30,000 Year Old Bread is Bullshit

Let me get this out quickly, before I get yet another email.

Here’s the bullshit in question:

LONDON (Reuters) — Starch grains found on 30,000-year-old grinding stones suggest that prehistoric humans may have dined on an early form of flatbread, contrary to their popular image as primarily meat eaters. […]

The findings may also upset fans of the so-called Paleolithic diet, which follows earlier research that assumes early humans ate a meat-centered diet.

Well, fortunately, Melissa McEwen actually got hold of the actual study and read it.

The title says flour, but that’s not the good old white flour your Aunt Maude is thinking of. Of the nine species mentioned, one is a seed, the rest are roots and rhizomes. That ground starch has been used by humans since the upper paleolithic is not really news. Famous anthropologist Richard Wrangham who wrote Catching Fire has been writing about the role of cooked starch in the Upper Paleolithic for quite some time. In the Upper Paleolithic it might have spurred population increases that eventually led to early settlements like Gobekli Tepe. There has been selection for genes like AMY1 which allow for better starch digestion.

And the paper writers and like HAHA look the carnivorous Atkins people are soooo wrong. But wait, I think isotope studies are a little more accurate than a few as the paper admits "poor preserved" plant remains. And the evidence is that the paleolithic diet was mostly animal protein.

Alright, can we put this one to bed, already? Look, I’ve never doubted that humans in the wild ate whatever was edible that they could find. I just don’t think it makes any sense that they would have spent much time out gathering wild seeds, like birds. In most instances, they would probably have expended more calories in the gathering than would have been provided.

And even so, 30,000 years vs. 10,000 or 20,000 is still a drop in the evolutionary bucket.

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  1. Amy on October 20, 2010 at 09:01

    On my blog today, I have a guest rant (from my smart chemist hubby) about this:

  2. VM on October 20, 2010 at 08:02

    “And even so, 30,000 years vs, 10,000 or 20,000 is still a drop in the evolutionary bucket.”


    • Woody on October 20, 2010 at 08:41

      I think he meant that what’s the difference of 20,000 years (the difference between grains in our diet 10,000 years BP and 30,000 years BP) in the grand scheme of evolutionary time? The media is making it out to seem like a big deal because “grains” were found to have been processed 20,000 years before previously thought, when it really isn’t that big of a difference in the grand scheme of DNA changes and evolution.

      • VM on October 20, 2010 at 08:52

        I agree with that sentiment.

        I sure don’t seem to get along as well with grains as I formerly believed. I’ve been removing them from my diet and the impact on my hunger is nothing short of stunning.

      • VW on October 20, 2010 at 08:54

        Goddammit. I can’t even keep up with my dumbass fake name here.


  3. Chris on October 20, 2010 at 08:17

    I imagine this was one of the first steps down the path that led us away from the healty hunter-gatherer diet, and into the origins of the modern diet. This is processed food in its most basic form.

  4. Tommy on October 20, 2010 at 09:13

    I saw that article the other day when I came out. It really seemed to make no sense to me right off. By the title you’d think they unearthed an Italian bakery, but upon reading the article (and a few others) I saw nothing to indicate they were eating anything close to grains such as those found in traditional breads. I had to smile at the attempt to be PC. They said the Paleo diets stick to veggies and “lean” meats. lol. No way are they going to mention people are doing well on fats!!!

  5. Nathaniel on October 20, 2010 at 09:55

    I immediately though of Kurt Harris and his wonderfully sensible observation that our ancestors would have eaten many different foods in order to survive, but that doesn’t make them all ideal.

    Anyone who thinks that they would have taken the time to gather up and grind seeds if they had had some fresh meat, is a fool.

  6. Nancy on October 20, 2010 at 10:21

    All I know is what my gut tells me and that is grains (esp wheat) are my enemy. I guess I haven’t evolved much.

  7. Dimitris on October 20, 2010 at 10:31

    Our ancestors did not leave any written history, but they gave us a few clues of what was important for them, what they valued most. The vast majority of cave paintings is about animals, or people hunting animals………

  8. Methuselah - Pay Now Live Later on October 20, 2010 at 10:50

    I posted this comment elsewhere, but seemed like it was worth sharing on this post too:

    People like to wave studies like this under the noses of folk they label as ‘Paleo’ to see get some kind of reaction, but the reality is that there is not a big house of cards just waiting to tumble down in some belief system that is holding our lives together. This is not like someone disproving the existence of God.

