Paleoanthropologists are pretty amused by the faddish Paleo Diet. And now a review of studies on hominid evolution is using environmental and chemical evidence to prove, once and for all, that there was no such thing as "clean eating" during the Stone Age.
The research, published in The Quarterly Review of Biology, pretty clearly establishes that early humans didn't have any one eating pattern. Instead, diet in the era of early hominids was catch as catch can -- and, of course, regionally specific.
While hunter-gatherer groups in northern climates likely ate a diet heavy in animals, reported the researchers, those in more growth-friendly southern climes were probably plant eaters. Very few had what we might call "optimal" diets and instead ate for survival rather than performance. In other words, little virtue was likely ascribed to eating and food choice.
"Everyone would agree that ancestral diets didn't include Twinkies, but I'm sure our ancestors would have eaten them if they grew on trees," study author Ken Sayers, Ph.D., said in a statement. "They were simply acquiring enough calories to survive and reproduce."
Since these people only lived until about age 30, food's effect on health was likely not a concern -- or even a known entity.
In addition to using chemical analysis and geographic data to determine likely food sources, the team reviewed studies that examined anatomical qualities of early hominids, finding that they weren't built ideally for hunting and didn't have the dental capacity to extract nutrients fully from plant sources either. This lends support to the idea that they likely ate much as modern-day scavenger animals do today.
"Some earlier workers had suggested that the diets of bears and pigs -- which have an omnivorous, eclectic feeding strategy that varies greatly based on local conditions -- share much in common with those of our early ancestors," Sayers continued. "The data tend to support this view."
Of course, many supporters of the Paleo Diet respond to this criticism by explaining that the reference to cavemen is just a fun organizing principle, the meaning of which is simply to eat closer to original food sources. And avoiding processed foods and major sugar sources can only improve one's health. But make no mistake: When you go Paleo, it's a modern act.