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Digging Up Our Nutritional Past: Nutrition Lessons From The Prehistoric Period

Paleonutrition studies claim that Neanderthals looked like bodybuilders because they ate a secret diet. Find out what this is.

Last week as I was discussing the benefits of a Berardi-esque nutrition plan in one of my lectures, it struck me how strange it might seem to some that I would incorporate research from a performance nutritionist into a course about archaeology.

Granted, I'm a big fan of JB's research for my own health/performance goals, but many of the same issues arose as I was preparing a lecture for nutrition during the Paleolithic and Neolithic.

The lecture primarily discussed how archaeologists recover dietary information, what this tells us about subsistence, and how there was a major shift in diet about 10,000 years ago, when people switched from a diet of wild animals and plants to farmed ones - a.k.a. the "Neolithic Revolution". But I couldn't resist using some of this archaeological evidence to explain some of our modern health problems, and how this information can be used to help us achieve various goals.

Unfortunately, paleonutrition studies are often lumped together with trendy "paleo-diets", which claim for example that Neanderthals looked like bodybuilders because they ate a secret diet that is now available to anyone who buys their book. There was no single "Paleo-Diet".

People at whatever they could get their hands on, because food surplus rarely existed before agriculture, and what they ate depended upon what was available to them in one particular locality. Besides, the thin, gracile stature of most of our Paleolithic ancestors may not be the ideal goal for everyone, particularly those looking to gain large amounts of muscle.

There are of course exceptions, such as Neanderthals, who seem to have been genetically predisposed to physiques that are today only attainable with steroids (1, 2). But the fact remains that large amounts of lean body mass with extremely low body fat would simply not have been beneficial, or possible, during the majority of our antiquity.

The body stores fat for a good reason, and during the majority of our time on this planet, it would have been advantageous for the body to store as much fat as possible for energy reserves during times of scarcity.

Ironically, this adaptation that has saved us for millions of years is the same process that is killing us today with obesity and other health problems.

There is a huge discrepancy between the rate of change in our technological advancements that have allowed many of us today to enjoy an enormous food surplus, versus our genome, which is still very much adapted to a Stone Age existence (3, 4).

Studying nutrition in the archaeological record is not only interesting (some of my students might disagree), but it also provides us with some very useful information. We can use this information to manipulate different nutritional variables to meet our goals, whether they involve athletic gains, hypertrophy, strength, or overall health.

Thus we enter the realm of John Berardi, whose nutritional advice in articles such as The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Nutritional Programs, is supported not only in his clients today, but also in the prehistoric record.

Evidence From The Archaeological Record

Protein Is Essential

I know I'm preaching to the choir here, but just to provide a background, humans have evolved on a diet rich in protein since our humble beginnings in East Africa millions of years ago.

Various lines of evidence suggest that the earliest hominids to share our own genus, Homo habilis, made a living largely by scavenging what was left behind by the carnivores in the savannah some 2.5 million years ago (5). That's right, "Man the Hunter" seems to have come later; our earliest relatives seem to have been sneaky little scavengers.

Basically, they used stone tools to quickly disarticulate the remains of already-eaten prey, and then ran like hell from the lions and hyenas.

Once they were in a safe place, they could scrape off the remaining meat, and most importantly, crack into the marrow of the long bones with hammer stones.

Even the powerful jaws of hyenas cannot crack into some of the larger bones, leaving the marrow intact in scavenged prey. The marrow from the leg bones of a single large animal provide about 1,500 calories of protein and fat (6).

Later hominids became more effective at exploiting protein, and eventually became sophisticated hunters. In fact, evidence from Neanderthal skeletons from Vindija Cave, Croatia, suggests these hominids were behaving as top-level carnivores.

A particular nitrogen isotope - 15N - increases as it passes up the food chain from plants to animals. Therefore, large amounts of 15N (found in bone collagen) reflects meat consumption. 15N content in Neanderthal skeletons at Vindija Cave was the same as carnivores also found within the cave, such as fox and wolf, and significantly higher than herbivores, such as Bos/Bison and Cervid.

On a side note, the claim that high protein diets are bad for bone health due to calciuric action is in no way supported by the robust bone structure of early meat-eating hominids.

The current average for protein content in the western diet is 10-15%, which is far below what many prehistoric people probably ate.

There seems to be growing evidence for a positive effects on blood-lipid levels with increased protein consumption, including studies showing that isocaloric (calorie-for-calorie) replacement of carbohydrate with protein lowers total cholesterol, while increasing the amount of HDL relative to LDL cholesterol (12).