    Most of us just eat what we think is best for them and just get on with life, knowing that there is a risk we are less tolerant to gluten than any outward symptoms suggest. I think it’s fair to say that more people are intolerant to wheat than would be classified as celiacs.

    So forget the history for a moment and just accept that if you want to guarantee you don’t get problems from eating gluten, without having expensive tests to determine your actual susceptibility, then the best thing is just to avoid things like bread, wholegrain or otherwise. If, like me, you never liked bread in the first place, it’s a no-brainer; and until the supermarkets start selling bread that resembles in any way the bread they were making 30,000 years ago, I think I’ll stick to avoidance.

    Not to mention: by weight, bread is relatively nutritionally barren. Regardless of gluten intolerance, I would prefer not to displace calories that could come from more nutritionally dense foods. To me, this is a component of the ‘Paleo’ diet that does not need to be justified by the history.

  9. Travis on October 20, 2010 at 11:25

    I imagine our ancestors ate whatever the hell they could find at times, so I’m not surprised that they consumed some grains if necessary. What I do know for sure is that I feel best when I consume no grains. My arthritis pain is diminished, my gut is happy, my belly is much flatter, and my pancreas and liver love me.

    • D on October 21, 2010 at 06:53

      Yes, they ate whatever the hell they could find and all I can imagine, so long ago is there was no shortage of food. The human population was very small and nature was not being cut down and abused. In my thoughts food was everywhere you stepped, ripe fruit, leafy veg, animals and insects of every sort… I doubt there was ANY shortage of things to eat. So as someone else pointed out, why would you go to so much trouble to deal with something like wheat that probably did not taste good to their palate anyway?

      • Travis on October 21, 2010 at 10:31

        When I wrote, “… I’m not surprised that they consumed some grains if necessary”, my intended emphasis is on necessary. The human animal will find a way to make do if the usual foods are in shortage or not available. It’s our jack-of-all-trades tenacity that has made us such survivors.

        While I agree that nature wasn’t being abused as it is today, I don’t think food was in abundance perpetually. Nature doesn’t play that way and our biological makeup allows for periods of hunger. There are many environmental factors, such as a drought, that can have a huge effect on an environment.

      • JPB on October 24, 2010 at 07:40

        Modern humans didn’t invent abusing nature. The evidence still suggests that Paleo man caused the extinction of most of the world’s megafauna.

      • Travis on October 24, 2010 at 20:12

        Yes, but the abuse is still not on the scale that it’s happening today.

    • Jason on October 22, 2010 at 01:24

      The ‘bread’ that was consumed is not bread at all by todays standards. All the husks are removed from the grains today. This removes almost all the fiber and vitamins and minerals. If anybody has ever tried an unprocessed bread made out of unprocessed grains and seeds they would see it is almost inedible and takes horrible. Todays breads are just soft processed sponges that have ahuge glycemic load, and so turn into sugar very quickly in the body. The ‘bread’ they are talking about here was really more like if you take some flax seeds, crush them, mix with water, and let dry in the sun to create a seed cake. Nothing like what we call bread.

      • Travis on October 22, 2010 at 07:32

        Yes, that would be called bird food.

  10. Tommy on October 20, 2010 at 11:29

    If only they can come up with the box that bread came in we could then have a look at the ingredients!

  11. Dave Fish on October 20, 2010 at 13:05

    In perusing the comments on the article found on Yahoo it seems that most of the responders seem to be arguing about religion (as in it isn’t possible because the earth isn’t that old). I stopped reading after a few pages because, well I don’t stop and listen to the guy ranting on a street corner downtown so why should I do the cyber-equivalent on Yahoo (an aptly named site)?

  12. Steve Cooksey on October 20, 2010 at 13:12

    I do not believe they “milled grains” 30,000 years ago… but it doesn’t matter.

    Regardless, grains are inflammatory to most humans on the planet and should be shunned.

    Even if you are lucky enough to be tolerant of grains, they are still high carb and should be avoided.

    Let the debate rage for educational reasons… but from a dietary/nutritional standpoint… its’ for naught as far as I am concerned.

    • JPB on October 24, 2010 at 07:44

      It’s worth considering that, before modern medicine started treating all our wounds and diseases, inflammation was an adaptive response.

  13. Aaron Blaisdell on October 20, 2010 at 15:38

    I don’t think you guys are considering the other angle this finding deserves. I think this new evidence that humans ground vegetable matter into a pulp (I mean a flour) and possibly consumed it forces us to reevaluate the millions of years of evolutionary changes in flint knapping techniques as representing nothing more than Mankind trying to perfect the toothpick.

