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Would Including Grains Make You “Better Fed?”

I’ll have to file this as about the dumbest thing I’ve seen all week. Tons of readers have alerted me to articles out claiming that Stone Age man was "better fed than previously thought" and has been "feasting on grains for 100,000 years."

It’s nonsense.

  • U of C archeologist finds Stone Age man better fed than previously thought, by Bill Graveland, THE CANADIAN PRESS
  • Humans feasting on grains for at least 100,000 years, by Katherine Harmon, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN

Here’s a link to the actual paper (PDF), a pretty damn short read: Mozambican Grass Seed Consumption During The Middle Stone Age, Julio Mercader.

As with everything in this sort of vein I always begin with principles. So, "better fed" relative to what? Starvation, certainly. In comparison to a kill of game or fish? Not on your life. In comparison, grains are crap on every single score — every one. And in fact, given the phytic acid that prevents mineral absorption it’s difficult to view grains as anything better than a bare subsistence food to prevent starvation.

Feasting on grains? Please, Katherine Harmon; don’t be a ditz. Beyond even the arduous task of gathering wild grass seeds — absent "fruited plains" — they had to be heavily processed and cooked to eat. Without pottery or cooking vessels, perhaps you can explain to us how they "feasted" in this manner 100,000 years ago.

Here’s what I wrote on an email list when this news surfaced.

Why, with all the massive evidence showing we sourced animals above all is it a problem when one small population, probably faced with hunger resorted to the labor intensity of gathering seeds?

I think that’s a strike in favor of evolution, not against our primary sources of nutrition. I’d happily eat grains too, if I was hungry and couldn’t kill & slaughter enough animals to feed me and mine.

But I’ll bet they were still on the lookout. That’s why in addition to bakeries, nowadays, we’ve also got Ruth’s Chris. Yum.

Now, examine those two articles above and the actual paper. Nowhere in any of them will you find a single reference to meat as our prime evolutionary driver. That’s quite an omission that to me calls into question bias, if not outright ignorance. I quote the introduction to that paper.

The role of starchy plants in early hominin diets and when the culinary processing of starches began have been difficult to track archaeologically. Seed collecting is conventionally perceived to have been an irrelevant activity among the Pleistocene foragers of southern Africa, on the grounds of both technological difficulty in the processing of grains and the belief that roots, fruits, and nuts, not cereals, were the basis for subsistence for the past 100,000 years and further back in time. A large assemblage of starch granules has been retrieved from the surfaces of Middle Stone Age stone tools from Mozambique, showing that early Homo sapiens relied on grass seeds starting at least 105,000 years ago, including those of sorghum grasses.

The "…belief that roots, fruits, and nuts, not cereals, were the basis for subsistence for the past 100,000 years and further back in time." "Basis for subsistence…relied on grass seeds?" Please! That degree of ignorance truly boggles the mind.

Fortunately, Dr. Loren Cordain came to the rescue via my email box this morning out to his subscribers.

This is an interesting paper ( Mercader J. Mozambican grass seed consumption during the middle stone age. Science 2009;326:1680-83) as it may push probable (but clearly not definite) cereal grain consumption by hominins back to at least 105,000 years ago. Prior to this evidence, the earliest exploitation of wild cereal grains was reported by Piperno and colleagues at Ohalo II in Israel and dating to ~23,500 years ago (Nature 2004;430:670-73). As opposed to the Ohalo II data in which a large saddle stone was discovered with obvious repetitive grinding marks and embedded starch granules attributed to a variety of grains and seeds that were concurrently present with the artifact, the data from Ngalue is less convincing for the use of cereal grains as seasonal food. No associated intact grass seeds have been discovered in the cave at Ngalue, nor were anvil stones with repetitive grinding marks found. Hence, at best, the data suggests sporadic use (and not necessarily consumption) of grains at this early date. Clearly, large scale processing of sorghum for consumption for extended periods seems unlikely.

