Module 6: Evolution of the Human Diet: From the Paleolithic to South Beach and Beyond


The material in this module explores the diet and nutrition from an evolutionary perspective. In particular it approaches the study of the historical shifts in the human by asking such questions as: What is the natural human diet? Is the Hunter/Gatherer diet appropriate as a model of evolving humans? The articles and the class material utilize a number of sources of inference such as evidence from the fossil record, material from archeology and comparative information from contemporary foraging populations.

  1. To gain an understanding of the fossil and archeological evidence of hominid diets
  2. To interpret and critique the validity of the Paleolithic Diet Theory.
  3. To compare our current diets and dietary recommendations with the Paleolithic diet Theory.
  4. To introduce and evaluate some of the diet regimens currently advertised and marketed (eg. Neander-Thin; Atkins diet etc).
  5. To introduce concepts about the impact of  dietary evolution on human health
Activities: Historical Shifts in the Human Diet: The Paleolithic Diet
Individual Activity:

Module #6: Paleolithic Diet & the Dietary Transition: FOR FULL INSTRUCTIONS GO TO BLACK BOARD

Answer the following questions and prepare a “teaching” presentation for the rest of the class. Your presentation should include questions to generate a discussion.

  1. Analyze the “Modern Paleolithic” diet (# 1, 2, and 3) using the following Food Processor options: a) Bar Graph and b) Food Pyramid.  Include your analysis with your essay.
  2. How does the diet compare with the “Paleolithic Diet” presented in the articles (Eaton & Konner; Cordain)? Include the following in your answer:
  • a.      What is the rationale for the diet?
  • b.      What is the role of meat in the diet?
  • c.      What is the role of carbohydrates in the diet?
  • d.      Is the diet realistic? (Critique it)

“Diet” choices: a) NeanderThin Diet; b) Origin Diet; c) Atkins Diet; d) South Beach Diet; Other (needs GM approval).

Due Date: TBA


Grading guideline: See Black Board


A: Historical Shifts in the Human Diet

The Paleolithic Diet

Hominid heritage

  • Reconstructing hominid diets
    • Clues to the hominid digestive system
    • Direct evidence
      • cranial structures related to chewing (mastication)
      • teeth
    • Indirect evidence
      • paleoethnobotany
      • zooarchaeology
      • cultural strategies (e.g. tools)

Australopithecines: 4.0 / 3.75 mya – 1.75 mya

biped, teeth adapted for chewing fruit, seeds, pods, roots, tubers. Diet evid: roots, fruits, berries, nuts, insects, mollusks, egg, small mammals

Homo erectus: 1.75 mya – 300,000 ya

first widely distributed hominid species. Asia, Africa, Europe. Hunting large mammals as well as previous repertoire. Birds, turtles, mammals, plant material. larger size, bigger brain, smaller face & cheek teeth. Tool use.

  • Fire: cooking
    • breaks down cellulose & starch, makes fibrous plants more digestible.
    • inc. availability of nutrients in high fiber food
    • detoxifies some dangerous compounds and microorganisms.
      • As early as 1.4 mya (H. erectus)
      • Controlled by 750 kya
      • New way to process food
        • roasting increases nutritional benefits of many plants (breaks down cellulose)
        • used to open hard seeds
        • cooked meat is more palatable
        • smoking helps preserve meat
  • The Meat Myth?
    • Opportunistic scavenging
    • Was meat the goal?
    • early hominids = marrow and brain tissue
    • technology allowed hominids to acquire what predators could not
    • hyenas can exploit marrow, but are active at night (niche separation)
    • Unattended carcasses
      • carnivores consume internal organs and leave the rest for later
      • carcass scavenging ( baboons & chimpanzees)
    • Hypervitaminosis A
      • overconsumption of Vitamin A
      • H. erectus at Koobi Fora
      • overconsumption of carnivore livers?
      • deposit of abnormal coarse-woven bone above normal skeletal tissue

Studies of modern hunter-gatherers/foragers

  • indirect view of a life style
  • extreme variability in diet and exploitation
  • no set behaviors (general consistencies)
  • range from arctic (Inuit) to tropical forest (Batak) to dry scrub (San) and desert (Australian Aborigines, Kiliwa)
  • Historically Known H-Gs

Kiliwa (Baja California)

  • “The Kiliwa: Hunters & Gatherers of Baja”
  • desert environment
  • Video/C 59 (Media Resource Center, Moffitt)

Is there a hunting & gathering way of life?


  1. high diversity
    1. !Kung San (Southern Africa): 105 plants, 144 animals
    2. North Queensland Aborigines (Australia): 240 plants, 120 animals
    3. Ache (Paraguay): 90 plants, 90 animals
    4. Dogrib (Northern Canada): 10 plants, 33 animals
  2. gathered foods = primary subsistence base
    1. Most common pattern (tropical, subtropical, low-temp.)
    2. Increased % of meat in diet above/below 40̊ latitude
  3. small mobile groups
    1. not universal
  4. dependence on technology for acquiring and processing foods
  5. division of labor and sharing
    1. group sharing (favors for a rainy day)
    2. men and boys hunt, women and girls gather
    3. men gather while hunting
    4. women hunt while gathering, or simply hunt (ex. Batak)
    5. men and women gather together

Batak (Philippines)

  • “Batak: Ancient Spirits, Modern World”
  • tropical environment

Did hunting & gathering people go extinct?

  • hunted for sport (Dutch murder of /Xam in southern Africa)
  • married into pastoralist and horticulturalist groups
  • became pastoralists and horticulturalists
  • many horticultural groups rely on ancestral information about wild plant exploitation;

‘famine foods’

  • moved to less productive lands by governments
  • poverty-stricken underclass with no land or hunting rights working as hired labor
  • Are still hunting and gathering!!!

Food Production (come back to this idea later in the quarter when we grapple with concept of delocalization.

Paleolithic Nutrition: A Consideration of its Nature and Current Implications

  • S.B. eaton and M. Konner

Key Premise:

  • Human beings today are confronted with diet-related health problems that were previously of minor importance and for which genetic adaptation has poorly prepared us.
  • Dietary habits make impt contrib to the etiol of:
  • Cancer, CH

Agriculture changed human nutritional patterns:

  • Proportion of meat declined
  • Vegetable food came to make up as much as 90% of the diet.
Assignment (See assignments page)