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The Paleo Diet May Need a Rewrite, Ancient Humans Feasted on a Wide Variety of Plants

Archaeologists in Israel have counted 55 species of plant foods a an early hominid site on Lake Hula

An ancient grape seed found at the Lake Hula site (Yaakov Langsam)
smithsonian.com

The Paleo diet is a fad that claims to be based on what the human body was designed to eat—a pre-agriculture mix including meats, roots, fruits, vegetables and nuts. While it has its plusses and minuses, the big fault is that we really don’t know what the original paleo diet, which humans ate between 2.6 million years ago to about 12,000 years ago, looked like. Colin Barras at New Scientist reports that the “caveman” fascination with meat is often overemphasized because the bones of butchered animals tend to last a long time, while other materials have disintegrated.

But researchers at the Gesher Benot Ya’aqov archaeological site on Lake Hula in northern Israel have found a camp used by human ancestors which includes a whole menu of the plant-based foods that they would have sampled. The site, reports Barras, was likely inhabited by Homo erectus or a closely related human species and includes the remains of at least 55 edible plant species, including nuts, fruit seeds, roots, tubers, leaves and stems.

According to a press release, the site was covered by sediment from the Jordan River, which helped preserve the 9,000 bits of plant debris and seeds. Stone tools and animal bones found in the same layer of sediment as the plant debris allowed the researchers to associate the food remains with the shoreline’s prehistoric residents. The research appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The wide-variety of plant materials puts current veggie lovers to shame. “The modern human diet is clearly restricted when compared to the [early] hominin diet or even to the early farmers’ diet,” Naama Goren-Inbar archaeologist from the Institute of Archeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and one of the study’s lead authors tells Barras. “It gives one a substantial element of security when particular sources become rare or absent.”

In fact, the wide variety of foods probably gave the early hominids the ability to find suitable food year-round. What’s more, Goren-Inbar says in the press release that the use of fire—the earliest evidence of which is also found at the site in recent years—gave the inhabitants more choices. “The use of fire is very important because a lot of the plants are toxic or inedible. Using fire, like roasting nuts and roots for example, allows the use of various parts of the plant and increases the diversity of the plant component of [their] diet, alongside aquatic and terrestrial fauna.”

Many of the snacks recorded at the site would be strange and unpalatable to us today. But some are familiar, reports Ilan Ben Zion at The Times of Israel, including a version of the water chestnut as well as grapes, raspberries, pears and almonds. One of the most abundant was the gorgon nut, which is still eaten like popcorn in India.

So how does the Lake Hula feast stack up to the modern Paleo diet? Researchers say that the residents of the site probably needed meat to stay healthy, but not as much as Fred Flintstone used to gobble. “We need plant-derived nutrients to survive – vitamin C and fibre, for example,” Amanda Harry of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, tells Barras. “Hominins were probably predominantly vegetarians.”

Editor's note, December 15, 2016: This piece has been updated to clarify that the modern Paleo diet also includes vegetables.

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About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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