Paleolithic Cuisine: How Gourmet Was It?

The Perfect Health Diet is based on biological evidence for what it is healthiest for humans to eat, not on mimickry of Paleolithic diets. Nevertheless, we believe our diet is a pretty good representation of what Paleolithic hunter-gatherers ate – in fact, a better representation than conventional “Paleo.”

We also frequently note that our diet resembles gourmet cuisines. Julia Child would have loved PHD food!

(Hat tip: Cheeseslave)

So does this mean Paleolithic humans were eating gourmet food?

It sounds unlikely. Modern hunter-gatherers tend to eat similar foods day after day, often prepared simply. Lacking supermarkets, it is difficult for them to gather ingredients; lacking refrigeration, they often have to eat food soon after it is obtained; lacking kitchens and equipment, many cooking techniques were not available to them.

But in many ways Paleolithic food may have been quite a bit more Julia Child-like than anthropologists suppose.

Delicious Macronutrient Ratios

In the book, we argue that:

  • The most healthful macronutrient mix is about 30% carb 15% protein 55% fat, with over 90% of the fats saturated or monounsaturated.
  • This healthful mix of macronutrients is also the most delicious, because the reward system of the brain evolved to encourage us to eat healthful food.
  • Paleolithic humans usually succeeded in approaching this optimal macronutrient mix. The Paleolithic diet was typically minority-carb – 15-20% carb much of the time with excursions toward 50% during periods of carb availability – and minority protein – generally 15-30% – and therefore roughly half fat by calories.

Paleolithic food may have been simple, but it had the most delicious mix of macronutrients.

That Paleolithic diets were rich in fat is supported by the observation that hunter-gatherers have always striven for a high fat-to-protein ratio in their diet. Here is anthropologist John Speth:

Inuit diet was actually composed primarily of fat, not lean meat, with the protein contribution seldom surpassing about 35 per cent of their calories, and usually lower, closer to 25 per cent. Pemmican, the traditional mainstay of Native Americans and First Nation peoples (‘Indians’) inhabiting the Great Plains of mid-continental North America, was a mixture of rendered fat and dried, pulverized lean meat, the mix carefully prepared so that the protein component did not exceed 25–30 per cent of total energy (eg, Stefansson 1956; Speth 2010). [1]

Classic gourmet cuisines also generally have this fat-rich macronutrient mix. Classic French cuisine, for instance, is notably rich in saturated fat. This has influenced everyday French eating in a healthful direction, as Wikipedia notes in its discussion of the “French paradox”:

In 2002, the average French person consumed 108 grams per day of fat from animal sources, while the average American consumed only 72 grams. The French eat four times as much butter, 60 percent more cheese and nearly three times as much pork. Although the French consume only slightly more total fat (171 g/d vs 157 g/d), they consume much more saturated fat because Americans consume a much larger proportion of fat in the form of vegetable oil, with most of that being soybean oil. However, according to data from the British Heart Foundation, in 1999, rates of death from coronary heart disease among males aged 35–74 years were 115 per 100,000 people in the U.S. but only 83 per 100,000 in France.

French cuisine is famously delicious. The resemblance of the macronutrient proportions in French cuisine and Paleolithic food suggest that the Paleolithic wasn’t a time of dreary food.

Delicious Plant, Herb, and Spice Combinations

Paleolithic hunter-gatherers ate a much wider variety of plant foods than we do. Gordon Hillman found archaeological residues from 157 plant species at the village of the Paleolithic hunter-gatherers at Abu Hureyra, Syria, and believed that at least another hundred species must have been eaten that left no residues. (Source: note 15 of chapter 24 of our book.) Modern Americans, in contrast, typically confine themselves to about 30 plant species.

So it’s fair to say that Paleolithic cuisine had a much richer variety of plant foods, herbs, and spices than modern cuisines. Paleolithic humans were intimately familiar with their natural environment, and made full use of the diverse foods available to them.

Likewise, hunter-gatherers ate a much wider range of animal organs and tissues than modern Americans, and probably a wider range of fish and animals too. They must have been familiar with a great diversity of ingredients.

What about flavor combinations? Evidence is sparse on this point, but as far back as we have archaeological evidence, we find that foods were combined in tasty ways.

Via John Hawks, I learned of a story in Slate (The Mystery of Curry) that reported the discovery of residues of a ginger, garlic, and turmeric curry from an ancient cooking pot of the Indus civilization. The sub-head of the story: “It turns out we’ve been eating the spiced dish [curry] for a lot longer than anyone ever imagined.”

