What do we really know about ancestral diet?


(mole person) #162

That’s because they are an invasive species now. I’ve eaten every part of the cattail, the cobs, shoots, pollen and tubers. They are a great food source in spring and summer, now. But they are massively invasive. They didn’t exist the way we see them now a couple of hundred years ago even. They are literally driving other species to local extinctions and it’s continually worsening. I don’t think cattails make a good example of ancestral plant abundance for this reason.

(mole person) #163

@Don_Q Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure we likely ate them, they are a fairly easy calorie and starch source. I’m just saying that their apparent caloric wealth, to our modern eyes, is not indicative of what existed before they were completely out of control.

"Although Typha are native wetland plants, they can be aggressive in their competition with other native species. They have been problematic in many regions in North America, from the Great Lakes to the Everglades. Native sedges are displaced and wet meadows shrink, likely as a response to altered hydrology of the wetlands and increased nutrient levels. An introduced or hybrid species may be contributing to the problem. Control is difficult. The most successful strategy appears to be mowing or burning to remove the aerenchymous stalks, followed by prolonged flooding. It may be more important to prevent invasion by preserving water level fluctuations, including periods of drought, and to maintain infertile conditions."

(Edith) #164

Maybe that’s because people ate them.:grinning:

(Windmill Tilter) #165

In parts of North America, that’s true. Almost nobody lived here in the period in question (100,000 years ago) so precious little genetic material was passed down from those tuberless folks. In Europe the opposite appears to be true; there are fewer cattails now than there were a century ago. The only thing we know for certain is that we have archaeological evidence of grinding tools covered in cattail starch, and woven products made from cat-tail reeds.

My larger point is that the presence of calorie dense starch source that we know existed in the paleolithic era could reasonably have provided a significant competitive advantage from an evolutionary perspective.

We know there were massive die offs over the intervening 100,000 years. There is genetic evidence to support the theory that the human species dwindled all the way down to 2000 individuals. If true, any humans that existed prior to those 2000 individuals are completely irrelevant from the genetic standpoint of modern humans like us. More explicitly if were 1 million robust carnivore hunters in 21,000bc, but they all starved to death by 20,000bc, they aren’t really relevant to us genetically. We assume the massive die-offs were related to climate, presumably shit got really cold long enough to freeze and kill most of the plants and most of the game for years on end.

The people most likely to survive such a calamity might have been those who were in slightly more protective climes with access to non-traditional food sources. Maybe a naturally occurring crop that produces 6,500lbs of flour/acre made a difference? It’s a crop that’s isolated from the food chain, can survive years of freezing and permafrost, and bounces back quickly upon thawing. Is it not every bit as reasonable to suppose that we descend from the cattail people rather than hunters? Is it not possible that our current dietary atavism is misguided; that we should seek not bloody hands, but rather muddy ones?

(Windmill Tilter) #166

Ok, that puts up you up another couple notches in my book for sure. I hope you’ll forgive my rhetorical excesses above, and the occasional devils avocating. :yum:

I think that the majority of our ancestors calories probably did come from fish and game, but I think they ate as many carbs as we could get their grubby little hands on. Every indigenous culture we’ve ever documented has behaved this way. In fairness though, nobody really knows, especially not me.

(Bacon by any other name would taste just as great.) #167

I find this highly unlikely. The main evolutionary change from our primate ancestors to modern humanity is the shrinkage in the length of the intestines. The reason for this is the switch from a herbivorous to a (primarily) carnivorous diet, which is apparently what permitted our brains to grow into such energy hogs. Gram for gram, the human brain consumes far more of our energy intake than any other organ, and this development appears to have gone hand-in-hand with our development into hunters. Subsisting on forage, as our gorilla cousins do, is not an option for human beings. In fact, we seem to have become evolutionarily optimsed for meat-eating.

(Justin Jordan) #168

Well, no. We know what evolutionarily optimized for carnivory looks like, and we aren’t it. Felids are, and their bodies are different than ours in a lot of way - different protein requirements, digestive systems, dentition, etc.

(Windmill Tilter) #169

Isn’t it possible that this came from eating an increasing amount of calorie dense starches from things like cattail tubers? They exist all over the world, produce more starch per acre than potatoes, rice, or yams (6500lbs per acre!). The “crop” is naturally occurring and so invasive they quickly crowd out competitors.

Is it not possible that the apex predator reached the top of the food chain by eating the apex plant of the water’s edge along with their meat?

Nobody can know precisely why the intestine shrunk. All we know is that it’s associated with increased calorie density.

I’m certainly not claiming that this is what happened of course, just that it isn’t a foregone conclusion that our ancestors were primarily carnivores. They may well have been every bit as omnivorous as the indigenous people of the last few centuries.

(bulkbiker) #170

Brains… teamwork…?

(Justin Jordan) #171

We know what animals who only eat (or I suppose, digest) meat look like. If there’s such a thing as evolutionarily optimized for meat, they’re it. They don’t generally go in for tools or our level of brains and teamwork, so I’m perfectly content to say that the evolutionary pressures that produced our abilities to do that weren’t simply so we could eat more meat.

(Utility Muffin Research Kitchen) #172


There is another one estimating the calories from animals at 65%, but I forgot where I read that. Possibly in my “read later” folder on my hard drive, not sure.

Edit: And as we can eat carbs, why wouldn’t we eat those sweet fruit conveniently hanging from a tree? Of course they ate them. Much easier than hunting down big game.