Further, It should be pointed out that consumption of wild grass seeds of any kind requires extensive technology and processing to yield a digestible and edible food that likely did not exist 105,000 years ago. Harvesting of wild grass seeds without some kind of technology (e.g. sickles and scythes [not present at this time]) is tedious and difficult at best. Additionally, containers of some sort (baskets [not present at this time], pottery [not present] or animal skin containers are needed to collect the tiny grains. Many grain species require flailing to separate the seed from the chaff and then further winnowing ([baskets not present]), or animal skins] to separate the seeds from the chaff. Intact grains are not digestible by humans unless they are first ground into a flour (which breaks down the cell walls), and then cooked (typically in water – e.g. boiling [technology not present]) or parched in a fire which gelatinizes the starch granules, and thereby makes them available for digestion and absorption. Because each and every one of these processing steps requires additional energy on the part of the gatherer, most contemporary hunter gatherers did not exploit grains except as starvation foods because they yielded such little energy relative to the energy obtained (optimal foraging theory).

If indeed the grinder/core axes with telltale starch granules were used to make flour from sorghum seeds, then the flour still had to be cooked to gelatinize the starch granules to make it digestible. In Neolithic peoples, grass seed flour most typically is mixed with water to make a paste (dough) that is then cooked into flat breads. It is highly unlikely that the technology or the behavioral sophistication existed 105,000 years ago to make flat breads. Whole grains can be parched intact in fires, but this process is less effective than making flour into a paste and cooking it to gelatinize the starch granules. Hence, it is difficult to reconcile the chain of events proposed by the authors (appearance of sorghum starch granules on cobbles or grinders = pounding or grinding of sorghum grains = consumption of sorghum). I wouldn’t hang my hat on this evidence indicating grains were necessarily consumed by hominins at this early date. To my mind, the Ohalo II data still represents the best earliest evidence for grain consumption by hominins.”

Don Matesz also did a really good reality check on this "news."

And very curiously, Lyle McDonald seems to have fallen for this "news" lock stock & barrel, using it to finally come forth with his long awaited post with the working title on his Monkey Island forum of F#$@* Paleoman. Castle Grok took care of that one.

I do agree with Lyle, however, here.

I’d note that it’s unlikely that there was any singular evolutionary diet in the first place. Humans have shown the ability to adjust to all but the most extreme environments and show an amazing ability to adapt to drastically differing diets as well. Human ancestors evolving in say Alaska would have had far different foods available than someone living in the arid plains in Africa. Even examining the extant hunter-gatherer tribes demonstrates this in spades: the diet of an Alaskan Inuit is radically different from say an African Bushman simply due to the difference in environment and what is available to them. So there is no single ancestral diet in terms of the quantities, proportions or types of food that would have been eaten in the first place.

I often point out to people that “paleo” is anything from a Kitavan diet of 70% carbs to an Inuit diet of 80% animal fat, and everything in-between. If you want to practice paleo, then find what works for you within that range. For me, about 70/20/10 fat/protein/carb seems to work best, but I also do potatoes and other dense starches now and then. And sometimes I do almost zero carbs for a few days at a time. And I fast randomly and intermittently and work out fasted. The other side of the paleo equation is that we went hungry sometimes.

Richard Nikoley

I'm Richard Nikoley. Free The Animal began in 2003 and as of 2021, contains 5,000 posts. I blog what I wish...from health, diet, and food to travel and lifestyle; to politics, social antagonism, expat-living location and time independent—while you sleep—income. I celebrate the audacity and hubris to live by your own exclusive authority and take your own chances. Read More

46 Comments

  1. epistemocrat on December 24, 2009 at 13:17

    Hi Richard,

    We can mimic fictitious ancestors as well: all that matters is that the self-experiment produces health.

    The problem of induction, the inability to predict the past (melting ice cube reverse causation problem), and the reality that we live by fiction make ancestral mimicry empirical because we must test our conjectures, our my-thologies, on our own bodies. There are two things we cannot escape: we must tell ourselves a story–we need a conjecture to test–and we must, at some point, experiment on our own bodies. All the ‘science’ in the world cannot circumvent that local, grounded reality.