Paleolithic Cooking Techniques

If Paleolithic humans had access to a great variety of foods and combined them in delicious proportions and flavor combinations, the last obstacle to the Paleolithic Julia Child would have been cooking methods. What cooking technologies did she have?

Fire has been under human control for a long time – the first known use of fire was a million years ago, and fire for heating and cooking was in routine use by 300,000 to 400,000 years ago; heat treatment of tools is known to have been practiced 164,000 years ago (for sources see the discussion in Chapter 2 of the book).

Roasting and broiling on hot coals or stones heated in a fire was undoubtedly the first Paleolithic cooking technology. Cooking in earthen ovens was routine among Native Americans [3] and probably was a Paleolithic technology.

But boiling is more controversial. Ceramic pots were invented only fairly recently, about 20,000 years ago in China and were not used in western Eurasia until the Neolithic. Steam-cracked rocks, a sign that fire-heated rocks were being used to boil water, were not common in Europe until about 25,000 years ago.

Yet archaic humans seem to have been boiling foods long before 25,000 years ago. Neanderthals were boiling their starches at least 46,000 years ago [2], and Speth has argued that to survive at northern latitudes, they must have been obtaining fat from boiled animal bones 200,000 years ago.

So how did they boil without fire-safe pots? Speth again:

Boiling can in fact be done quite effectively without fireproof containers or heated stones. I first became aware of this possibility … [from] an episode of ‘Survivorman’ on the Discovery Channel (2008, Season 2, Episode 4, Part 3, Day 3, African Plains), a program in which wilderness survival expert Les Stroud had to use his wits to stay alive and functioning for several days, alone, in the bush, having with him only the cameras needed to record his daily activities and a very minimal assortment of modern items that he either brought with him or found along the way. He had to improvise almost everything. What caught my attention on that particular occasion was that Stroud had decided to boil water, but the only container he had was a plastic water bottle. To my utter astonishment, he filled it with water, suspended it over an open fire with the bottle squarely in contact with the flames, and proceeded to bring the contents to a rolling boil without destroying the container, noting in passing that so long as the portion of the bottle that came in contact with the flames was filled with liquid the bottle would not burn. [1]

Here is a re-enactment of Stroud’s demonstration on Youtube:

Speth notes that the Ojibwa commonly boiled water and cooked in birch bark baskets, and states, “Direct boiling over an open fire in perishable containers made from paunches, skins, or birch bark – without the use of heated stones – seems to have been a fairly common practice in the temperate and northern latitudes of North America, as amply documented by Driver and Massey (1957:229–231).” [1]

Herodotus, too, noted that the Scythians commonly boiled meaty stews in paunches, with fatty animal bones supplying fuel for the fire when wood was unavailable. In east and southeast Asia and Melanesia, bamboo tubes were the most popular choice for boiling water and steaming rice.

If Paleolithic chefs didn’t bother to invent pottery, perhaps it’s because it wasn’t superior to their hides, bark, and bamboo:

Experiments conducted by Margaret Holman and Kathryn Egan (1985; see also Munson 1989) … [showed that] direct heating with the tray-like bark vessels required substantially less fuel and less time than applying heat indirectly by stone-boiling … [and] also showed that producing syrup in flat-bottomed bark containers was only marginally less efficient in time and labour than using a metal kettle. [1]

From Speth’s perspective, the invention of pottery and stone heating probably signified the increased use of slow-cooking methods such as simmering, not any dramatic change in how food was prepared. [1]

What about frying? If Paleolithic chefs were using hides as pots for boiling, could they have used the same hides to hold fat for frying?

Leather ignites at 210ºC / 410ºF – a warm enough temperature to support frying. Hides can be tanned using vegetable compounds or brains, both materials available to Paleolithic man. I suspect that frying was, if not an everyday technology, certainly a technology that more sophisticated Paleolithic chefs would have experimented with.

Summary

It looks like Paleolithic chefs employed a variety of cooking methods – roasting, broiling, boiling, baking, and possibly even frying at temperatures up to 210ºC / 410ºF – and had regular access to a variety of foodstuffs which they were able to combine in the most delicious proportions and flavor combinations. They had, in other words, the ingredients, knowledge, and technology to engage in gourmet cooking.

It’s sad that writing was not invented earlier. We have forever lost the lore of the Paleolithic Julia Child who 50,000 years ago might have written Mastering the Art of Neanderthal Cooking!