    • Richard Nikoley on October 20, 2010 at 16:06

      You had me going Aaron.

      Ha, you know that when I go to the hygienist a couple of times per year and she asks me about brushing and flossing I say I do the former from time to time and never the latter. but I do use wooden tooth pics all the time. Very paleo. Given our manual dexterity, using a sliver of wood to clean between teeth just has to be a very old discovery.

      Anyone know if primates have been observed using wood slivers to clean teeth?

    • Travis on October 21, 2010 at 11:02

      Ha! :-)

  14. Aaron Blaisdell on October 20, 2010 at 21:12

    I’ve cut way back on brushing. Only once per day, right before bed. I never use mouthwash anymore since I don’t want to destroy any of the good bacteria in my mouth, and I’ve always found that it irritates my gums. I do floss religiously, however. I have spaces between some of my teeth and they love to collect bits of food, especially meat. My wife is Chinese, and like all Chinese she cleans her teeth regularly with a toothpick after meals. All of the Chinese restaurants we frequent in Monterey Park have toothpicks at the check out counter.

    I taught a seminar on tool use in animals a couple of years back, but don’t recall coming across any reports of non-human primates using slivers to clean or probe teeth. Chimps do use wadded up leaves as sponges to either collect water to drink or for hygienic purposes, such as wiping themselves after coupling.

  15. Kevin Teague on October 21, 2010 at 00:01

    The reporting of “starch grains” has been massively misunderstood on this study. The amount of places this story has been picked up, even if to “get a dig in at those crazy paleos”, is a sign that paleo is starting to really being to break into mainstream consciousness.

    This does put a bit of a question mark on the diet of the very low carb paleos. Saying that, “In most instances, they would probably have expended more calories in the gathering than would have been provided.”, I don’t think is fair or accurate statement. Check out this page on cattails for example:


    Cattails can yield an astonishing 140 tonnes of roots per acre. In many places of the world, this plant is extremely common. It would take a fair amount of menial labour to extract a “flour” from the starch in the root of this plant, but a person could easily provide several pounds of carbohydrate from a days work. A group of say, 10 female gatherers could easily provide enough calories to feed an entire tribe of 50 in a days work.

    The kicker on that page about cattails though is the statement, “Cattail root flour also contains gluten”. So maybe paleo mans flatbreads really did have a bit more of a grain-like aspect to it? I wonder if there were any gluten-free cavemen back then? A small sub-culture of cave people who only ate root flour from ferns, and asked the waiter at the cave-staurant if a stew on the menu “contained any cattail root”?

    At 10,000 years, the amount of evolution that would take place is quite debatable, but I think at 30,000 years you could see a more pronounced adaption take place in a species. However, even if there was evidence of man eating wheat from 100,000 years ago, there would still be a strong case against it’s consumption based on the natural defenses within a grain. Evolution will need a longer amount of time for a species to be able to thrive when it’s consuming a toxic and problematic substances, and you’re always going to be wasting a lot of genetic material on dealing with this problem instead of using that genetic material for other more productive uses.

    • Richard Nikoley on October 21, 2010 at 06:38

      Just to be perfectly clear, Kevin, if it wasn’t clear in the post, I was referring exclusively to grass seeds, not tubers and roots. Yes, I would agree those would generally be worth the effort.

      Now gluten in cattails. That’s interesting. Wonder if it caused even more gut irritation in the far off ancestors than us in general, I.e., was a starvation food, leading to some adaptation but not full.

      • Matthew on October 22, 2010 at 04:01

        I don’t think cattails contain gluten, I can find no evidence for it other than people repeating the fact on blogs and forums. Sounds to me like a mistake someone made once that has just been repeated around the web.

  16. Walter on October 21, 2010 at 10:08

    I’m not sure there would ever be an adaption to grains, since most of the damage they do doesn’t kill until after prime breeding age.

    • JPB on October 24, 2010 at 07:51

      Consider the grandmother hypothesis: living to an old enough age that you can help care for your grandchildren increases the survival of your genes. There is even very recent evidence that the survival rate of children in Africa is significantly increased if they have a grandparent present in the home.

