By Marco Pagliarulo, Weird Veg Science columnist for Lifelines

Enthusiasts of the “Paleo” diet believe our ancestors from the Paleolithic era (“cavemen” from 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago – just before humans started farming) ate lots of meat but no grains or beans. Their logic follows that today meat is encouraged while grains and beans are a no-no.

Here I present an argument that counters the “no grains, no beans” rule of Paleo dieters. Archaeological evidence shows that cavemen were in fact eating grains and beans, sometimes as staple foods – and they were even showing some culinary creativity! Join me in a walk back through time as we follow the trail of crumbs they have left behind…

  • 19,000 to 23,000 years ago: At a site in Israel, archaeologists have found a collection of grains of wheat, barley, oats, millet, brome, and various grasses.[1, 2, 3, 4, 5] Grinding stones with grain residues were also found at the site, meaning these early humans were making flour![2, 4] Even more remarkable is that an oven hearth with grain residues was found at the site too, suggesting that dough made from the grain flour was baked![2] In light of the quantity of grains found at this site (over 16,000 grains) and that the grains were fully mature, this is evidence that humans were not just foraging grains, but were intensively collecting them – and that grains were likely a staple food.[1, 3]
  • 20,000 to 25,000 years ago: Grindstones for grinding starchy foods have been found in various ancient human camps across China; the residues and usage patterns on them indicate they were used to grind beans, grass seeds, and other plant material.[6]
  • 25,000 years ago: At a site near Florence, Italy, another grindstone and an accompanying grinder have been found with starch grains on them,[7] providing evidence of the routine production of flour from grains. Another oven hearth for baking was found here too![8]
  • 30,000 years ago: Flour residues on grinding tools, including starch grains from grasses and other plants, have been found at ancient human camps in Italy, Czech Republic, and Russia.[9] The findings at these sites suggest that food processing and flour production were common and widespread across Europe at least 30,000 years ago.[9]
  • Over 30,000 years ago: Various seed-grinding implements and starch grains, including grass seeds, have been found at a site in Australia,[10] which provides evidence for specialized seed processing activity in Australia at that time.[11]
  • 48,000 to 65,000 years ago: In the Kebara cave in Israel, archaeologists have found several beans (18 species including lentils and peas) and grains (barley, brome, oat, and other plants) which were ripe when brought into the cave; the plant remains were generally charred, indicating these early people cooked their food.[12]
  • 105,000 years ago: A large assemblage of grass seed granules retrieved from the surfaces of grinding and pounding implements in a cave in Mozambique indicates that early humans consumed grass seeds over 100,000 years ago![13] Over 2000 grains were retrieved, 89% of which were sorghum grains.

This compilation of archaeological findings is overwhelming evidence that Paleolithic humans not only included grains and beans in their diet, but around the globe they also actively collected them and brought them back to their living areas on a routine basis long before farming began 10,000 years ago. Many of the staple grains and beans eaten by Paleolithic humans are still eaten by humans today!

Cavemen were eating something else too. Genetic markers in current human populations around the globe show that cannibalism was widespread throughout human evolution[14] and this is supported by remains at archaeological sites [15, 16, 17]. It appears that sometimes they chowed down on other humans entirely for nutritional reasons![15]

It’s true that cavemen were eating meat; the pattern of extinctions of large animals on the various continents closely follows the arrival of humans.[18] However, they were also eating lots of grains and beans, so perhaps a balanced Paleo diet should include these foods as well. Then again, since cavemen commonly ate human flesh too, perhaps it is wisest to seek culinary advice from anyone but a caveman!


References

[1] Kislev ME, Nadel D, Carmi I. 1992. Epipalaeolithic (19,000 BP) Cereal and fruit diet at Ohalo II, Sea of Galilee, Israel. Rev Palaeobot Palynol 73:161-166.

[2] Piperno DR, Weiss E, Holst I, Nadel D. 2004. Processing of wild cereal grains in the Upper Palaeolithic revealed by starch grain analysis. Nature 430:670-673.

