Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
19 Mar

What Did Our Ancient Ancestors Actually Eat?

ShellfishA few weeks ago, I made the point that even though we may not have access to our paleolithic ancestors’ (yes, all of them) food journals, and even though there were many different paleolithic diets depending on climate, latitude, topography and other environmental contexts, the ancestral eating paradigm remains viable, helpful, and relevant to contemporary interests. That almost goes without saying, right? It’s kind of why we’re all here, reading this and other blogs, and asking the butcher for lamb tongues and goat spleens with straight faces. This stuff works.

But make no mistake: we may not know the day-to-day eating habits of our ancestors, but we know some things. And we can use what we know, drawing on several lines of evidence, to make some educated estimates.

The best place to start is, well, the place where it all started: East Africa, the cradle of human evolution. More specifically, let’s look at the Lake Turkana, Rift Valley, Omo River part of Ethiopia and Tanzania, which is where the oldest known remains of modern homo sapiens – dating back 200,000 years – were found. It’s a beautiful place. I mean just look at it. No wonder we hunkered down there for thousands of years.

So, what’s good to eat there?

A landmark paper examined this very question, using the available data to construct a series of dietary patterns that might have characterized the typical intake ranges of the very first homo sapiens living in East Africa – the ancestors of us all. Their conclusions?

  • Average intakes of moderate-to-high protein (25-29% of calories with a range of 8-35%), moderate-to-high fat (30-39%, range of 20-72%) and moderate carbohydrates (39-40%, range of 19-48%).
  • Regarding fats, SFA was 11.4-12%, MUFA 5.6-18.5%, and PUFA 8.6-15.2% of total calories. Pretty balanced overall.
  • PUFA was far more varied and diverse than the kind of PUFA typically eaten in modern diets, with very little linoleic acid (just 2.3-3.6% of calories) and far more arachidonic acid (2.54-8.84%) and long-chain omega-3s (2.26-17%).

All that looks familiar. The ranges allow for varying levels of carbohydrate, fat, and protein depending on your activity levels and goals, but it sets some “ground rules” like “keep linoleic acid low” and “be sure to get plenty of omega-3s.” So far, so good.

What were the most important foods eaten by these early humans in East Africa, and what can we glean from it?

Fish and Shellfish

The Rift Valley hosts a number of freshwater lakes teeming with fish and shellfish rich in docosahexaenoic and arachidonic acids. These fats are necessary for fetal and early infant brain development. When modern local women eat fish from those same lakes, their breast milk becomes extremely rich in both DHA and AA; this leads to improved pregnancy and early infancy outcomes. The modern pelagic fish from the Rift Valley lakes are high in DHA, EPA, calcium, and other important nutrients. And that’s what matters: the nutrients.

They were also relatively easy to gather, requiring no special tools and very little caloric expenditure. Shellfish are especially easy to pick up.

Takeaway: The density of brain-and-baby-specific nutrients found in fish and shellfish made these foods perhaps the most important to the earliest humans. Don’t skimp on the long-chain PUFAs.

Land Animals

East African hominids have a long and storied history with the resident megafauna. As far back as 2 million years ago, we were hunting (not just scavenging) them. 500,000 years ago, we were wielding formidable thrusting spears. By at least 280,000 years ago, we had developed throwing spears to prey on the crocodiles, hippos, and other large delicious beasts roaming the Rift Valley. Clearly, we’ve always known how to obtain and consume animals (and yes, “always” is correct because we’ve been eating animals as long as we’ve been us), whether through scavenging, persistence hunting, or ambush predation.

Upon making (or stealing) a kill, the homo sapiens in East Africa wasted nothing. Markings on bones indicate expert butchery. Meat was completely removed. Bones were stripped of marrow and smashed to get every last drop. Heads were prized for the “fatty, nutrient-rich, energy-dense within-head food resources.” Adipose tissue and offal – all of it – was eaten. They weren’t just eating eland loin, in other words, but utilizing everything.

Takeaway: Eating the entire animal isn’t just economical, it’s the kind of “meat consumption” we’re strongly adapted to. Diverging from that may be problematic. Eating only muscle meat and eschewing the fat, bones, and offal is likely evolutionary discordant.


Important parts of early human diets, tubers likely acted as fallback foods for when the hunt was poor or fish were scarce. It’s crucial to understand that these were wild, fibrous tubers, though – not the creamy, smooth russet potatoes that make the best darn mash you’ve ever tasted. An analysis of wild tubers currently present in this area and utilized by the Hadza (the modern hunter gatherers who live on the same ancestral Tanzanian lands) found that they contain only between 19 and 26 grams of starch per 100 grams of tuber, along with a ton of prebiotic fiber (PDF). Some of that starch was likely resistant as well, boosting the prebiotic count even higher and lowering the amount of digestible starch.

