On the Real Way to Eat like a Caveman

Ancestral Appetites: Food in Prehistory, by Kristen J. Gremillion. Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Hear this piece read by its author, Dylan Gordon: [audio: issuetwo/dylan.mp3]
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Ancestral Appetites: Food in Prehistory by Kristen J. Gremillion. Cambridge University Press, 2011.

We humans have learned to eat a great number of foods, prepared in an ever more astounding variety of ways. And as Ancestral Appetites demonstrates, this range of fare has been critical to our health and well-being time and again, allowing us to weather periods of environmental and social change or collapse, including shifts in climate much more rapid than those we currently face. Drawing on the material evidence left by our forebears, Ancestral Appetites outlines how the ongoing diversification of human diet is both a cause and consequence of the continuing survival and development of our species. Beginning with our evolution out of the primate lineage, and continuing through the prehistoric inventions of tools, fire, domestication and agriculture up until today, a physiological foundation of omnivory and the power of culture developed in tandem. Together, they allowed humans to take advantage of all sorts of foods from a wide and shifting assortment of environments, and transmit for use in uncertain times a vast reserve of knowledge about food growth, harvest and processing.

This message, that our ongoing evolution has both produced and depended on our ability to eat almost anything, is what makes Ancestral Appetites exceptionally relevant, because these same two factors have also left us plagued by continual anxieties about what exactly to eat. In the West, especially now, the consequences of that ongoing diversification—an overwhelming choice of and uncertainty about food—have produced a corresponding swing to the extremes of control. Think of all those impossibly unhealthy fad diets, which restrict eaters to single foods (like grapefruit), or classes of them (raw only), or preach the total avoidance of entire macronutrients (such as carbohydrate or fat), all in the name of improved physiological function. In more mundane and quotidian terms, our widespread obsession with healthy eating, as well as with idiosyncratic tastes (and, of late, allergies), also often involves the careful consumption of certain foods and the avoidance of others. Even the tendency many of us have to binge on one junk food or another is but one more side to the logic stating that there is some ideal thing we should and must consume.

This state of affairs leads to a lot of confusion and guilt, neither of which is much dispelled by the medical establishment, diet gurus or food professionals. The arena of nutritional advice is full of conflicting and uncertain prescriptions about what to eat, prescriptions that don’t accord with how most people eat when left to their own devices. Too frequently facts fall out of sight. For instance, one of the major trends in contemporary dietary hokum is the use and abuse of genetic or evolutionary “evidence,” as in the widespread claim that our dietary needs and desires are determined by our genetics, a legacy of our ancestors’ environmental circumstances and their responses to them. The most frequent claim of this nature seeks to explain cravings for sugary, fatty foods. During the long period of our biological evolution, the story goes, foods high in sugars and fats were scarce and valuable sources of dense energy. Therefore, we must be programmed to crave them above all else, and we are stuck with this out-of-date programming in the sudden instant of today’s modern West, with abundance urging us on to overindulgence.

Gremillion dispenses her doses of evidence from archaeology and physical anthropology to dispel simplistic notions like these, distilling the latest research in a way that will allow a general audience to grasp the essentials, while also being careful to include those all-important nuances left behind in too many evocations of our evolutionary past. For instance, although it is true that sugary and fatty foods were important sources of ample calories at a low foraging cost, preferences for sweet and fat tastes are nevertheless far from universal. They vary between individuals and cultures, and, more importantly, our evolutionary legacy also includes the capacity for choice, and cultural ways of encoding and directing those choices. Indeed, you will find hardly anyone else who likes food as sweet, or as fatty, as we do here in North America, and certainly not when served as regularly, and in as large portions. Although dieters may not find their cravings alleviated by truths like these, at least they will know that the deck wasn’t stacked against them from the start.

Perhaps more troublingly, pseudo-evolutionary thinking is just as prevalent in discussions about sound nutrition as it is in the domain of innutrition. One major new dietary trend is the Paleolithic or “Paleo” diet, purportedly based on anthropological insights into how early adaptation to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, with its protein and vegetation-rich food sources, informed our dietary needs. Much as we are said to be programmed to lust for sweet, fatty foods, we are also apparently evolutionarily disposed to a particular optimum diet. By “eating like a caveman,” consuming mostly meats (from hunting!) and vegetables (from gathering…), and avoiding sugars, grains, legumes and the like (not yet domesticated), proponents and followers hope to optimize their health, especially the body’s ability to build muscle and stay lean.

Here, again, we find the myth of one optimal human diet, dictated by evolutionary history and encoded in our biology. In this case it rests on a rather romantic nostalgia for a pre-technological past, a state of nature wherein men hunted big game and women gathered, before the Neolithic revolution of approximately 10,000 years ago brought the invention of agriculture, state societies, and the ability and need to rely on monocultures of unhealthy domesticated foods. Such notions of archaic utopia were last current in the 1960s, when they were well-debated and debunked by the majority of anthropologists; Gremillion aptly and succinctly recounts these happenings. At her best in sections like this, she synthesizes decades of research and argument between those who claimed early human societies and their evolution were propelled by the invention of hunting by men, supplemented by gathering of plant foods by women, and those who argued that gathered foods, perhaps supplemented by or supplementary to scavenging, were in fact the core of human diet. Simplifying such concepts to explain them to the reader without avoiding messy truths, she shows once again that our evolutionary legacy reflects the widely varying diets of early humans. Depending on their ecological situation, they sometimes fished, sometimes experimented with plant domestication, sometimes hunted small game or harvested nuts. The optimum human diet has always been a diverse one.

That’s not to say that there isn’t some logic to the claim that today’s industrial diets are bad for us: no doubt we aren’t terribly well adapted to drinking vast amounts of liquid fructose, for instance, and it seems likely that eating a lot more vegetables would be good for almost everyone. But taking recourse to the idea of a more primitive, simpler time, when manly cavemen overfull with health frolicked with the mammoths in the bush is unnecessary and incorrect. Our dietary problems aren’t caused by eating the wrong things: they’re caused by eating only certain things, and thus eating entirely too much of them. Here the anthropological evidence agrees with the Paleo dieters and the sweet/fat pseudo-evolutionists: agriculture did and does in fact degrade health and wellbeing, with the intensive cultivation of particular crops coming at the cost of restricted dietary diversity, not to mention long hours of work, social inequality, environmental degradation and susceptibility to famine.

Perhaps this is what lies behind our modern anxieties about just what to eat: long since committed to farming, in order to continue producing enough food to feed a population that has grown far beyond the carrying capacity of hunter-gathering, we know some trade-offs will need to be made. Gremillion reminds us that the solution isn’t trying to further determine and restrict our diets to what supposedly best suits us, because, as the evidence shows, no one thing ever has. If there is a condition to which we are evolutionarily predisposed, it is the condition of dietary diversity and change.

In other words, if you really want to eat like a caveman, you’d best not be too picky about it.