As a rule, people tend to eat whatever food they can physically access. Transcontinental shipping now allows us to access all sorts of foods – we can eat durian in California, jasmine rice in Alaska, Spam in Hawaii, and Russian caviar in Cape Town – but for most of (pre)history, humans ate only locally available foods. So it’s no surprise to hear that hunter-gatherers, past and present, ate and eat wildly varied diets depending on their environment. The East African Hadza diet is different from the Arctic Inuit diet is different from the Paraguayan Ache diet.
This is usually highlighted by critics as a counterpoint to the tenets of ancestral health. Because apparently we’re all convinced that a single, rigid dietary prescription is the One True Diet. That’s silly, of course.
Today, I’m going to explore the hunter-gatherer diets about which we do have data, including environment, available/utilized plant/animal species, amount of food derived from the various categories (meat, fish, plants, seeds, tubers, etc), and macronutrient ratios whenever possible. Let’s see what we can glean from this data. Are there commonalities? Common differences? What trends do we observe?
I’ve excluded pastoralists like the Masai, agrarians like the Kitavans, and any other groups eating otherwise traditional diets that are not strictly hunter-gatherers. Those are certainly healthy groups, and we can learn a lot from their diets, but they aren’t hunter-gatherers.
Due to the nature of the subject, much of the data is incomplete. Much is qualitative rather than quantitative, but I’ll provide hard numbers whenever possible, usually drawing on this PDF as a source. I’ll speak in both generalities and specifics whenever possible as I try to give an overarching impression of what actual hunter-gatherers were and are eating.
Environment: The neotropical savannahs of western Venezuela and eastern Colombia, which are characterized by extreme seasonal shifts that rendered the area unsuitable for most agriculture (before industrial agriculture reared its head). During the rainy season, it floods up to a meter high, turning the plains into a kind of wetland. The result is a diverse ecosystem rich in edible wildlife, including waterbirds, capybara (massive, delicious rodents that I swore as a kid would make the perfect pet), deer, armadillo, caiman, and turtles.
What they ate: The Hiwi depended primarily on hunted game, fish, and gathered roots. Deer, capybara, armadillo, anteater, peccary, various fish, lizards, and turtles were the main sources of game meat. Some honey was eaten, while fruit played a minor role.
Numbers: 75% of their intake came from animals and 25% came from plants.
Environment: The tropical forests of eastern Paraguay.
Numbers: Game meat accounted for 78% of their traditional diet, honey 8%, and palm starch, insects, palm hearts, and fruit the remaining 14%. The species which comprised 90% of their hunted food were armadillo, capuchin monkey, peccary, paca, coati, and deer.
Environment: The Sami’s ancestral lands were called the Sapmi, covering northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia’s Kola peninsula. They were both sub-arctic and arctic, with treeless tundra and coniferous forests alike. By the 17th century, they’d taken up reindeer herding to keep up with the Scandinavian governments’ demands for pelts, but prior to that they were exclusively hunter-gatherers.
What they ate: The Sami were primarily hunters and fishers, with some plant utilization. Animals included reindeer (the most important one), moose, bear, seals, walrus, salmon, and rabbits. Plants included all manner of berry: blueberry, cloudberry, lingonberry, buckthorn.
Numbers: None available.
Environment: The Arctic, including Greenland, Alaska, and Canada. Their lands were very inhospitable to most forms of agriculture and populated by large, fatty mammals, both marine and terrestrial.
What they ate: Seals, walrus, caribou, fish, shellfish, and other marine fare made up the animal food. Plant foods included seaweed, berries, roots, and partially digested plant matter (lichens, assorted grasses) found in hunted caribou stomachs.
Numbers: By most accounts, animals (both marine and land) accounted for 96%+ of their food, with plants bringing up the rear.
Environment: Kalahari Desert of Botswana, Namibia, and Angola, a “semi-desert” with plentiful grazing after rains. Being just semi-arid, it supports more plants and wildlife than a “true” desert (like the Sahara).
What they ate: Animal foods included antelope, giraffe, rabbit, and guinea fowl. Plant foods included mongongo nuts, baobob pods, berries, citron melons (a wild melon similar to the watermelon, but far less sweet and more fibrous), wild mangos, various roots and tubers, bitter melon (a plant with anti-diabetic properties). PDF here.
Numbers: By weight (not calories, necessarily), 31% animals, 28% mongongo nuts, 41% other plants.
Environment: North-central Tanzania, in a section of the very same Rift Valley that hosted the earliest modern humans.
