be sweeter are northern fruits and they're still less sweet than many native tropical fruits in Africa. We evolved with the sweet tropical African fruits. I agree northern fruits have been tampered with but many have been made LESS sweet in order to handle transport better.

77877f762c40637911396daa19b53094

(78467)

on November 30, 2011
at 05:36 PM

Right. Glacial aridity was not the point. The glorilla dieback as a result of it causing lack of carbs was the point. You're not going to get a day-by-day description of the African Pleistocene status on a paleohacks webpage. What you're going to get is a nutshell version.

71e078b9000a360364fd039bae64dabf

(125)

on November 30, 2011
at 04:53 PM

FED: evidence demonstrates we were exploiting marine food sources long before leaving Africa, from at least 160,000 years ago. See Marean et al. (2007) in Nature for example.

96bf58d8c6bd492dc5b8ae46203fe247

(37227)

on November 30, 2011
at 04:25 PM

@RS, I gave the titles of her books at the end of my question. Excerpts are freely available on the net.

96bf58d8c6bd492dc5b8ae46203fe247

(37227)

on November 30, 2011
at 04:23 PM

@RS, I referred to 2 documents at the end of my question.

Medium avatar

(19479)

on November 30, 2011
at 02:25 PM

RS, check out "Catching fire : how cooking made us human" by Richard Wrangham.

D12142c8cafb16d9af10b3362cb8fb62

(1590)

on November 30, 2011
at 11:05 AM

Tropical fruit (as in the kind around where we evolved) is usually sweet. Classical western fruit (of course not all of them are native to the West) is bred to be what it is (sweeter than the natural variety) but there's quite a lot of sweet fruit in the tropics still. I think the reason we are so successful is we have many nutritious foods that we can exploit. -Large prey -Small prey -Tubers/roots -Shellfish/fish -Fruit All of these are present in the climate (the evidence points to) we evolved in.

D12142c8cafb16d9af10b3362cb8fb62

(1590)

on November 30, 2011
at 10:58 AM

Good thread though. :-)

D12142c8cafb16d9af10b3362cb8fb62

(1590)

on November 30, 2011
at 10:57 AM

I find the idea of vegetables being anything more than a last resort food in the paleolithic laughable. Who here seriously likes vegetables? We like fat, starch and sweet because these are the flavours linked to food. Vegetables are just bulk; nice to go with a meal if it calls for it; but they're ultimately not much different to spices.

1dd1d4bde5b46b4c90efeadea3a96a75

(180)

on November 30, 2011
at 10:19 AM

Interesting. From everything I have read wild fruit would still be much harder for us to extract calories from and much less appetizing I guess that's what I was getting at. For example the apple ancestor tastes like a tart potato with a bitter aftertaste. Wild bananas (and many other fruits) are packed with seeds making them difficult to eat. Wild berries in my experience are typically a fraction of the size of supermarket ones, much less sweet and vastly spread out making it difficult to make a meal out of. Of course their may be exceptions to all these, but I'd like to see references.

1dd1d4bde5b46b4c90efeadea3a96a75

(180)

on November 30, 2011
at 09:53 AM

The more I read, the more I come to the carnivorous conclusion as well. We can eat other things but it's unlikely we did. Except fruit, I think seasonally we must have gorged on this to fatten up, most people seem to have a very strong sweet tooth.

1dd1d4bde5b46b4c90efeadea3a96a75

(180)

on November 30, 2011
at 09:47 AM

Do you know any books that back up the above? For example from what I have read our ancestors didn't arrive in Australia, Europe or Asia until less that 50,000 years ago which is still relatively recent in our entire evolution. Also I think it's pure speculation that tubers were in the area and were a dietary staple based on the fact that modern hunter gatherers eat them. (The Masai consume copious amounts of milk and I don't think we can assume our ancestors did as well).

93ae9f2d376e5426e891a9b58d8302fa

(2936)

on November 03, 2011
at 11:12 PM

FED, I disagree. When all sorts of loose ends come together in a nice little knot, it's an epiphany.

Medium avatar

(19479)

on November 03, 2011
at 09:14 PM

Huey, the question of human origins is not an open an shut case. If we can be certain of anything, it is that we cannot ever be certain. I openly admit that anything I have ever posted is based on limited knowledge. We are the proverbial blind men trying to describe an elephant. The brightest minds of antiquity didn't "figure it out", the brightest minds of today haven't "figured it all out". The beings of the future will never "figure it all out" either, so we do the best we can, and spout off theories and conjecture, but lets not pretend that it is anything more than that.