  17. Liz Wolfe on October 21, 2010 at 10:18

    I blogged about this as well, (referencing Hunt.Gather.Love of course) from my humble corner of the internet, and I am so glad I’m not totally off base in saying…DUH, early man ate some stuff. Stuff that was available, stuff that would keep him alive, and he probably ate most of this “stuff” without checking the interwebs for data on whether it would puncture his gut.

    I also dug into the leading words and sentence structure of these “news” articles…they are entirely misleading. But that’s the Lit major in me. Further, in reading the original document, it hardly leads to any of the conclusions Reuters and the NYT seemed to be selling.

    Gotta plug the blog, of course.

  18. Julius on October 21, 2010 at 15:05


    I have a fundamental question. I may be imprecise, but I gather that one reason paleo is against bread is that our ancestors didn’t eat it, and our body has evolved in such a way that it isn’t optimal to eat bread. My question is, couldn’t it be that what was optimal for the paleolithic man isn’t optimal for a contemporary man seeking a certain body composition. I mean, it could have been optimal for the paleolithic man to carry 15% bodyfat, especially considering the uncertain nature of eating habits. Isn’t it _Theoretically_ possible that some modern food (bread in this case), while not optimal for keeping us like paleolithic men, is supportive of a 6% bodyfat, high lean-mass body?

    (Of course, my question would be redundant if it could be shown that paleolithic men looked like Tyler Durden!)


    • Richard Nikoley on October 21, 2010 at 15:19

      Yea’ totally fair question, Julius, as Im sure paleoman was no more concerned about body comp than was a tiger. Environment dictated body comp which was probably lean most of the time, given circumstances.

      But it should also be noted that while metabolic processes were in place to make humans fat way long ago, they probaby didn’t bother because why? There were no jones’s to keep up with, no cable, fast food or supermarkets. Getting fat would have been hard to do. So why do it?

      Now, it’s easy to do.

      Certainly, there are some species that get fat naturally – hibernating species most prominently.

      So, we’d all be perfectly fine if, we just went to sleep for five months every year. I recAll one doc noting about T2 diabetics that they have the metabolism of a bear just getting ready to hibernate.

      • Julius on October 21, 2010 at 16:01

        Thanks for the quick reply.

  19. jon w on October 21, 2010 at 15:54

    A photo of the grass/sedge species described is a great illustration of how paltry a stone-age “seed-based diet” would have been. (http://www.maltawildplants.com/CYPR/Pics/CYPLB/CYPLB-Cyperus_longus_subsp_badius_t.jpg)

  20. Mike Elgan on October 26, 2010 at 20:25

    Grains were also found on stone tools dating back 105,000 years ago.

    I’m sorry, but grains were part of the Paleolithic diet, and now that we have better detection technologies, such discoveries are probably going to be coming out with increasing frequency.

    The whole idea that grains were not part of the Paleolithic diet is based on incomplete archeology.

    • Richard Nikoley on October 26, 2010 at 22:10

      So go fucking bread up, Mike.

      Quit jerking off with science, and munch down.

      Report knack, if you like.

    • Richard Nikoley on October 27, 2010 at 09:55

      Oh, and about that Sci American article?

      Total bullshit.


      • Mike Elgan on October 27, 2010 at 12:21

        Can you elaborate? It seems pretty straightforward to me.

      • Richard Nikoley on October 27, 2010 at 12:29

        See the link.

    • Alex on October 27, 2010 at 12:43

      Can someone please show me the definitive evidence that these grain residues made it from the stone tools into stone-age mouths and stomachs? There could me many non-culinary reasons for starch residues on stone tools. It seems to me that if man had as early an introduction to eating grains as these researchers suggest, then any grain intolerance/auto-immune response should not be as common in the modern human population as it is!

  21. Mike Elgan on October 26, 2010 at 22:27

    Just had an amazing salad made with garbanzo beans, kale, purple carrots, radish, onion, fresh basil, spinach, organic raw-milk sheep’s cheese and with home-made sprouted wheat bread.

    It seems to me that Paleo fans’ curious visceral hatred for grains defies reason. Even if you choose not to eat grains, why be such a hater over something as trivial as grass seeds?

    Also: Why be bothered by discoveries of grain consumption in the Paleolithic diet? Many aspects of the Paleo diet are not taken from the actual diet of Paleolithic man. Neolithic innovations like olive oil and domesticated animals are embraced by most variants. Why not just admit that Paleolithic man ate grains, even if you think we shouldn’t now?

    Also: The entire Paleo diet idea is based on archeological evidence. Shouldn’t an honest adherent continue to accept new archeological evidence?

