We've Always Thought That the Authentic Paleolithic Diet Consisted in Mainly Eating Meat. We Were Wrong

An analysis of teeth found in a Moroccan cave have provided new data on the diet of our ancestors.

The authentic Paleolithic diet was not as rich in meat as we thought but quite the opposite
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Pablo Martínez-Juarez

We’ve heard much about the “paleo diet,” which is theoretically based on what our ancestors ate in the Paleolithic era, or the “Stone Age.” But what exactly did they eat? Apparently, less meat than we thought.

Not very carnivorous. A new study has revealed that people’s diets in pre-agricultural societies relied heavily on plants rather than meat. For their research, experts analyzed tooth enamel they found in the Taforalt cave in northeastern Morocco.

Hunters and gatherers. The remains contradict the notion that pre-agricultural societies relied heavily on hunting and less on gathering. The study shows that the transition from a more carnivorous to a more plant-based diet occurred thousands of years before the advent of agriculture. As such, it wasn't because of the rise of agriculture.

“Our findings not only provide insights into the dietary practices of pre-agricultural human groups but also highlight the complexity of human subsistence strategies in different regions. Understanding these patterns is crucial to unraveling the broader story of human evolution,” study co-author Zineb Moubtahij stated in a press release.

Biting into the findings. The analysis was possible because of the remains found in the Taforalt cave, a site that experts consider the oldest known cemetery in Africa. Due to the abundance of human remains and their orderly arrangement, researchers believed the primary function of this cave was to serve as a necropolis for the region’s societies.

Experts studied the dental enamel found in the bone remains. They performed an isotopic analysis based on the carbon, nitrogen, strontium, sulfur, and zinc present. From the relative concentrations of each isotope, the team inferred information about the diet of the people that the teeth belonged to.

Moubtahij and her team detail their work in a paper published in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

An era without dental hygiene. As Moubtahij explains in an article in The Conversation, the study also revealed some details about the dental health of these people. The initial analysis of the teeth showed many cavities.

The prevalence of caries is more surprising than one might think, given that this was a time when dental hygiene was conspicuous by its absence. However, the latest analysis points to another determining factor in the diet: the starch in some of the foods consumed by the group.

A piece of the puzzle. We know a bit about the dietary habits of prehistoric humans. Only a few decades ago, what we could learn about these habits was limited. Given that food decomposes quickly, there were few clues apart from bones and the like.

Research like this can provide more information, although the picture may be more complex. As Moubtahij pointed out, there may be a connection between food and nomadic and sedentary routines.

The utensils in this cave indicate a sedentary lifestyle, which could be associated with a more considerable proportion of vegetables in the diet. In contrast, the hunting groups would have maintained a nomadic lifestyle during this pre-agricultural era. The study confirms that introducing a vegetable-rich diet wasn’t a Neolithic invention, but rather that this transition had already occurred thousands of years earlier.

Image | Heiko Temming | Nicolas Perrault III

Related | Prehistoric Humans Didn’t Have Cavities. Researchers Think They Know Why

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