What is a real Paleo diet, and the real question is, does it even matter? Evidence suggests that our ancestors, and even we as modern humans, are omnivorous to some extent. We can adapt to different environments to survive. Hominids did not spread across Africa, and then the entire globe, by utilizing just one foraging strategy. We did it by being flexible.
The Paleo period ran from roughly 2.6 million to 10,000 years ago. Practitioners of this type of diet are trying to simulate the conditions of living in Stone Age hunter-gatherer conditions. They are trying to eat a diet that is in line with the pseudo-hunter-gatherer lifestyle and give up the modern agricultural inventions and processed foods.
Hunter-gatherers in the Stone age lived by foraging and also by hunting. There is a belief that besides foraging hunting is also a natural human activity and that our natural diet is in line with both hunting and foraging. We must understand the difference between these two. These are two completely different diets.
In order to be a hunter, we will have to be able to hunt as same as wild cats do. Because we are not adapted for chasing the prey, and an average human will not be able to chase down a single squirrel, we will have to depend on some technology. If we do not have the technology, then we depend on food that we can forage.
Logically any form of hunting that will provide a consistent food supply before developing spears or traps will not be sustainable. The truth is that humans and our hominin ancestors are not anatomical hunters. Carnivorous animals are hunters and are adapted to consuming meat.
This means that carnivorous animals are designed for intermittent feeding while we are designed for constant feeding. If we count the energy content of natural foods humans can consume about 900 to 1200 calories in a single sitting which is less than our caloric needs. What this means is that we must eat a couple of times during the day to our full stomach capacity or eat smaller portions throughout the day. Every single day. When carnivores eat, they consume enough energy to last them for a week, and this is important because they will probably not be successful in hunting every day. They can eat carrion no problem. With an acidity of pH1, they have a sterile digestive tract. True omnivores have high resistance filter as well and can eat raw meat with no risk. The acidity of 1 is enough to dissolve not just bones but a metal penny too.
When they kill they do not care about bacteria and viruses, and they will feed on the rotting corpse until they catch something else. For us and our hominin ancestors, the small capacity of stomach and inability to eat carrion means we cannot retrieve a great amount of energy from the single carcass before it rots and a large amount of energy wasted for catching that pray will put us in deficit.
Humans and Neanderthals even with the paleo technology would not be more efficient in hunting than carnivorous animals are. Even in modern times with all of the rifles, hunters are not successful every time they go hunting. Hunting will put us in an energy deficit without preservation techniques.
Only in icy climates hunting large animals will be energetically in surplus because the meat of the carcass will freeze before it goes bad.
That is the reason Neanderthals became omnivores in northern Europe from purely plant-eating lineage.
In Africa, if we go around trying to catch something, and after ten days we are successful, we cannot even consume enough calories at that one meal to replace all of the energy we spent before the meat goes bad.
The only solution is fire. Before the roasting no meat for us. Even the cooked meat does not last for that long. Cooked meat or poultry at the Refrigerator (40 °F or below) has a storage time of 3 to 4 days. At insect-infested hot Africa savannah, time for consumption before spoiling is much shorter, and roasted leftovers are just baits for some large cat. If we do not catch something today and don’t eat and then do not catch something in 10 days in a row, probably we will be too starving and exhausted to hunt again.
For acquiring the meat on a sustainable basis, we will have to have a way of killing prey that is fast and conditioned to be chased by fast predators. In other words, we will have to have some traps or spears. The first hominin who could have done this is theoretically Homo erectus.
The problem with this is that we do not see any evidence of technology except fire and stone tools. Some scientists have a thesis that Homo erectus used fire to bate, isolate, and kill the animals, but in that scenario, he would have to have much higher intelligence. Using fire for hunting is not using fire, it is using wildfire. Wildfire can spread into large areas and can devastate the habitat and plant food sources and can burn the Homo erectus himself and his cave and half of Africa. If we assume that he was so smart to control the use of wildfire, something even modern firefighters have a problem with, we will have to level the Homo erectus intelligence to a greater extent. If he was capable of doing this, then he would be capable of creating other technologies like traps. That would allow him to spread to cold climates with snow and ice and that was not the case.
Stone tools and animal bone debris does not mean sustainable hunting on a large scale and real meat infused omnivorous diet. It means scavenging some meat left behind by big predators if we are lucky and crack open the bones and head to eat the brain and bone marrow and occasionally killing some of the young and defenseless animals or injured or something in that nature. All of this can happen but on some lucky special occasions and not on large scale daily hunting as Neanderthals did.