    Falsify conjectures, iterate, and zero in on health.

    Happy Holidays,

    Brent

    • Richard Nikoley on December 24, 2009 at 13:19

      Absolutely, Brent. Paleo is merely a decent starting point because it embodies a logical principle.



    • epistemocrat on December 24, 2009 at 13:22

      It’s a very valuable starting point.



    • epistemocrat on December 24, 2009 at 13:30

      I had grains in my diet while being super active: I was not healthy. I removed grains from my diet while staying active: I got super healthy. Lyle can say what he wants, but he can’t change that reality.

      Thanks for addressing this so well, amigo.



    • Grok on December 24, 2009 at 13:50

      Same experience here. I’d love more than anything to eat grains! They were the base of my diet my entire life! I love them, but no more…. Sometimes tough love is best 😉

      “Lyle can say what he wants, but he can’t change that reality.” – No it doesn’t!

      It’s about more than body composition, it’s overall health! I know he advocates real food in his diets, this is why I don’t understand the beef with paleo?

      People try and argue with me about grains all the time. Basically I say, “Shit dude, you don’t have to believe me… just cut them out for a a while and see for yourself.”



    • Skyler Tanner on December 24, 2009 at 14:52

      His beef is with anything bordering on cultish fetishism. When I wrote a critique about Paleo, namely that it’s Modified Atkins with Fantastical PR (not magic, a great starting point for junk removal), I got all sorts of people out of the woodwork. Especially those who were still “newly converted,” flying off half cocked about something that was old hat to me. You can see it in those who have been in “the game” a long time:

      Veteran: “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”
      Neophyte: “THIS IS THE ONLY WAY!”

      This behavior isn’t just for Paleo: crossfit, HIT, Zone, Distance runner cliques…tribalism in the worst way.

      Best,
      Skyler



    • Richard Nikoley on December 24, 2009 at 16:08

      Right on Skyler, and this is why I always want to emphasize the distinction between Kitavan and Inuit. It’s not necessarily the macro-comp, but REAL FOODS. Find what works for you, individually, a-la epistomocrat. Self experimentation.



    • Richard Nikoley on December 24, 2009 at 16:12

      …And, we have a great opportunity here. For once, we can shed light on a path that’s flexible to the max. Yea, you’ve got to give up processed foods and sugar, to 90% (I’ve been partaking of some awesome homemade pecan brittle and cashew brittle for holidays), and it’s so effortless for so many.



    • Grok on December 24, 2009 at 16:51

      I don’t feel like I’ve given up anything. Paleo food is F-ing awesome (as we all know).

      That said, it’s hard as hell to turn down the sugary stuff when my blood sugars start dropping from looking at it. I don’t really miss it, but apparently my addicted brain does.



    • epistemocrat on December 24, 2009 at 16:58

      I think epistemocracy (anti-tribalism) is the n=1 flexible way.



    • Nigel on December 31, 2009 at 11:51

      Instead of talking about “Paleo” diets, would it perhaps be better to talk about “Real Food” diets?

      Anyone trying to slag-off Real Food diets would just look silly.



    • Grok on December 31, 2009 at 19:37

      Nigel,

      Paleo is a real food diet. That’s why it’s silly that some don’t seem to be able to grasp that concept. Some are trying to discredit/label paleo like they did with Atkins. Just plain wacky.

      Atkins was a real food diet challenging conventional wisdom. Of course now it’s been commercialized and mostly frankenfoods.

      I saw Lyle went all crybaby on you. For someone who doesn’t care, sure seemed like he put a lot of effort into not caring. LOL



  2. Grok on December 24, 2009 at 13:40

    Great rebuttal Richard. This 100,000 year thing had been floating around for a little too long unchecked.

    Thanks for the link love buddy!

  3. Alcinda Moore on December 24, 2009 at 13:50

    First….who’s to say they weren’t using grain to clean their pottery, etc. They use sand and small stones, so why not grain? Second….people will eat almost anything when they are starving! I’ve seen reports of people that died of starvation having twigs and leaves in their stomachs!