References

[1] Speth JD. Middle Paleolithic subsistence in the Near East: zooarchaeological perspectives – past, present and future. Before Farming 2012(2): 1. http://www.waspjournals.com/journals/beforefarming/journal_20122/abstracts/index.php. Hat tip John Hawks and Melissa McEwen.

[2] Henry A, Brooks A & Piperno D. Microfossils in calculus demonstrate consumption of plants and cooked foods in Neanderthal diets (Shanidar III, Iraq; Spy I and II, Belgium) Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108 (2), 486-491. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2010/12/17/1016868108. See also Henry A, Brooks A & Piperno D. (2011) Reply to Collins and Copeland: Spontaneous gelatinization not supported by evidence Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1104199108. Hat tip Julien Salvatore.

[3] Kroeber, AL 1925. Handbook of the Indians of California. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 78. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution. Cited in [1].

Leave a comment ?

30 Comments.

  1. “Paleolithic humans usually succeeded in approaching this optimal macronutrient mix. The Paleolithic diet was typically minority-carb – 15-20% carb much of the time with excursions toward 50% during periods of carb availability – and minority protein – generally 15-30% – and therefore roughly half fat by calories.”

    Hi Paul, do you have some references for this as it’s something I’m interested in reading more about. I wasn’t aware that there was data on what paleolithic humans ate that was accurate enough to be able to calculate macronutrient percentages.

    • Hi Josh,

      The argument and sources are in the book. You can find the essence of the case here: http://perfecthealthdiet.com/2011/02/hunter-gatherer-macronutrient-ratios-new-data/.

      • So you are referencing your own blog post, which is about data from modern populations, most of which do not live like Paleolithic humans. There is no evidence that Paleolithic humans consumed your macronutrient ratio, there is no way to know. Even with the calculations from the modern foraging cultures, you wouldn’t get that level of fat in most cultures except maybe seasonally in South America.

        • Fidley,

          You really have to read the book. There are multiple lines of argument. Chapter 2 discusses what we know about Paleolithic diets from isotope/skeletal/teeth residue evidence. Chapter 6 discusses what the evolution of the food reward system of the brain tells us about how evolution needed to motivate Paleolithic food acquisition, and what this tells us about Paleolithic diets. Chapter 3 discusses what the uncertain food availability in Paleolithic times tells us about the optimal human diet (in Paleolithic times, and now because we haven’t evolved much since in this regard).

          Modern hunter-gatherer ratios provide the most direct evidence, but there are many lines of evidence and they all lead to the same place.

          • @ Fidley,

            Well, there is some such evidence, and not from South America but from the Middle East (Israel), from 200,000 yrs ago – and during the dry season!.
            Check out this talk Man the Fat Hunter at AHS 2012 from paleoanthropoligist Miki Ben Dor

            More background and reading at his blog, Paleostyle

        • This is about the purest hunter-gatherer population today whose hunting is not affected by colonial encroachment or migration to marginal land.
          http://www.andaman.org/BOOK/chapter15/text15.htm

          It is certainly a high fat diet.

          • The amount of fatty meat consumed daily during the rainy season when pork was at its fattest was large and could on occasions rise to the truly gargantuan. People with an average adult body weight of around 40 kg (88 lb.) could, on occasion, eat up to 1.8 kg (4 lb.) of food. This could rise to a staggering 4.5 kg (10 lb.) during a 24-hour period on special occasions. At major feasts , during colossal honey-and-pork orgies, participants stuffed themselves to bursting point, leaving everyone barely able to walk and with severe indigestion for days. Such “food pig-outs” are known from many primitive societies that are precariously dependent on an insecure food supply.

    • On second thought, go with Paul’s references. 🙂

  2. Paleolithic Cuisine: How Gourmet Was It? | Low Carb RSS - pingback on February 21, 2013 at 1:25 am
  3. It feels a bit like cherrypicking to laud the healthfulness of “everyday french cuisine” while totally ignoring that a number of its fundamental characteristics — to wit, the focus on bread — are incompatible with the diet espoused here.

    • Hi Finn,

      In practice, no country’s diet is perfect and so the healthfulness of cuisines is relative. French eating is healthier than American, due to the replacement of soybean oil by butter and cream. Both countries eat similar amounts of wheat, and both could improve their health by replacing the wheat with rice, but we can still note that the French are healthier and that their diets are more healthful. That is not cherrypicking.