If I jump on a gazelle, there would be two options. Gazelle will just run off or kicked me in the gut first and then runoff. When we look at human hunting, it always relies on traps, bows, and arrows, or other weapons to kill or spear to injure and then persistent hunting until the antelope is exhausted. All methods require the use of technology. Persistence hunting just by itself is not enough because that would mean running for tens of miles for pray and then carrying that pray for tens of miles and if we are lucky not to been seen by another big predator and became meal ourselves. Even if this is possible carrots tend to run slower than rabbits so if there are plant sources around hunting is not an option if we understand the optimal foraging strategies. As soon as this is acquired that species can spread to the cooler climate without abundant plant food sources.
The first hominin to have both conditions right was the Neanderthal and he spread to ice could Europe before us where he hunted large prey. Also, one other thing, even he did not like it. Nobody likes to hunt. We have this kind of romantic view of hunting where we think it is the macho manly thing that we enjoy like we enjoy playing video games. The truth is that it is a most dangerous life-threatening process that exists in nature not just to pray but for a hunter too. If not successful there is a lot of energy loss, and even if it is successful with no injuries, there will be a lot of pain and exhaustion. In the Ice Age in Europe going through five feet of snow is not easy, and there are cold temperatures, and we can die from cold or slip and fall and hit our head or twist an ankle or break bones or fall into the icy water. In summer or Africa, we could get bitten by a poisonous snake or get in contact with the poisonous plant or fall in quicksand in the swamp or just get attacked by a wild pack of lions or hyenas or get stung by a swarm of wild bees. That means if we were lucky and didn’t get into the territory of another hominin. Nature at that time was a dangerous and wild place.
If a modern man that knows how to survive in nature with all of our technology loses himself in the wilderness, the possibility for survival in an extended period is zero. In the wild nature of the past possibilities for death are endless. Hunting for hominins and humans is an extreme tactic for survival if nothing else is available. On another hand, if we are foraging and stumble upon a fresh corpse of some animal half-eaten, well lucky us.
Consumption of animal products was insignificant on a scale of forcing adaptation of hominin and human physiology. Our natural diet was based on fruits, flowers, leaves, and in later times vegetables and of tubers, nuts and seeds, and grains. In more recent times (1 Ma) after the invention of cooking, we have eaten grains, legumes, and other more difficult to digest tubers, and meat consumption was a couple of percent of total calories.
The first real omnivores were Neanderthals to some extent, not humans. We did not evolve in Europe we came out of Africa and entered Europe and other cold places around a hundred thousand years ago. That is an insignificant time in evolution.
The only way of hunting where metrics can work is in a larger type of community of modern Humans or Neanderthals with labor division, but this requires high cognitive capability with advanced social structures and hierarchy with language, technology like fire, spears, clothing, and so on.
So how will metrics work? It goes something like this.
A small group of hunters will go hunting. Not all of the men just small groups. Maybe one group or two depending on the size of the village. If the village is bigger more can go. They will go out to check the traps to see if anything smaller is trapped and then they will go hunting for something bigger like Antelope. Hunting can be directly killing or persistence hunting or something third. However, where the metrics work is that they will not eat the meat, they will bring it to the village for everyone to eat. Therefore, even if they themselves expended much of their energy and more than they can consume in a single sitting the entire village is in the surplus because that antelope will not last enough to get spoiled it will be eaten immediately by the entire village. In return when they are not successful hunters would eat regular food gathered from foraging by other tribe members.
This is a complex social structure. When we look at Africa tribes of today like the Kalahari San people, for example, we can see something similar. Using poisons men can kill large and fast animals. Women have clever ways of rendering low-quality plant foods edible. Although archaeology suggests that the strategies used by San people are only a few thousand years old and are somewhat different from the strategies used by more ancient hunter-gatherers still it is on a similar line.
When anthropologists look at this, they will see a pattern that lasts 250,000 years to the time of the Neolithic revolution, and the conclusion would be that this behavior is natural and that we are omnivorous as bears. And you will have thousands of books everywhere about the paleo diet representing this short time period in human evolution as a basic human state. And the big question is how normal is this actually?
Our physiology evolved from small plant-eating mammals for more than 50 million years, and we had been using this hunting strategy for 200,000 years. Does our body physiology really cope reasonably well with a larger quantity of meat?
Russell Henry Chittenden, the father of American biochemistry, wrote back in 1904:
“We hear on all sides widely divergent views regarding the needs of the body, as to the extent and character of food requirements, contradictory statements as to the relative merits of animal and vegetable foods; indeed, there is a significant lack of agreement regarding many of the fundamental questions that continuously arise in any consideration of the nutrition of the human body.”
Passages selected from a book: “Go Vegan? Review of Science: Part 1” [Milos Pokimica]
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