    • Richard Nikoley on October 27, 2010 at 00:49

      Hey Mike, don’t missunderstand. If grains don’t fuck you like they do me and lots of others, then grain up, man.

    • Travis on October 27, 2010 at 18:11

      It isn’t a visceral hatred on my part. I feel so much better when I don’t eat them, plain and simple. If you read what I posted above, you’ll see that the Paleo grain consumption doesn’t bother me either. I doubt Paleo man ate a significant amount of grains because the time and energy to process them would exceed any caloric benefit.

  22. Mike Elgan on October 27, 2010 at 07:45

    I’m curious: Have you tried sprouted whole grains?

    • Richard Nikoley on October 27, 2010 at 09:48

      Sure, back in the days before Paleo. Sprouted, bread with various seeds like poppy, sunflower, etc. But it wasn’t until I substituted bred for more meat, veggies, or fruit that I began to feel better and the weight came off.

  23. Mike Elgan on October 28, 2010 at 10:05

    My belief, equally unscientific, is that grains formed a huge part of the paleolithic diet for one very important reason: Grains don’t spoil. Paleolithic man hunted large game that passed through seasonally. Fruits and vegetables are seasonal. Small mammals hibernate or are very hard to find in the winter.

    With no Tupperware, refrigerators or preservatives, it seems certain that pre-historic man had to squirrel away some foods that could be carried for months without spoiling.

    How did they get through the winters, year after year, century after century with insufficient game and nothing on the trees to eat?

    • Richard Nikoley on October 28, 2010 at 10:52

      “How did they get through the winters, year after year, century after century with insufficient game and nothing on the trees to eat?”

      Never heard of the Inuit, I guess.

  24. Mike Elgan on October 28, 2010 at 11:20

    An extreme exception does not prove the rule. In fact, the opposite is true.

    The Inuit had advantages to overcome their disadvantages. For example, In the same way that Peruvian Indians evolved much larger lung capacity, the Inuit evolve much larger livers than other hunter-gatherers, and their urine volumes were much higher to get rid of the urea from excess protein.

    Also: The Inuit had access to vitamin rich seal organs and other foods no other hunter-gatherers had.

    The fact that 99% of hunter-gatherers did not have Inuit livers and urine volumes, and did not have access to vitamin rich marine-mammal organs does more to prove that hunter-gathers elsewhere had survival mechanisms to deal with seasonality total different from the Inuit.

  25. Richard Nikoley on October 28, 2010 at 11:22

    “In fact, the opposite is true.”

    Quite correct. Which is exactly what I was doing, falsifying your speculation.

    And there’s not only the Inuit, either. Ever heard of an ice age?

  26. Mike Elgan on October 28, 2010 at 12:03

    By the way, before we go on, I’d like to mention that I *really* appreciate what you’re doing with your life and your blog. I love your attitude, and wish everyone would emulate it.

    Having said that, you’re making my point. European and Asian hunter-gathers survived the Ice Age without the Inuit’s advantages of physiology. Based on that fact alone, we know that most hunter-gathers did NOT use the Inuit strategy. So what was their strategy? That’s the question.

    Also: Please don’t believe that the majority of humans ever lived all year on ice. They did have tough winters during specific periods, but, again, they had fire, cooking and therefore the ability to transform grains into nutritious food.

    • Richard Nikoley on November 1, 2010 at 13:40

      “They did have tough winters during specific periods, but, again, they had fire, cooking and therefore the ability to transform grains into nutritious food.”

      I think you’re engaging in wishful thinking.

      The evidence is clear that animal products were the mainstay of our evolution. In fact, they are the only way we could have evolved a large brain / small gut combo (expensive tissue hypothesis and Kleiber’s Law).

      Look, I know you want to base a diet based on what Spartans ate a few thousand years ago.

      Knock yourself out. I’m not interested. You know why: grains make me feel like fucking shit, and as well, EVERYONE I know, friends AND family. All the time. Without muther fucking exception.

      Do I make myself fucking clear?

      I am not interested. Eat as much of that poison as you like. I’ll have another steak. Or fish. Or chicken. Maybe some veggies and fruit.

      Grains as “food” is suitable only to the poor and starving. In comparison to meat, fish, fowl, vegetables, fruits and nuts — and even dairy — they are garbage. Utterly.

  27. […] latter being the subject of some level of hyperbolic “debate” from both the media and various paleo types. He was also championing pastured meat and dairy for all athletes at least 7 years ago. Way ahead […]

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