    And yea, if they mean “better” is less starvation I can agree….but animal sources are still the best nutrition in my opinion! I know for myself, avoiding grains has made me much healthier!

    (apologies if you get multiple posts for this, one browser didn’t work….or so it said!)

  4. Jim Purdy on December 24, 2009 at 13:52

    What we have here is a site of enormous importance, at the very cusp or tipping point of human evolution.

    Obviously, this is where flat-breads were created as the first Paleo-Frisbees.

    That development, in turn, led to the taming of wolves, speeding them toward their evolution as Frisbee-chasing domesticated dogs.

    • epistemocrat on December 24, 2009 at 14:20

      lol 🙂

      Nice one, Jim!



    • Patrik on December 24, 2009 at 14:22

      +1 for Jim Purdy’s comment.



    • Richard Nikoley on December 24, 2009 at 14:29

      LOL LOL LOL.



    • Grok on December 24, 2009 at 14:47

      Sounds like a much more likely scenario 🙂

      This must be why Mark is infatuated with Ultimate Frisbee too?



  5. Patrik on December 24, 2009 at 14:28

    BTW I had the same reaction to Lyle’s comment (below) as did Castle Grok:

    “Bloggers, apparently unclear on the concept of irony, go on constantly about how ‘Paleo man didn’t have grains, so you shouldn’t eat them.’ Apparently that same logic doesn’t apply to the computers they use to blog with, the Internet that they blog on, their Blackberries that they use to Twitter about their blog updates, modern cars that they use to get to work or the houses they live in. Paleo man didn’t have those either but I don’t see these folks giving those up. Guess they only want to give up the easy stuff when it’s convenient. But I digress.”

    Really? That is Lyle’s POV when it comes to the why and how of Paleo? You can argue pro and con Paleo, from various angles, but this the lamest “reasoning” I have ever seen. Painful to read.

    • Richard Nikoley on December 24, 2009 at 14:32

      Yea, I didn’t touch that because it was too non sequitur to touch. Besides, Castle Grok and commenters easily recognized it for its ridiculousness.

      Is McDonald slipping?



    • Swintah on December 26, 2009 at 09:11

      I don’t eat computers, internets or my house, either. They’re not paleo.



    • Grok on December 26, 2009 at 16:11

      LMAO. Or grass-fed!



  6. Alex Thorn on December 24, 2009 at 14:41

    I don’t think Lyle had much of a grip to begin with! The point that caught my eye in that Mercader paper was that these stone tools that had sorghum grass seed deposits on them also were covered in pigment and had a yelloe-ochre patina. It is also historically recorded that sorghum grains make good oils, waxes and dyes. Perhaps they were not eating them but making pigments for cave art?!

    • Grok on December 24, 2009 at 14:52

      +1 for @Alex Thorn

      Again, a much more likely scenario. Face paint or hunting/battle paint? 🙂



    • Richard Nikoley on December 24, 2009 at 16:05

      Occam’s razor.



    • Grok on December 26, 2009 at 16:13

      Ha-ha. You’re no fun 😉



  7. bucklesnarf on December 27, 2009 at 07:36

    Lyle is right. So is Dr. Esselstyn and Dr. McDougall. These men have credentials. Only on the internet can someone with no credentials criticize them and their views.

    As Dr. Esselstyn says “No oils”. His program is scientifically proven to reverse CAD.

    • Richard Nikoley on December 27, 2009 at 09:30

      Where did anyone say anything about “oils?” And what sort of oil are you talking about? If you mean modern refined vegetable & seed oils, nobody is going to disagree with you. This is a “paleo” blog if you didn’t take the time to notice.

      And if Esselstyn reverses CAD, then so do others like Dr. WIlliam Davis (cardiologist), Dr. Dwight Lundell (heart surgeon), Dr. Steven Gundry (heart surgeon) and others.

      https://freetheanimal.com/2009/02/enlightened-heart-surgeons-and-cardiologists.html

      The reason it works is simple: reduction of inflammation by eliminating modern processed foods.