Vegetables & Fruit Are Essential

Neanderthals in Europe may have been big meat eaters, but our ancestors were by no means carnivores. Plants were eaten - even by Neanderthals, as evidenced by the microscopic remains of plants on stone tools (8), and the abundant remains of herbaceous plants and wild cereals around hearths made by Neanderthals at Amud Cave in Israel (9).

Make no mistake, vegetables and fruit were eaten in abundance by our ancestors, and we have evolved to reap the benefits of their nutrients.

Vegetable remains are underrepresented in the archaeological record, because they are more susceptible to decay than, say, stones, or even bones. But in rare examples of extremely good organic preservation, it is shocking to witness the quantity and diversity of vegetable food.

For example, a 23,000 year-old fishing camp (Ohalo II) was recently exposed on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in Israel due to a drought and receding water levels (13). Water had submerged the site for most of its existence, preserving the majority of organic remains, including bones, wood, nuts, and seeds.

Protein was definitely not in short supply, judging from the remains of fish, tortoise, birds, hare, fox, gazelle, and deer, to name a few. But the seeds of numerous plants, fruits, and nuts were recovered (14).

The occupants ate various edible grasses (wild barley), and wild forms of almonds, olives, pistachios, and grapes. This "broad-spectrum" economy (15) is characteristic of our Paleolithic ancestors.

Wild plants contain antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, and micronutrients that fill nutritional voids left by our modern diet, and decrease the risk for chronic diseases (11).

In particular, leafy greens seem to provide some of the best benefits. But any vegetables are good, and variety is the key, as studies have shown a direct correlation between the variety of fruits and vegetables eaten, and the benefits seen from the micronutrients (16). Vegetable consumption today in developed societies is limited to a few cultivated vegetables, which often lack an adequate supply of micronutrients.

Take for example corn, which is so infused into American society that it is nearly impossible to find a pre-packaged food in the aisle of a grocery store that does not have some form of corn. Corn kernels, meal, and of course high fructose corn syrup - the ubiquitous sweetener.

Besides, corn is no more of a vegetable than wheat or rice: all are grains domesticated from wild grasses. Take corn out of the equation, and the fruit and vegetable intake of the average American is truly depressing. Perhaps the occasional leaf of iceberg lettuce and a slice of tomato on a burger, or the same mixed into a salad, perhaps with some shredded carrots.

Various studies have shown that the micronutrients in fruits and vegetables decrease the risk of cancer, and one study in particular (17) demonstrated that at least 400 grams of fruits and vegetables should be consumed per day to see these positive benefits.

dinner dish

Four hundred grams is just over 14 ounces, which equates to one bell pepper, two handfuls of mushrooms, an apple, one salad of mixed greens, a handful of chopped broccoli, and a small bowl of steamed spinach. Over the course of a day, this amount is easily attainable, so hopefully this should serve as a reality check to anyone who thinks this sounds like a lot of greens.

For those who justify a lack of vegetables in their diet by taking a multivitamin: sorry, but supplementing individual vitamin intake, as opposed to actually eating the fruits and vegetables, does not provide the same benefits (18).

Multivitamin supplements certainly have their benefits, but they cannot be used as a replacement for fruits and vegetables in the diet.

Carbohydrates - An Issue of Insulin Management

Carbohydrates seem to have been demonized over the past few years in the same way that fat was demonized during the previous two decades. Rather than going on a witch hunt, most people would benefit from spending five minutes reading about the relationship between carbohydrates, insulin, and body composition.

For the more advanced readers, enlightening information about insulin can be found in articles such as The Anabolic Power of Insulin and Hungry, Hungry Hormones Part 1 and 2 by John Berardi, and Intolerable: How to Repair Glucose Intolerance Part 1 and 2 by Lonnie Lowery.

Clues to issues such as insulin sensitivity exist in the archaeological record. In short, carbohydrates were eaten by our prehistoric ancestors in the form of vegetables, fruit, and whole grains.

Grains were domesticated fairly recently by the first farmers in the Fertile Crescent around 10,000 years ago, and shortly thereafter in other hearth areas, such as the Indus Valley, China, and Central America.

For the first 99% of our existence, humans ate only wild plants and animals. In essence, carbohydrates were a lot harder to come by, and our bodies have evolved to respond to carbohydrates by storing glucose in the adipose tissue, stealing it away from the muscles.