93ae9f2d376e5426e891a9b58d8302fa

(2936)

on November 03, 2011
at 04:29 PM

Trap? Soapbox? Huh?... It's a straightforward scenario of hominid origins, pointing out that upright posture leads to every weird human characteristic. Begone, aquatic ape. Begone, horny space aliens with lustful eyes for proto-chimps in heat. If you're disturbed by the emphasis on males rather than females, fill in the gaps yourself, lots of room for gathering shellfish and turtles, and tons of other yummy stuff that isn't botanical at all. Maybe that's why we stayed near water. But the main engine of adaptation was still hunting with the guys.

96bf58d8c6bd492dc5b8ae46203fe247

(37227)

on November 03, 2011
at 03:37 AM

Why am I now feeling you were springing a trap rather than inviting discussion? I agree that we're predators but we're also opportunistic. But if you have a soapbox, stand on it rather than bait-and-switch.

Medium avatar

(19479)

on November 03, 2011
at 01:24 AM

The jungle had to recede to reveal the savannah. There are no upright walking jungle apes because the ecological niche does not demand it. Chimps are essentially unchanged from the time we split from our common ancestor because their body structure works for the environment. It wasn't until a new environment appeared that our ancestors ventured forth into "the midday sun".

93ae9f2d376e5426e891a9b58d8302fa

(2936)

on November 03, 2011
at 12:57 AM

Upright posture came first. It's still a mystery. But once we were upright, we discovered the advantage we had in the midday sun. An upright stump overheats less than a fallen log, during the midday hours. That's how all the rest developed. We had the run of the savanna when other critters were forced into siesta.

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6 Answers

4
Medium avatar

(19479)

on November 03, 2011
at 12:07 AM

I agree with Nance regarding the "fruity fallacy" (trademarked term FYI). Despite our own homo sapien-centric view of the world, fruit was not created for the sole purpose of our pleasure. Long before we walked this planet, there were large frugivorous mammals (megafauna) that had a mutualistic relationship with many tropical and sub-tropical fruit-bearing trees, shrubs, etc. In order to ensure that their seeds would be consumed and dispersed (shat out), the fruits that they produced needed to be palatable (i.e. sweet) and large enough to attract attention.

(http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0001745) .

But I digress.

We split from chimpanzees when we desided to trek out into the semi-arrid grasslands where fruit would have been less plentiful (chimpanzees are still primarily frugivorous although they do eat insects and hunt small-game, something that we would have likely continued to do as we were able). In this environment, we may have developed some of the thermoregulating adaptations that separate us from other primates (naked skin, sweat glands, upright posture, etc.)

In this environment, we would have had access to larger game, something that afforded us the luxury of smaller guts and larger brains. There is strong evidence that the first stone tools were used to break open bones, and to butcher large herbivorous animals. So, we can definitely assume that bone marrow, animal fat and offal, and some "lean meat" was part of the ancestral dietary.

Additionally, this landscape would have supported plant species that stored energy and water in the form of tubers. As we can see with modern hunter-gatherer tribes that still inhabit areas in East Africa, such foods are often dietary staples.

As humans traveled out of Africa, we migrated East along the now-submerged coastal areas of Eurasia all the way to Australia. During this time, we very likely took advantage of coastal resources such as shellfish. Technology may have also developed to the point where we could spear larger fishes. (The advancing of the oceans at the end of the last ice age has hidden the physical evidence of this aspect of the human migration out of Africa.)

From here, we began to push North along rivers and tributaries. We may have followed reindeer and mammoth herds through central Asia into the Americas, and would have depended on animal products (furs & skins especially) to even survive in such environments.

Our dietary would have remained relatively unchanged (area specific animals, plants, bugs, fish, shellfish, tubers, & fruit) until the emergence of mutated cereal grasses (modern wheat ripens all at once whereas primitive forms would have matured at different rates, making an organized "harvest" impossible) and domesticated animals that mark our departure from the Paleolithic.

