Stone Pages: Archaeo News

2 October 2010, Reconstructing the Paleolithic diet

An interdisciplinary team of scientists has been assembled by the Unilever Corporation to study the diet of our early ancestors and determine how it might improve our health today. The group brings expertise in botany, anthropology, archaeology and genetics to the problem.

Early humans are believed to have eaten 20-25 plant-based foods daily. In contrast, many people today struggle to consume the recommended five portions of fruits and vegetables. Whether a plant-based diet is healthier or more in tune with our genetically-defined nutritional needs is one of the questions the scientists plan to address. Also of interest is whether we have evolved since the Paleolithic to need a different diet.

The head of the team, Dr. Mark Berry, explains the research project. "Some scientists have theorised for years that the Palaeolithic diet is more compatible with human physiology than our diet today. This is because evolution is an extremely slow process and changes in our diet have outpaced changes in our genetic make-up. We think this is the first time biological sciences have been used to match an optimal diet against the human genome so this research really is blue-sky thinking, and one of the most exciting projects being carried out by Unilever√*s 'Discover' R&D team. Using cutting-edge scientific techniques, the research employs a new way of looking at diet, examining our evolutionary biology to provide greater enlightenment than ever before. We hope to unlock the secrets of the past and, in doing so, potentially identify key nutrients in the diet of cavemen which might offer nutritional benefits to people today. We√*re only at the start of our journey, but the scientific leads and new insights generated from this could potentially deliver a range of foods and drinks that are specifically designed to be compatible with what evolution has prepared us for."

A team headed by Professor Herzl Chai of Tel Aviv University (Israel) School of Mechanical Engineering is using a different approach to establish the diet of early humans. Joined by researchers from George Washington University (U.S.) and the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology, Chai developed an equation for the relationship between chips in teeth and the force needed to produce them. The work is based upon "fracture mechanics" which is commonly used to study rigid, non-biological materials. Previous studies of this sort relied upon the mechanics of the jaw which require a nearly complete skull.

From the data obtained using the calculations, some information about diet can be extrapolated. Teeth with many large chips may indicate a hard diet of nuts and seeds or meat with bones. Smaller chips would be produced with a softer, plant-based diet.

Edited from Physorg (16 September 2010), FoodBev.com (20 September 2010)