The reason for this seemingly unfortunate phenomenon is outlined in the "thrifty gene" theory, proposed in 1962 by geneticist James Neel, which states that people whose genes promote metabolism and storage of fat had an evolutionary advantage, thus allowing carriers to better survive periodic famines.

In our modern times of abundance, however, those same genes contribute to insulin resistance, obesity and diabetes.

If you consider that firstly, we are genetically predisposed to insulin resistance, and secondly, the advent of milling during the Industrial Revolution increased the glycemic and insulin responses of grains 2-3 fold compared with whole grains (19), then it becomes apparent that non-foods like donuts and Twinkies serve no other purpose than to add to America's giant, collective gut.

This is not to say that simple carbohydrates should be entirely avoided. In fact, they are the preferred fuel source, together with protein, to quickly feed hungry muscles during and immediately after a workout for optimal recovery and gains (20, 21). But for the rest of the day, and on non-workout days, it's best to get your carbohydrates from slow-absorbing and vitamin-rich sources like vegetables and fruits.

Whole grains and legumes are also acceptable in moderation, as part of well-balanced meals including protein and essential fatty acids.

Figure 3 displays this method of insulin management for maximum gains and recovery during the post workout period, as outlined in the articles such as Solving the Post-Workout Puzzle.

Favorable Macronutrient Ratios For Optimal Recovery And Gains.

Modern Versus Ancient Fatty Acid Profiles

Although prehistoric fat intake may have been similar to the modern western diet in terms of overall percentage of fat calories to protein and carbohydrates, the breakdown of saturated fatty acids (SFA), monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA), and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) was dramatically different in the past. In general, the ancient diet was richer in MUFA and PUFA's, with less SFA's.

Further, there are different types of SFA, MUFA, and PUFA's that are more beneficial than others. Most notably, the overabundance of omega-6 fatty acids, at the expense of omega-3 fatty acids, both of which are PUFA's, has been shown to promote a lipid profile in which LDL cholesterol is elevated and more prone to oxidation and hence to the development of coronary heart disease.

We can link the high omega-6 intake partly to the abundance of corn and soybean oil used in modern cooking. Corn oil has an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 83 to 1. Soybean oil is somewhat better, with a ratio of 7 to 1. Nevertheless, several sources indicate that humans evolved on a ratio of about 1 to 1, and in Western diets the ratio averages 16 to 1 (22).

A diet too high in omega-6's, at the expense of omega-3's has been linked to various diseases including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.

In contrast, a low ratio of omega-6's to omega-3's, similar to what we ate in the past, has a host of benefits, including disease prevention.

It is not only vegetable oils which are guilty for the poor fatty acid profile in the Western diet. Feedlot animals such as cattle are fed corn meal spiked with antibiotics, because cows cannot normally eat corn and survive.

As the adage goes, you are what you eat, and the same high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids found in corn is transferred to feedlot animals who eat corn. Wild and free-range animals who feed on wild grasses have a much more favorable fatty acid profile, and thus are much healthier for human consumption (23).

Further, domesticated (feedlot) animals have much higher proportions of fat in general, and saturated fat in particular, than wild animals.

Wild animals almost always show a seasonal variation in storage fat, and even the very fattest wild land mammals contain 60-75% less total fat than the average domesticated animal (24).

What are we to do? Wild game like venison, bison, and birds are always a good option, but if you can't afford these delicacies, then your best option is to eat only the leanest meat (e.g., sirloin and chicken breasts), and get your fatty acids from smart choices like cold water fish (mackerel, salmon, sardines), flax, and olive oil.

It is not advisable to entirely avoid saturated fat, as it is important for desirable hormonal balance, but neither is it possible to avoid saturated fat, since you will get enough of it even while eating the leanest of meats and dairy.

Fusing Our Past With The Present

Is this a treatise suggesting we all revert back to a "caveman" diet? Not even close. Like I said in the beginning of this article, the diet of prehistoric man varied considerably, according to when and where that person lived.

We can, however, draw various generalizations from the remains left behind by our ancestors to prevent various disorders and diseases, live a healthier life, or even manipulate various nutritional variables to achieve insane amounts of lean body mass.