What they ate:According to an anthropologist who lived with them, a “wide variety of birds and mammals” and a “variety of berries,” plus tubers, honey, and baobob. The tubers are so high in fiber that they’re “nothing like the food we eat, even the food highest in fiber.” The meat is lean by our standards, and the Hadza extract every last available bit from the animals.
Numbers: 48% animal food, 52% plant food.
Environment: Tropical Arnhem Land in Northern Australia, on the coast.
What they ate: Primarily shellfish and other marine animals, with some birds and lizards. Roots, fruits, and seeds (PDF) with some honey on the side.
Numbers: 75% animal food (mostly shellfish and fish) and 25% plant food.
Environment: Located south of India, the Andaman Islands hosted (and continue to host) some of the most isolated, untouched populations of hunter gatherers in the world. Even today, the Sentinelese (one of the tribes) remain essentially disconnected from the rest of the world; all attempts to make contact have ended in bloodshed, or nearly so. The best records exist for one tribe in particular, the Onge.
What they ate: Wild boar, dugongs (relatives of the manatee, a massive marine mammal with hundreds of pounds of mostly saturated and monounsaturated body fat), turtles, fish, crabs, tubers, fruit, and honey.
Numbers: 79% animal food, 21% plant food.
Those are just the groups whose diets have been quantitatively studied. There are also hundreds of qualitative, more anecdotal reports from ethnographers who studied other hunter-gatherer groups’ dietary habits without measuring energy and micronutrients, and the general impression is consistent with the more detailed: a preference for animal foods, with the majority of groups getting more than 50% of calories from animals, fish, insects, and eggs.
Reliance on hunted animal foods is consistent and universal regardless of climate: As Cordain notes, hunted terrestrial animal food – big game, small game, medium game, birds, any land animal – is a consistent feature of hunter-gatherer subsistence. The closer you are to the equator, the more plant food you see utilized. The further you get from the equator, the less plant food and the more seafood you see. But regardless of latitude, between 25-36% of hunter-gatherer subsistence comes from hunted animal food. That appears to be the baseline, with the remainder coming from plants (if closer to the equator) or marine animals (if farther from the equator).
Plant food utilization is universal but dependent on climate: While even the arctic groups consumed plant foods, plant availability – and thus consumption – skyrocketed the closer a group lived to the equator.
No vegetarians (and certainly no vegans): Vegetarianism is a luxury of industrialization. Except for honey, animals are the most energy (and often nutrient) dense foods available. Plants alone simply didn’t cut it, and that was the reality for several million years of hominid evolution. Hunter-gatherer groups help confirm our collective omnivory. And there were certainly no vegans. Does this mean vegetarianism and veganism are unhealthy? No, that can’t be proven with historical records. It does probably suggest that vegetarianism and veganism are less than optimal.
No refined vegetable fats. The !Kung’s high consumption of nutrient-dense mongongo nuts rich in linoleic acid doesn’t resemble the Arizonan’s consumption of french fries cooked in soybean oil rich in linoleic acid. Mongongo nuts are loaded with magnesium, vitamin E (to protect the linoleic acid from oxidation), calcium, protein, copper, and even zinc; soybean oil is just refined fat without nutrients. No offense to Arizona. I just picked a random state’s name out of the hat.
No refined sugar:Honey is not a refined sweetener. It’s a dense source of sugar, yes, but honey contains phytochemicals and prebiotics that alter the metabolic ramifications of consuming it. Same goes for fruit, which also comes with fiber. And truly wild honey, the kind hunter-gatherers utilize, is unfiltered. It’s full of larvae, pollen, wings, stingers, severed bee legs, unlucky drones, and other nutritious bits that distinguish it from most store-bought honey, let alone white sugar. The Ache’s 8% honey (and larvae) diet doesn’t resemble a 2-coke-a-day habit by any stretch of the imagination.
No refined grains: This is an obvious one. Grains are rarely if ever mentioned in the literature.
Lots of whole animals: Lean muscle meat isn’t the only thing they eat off the game they kill.
Insects: Many anthropologists gloss over the importance of insect consumption among modern hunter-gatherers, and some of the dietary ratios ignore their contribution entirely, but hunter-gatherer groups definitely consumed bugs (PDF).
So, are hunter-gatherer diets so different from each other as to be useless for us, as critics claim? Is, say, a !Kung diet closer to the Standard American Diet than it is to other traditional hunter-gatherer diets just because the macronutrient ratios are somewhat similar and both have a lot of linoleic acid? Is “Hadza ate different from Inuit, therefore eat grains” a valid criticism of Primal eating?
No. The trends are obvious and, while they indicate a relatively broad range of potential macronutrient ratios, they support and inform – without proving the validity of – the central themes and strategies of a Primal Blueprint way of eating.
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About the Author
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.