  8. bucklesnarf on December 27, 2009 at 10:06

    Anyone who says that starches are bad for you needs an education. That is what Dr. McDougall says. Look at the Okinawans, Costa Ricans Sardinians etc. Watch his video lecture and become educated. We are designed to eat starch and Paleoman certainly did also.

    Starches are great for us especially sweet potatoes. ( McDougall is not for vegetarianism necessarily)

    • Richard Nikoley on December 27, 2009 at 10:19

      I agree that starches are fine and paleo, but one needs to determine individually what works best for them. I include potatoes, sweet potatoes and other starchy roots, though not in enormous quantities.

      Hey, here’s a novel idea: why don’t you educate yourself about what I advocate here before exposing your ignorance? Eh?



    • Grok on December 28, 2009 at 01:16

      Loren Cordain quote:

      “potatoes and sweet potatoes are not necessarily forever and completely banned from the diet. For overweight individuals and for anyone suffering from chronic diseases of insulin resistance, I highly recommend that potatoes and sweet potatoes be eliminated or severely restricted until body weight normalizes and/or disease symptoms ameliorate. Because both sweet potatoes and potatoes are net base yielding vegetables, they represent superior carbohydrate sources compared to cereal grains. Additionally, when fully cooked, these vegetables contain few or no antinutrients (such as dietary lectins) which can adversely affect health. In contrast fully cooked cereals still contain numerous antinutrients including lectins.”

      WTF do potatoes have to do with grains you ass-hat troll?



  9. bucklesnarf on December 27, 2009 at 10:07

    Starches do not make us fat. Lyle mcDonald is right. He is alo right that starch granules were in fact found on Paleoman’s teeth. I guess that longtime incorrect theory is now blown huh?

    • Richard Nikoley on December 27, 2009 at 10:22

      Starches don’t make everyone fat. They make some fat and they exacerbate diabetes for those with the disease. You’re just playing the same schtick virtually everyone does, advocating a one-size-fits-all diet.

      Every diet has to be individually established through self experimentation. Many have found paleo (or low carb) a good starting point.

      And loose the attitude or I’ll just ban your ass and be done with you without a second thought. And stop repeating yourself every damn comment.



    • Grok on December 28, 2009 at 01:05

      Richard, he’s just a troll from Lyle’s forum. They posted our links there the other day. He visited me too.

      Probably some Wonderbread eating 17yo (how’s that for a theory ;))



    • Alex Thorn on December 28, 2009 at 01:36

      I think Lyle and his acolytes are dangerous!

      Bucklesnarf’s posts were all in the vein of argumentum ad verecundiam (argument to respect) or ispse dixit (he himself said it)! Just because someone is educated or even ‘lettered’ does not make their word sacrosanct.

      I think it is dubious to point to apparently healthy, high carb eating populations as examples to justify the safety of the diet because, in a lot of cases, our perception of their diet is clouded at best. Okinawans are often cited but I have read that, from Okinawans about Okinawans, their day begins and ends with pork. When it comes to pig, they eat everything from nose to tail except the ‘oink’! They also cook a lot of their food in pork lard.

      It also occurs to me that traditional native cultures like the Kitavans prepare and cook their starchy foods in such a way that much of the starch is converted to a resistant form, which is largely digestible by gut bacteria that convert it into short chain saturated fatty acids like butyrate. So while many of these people may appear to consume a high carb diet, once it passes the lips it may very well be more of a high fat diet.

      Glucose and starches that convert rapidly to glucose (which most do – particularly white potatoes!) are not totally off the hook, if latest research is to be believed. I have seen studies that report that even a modest postprandial blood glucose hike of between 7-8 mmol/L and fasting blood glucose levels of 5.6 mmol/L can damage organs and the beta cells of the pancreas:
      http://www.phlaunt.com/diabetes/14045678.php

      Charles Washington, the zero-carbing marathon runner of the Zeroing in on Health blog, says it best: “Only the lucky ones get fat”!