  1. Trinkaus, E. 1983. The Shanidar Neandertals. New York: Academic Press
  2. Trinkaus, E. 1991. Les hommes fossiles de la Grotte de Shanidar, Irak: Evolution et continuité °armi les homes archaï±µes Tardifs du Proche Orient. L'Anthropologie 95:537-574.
  3. Cordain, L. 1999. Cereal grains: humanity's double-edged sword. World Review of Nutrition and Dietetics, 84:19-73.
  4. Simopoulos A. P. 2003. Importance of the Ratio of Omega-6/Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids: Evolutionary Aspects. World Review of Nutrition and Dietetics, 92:1-22.
  5. Binford, L. 1981. Bones: Ancient Men and Modern Myths. Academic Press, New York.
  6. Blumenschine, R. J. 1995. Percussion marks, tooth marks, and experimental determinations of the timing of hominid and carnivore access to long bones at FLK Zinjanthropus, Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. Journal of Human Evolution 29:21-51.
  7. Richards, M. P., P. B. Pettitt, E. Trinkaus, F. H. Smith, M. Paunovic, and I. Karavanic 2000. Neanderthal diet at Vindija and Neanderthal predation: The evidence from stable isotopes. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 97/13:7663-7666.
  8. Hardy B.L., M. Kay, A.E. Marks, and K. Monigal 2001. Stone tool function at the Paleolithic sites of Starosele and Buran Kaya III, Crimea: behavioral implications. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2001 Sep 11;98(19):10972-7.
  9. Madella, M., M. K. Jones, P. Goldberg, Y. Goren, and E. Hovers, 2002. The Exploitation of Plant Resources by Neanderthals in Amud Cave (Israel): The Evidence from Phytolith Studies. Journal of Archaeological Science, 29:703-719.
  10. de Heinzelin, J., J. D. Clark, T. White, W. Hart, P. Renne, G. WoldeGabriel, Y. Beyene, and E. Vrba 1999. Environment and Behavior of 2.5-Million-Year-Old Bouri Hominids. Science, 284/23:625-629.
  11. Gopalan, C., and B. Tamber 2003. Food-Based Approaches to Prevent and Control Micronutrient Malnutrition: Scientific Evidence and Policy Implications. World Rev Nutr Diet, 91:76-131.
  12. Wolfe, B.M. 1995. Potential role of raising dietary protein intake for reducing risk of atherosclerosis. Can J Cardiol, 11:127G-131G.
  13. Nadel, D. 2002. (Editor) Ohalo II, A 23,000-Year-Old Fisher-Hunter-Gatherers' Camp on the Shore of the Sea of Galilee. Hecht Museum, Haifa University (English with Hebrew translation).
  14. Kislev M.E., D. Nadel and I. Carmi 1992. Epipalaeolithic (19,000) cereal and fruit diet at Ohalo II, Sea of Galilee, Israel. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology 73: 161-166.
  15. Flannery, K.V. 1969. Origins and ecological effects of early domestication in Iran and the Near East. In P.J. Ucko and G.W. Dembleby (Editors), The Domestication and Exploitation of Plants and Animals, pp. 73-100, Duckworth, London.
  16. Negri E, C. La Vecchia, and S. Franceschi 2002. Relations between vegetable, fruit and micronutrient intake. Implications for odds ratios in a case-control study. Eur J Clin Nutr 56(2):166-70.
  17. Gerber M, M.C. Boutron-Ruault, S. Hercberg, E. Riboli, A. Scalbert, M.H. Siess 2002. Actualites en cancerologie: fruits, legumes et cancers Une synthese du reseau Nacre. Bull Cancer 89(3):293-312.
  18. Schorah, C.J. 1999. Micronutrients, vitamins, and cancer risk. Vitam Horm 57:1-23.
  19. Colagiuri S. and J. Brand Miller 2002. The 'carnivore connection': Evolutionary aspects of insulin resistance. Eur J Clin Nutr 56(1):S30-5.
  20. Levenhagen et al. 2001. Postexercise nutrient intake timing in humans is critical to recovery of leg glucose and protein homeostasis. Am.J.Physiol Endocrinol.Metab. 280(6): E982-993.
  21. Tipton et al. 2001. Timing of amino acid-carbohydrate ingestion alters anabolic response of muscle to resistance exercise. Am.J.Physiol Endocrinol.Metab. 281(2): E197-206.
  22. Simopoulos, A.P. 2002. The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids. Biomed Pharmacother 56(8):365-79.
  23. Rule D.C., K.S. Broughton KS, S.M. Shellito, and G. Maiorano 2002. Comparison of muscle fatty acid profiles and cholesterol concentrations of bison, beef cattle, elk, and chicken. J Anim Sci 80(5):1202-11.
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