Medium avatar

(19479)

on November 03, 2011
at 01:24 AM

The jungle had to recede to reveal the savannah. There are no upright walking jungle apes because the ecological niche does not demand it. Chimps are essentially unchanged from the time we split from our common ancestor because their body structure works for the environment. It wasn't until a new environment appeared that our ancestors ventured forth into "the midday sun".

93ae9f2d376e5426e891a9b58d8302fa

(2936)

on November 03, 2011
at 12:57 AM

Upright posture came first. It's still a mystery. But once we were upright, we discovered the advantage we had in the midday sun. An upright stump overheats less than a fallen log, during the midday hours. That's how all the rest developed. We had the run of the savanna when other critters were forced into siesta.

71e078b9000a360364fd039bae64dabf

(125)

on November 30, 2011
at 04:53 PM

FED: evidence demonstrates we were exploiting marine food sources long before leaving Africa, from at least 160,000 years ago. See Marean et al. (2007) in Nature for example.

Medium avatar

(19479)

on November 30, 2011
at 08:15 PM

Arid grasslands therefore would have been novel to the original proto-human population and it is where we spent many formative generations. This environment provided different food resources (larger herbivorous game, tubers, etc.) than did the jungle.

1dd1d4bde5b46b4c90efeadea3a96a75

(180)

on November 30, 2011
at 09:47 AM

Do you know any books that back up the above? For example from what I have read our ancestors didn't arrive in Australia, Europe or Asia until less that 50,000 years ago which is still relatively recent in our entire evolution. Also I think it's pure speculation that tubers were in the area and were a dietary staple based on the fact that modern hunter gatherers eat them. (The Masai consume copious amounts of milk and I don't think we can assume our ancestors did as well).

Medium avatar

(19479)

on November 30, 2011
at 02:25 PM

RS, check out "Catching fire : how cooking made us human" by Richard Wrangham.

Medium avatar

(19479)

on November 30, 2011
at 08:14 PM

Finbar, I'm sure humans, like coastal monkey species, capitalized on marine resources such as shellfish, crabs, etc. as soon as we came upon them. The point that I was making, however, is that our shared ancestor with the chimp likely lived in an environment similar to that of modern chimps (which is why chimps have changed less than we have) and as such likely consumed a similar frugivorous dietary. The great rift valley may have been the original geographic barrier between our shared ancestral population, with the chimp lineage on the forest side and us on the arid grassland side.

4
96bf58d8c6bd492dc5b8ae46203fe247

(37227)

on November 02, 2011
at 10:56 PM

As always, I must stress I am not a qualified expert, merely an interested reader. Within the inquiry of which fruits ancient humans of Africa may have eaten I found the following. I'm interested in more non-paleo sources on both sides of the issue.

At Raw Food SOS and yes, I also check out non-paleo sites too, is an interesting reference:

"...Although not all wild fruits are as big and sweet as our modern cultivars, at least some are, and certain varieties even surpass our deliberately-bred fruits in size and flavor. Nature???especially with selection pressure from other fruit-eating creatures???is perfectly capable of producing sweet (and sometimes massive) fruits without human intervention. It seems unlikely that early humans only ever encountered berries or other ???small, bitter??? fruits, and avoiding sweeter fruits on the basis of evolutionary history may be misguided. Based on the limited research we have, wild fruits aren???t considerably different from cultivated fruit in terms of carbohydrate content, fructose content, or fiber content. Both wild and cultivated fruit seem to average around 90% of calories from carbohydrates, and have a sugar composition that yields roughly equal parts glucose and fructose. And both wild and cultivated fruit can be relatively high or low in fiber. Although berries are often lauded as being lower in fructose compared to other fruits, from a calorie/energy standpoint, this just ain???t true! Early humans may very well have had access to fruit for most or even all of the year. The fruiting seasons we witness in cooler climates???with most fruit appearing in the summer???doesn???t necessarily apply to our evolutionary homeland closer to the equator..."

Two references cited in the post are Fruits of Warm Climates by Julia F. Morton and Lost Crops of Africa: Volume III: Fruits.

1dd1d4bde5b46b4c90efeadea3a96a75

(180)

on November 30, 2011
at 10:19 AM

Interesting. From everything I have read wild fruit would still be much harder for us to extract calories from and much less appetizing I guess that's what I was getting at. For example the apple ancestor tastes like a tart potato with a bitter aftertaste. Wild bananas (and many other fruits) are packed with seeds making them difficult to eat. Wild berries in my experience are typically a fraction of the size of supermarket ones, much less sweet and vastly spread out making it difficult to make a meal out of. Of course their may be exceptions to all these, but I'd like to see references.