(bulkbiker) #173

The first one seems to imply that its all guesswork and the further north you go the fewer carbs down to 9% of calories (ketogenic?)

The second doesn’t mention plants at all just meat and fish… ?

(Michael - When reality fails to meet expectations, the problem is not reality.) #174

All you folks who think humans have not evolved to be the apex predator, please read the study that Elizabeth posted up thread. There’s a lot more evidence than you realize. We did not get where we are eating cattails and rooting about for tubers.

(Windmill Tilter) #175

This is a straw man argument. No one here is arguing that we evolved to be the apex predator by eating cattails or other source of carbs exclusively. I see people arguing that early humans evolved to be omnivores, much like every documented indigenous population ever studied. At issue is the proportion of carbs, not whether humans ate them. Presumably nobody is arguing that early humans ate exclusively meat?

This is admittedly a great line though. I couldn’t resist upvoting in spite of myself. If there was a t-shirt version I’d buy it to wear to vegan conventions. :smile: :+1:

(Michael - When reality fails to meet expectations, the problem is not reality.) #176

In another topic I just posted a link to this excellent Wikipedia overview. For those who think Wikipedia is useless, you can skip down to the 100 plus citations:

At great risk of sounding like a scratched record stuck on the word Pleistocene. I must once again reiterate that little edible vegetation in the world today was around during the Pleistocene. And the little that was, only faintly resembles what it is today. There was absolutely no possibility that humans consumed a significant percentage of their energy from plants. Simply because the available plants were too high in indigestible cellulose and too low in actual digestible carbohydrate to add up to anymore than a minor nutritional adjunct. This was not just in northern regions bordering glaciers, it was world-wide right to the equator.

Few people seem to realize the enormous impact of the domestication of plants and their selective breeding. It transformed the planet! We no longer live in the ‘natural world’. We live in a garden we created over the course of the past 12K years! Even the farthest reaches of the most uninhabitable regions have been colonized by the plants we bred. Not the most primitive, untouched society eats a diet that resembles what they ate 15K year ago.

Fortunately, our ‘garden’ is still overgrown with the ‘weed’ survivors of the natural world we left behind.

@Don_Q Thank you.

(Windmill Tilter) #177

Check this article out. It’s got paleolithic tuber rooters on 3 continents as far back as 30,000 years ago.

It has long been argued that foragers at the end of the Pleistocene broadened their resource base to encompass a wide array of plant and animal foods and that this “broad spectrum revolution” entailed the transition to farming (1). New studies have shown that human exploitation of an extensive range of plant foods can be traced back to much earlier dates in late Paleolithic times in southwest Asia, suggesting a long history of intensive foraging for plants before domestication (2).

Usewear traces and plant residues on grinding stones can provide crucial information for understanding the plant-foraging strategies of ancient people. By applying these methods, several projects have shown evidence of widespread plant use, including wild cereals and tubers, by late Paleolithic populations in many areas of the world, dating to a period between ca. 30,000 and 23,000 y ago, including the Near East (3), Europe (4), and Australia (5).

(Windmill Tilter) #178

This idea fits in well with carnivore mythology, but not with the climate science. This is a climate map of the earth during the last glacial maximum. Look at all that tropical grassland, savanna, and temperate woodland. Hell, there’s even tropical rainforests in there!

I think it’s eminently reasonable to suppose that the majority of our ancestors lived in the bits where the weather was more conducive to life. In the modern era, I’ve noticed the demographics of Antarctica and Central India are very different despite similar land masses. Similar settlement patterns probably existed prehistorically. Hence, most of our DNA comes from ancestors from these areas, and from the tuber rooting ancestors who lived there.

(Michael - When reality fails to meet expectations, the problem is not reality.) #179

Thanks for the link! I don’t deny that humans ate all sorts of stuff. Just that they didn’t get much nutrients out of it. Here’s a typical Paniceae grass (Pennisetum purpureum), mentioned in your linked article:

I don’t think anyone is going to get much nutrition out those seeds no matter how many heads they grind. They may fill the bellies temporarily, but not much more. That’s why our ancestors decided to cultivate and selectively breed some plants that they thought had potential. Easier to gather food growing right outside the hut door, than traipse around the country side looking for large animals that don’t want to be your next meal. Makes sense.

(Michael - When reality fails to meet expectations, the problem is not reality.) #180

Yes. But. What plants were actually growing in those various climatic regions? How much actual cellulose did they contain and how much digestible other carbohydrates? That would require a plant by plant comparison. For example, in 2019 - 12K years into the Holocene - the majority of plants growing in any climatic region on the earth are not edible by humans. That includes the tropics and sub-tropics which contain the most diversity of plant life. Even 12K years into the Holocene (and the plant colonization I mentioned above) you would be very hard pressed to survive on a strictly ‘wild plant’ diet. That’s why there was such a significant change - for the worse - when our Neolithic ancestors settled down and began to cultivate some plants. Yes, they had more quantity but poorer quality of food than when most of it was hunted rather than gathered.

In my humble opinion.

(Michael - When reality fails to meet expectations, the problem is not reality.) #181

I should also mention, although I won’t cite anything just now but maybe later. The beginning of the Holocene was a period when nearly all of the large ruminants of the Pleistocene went extinct (mammoths survived until about 5K years ago on Wrangell Island; muskox still survive in the Canadian arctic islands). The causes are controversial and human predation may have played a role. So in that context, domesticating and selectively breeding plants makes sense.