East African wild tubers therefore provide a moderate bolus of digestible starch with a sizable portion of prebiotic substrate, resulting in moderate glucose loads and improved glucose tolerance from the fermentation of prebiotic fiber.

Takeaway: Tubers were important foods for early humans, but not necessarily for the glucose they provided. The primary feature of wild East African tubers that set them apart from modern cultivated tubers was the indigestible portion, the prebiotic fiber and resistant starch that fed, nurtured, and cultivated the hugely crucial microbiome living inside our guts.

What’s the point of all this? Simple. To pay homage to the past. What went down hundreds of thousands of years ago in a far-off region in East Africa isn’t just “the past,” after all. It’s our past. It’s our story. Your story. And even though there were and are many more stories still to come from other places and times, those first humans squinting into the sun as it dipped down below the edge of the known world, turning toward the fire and the dance and the feast, slurping up some freshwater mollusk or sharing a split, roasted femur with a pal or lover – they made us who we are today. Their everyday habits, their dietary choices, their responses to the demands of the day all unwittingly paved our way, for better or for worse.

It’s good to acknowledge that.

Well, that’s it for today, folks. I hope you enjoyed today’s post. Be sure to let me know in the comment section!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Something romantical about that closing paragraph…I’m single, anybody out there down to share a split, roasted femur?

    jessica wrote on March 19th, 2014
  2. What about the water they were drinking and what was IN the water –> Algae! I know it could be deadly but Grok would have had to trust his instincts and there is a very large amount of protein in algae as well as fats and nutrients….I don’t have any research backing this up (I am hoping someone else can comment with the research!) but it makes sense…. Grok did not have filtered chlorinated water…so there would have been SO many other things besides water whenever Grok had a chance to drink.

    I know I feel good while consuming Algae (ONLY when its super high quality usually Hawaiian Spirulina and Chlorella) and I know that Algae is dates back pretty much as far back as almost anything else…

    It just makes sense to me that, being so resourceful, not being afraid of funky looks and smells, and being in need of nutrients, that Grok (as smart as he was/we are) would not have passed this natural resource up!

    OOOOh and even if Grok didn’t Eat Algae, maybe Grok was going into algae infested water enough to absorb some nutrients through Groks skin?

    I have not heard anyone in the Paleo community speak about Algae….probably because it isn’t safe for us to go drinking any green water (maybe it is!) but Grok lived in a different time…so what do you think Mark? How do you feel about Algae

    Matthew Zastrow wrote on March 19th, 2014
    • I’ve had to drink somewhat swampy water on a bike ride. It was slightly unpleasant. I didn’t get sick but I think Grok would use that kind only if he really needed to.
      Almost clear water from a pond I know with algae growing all around it and lots of frogs living in it is fine though. It tastes clean enough and healthy. That may be my main water source later this year when camping. It doesn’t seem like it would be polluted and of course has nothing added so I’m guessing it’s better than most tap water. I tried to eat some of the algae picked up out of the water but it was too tough to chew and didn’t taste good.

      Animanarchy wrote on March 19th, 2014
  3. Those ratios of protein-fat-carb sound very “Zone Diet” like to me! (30-30-40)

    Ryan wrote on March 19th, 2014
    • Spirulina is 60% protein by weight…animals can eat it….Im sure Grok had some algae in his diet (be it un-intentional)…and sometimes I eat it (usually if I want to run around town or parks or climb a mountain)

      Matthew Zastrow wrote on March 19th, 2014
  4. I started having problems with wheat and most starchy carbs at 22 yrs old. Always feel much better with protien and steamed veggies. Dairy is kind of iffy, nuts are not so good either. When I stick with a paleo diet, I lean out, and feel less “fuzz” in my head. One trippy thing is, I do great with carrot juice (homemade). Listen to your body.

    Dave wrote on March 19th, 2014
    • “Listen to your body” —> Grok sure did. and I do my best to as well.

      …and I don’t even really know what the zone diet is…..I just know that I need a lot of fat and protein to feel good….and Algae in the morning in my huge jar of filtered water allows me to not eat almost all day If I want (but I just love eating…don’t get me wrong…I totally grill and/or skillet up some healthy meats/bones/organs everyday!)

      Matthew Zastrow wrote on March 19th, 2014
  5. Interesting data. So, where did they get their carbs besides tubers? If they were getting 40% of calories from carbs on average, then that would be about 250 grams of carbs a day on average if they were eating 2,500 calories a day. Any data on the other carb sources in that region at that time–fruits, nuts, seeds, wild grains, leafy greens?

    Also, I wonder how much protein came from meat versus plant sources for that matter. 29% of calories from protein would be about 181 grams a day on a 2,500 calorie diet. There’s about 5 grams of protein per oz of lean meat, so about 2.25 lbs of lean meat.