D12142c8cafb16d9af10b3362cb8fb62

(1590)

on November 30, 2011
at 11:05 AM

Tropical fruit (as in the kind around where we evolved) is usually sweet. Classical western fruit (of course not all of them are native to the West) is bred to be what it is (sweeter than the natural variety) but there's quite a lot of sweet fruit in the tropics still. I think the reason we are so successful is we have many nutritious foods that we can exploit. -Large prey -Small prey -Tubers/roots -Shellfish/fish -Fruit All of these are present in the climate (the evidence points to) we evolved in.

96bf58d8c6bd492dc5b8ae46203fe247

(37227)

on November 30, 2011
at 06:00 PM

The fruits that have been bred to be sweeter are northern fruits and they're still less sweet than many native tropical fruits in Africa. We evolved with the sweet tropical African fruits. I agree northern fruits have been tampered with but many have been made LESS sweet in order to handle transport better.

96bf58d8c6bd492dc5b8ae46203fe247

(37227)

on November 30, 2011
at 04:23 PM

@RS, I referred to 2 documents at the end of my question.

96bf58d8c6bd492dc5b8ae46203fe247

(37227)

on November 30, 2011
at 04:25 PM

@RS, I gave the titles of her books at the end of my question. Excerpts are freely available on the net.

1
Medium avatar

(10663)

on November 30, 2011
at 05:20 PM

I found this to be very helpful:
http://www.beyondveg.com/nicholson-w/hb/hb-interview1c.shtml

And a good (but very dry) book to check out would be Food in Antiquity by Don Brothwell

96bf58d8c6bd492dc5b8ae46203fe247

(37227)

on November 30, 2011
at 06:47 PM

The link is a fascinating read!

1
93ae9f2d376e5426e891a9b58d8302fa

(2936)

on November 03, 2011
at 12:53 AM

I will not miss this opportunity to once again post this URL:

http://tinyurl.com/3jqbmuo

I will pester y'all with that link to the end of my days, or until y'all scream "Enough, already - it's brilliant!", whichever comes first.

That sceario of hominid evolution is the only one that explain all our human idiosyncratic physical characteristics.

And it's completely carnivorous.

93ae9f2d376e5426e891a9b58d8302fa

(2936)

on November 03, 2011
at 04:29 PM

Trap? Soapbox? Huh?... It's a straightforward scenario of hominid origins, pointing out that upright posture leads to every weird human characteristic. Begone, aquatic ape. Begone, horny space aliens with lustful eyes for proto-chimps in heat. If you're disturbed by the emphasis on males rather than females, fill in the gaps yourself, lots of room for gathering shellfish and turtles, and tons of other yummy stuff that isn't botanical at all. Maybe that's why we stayed near water. But the main engine of adaptation was still hunting with the guys.

96bf58d8c6bd492dc5b8ae46203fe247

(37227)

on November 03, 2011
at 03:37 AM

Why am I now feeling you were springing a trap rather than inviting discussion? I agree that we're predators but we're also opportunistic. But if you have a soapbox, stand on it rather than bait-and-switch.

93ae9f2d376e5426e891a9b58d8302fa

(2936)

on November 03, 2011
at 11:12 PM

FED, I disagree. When all sorts of loose ends come together in a nice little knot, it's an epiphany.

Medium avatar

(19479)

on November 03, 2011
at 09:14 PM

Huey, the question of human origins is not an open an shut case. If we can be certain of anything, it is that we cannot ever be certain. I openly admit that anything I have ever posted is based on limited knowledge. We are the proverbial blind men trying to describe an elephant. The brightest minds of antiquity didn't "figure it out", the brightest minds of today haven't "figured it all out". The beings of the future will never "figure it all out" either, so we do the best we can, and spout off theories and conjecture, but lets not pretend that it is anything more than that.

