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Ancient fast food: Art in the Chauvet Cave, France, c. 30,000 BC

The American takeout service Grubhub announced last month that the fastest-growing food trend, by far, is the “Paleo” diet, with online and mobile orders increasing by 370 per cent in 2016 — outpacing juice cleanses, raw food, veganism and so on. As a fad, it’s really not the worst, but its rationale is maddening. Paleo eaters focus on lean meats, vegetables, nuts and seeds, preferably free-range, not because they taste nicer and are obviously quite good for you, but because this is apparently how prehistoric man ate. The core idea — a fantasy — is that if we could all just eat what humanity ate 100,000 years ago we’d be healthy and happy. Adherents point out that humans have been around for something like 150,000 years, but agriculture for only 20,000, and claim digestive systems haven’t actually caught up with milk, barley, rice, and so on. Anything “neolithic” is, apparently, something our bodies can’t really process. The earth is 4.5 billion years old — clearly it would be more natural and therefore better for all of us to go back before the time lightning tricked some rocks into thinking.

It’s actually not possible to say that paleolithic man ate any one particular diet. From modern hunter-gatherers, from fossil records, and from the fact that humans eat an enormous variety of foods and have spread all over the planet, the only thing you can say for sure is we eat what is available to us. Some hunter-gatherer societies do far more gathering than hunting — the !Kung of Namibia get more than 80 per cent of their nourishment from roots, seeds, and other gathered sources. For native peoples of the Arctic, where almost no plants grow, something like 90 per cent was meat and fat. Because they traditionally ate a lot of it raw, paradoxically, meat may have been a source of carbohydrate for them, in the form of glycogen (the carb molecule made in the liver which supplies energy around the body). Proponents of high-meat and high-fat diets — the forerunners of Paleo — have often pointed to the Inuit and the Masai as examples of people who eat natural, high-fat diets and are nevertheless extremely healthy. But the data for this was always incomplete. We now know that the Inuit had a markedly higher rate of stroke, which is now in decline, and although the group of Masai studied in the 1960s did show low rates of heart disease, they were continually active, walking something like 20km a day, and also didn’t, in fact, eat that much meat by European standards.

I’m also not sure Paleo is particularly interested in such historically important food sources as edible grubs and insects. Or the pith of trees — and we know premodern people ate tough and fibrous food because their teeth are worn, not with cavities from sugar, but literally abraded. (And if paleolithic man was meant to live past 30, surely evolution would have provided a third set of teeth.) “Eating like a caveman”, as some enthusiasts describe it, is surely meaningless if you are not also living like a caveman, i.e., continually active, and spending about three days a week with a bag and a stick digging up roots. Our hunting ancestors were also probably not as dramatic and violent as you are picturing: one of the advantages the soft-skinned, clawless human has over animals is endurance, and hunter-gathers still practise “persistence hunting”, particularly in the desert — jogging after an animal until it keels over from exhaustion. 

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