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A Plant-Based Stone Age?

A blog by Laura Buchenlicht

A giant hedge or bush with moss in the shape of a mammoth in a forest

We all know the stereotype of the meat-eating “cavemen”, which is still a favourite in all types of media.

But how much of the diet of Stone Age people actually consisted of animal flesh?

A recent study published by researchers from the University of Wyoming, presented their findings concerning the remains of inhabitants of the Peruvian Andes from 9.000 to 6.5000 years ago.

They found that 70-95% of these people’s diet consisted of plants, especially wild potatoes and other tubers.

Examined were the bones of 24 individuals from two burial sides, using the isotope chemistry method of analysis.

It is interesting to note that the researchers pointed out the bias of earlier studies towards the importance of hunting, but only named sexism as a cause (as the field of archaeology traditionally was, and still is, male-dominated), and not carnism.

Of course the irony in this is that most likely it is the researchers’ own carnism that keeps them from seeing it as a reason for bias.

They also mentioned that it wasn’t until the 1960s that Western ethnologists actually found out that a large amount of modern so-called “hunter-gatherer” communities were actually thriving on a plant-dominant diet.

New Technology Changes The Picture

A close-up of a microscope

Apart from the bias, it was also the restriction of past analysing methods that lead to the belief in meat-dominant diets of prehistoric people.

This is due to the fact that animal remains (i.e. bones) are preserved much better in the archaeological record than plant matter (which, if preserved, also tends to be microscopic).

However, newer technologies and better data collecting techniques have started to make a difference. For example, the search for and analyses of pollen in find sites, is one way of broadening the picture.

And of course the above mentioned measuring of chemical isotopes in human remains is the number one method that revolutionises what we can find out about past people’s diet and other facts about their life.

Ultimately, the “caveman”-stereotype is a relic from Victorian times, the age in which archaeology became a major science and was popularised.

As such, it isn’t surprising that those old ideas about prehistoric people include a lot of carnism, sexism, and racism (like the “noble savage” stereotype). And due to the conservatism of academics and of Western society at large, these ideas are hard to change.

A good proof for this is the fact that, while the recent study made some waves on the internet, it is certainly not the first of its kind.

There are many previous studies that already arrived at similar conclusions for different cultures and even different hominid species. For example, the remnants of cooked plant foods were found in caves in Iraq, known to have been used by Neanderthal people.

After examining the microscopic ingredients from 70.000 years ago, the team of researchers even tried to recreate the recipe – which resulted in a type of pancake-flatbread “with a sort of nutty taste”.

As mentioned in one of my previous blogs, humans probably came up with cooking in the first place in order to digest plant starches.

“Paleo” Is Not What You Think It Is

With all of this growing evidence for the importance of plant food for early humans, the current notion of the so-called “Paleo” diet is further revealed to be a modern invention.

Unsurprisingly, the concept dates back to Victorian times (with writing promoting the assumed “primitive diet” starting in the 1890s), and was further popularised in the 50s, 80s, and 2000s.

The authors blamed bread and other carbs for diabetes and obesity, when nowadays we know that there are many factors that can be the causes of these, but certainly not carbs.

Moreover, the “Paleo” diet is based on past and modern cultures that lived in harsh, mostly Arctic climates, which of course don’t offer a lot of plant food, so that people living there had to adapt – but why should this be necessarily healthier?

After all, if we’re going to play the “most natural is healthiest”-game, then we can point to the fact that our species evolved in Africa, in a tropical climate, and that, anatomically speaking, we clearly are frugivores.

The newest research also busts the myth that the “Paleo” diet didn’t include any grains or pulses.

At a site in Israel, near Lake Hula, for example, excavators found over 9.000 plant remains, enabling them to reconstruct the rich variety of plants to which the people from 780.000 years ago had access:

Root vegetables, leafy vegetables, celery, figs, nuts, seeds and chenopodium seeds (similar to quinoa).

Blame It On The Neolithic And Now Instead

It is becoming clearer and clearer that the diet of many Palaeolithic people was a lot more plant-dominated than previously thought. The evidence shows us that early humans took advantage of plant foods, wherever they were available to them.

What really changed things – from a vegan point of view – was not the invention of agriculture, but the enslavement of animals (popularly known as “domestication”) in the late Stone Age (Neolithic).

Coupled with modern capitalism, this lead to the current meat, fishing, and dairy industry, which is responsible for the mass murder and torture of animals, and is one of the main causes of the climate crisis, destruction of ecosystems, environmental/food injustice, and higher levels of domestic and sexual violence.

So maybe we should cut our Palaeolithic ancestors some slack and try to be a bit more like them - more connected to nature and less of modern, destructive brutes.

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