D12142c8cafb16d9af10b3362cb8fb62

(1590)

on September 07, 2013
at 01:28 AM

We didn't evolve in a particually seasonal climate; we're a tropical animal. Is it cold outside? Might wear a coat then; funnily enough we didn't need coats for the majority of hominid evolution. :-)

1dd1d4bde5b46b4c90efeadea3a96a75

(180)

on November 30, 2011
at 09:53 AM

The more I read, the more I come to the carnivorous conclusion as well. We can eat other things but it's unlikely we did. Except fruit, I think seasonally we must have gorged on this to fatten up, most people seem to have a very strong sweet tooth.

0
71e078b9000a360364fd039bae64dabf

on November 30, 2011
at 05:00 PM

The pattern of aridity/humidity in Africa across glacial-interglacial cycles is vastly more complicated than various people allude to above. There's no simple glacial=arid rule that can be applied. But that's by-the-by. One of the most recent relevant papers on this topic is: Thomas and Burrough (In Press). Interpreting geoproxies of late Quaternary climate change in African drylands: implications for understanding environmental change and modern human behaviour. Quaternary International.

77877f762c40637911396daa19b53094

(78467)

on November 30, 2011
at 05:36 PM

Right. Glacial aridity was not the point. The glorilla dieback as a result of it causing lack of carbs was the point. You're not going to get a day-by-day description of the African Pleistocene status on a paleohacks webpage. What you're going to get is a nutshell version.

0
77877f762c40637911396daa19b53094

(78467)

on November 30, 2011
at 03:47 PM

I lifted the following from a previous post I made some time ago and pasted it here (with some minor editing) because it seems to have relevance to this discussion of the availability of carbs and specifically ancient fruits. Here it is -

We came out of the Pleistocene 11-12,000 years ago at the end of the last glacial period. The beginning of the Pleistocene is roughly 2.5 million years ago and the Pleistocene itself roughly coincides with the advent of modern hominids. This would be our beloved paleo era. During these periods of repeated glaciation Africa was a very dry place, so much so that the African woodlands retreated to just three small patches during glacial maxima and there was broad expanse of African savannas and grasslands. Not much fruit or tubers in grassland (and I say this because I've been in grasslands), but the important part is coming up.

The earth's eliptic plane changes seasonally in relation to the sun, but we all know this. The north pole is sunny in summer and dark in winter, etc, but the surface of the earth closest to the sun near the equator keeps moving in cycles above the equator and then below the equator and so on. That surface gets direct perpendicular heat from the sun causing the humid air to heat up and rise to altitude which causes the air to cool and condense into rain. So as the changing eliptical plane of the earth moves up and down in relation to the sun, the rain likewise moves above the equator and then below the equator and these are the monsoons. As the monsoons move north then south, then north, then south, hoofed animals follow these rains and these are known as the great migrations.

I mentioned in an earlier post that paleos were nomadic because they chased after game when an area became depleted, and because they went high in summer and low in winter. Well this is another reason. They followed the hoofed migrations because they were going where the food was going.

I'm not sure how long this went on but you had the better part of 2.5 million years to get this pattern established and when you see illustrations of paleo people out in vast grasslands, this is what you are looking at. Most of this pattern was established before humans migrated out of Africa. So as I said before, the African woodlands retreated to three small patches. Before this happened there was one main species of gorilla. Here is the diet of the herbivorous gorilla -

*The diet of a gorilla consists primarily of fruits, leaves, shoots, shrubs, vines, tree bark, flowers and a variety of other plant matter. http://www.ehow.com/about_4580393_gorilla-diet.html*

Originally gorilla habitat was broad, as broad as the woodlands use to be. As the woodlands shrank, the supply of gorilla feed and fruits (and habitat) shrank with it till there were separate groups of gorillas which eventually diverged into subspecies. (See Children of the Ice Age by Steven Stanley)

If the available gorilla carbs dropped to such low levels, so low that the gorilla couldn't thrive and almost died out retreating to small patches, and yet nomadic humans were traipsing north and south thriving on animals, and this went on for most the Pleistocene, where is the evidence that carbs had anything to do with this? They were relatively rare which resulted in gorilla die-back. Grasslands are not carb friendly, especially year round, yet the hooved animals were capable of converting grass into protein and fat.

Today in Africa, most of that rainforest has recovered since the end of the last ice age, but the gorilla populations have not reestablished contact (and probably never will in today's Africa). But as the forest recovered so did the supply of fruit and this is what we see today.

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