    Leafy greens have nearly 50% of calories from protein, so if they at just 20 grams of carbs from leafy greens, that would be nearly 20 grams of protein from plants. Fruits provide maybe a few grams for every 25 or so grams of carbs. So, if they ate fruit they would have gotten some protein from that, maybe not a huge amount if they were only eating 250 grams of carbs a day. Nuts give about a gram of protein per gram of carb on average. I would imagine that the fibrous tubers were higher in protein than our modern agricultural tubers that are bred to be bloated and starchy, so I wonder how much protein that contributed. A modern potato has about 4 grams of protein, so just using that number, if they ate 5 tubers a day on average, that would be 20 grams of protein. Interesting to consider.

    I’ve read that paleo people ate a ton of fiber, so we know they were eating a lot of plant foods. How much these plant food contributed to the 29% of calories from protein would be an interesting estimation given the protein content of plant sources as touched on above.

    michael wrote on March 19th, 2014
    • I should note, that would be 2.25 lbs of meat, if no plants were eaten and meat was the sole source of protein.

      michael wrote on March 19th, 2014
  6. Accept we now know that the cradle of civilization was not Africa but Australia. That is confirmed.

    DavidKing wrote on March 19th, 2014
  7. I saw “takeaway” and thought they had takeout for a moment!

    Mary Fox wrote on March 19th, 2014
  8. The shellfish thing reminded me of a 3rd century Chinese work talking about how the ancestors of the agricultural Han Chinese all used to live by the river eating shellfish. It suggested that they were constantly sick, hungry and weak in general.

    The way I interpreted this at the time was that some hunter gatherer groups relied on more stable sources of food, like the vast amounts of shellfish on the banks of a huge river, and grew sedentary, whereas other groups would be more nomadic, hunting larger game and foraging across wider regions, which would be more dangerous and unstable, but probably healthier.

    The shellfish-eaters had a depressing life, but, in a region with good conditions for grain production, were sedentary enough to gradually adopt agriculture, and agriculture seemed far better than their previous miserable existence.

    But that was my interpretation at the time, I think it would be interesting (but incredibly difficult) to research the actual conditions in which these people were really living, whether they were really sick and weak, or whether this was just the prejudice of an agriculturalist!

    Jack Y wrote on March 19th, 2014
  9. When I read this article this morning I knew that it would generate lots of comments. I have to say, Mark, that out of the articles I’ve read from you this is one of the best–comprehensive and informative. The information is just what I needed to open the eyes of some of my friends and families who are thinking of giving Paleo a try.

    Christopher Lee Deards wrote on March 19th, 2014
  10. I was in the Rift Valley in January for a few days. Despite it’s being mid-summer and up to 35 degrees, it was astonishgly green and fertile, and the lakes looked superb. All in all an ideal environment for human growth.

    David young wrote on March 20th, 2014
  11. Snails must have been in the diet as well, they are an excellent source of proteins and omega-3 fatty acids. And for sure frogs. Both are so easy to hunt that it wouldn’t be logical for Grok to ignore them. In that perspective, french kitchen is pretty paleo sometimes (just get rid of the bagel and the croissant :) ).

    Primal_Alex wrote on March 20th, 2014
  12. Interesting….

    Both Hippo and Crocs are TOUGH. Not to mention wary. Neither of them are easy to catch and kill. Grok earned his tucker.

    Secondly, I’m betting that warfare was one of the reasons that game was abundant. There is research amongst Australian Aboriginal hunter-gatherers indicating that inter-tribal warfare generated similar per-capita casualty rates across the population, to those experienced by the belligerent nations in WW1.

    Thirdly, I wish that people would develop a healthy scepticism towards the tripe frequently written about the agricultural livestock industries. In point of fact, 97% of the cattle in Australia (and a higher proportion of sheep) are eating grass at any one time. 97%!
    Claims about water used in production rest on the unwarranted assumption that the water could somehow be “saved” if it were not used to grow beef. On the contrary, it would still evaporate or grow material that would be left to ROT if we could not make it productive by feeding it to livestock. Please explain to me how not passing some small portion of this through a steer is somehow saving it……

    PeterW wrote on March 20th, 2014
  13. “pelagic fish from the Rift Valley lakes”??? The word pelagic means of the open sea, i.e. out to sea, not of waters close to land or inland!

    Vanessa wrote on March 21st, 2014
  14. That’s an interesting post – what our ancient ancestors may have actually eaten during their time. And the way it’s been sort of analyzed seems to make a lot of sense. Would have been nice to know what they would have had for dessert.

    Suzy wrote on March 21st, 2014
  15. I knew it! Even tho so many people have been preaching about the starches in tubers, I stubbornly kept on eating them! Mainly carrots and beets, because I have been saying for years already tubers most have been a part of the Paleo/Primal diet!

    Wilhelmina wrote on March 22nd, 2014

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