    • Grok on December 28, 2009 at 02:10

      Nicely said Alex!



    • Richard Nikoley on December 28, 2009 at 07:17

      Yea, I figured links would end up on “Monkey Island” so they could all stroke each other over how smart they are and how moronic everyone else is. That place has got to be the biggest sycophantic echo chamber on the planet.

      At any rate, after three more posts saying the same thing (McDougall; Esselstyn) I just deleted them and banned him. I don’t have time for that crap. Mostly, he was just repetitive and lazy. I don’t mind disagreement, even strong and persistent disagreement, but at least put some dammed effort into it.

      The only new thing he said was this:

      “Yeah, grains are terrible. That’s why Sardinians ( the most male centenarians in the world) ( eat pasta, breads) Costa Ricans( corn and beans) and Okinawans ( noodles) and other Ssians ( rice) live so long……..

      “Sorry, but only on the internet can men with no credentials criticize men on firm scientific ground like Dr. McDougall and Dr Esselstyn.

      “Anthropologists have it right, not paleo bloggers. And even they don’t truly fully know as no one now was alive then.

      “Go to McDougalls forum and they will show you the science.”

      But by that time I was already tired of him. Anyone else is free to address it if they want, for the record.



    • Nigel on January 1, 2010 at 05:49

      Out of curiosity, how do you ban people from here and what do they see when they’re banned? The reason I’m asking is because I was temporarily unable to access this site for a while with a yellow screen telling me that admin had changed something-or-other to do with php.

      I deleted all my freetheanimal.com cookies and I was able to access this site again.

      I’ve had a suspected phishing attempt from someone who posts on MI and wondered whether someone had obtained my IP address and spoofed it as bucklesnarf. My IP address starts with 86.



    • Richard Nikoley on January 1, 2010 at 10:45

      A few readers have reported have problems accessing the site with the latest Firefox on Mac OS Snow Leopard. that’s what I run and bot FF and Safari work fine.

      At any rate, I have a ticket in to my host.



    • Richard Nikoley on December 27, 2009 at 10:38

      …And I’m not aware of any “longtime incorrect theory” that claims plaeoman didn’t consume starches. It’s well acknowledged that he did, when available, and once he was able to use fire, so at least for about 200K years and perhaps even longer if Wrangham is correct.

      https://freetheanimal.com/2009/03/is-it-the-meat-or-cooking-the-meat.html

      Also discussed in an addendum here:

      https://freetheanimal.com/2009/11/saturated-fat-and-coronary-heart-disease-part-ii-the-paleo-principle.html

      So, you are really doing nothing more than exposing your own ignorance about what this blog is about.



  10. […] here's the whole thread on his forum — currently at three pages worth of posts — about this post of mine and a couple by others (Castle Grok & Don Matesz). And in response to Nige, a valuable comment […]

  11. Al Dente on December 29, 2009 at 09:22

    Lyle has been an asshat at _least_ since his days in misc.fitness.weights back in the early-mid 90s. He’s also the Jim Jones of his own little pity party; no wonder a cult leader is threatened by nonbelievers, in Lyle’s view “[other] cults.”

  12. […] First, Mark Sisson took on the"Better Fed" and "Feasting on Grains" nonsense I posted on the other day. […]

  13. peterlepaysan on January 9, 2010 at 03:12

    All digestible carbohydrates are converted into glucose after digestion.
    It does not matter whether the carbo came from, pasta, bread, potato, rice, sweet potatoes,
    yams , kumara, carrot, tomato,banana etc etc, they turn into glucose.

    OBTW fruit is mainly sugar and water, we might as well drink soda pop if
    fruit was a major part of paleo peoples diet.

    Meat is merely processed vegetation.
    It is why I love herbivores.
    They are delicious.
    Cheers

  14. […] inclination to explain it to you. Go get a good anthropology and archaeology text. Read it. Oh, and you can start right here. That should take only five minutes of your generally wasted […]

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