      • Also, the traditional French breads use slow rising and hence better fermentation vice American practice of adding sugar to support fermentation which does not ferment the wheat as well.

        And with the traditional method bread is a fermented food, perhaps small beer is the best way to eat grains especially if the beer is not filtered to remove the yeast and hence the B vitamins.

        • Important not to make the same mistake as the WTO. French wheat may be different from American wheat. (I believe this is true for dairy. French dairy cows have a different casein in their milk compared to American dairy cows) So it’s quite possible the French are not exposed to as much or the same kind of gluten.

          Doing a quick google I found thiS: Quaglia of the Instituto Nazionale della Nutrizione in Rome, Italy (1) informs us that when the wheat cultivated in Canada [Manitoba], and the US is milled, the result is strong flour characterized by elevated insoluble protein (gluten forming) content and diminished starch content. By contrast, when the wheat cultivated in Italy, France, England, and partly in Australia, is milled, the result is weak flour characterized by elevated starch content and a diminished insoluble protein content. Consequently, duplicating European bread using American and Canadian flours may be an exercise in futility unless the baker, whether at home or in a commercial bakery, understands the physical and chemical characteristics of the flours available to him or her and adjusts his or her formulas and recipes accordingly.
          http://www.theartisan.net/flour_descriptions_and_definitions.htm

      • So all else equal, it’s better to remove the soy than the gluten?

  4. Thanks. I was having a hard time reconciling the dietary needs of our ancestor’s big brains with no cooking, and particularly how they would get carbs which would have to come from tubers most of which are inutile or poisonous in their raw state.

    • In New Zealand Maori culture made, so far as I know, no use of boil-in-the-bag technology, but did steam carbs as well as meat in earth ovens. This technology, still used today for large gatherings, uses heated rocks buried in damp soil together with food wrapped in leaves, and gives a similar effect to boiling with a pleasant earthy smoked flavour.
      Burying roots in embers is also suitable but less digestible and more wasteful.
      You could also pound or grate them and cook like patties on hot stones – even frying them in fat would not be difficult if the stone was flat enough.

      • Even more technologies that would leave no trace. In New England (clambake) and in Hawaii (Luau) the same bury in the earth with hot stones technique is use.

        Why I no think of that? Lots of work, but it’s a no brainer if it means eating or not eating.

  5. Paul, received this link from a vegan friend, sort of touche style. I think this would make for a good blog post http://nutritionfacts.org/2013/02/21/the-real-paleo-diet/

    • Agreed. I’m planning to post on vegetarian diets this year and I think it’s worth engaging the more intelligent vegetarians like Dr. Greger.

      • I’m looking forward to this open discussion.

        One thing I haven’t been able to reconcile is the evidence (and my/other E4 personal experiences) for the ancestral Apo E4 allele being hyper-responsive to dietary cholesterol and fat. This would seem to suggest our ancestors (E4) ate less meat/fat and evolved (E3,E2) to eat more meat/fat.

        I’d be interested in seeing a confirmed Apo E4,E3 or E4,E4 that has PHD recommended lipids following PHD recommended diet.

        http://www.bhlinc.com/clinicians/clinical-references/reference-manual/chapter19

        Dietary Responsiveness – Multiple studies have documented that the apoE genotype can predict variability in dietary response.4, 45-49 apo E4 patients are more responsive to a significant fat-restricted, lipid-lowering diet compared to apo E2 or apo E3 patients.48, 50, 51

        Masson et al.4 published a meta-analysis supporting the use of the apoE genotype to predict a lipid-lowering response to specific dietary treatment. In comparing variable drug versus dietary lipid-modifying responses, the authors state:

        “…4 studies that showed a statistically significant interaction between the variation in the Apo E gene and dietary cholesterol indicate that the presence of the e4 allele results in significantly greater responses in total, LDL, or HDL cholesterol; subjects with the e2 allele showed the smallest response. Of the 46 interventions that involved altering the dietary fat content of the diet, significantly different total and LDL-cholesterol responses between genotype groups were reported in 8 and 11 studies, respectively, with carriers of the e4 allele tending to show the greatest responses…..Subjects with the e4 allele appear to be the most responsive to changes in dietary fat and cholesterol…”

        Lopez-Miranda et al.48 reported a meta-analysis of diet-directed studies involving 612 subjects. The analysis concluded that the e4 allele is associated with a significantly greater LDL-lowering response to fat-restricted diets.

