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Caveman Cereal Raises a Question: Do Humans Need Grains?

According to an article in the latest issue of Science, our ancestors may have been more sophisticated eaters than we've been giving them credit for.After analyzing starch residue on dozens of ancient stone tools found in a cave in Mozambique, archaeologist Julio Mercader of the University of Calga...

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According to an article in the latest issue of Science, our ancestors may have been more sophisticated eaters than we've been giving them credit for.

Sorghum field in Zimbabwe, courtesy Flickr user 2EOMCA

After analyzing starch residue on dozens of ancient stone tools found in a cave in Mozambique, archaeologist Julio Mercader of the University of Calgary came to a surprising conclusion. The residue was sorghum, a wild cereal grain. Previous archaeological evidence has suggested that grains entered the human diet perhaps 23,000 years ago (and grain storage started more recently, around 11,000 years ago).

But these tools were about 105,000 years old!

A snippet from the press release:
"These residues could have come from wild sorghum and imply that the site's inhabitants were consuming this grain, in contrast to the conventional assumption that seed collecting was not an important activity among the Pleistocene foragers of southern Africa."
Looking up more information about this, I came across several blogs and online discussions that ask a question I've never considered: Do we need to eat grains at all?

Interestingly, many of those who argue that we don't need grains (or should only eat them sparingly) are influenced by something called The Paleo Diet, which "encourages dieters to replace dairy and grain products with fresh fruits and vegetables—foods that are more nutritious than whole grains or dairy products."

Here's the premise of that diet:
During the Paleolithic, we evolved a specific genome that has only changed approximately 0.01 per cent in these last 10,000 years. However, during this recent time span mass agriculture, grains/grain products, sugars/sugar products, dairy/dairy products, and a plethora of processed foods have all been introduced as a regular part of the human diet. We are not eating the foods we are genetically and physiologically adapted to eat (99.9% of our genetic profile is still Paleolithic); and the discordance is an underlying cause for much of the "diseases of civilization."
I'll be interested to see if this evidence of early sorghum consumption changes anything for Paleo Diet proponents. The new finding certainly seems to counter the idea that eating grains isn't "natural" because it only started relatively recently.

As usual, I'd like to know what you think...

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About Amanda Bensen

Amanda Bensen is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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