[3] Weiss E, Kislev ME, Simchoni O, Nadel D. 2004a. Small-grained wild grasses as staple food at the 23 000-year-old site of Ohalo II, Israel. Econ Bot 58 (Suppl):S125–S134.

[4] Weiss E, Kislev ME, Simchoni O, Nadel D, Tschauner H. 2008. Plant-food preparation area on an Upper Palaeolithic brush hut floor at Ohalo II, Israel. J Archaeol Sci 35:2400-2414.

[5] Weiss E, Wetterstrom W, Nadel D, Bar-Yosef O. 2004b. The broad spectrum revisited: Evidence from plant remains. PNAS 101:9551-9555.

[6] Liu L, Bestel S, Shi J, Song Y, Chen X. 2013. Paleolithic human exploitation of plant foods during the last glacial maximum in north China. PNAS 110:5380-5385.

[7] Aranguren B, Beccatini R, Mariotti Lippi M, Revedin A. 2007. Grinding flour in Upper Palaeolithic Europe (25 000 years bp). Antiquity 81:845-855.

[8] Aranguren B, Giachi G, Pallecchi P, Revedin A. 2001. Primi dati sul focolare gravettiano di Bilancino. In: Atti della XXXIV Riunione Scientifica IIPP “Preistoria e Protostoria della Toscana” dedicate ad Antonio Mario Radmilli: 337-348. Florence, Italy: Istituto Italiano di Preistoria e Protostoria.

[9] Revedin A, Aranguren B, Beccattini R, Longo L, Marconi E, Mariotti Lippi M, Skakun N, Sinitsyn A, Spiridonova E, Svoboda J. 2010. Thirty thousand-year-old evidence of plant food processing. PNAS 107:18815-18819.

[10] Fullagar R, Field J. 1997. Pleistocene seed-grinding Implements from the Australian Arid Zone. Antiquity 71:300-307.

[11] Veth P, Fullagar R, Gould R. 1997. Residue and use-wear analysis of grinding implements from Puntutjarpa Rockshelter in the western desert: Current and proposed research. Austral Archaeol 44:23-25.

[12] Lev E, Kislev ME, Bar-Yosef O. 2005. Mousterian vegetal food in Kebara Cave, Mt. Carmel. J Archaeol Sci 32:475-484.

[13] Mercader J. 2009. Mozambican grass seed consumption during the Middle Stone Age. Science 326:1680-1683.

[14] Mead S, Stumpf MPH, Whitfield J, Beck JA, Poulter M, Campbell T, Uphill JB, Goldstein D, Alpers M, Fisher EMC, Collinge J. 2003. Balancing selection at the prion protein gene consistent with prehistoric Kurulike epidemics. Science 300:640-643.

[15] Saladié P, Huguet R, Rodríguez-Hidalgo A, Cáceres I, Esteban-Nadal M, Arsuaga JL, Bermúdez de Castro JM, Carbonell E. 2012. Intergroup cannibalism in the European Early Pleistocene: the range expansion and imbalance of power hypotheses. J Hum Evol 63:682-695.

[16] Bello SM, Saladié P, Cáceres I, Rodríguez-Hidalgo A, Parfitt SA. 2015. Upper Palaeolithic ritualistic cannibalism at Gough’s Cave (Somerset, UK): The human remains from head to toe. J Hum Evol 82:170-189.

[17] Rougier H, Crevecoeur I, Beauval C, Posth C, Flas D, Wißing C, Furtwängler A, Germonpré M, Gómez-Olivencia A, Semal P, van der Plicht J, Bocherens H, Krause J. 2016. Neandertal Cannibalism and

Neandertal Bones Used as Tools. Sci Rep 6:29005.

[18] Sandom C, Faurby S, Sandel B, Svenning J-C. 2014. Global Late Quaternary Megafauna Extinctions Linked to Humans, Not Climate Change. Proc R Soc B 281:20133254.