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."
- 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.