        (4) Masson LF, McNeill G, Avenell A. Genetic variation and the lipid response to dietary intervention: a systematic review. Am J Clin Nutr 2003 May;77(5):1098-111.

        (45) Schaefer EJ, Lichtenstein AH, Lamon-Fava S et al. Effects of National Cholesterol Education Program Step 2 diets relatively high or relatively low in fish-derived fatty acids on plasma lipoproteins in middle-aged and elderly subjects. Am J Clin Nutr 1996 February 1;63(2):234-41.

        (46) Schaefer EJ, Lamon-Fava S, Ausman LM et al. Individual variability in lipoprotein cholesterol response to National Cholesterol Education Program Step 2 diets. Am J Clin Nutr 1997 March;65(3):823-30.

        (47) Schaefer EJ, Lichtenstein AH, Lamon-Fava S et al. Efficacy of a National Cholesterol Education Program Step 2 Diet in Normolipidemic and Hypercholesterolemic Middle-Aged and Elderly Men and Women. Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol 1995 August 1;15(8):1079-85.

        (48) Lopez-Miranda J, Ordovas JM, Mata P et al. Effect of apolipoprotein E phenotype on diet-induced lowering of plasma low density lipoprotein cholesterol. J Lipid Res 1994 November;35(11):1965-75.

        (49) Mata P, Ordovas JM, Lopez-Miranda J et al. ApoA-IV phenotype affects diet-induced plasma LDL cholesterol lowering. Arterioscler Thromb 1994 June;14(6):884-91.

        (50) Lehtimaki T, Moilanen T, Solakivi T, Laippala P, Ehnholm C. Cholesterol-rich diet induced changes in plasma lipids in relation to apolipoprotein E phenotype in healthy students. Ann Med 1992 February;24(1):61-6.

        (51) Miettinen TA, Gylling H, Vanhanen H. Serum cholesterol response to dietary cholesterol and apoprotein E phenotype. Lancet 1988 November 26;2(8622):1261.

  6. For a modern version of the birch bark container you can boil water in a paper cup, over a candle. I actually did this in yr 9 science class, albeit with a bunsen burner.

    Another paleo possibility, for ready made “paper” bowls, would be husks from coconuts and baobab fruits.
    The baobabs grow over most of Africa, have a hard shell and have a long history as food.

    Finally, another ready made water vessel used by many African hunters, were Ostrich eggs. I don’t know how they would go in a fire, but probably better than the plastic bottle!

  7. Paul: In light of Sydney Heart re-evaluation, any thoughts on this from Dr. Lands, an O6 researcher and promoter of its benefits:
    Plasma Omega-6 fatty acid levels and Incident CHD – EPIC

    Also relevant to the omega-6 question is a new report from the EPIC study (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer)10. This nested case-control study examined the associations between plasma phospholipid fatty acid composition and subsequent risk for CHD. Fatty acid levels in 2424 patients who developed CHD over the ensuing 15 years were compared with levels from 4930 patients who did not. They observed in fully adjusted models that the only long chain omega-3 fatty acid associated (here, inversely) with risk for CHD was docosapentaenoic acid (C22:5n-3), not EPA or DHA. Higher saturated fatty acid (palmitic and stearic) levels were associated with increased risk, whereas higher LA (and even arachidonic acid) levels were sentinels of decreased risk. The authors concluded, “Early guidelines to prevent CHD recommended reductions in saturated fat but little consistency as to what might be substituted: other fats, protein, or carbohydrate. Our results add to the accumulating evidence that substitution of saturated fat by n-6 polyunsaturated fat may have more CHD benefits.”

    More of his discussion may be found on Lecturepad.org.

    • Hi Steve,

      Unsaturated fats can be oxidized and saturated fats can not, so loss of unsaturated fats from membranes is a sign of oxidative stress, which is common in infections and illness. So it’s a plausible observation, but it’s not clear what the dietary remedy should be. Maybe more antioxidants (zinc, copper, selenium, vitamin C).

  8. Here’s a very interesting article on how Australian aborigines traditionally hunted, gathered, managed the land, what they ate and how they cooked it:

    http://www.westonaprice.org/health-topics/australian-aborigines-living-off-the-fat-of-the-land/

    • On boiling water, the post says:

      “Water was boiled in bark troughs or in large sea shells.”

      But the entire article is well worth a read.

Leave a Comment


NOTE - You can use these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Trackbacks and Pingbacks: