The Paleolithic Diet and Modern Hunter-Gatherer Tribes

This fresh look at Paleolithic and ancestral diets takes contemporary hunter-gatherer tribes into consideration.

African pot

Modern diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes and most types of cancer are non-existent in hunter-gatherer cultures surviving today

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The human body’s innate mechanisms for healing and immunity extend beyond the mending of cuts and broken bones or recovery from colds and flu. Given the foods we evolved to thrive on, foods our ancestors knew well, the body can naturally prevent and overcome a host of degenerative conditions and chronic illnesses, from allergies, eczema, and arthritis to dental caries, heart attack, and even cancer.

Primal Nutrition (Healing Arts Press, 2015) by Dr. Ron Schmid demonstrates that the strongest and most disease-resistant indigenous cultures around the world lived on whole, natural foods--seafood, wild game, healthy grass-fed domestic animals, and, in some cases, whole grains and raw dairy. He explores how modern refined diets differ from ancestral ones, the dramatic declines in health seen in indigenous cultures that adopt modern diets, and the steps you can take to build health with traditional foods.

Early relatives of humans lived in trees probably more than five million years ago, eating fruit, eggs, and nestlings. Changing climatic patterns in Africa near the equator are thought to have driven these creatures down from the trees in times of drought to forage for food in grasslands. Certain relatives of early humans, classified in the genus Homo, and other creatures of the genus Australopithecus, appear in the fossil records of two to nearly four million years ago.

Australopithecines were similar to our ancestors in many ways; both are thought to have descended from the same ancestral line, and both walked with feet nearly identical to those of modern humans. Though the head has undergone drastic changes, particularly in the size of the brain, they walked upright. We know this from the position of the foramen magnum, the hole in the base of the skull through which the spinal cord passes en route to the brain.

Australopithecus was first named by anatomist Raymond Dart when skeletal remains of the creature were discovered in 1924. For many years, it was thought to be the direct ancestor of humans. Recent discoveries, however, indicated Australopithecus was a vegetarian cousin of the genus Homo, the line believed to lead to modern humans. The jaw and teeth are heavier, more suited to chewing and grinding roots. The teeth of Homo species of the same period are smaller and lighter, more suited for tearing and chewing meat. While Homo developed, Australo-pithecines became extinct between five hundred thousand and one million years ago.

Almost two million years ago, Homo erectus appeared; it was believed to be the first human. Meat consumption increased during this time, as evidenced by the animal bones that litter the caves that Homo erectus inhabited. Additionally, they had tools for hunting and cleaning animals, and they lived in areas well populated with large game. These people spread far from central Africa, where they most likely had originated. A classic find of this species is Peking man, who lived approximately four hundred thousand years ago and was the first to use fire.

Further changes led to Neanderthal man, considered the first of the Homo sapiens (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis). These people ate a diet estimated to have been perhaps 50 percent meat. But as Cro-Magnon man and other modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) appeared, they improved their weapons and communications skills, and groups became more efficient at hunting big game. Meat assumed an even more dominant role in human nutrition.

This trend was reversed in the period shortly before the beginnings of agriculture. Need for fresh hunting grounds had spread humanity all over the globe, and by the eve of the agricultural revolution we numbered some three million people. Together with changes in animal populations and climate, this human population growth may be the reason why hunting large animals became less important for many cultures. Fish, shellfish, and small game assumed increasing importance, and a new pattern emerged. Tools for processing plant foods became more common at this time (some ten to twenty thousand years ago). Trace-mineral analysis of strontium levels in bones has shown vegetable consumption increasing as meat consumption was decreasing.

A mixed diet was typical of the estimated three hundred thousand contemporary hunter-fisher-gatherers who survived into the 1970s. Animal food was estimated to constitute, by weight, an average of 35 percent of the diet of several cultures studied. A similar range was found among cultures that Weston Price studied, though some used even more animal-sourced food much of the year.

The Sanctity of Food to Indigenous People

The diet of the Australian Aborigines today is in many ways typical of both ancient and contemporary hunter-gatherers. Thought to be the oldest surviving culture on Earth, the Aborigines depend on plants, seeds, small reptiles, mammals, insects, fish, and birds. Although men spend much time hunting for larger animals, overall their diet is 70 to 80 percent vegetarian.

In Robert Lawlor’s book, Voices of the First Day, the author discusses the spiritual aspects of food in Aboriginal life.

For the Aborigines, eating is a sacred act; it represents humanity’s deepest communication and kinship with the life-giving forces of the earth. . . . Hunting and gathering are considered the basis of developing the physical and spiritual potential of human nature. The great hunt is the means by which the spiritual powers of the earth and sky educate humanity. Animals and plants nourish the body, and the process of hunting, foraging, and preparing imparts dexterity, physical skills, and intellectual and spiritual knowledge.

I find this concept of “sacred food” fascinating, and it’s interesting to note that half of aboriginal society—the men—spends its time securing 10 to 20 percent of the calories in the form of meat. Why? Though this is controversial, their culture has been said to be egalitarian—men and women function as equals in theory and in practice. Lawlor writes that “the natural male-female complementarity forms the basic unit of Aboriginal society. . . . Men and women as a group decide the clan’s food-gathering strategy for the day, depending on weather conditions, locality, and the direction of their wanderings.” Apparently they believe that meat is of sufficient importance that its procurement is worth a highly disproportionate amount of effort.

Native Americans also had a concept of “sacred food.” In Of Wolves and Men Barry Hoistun Lopez writes that sacred food is “earned” by hunting in a very specific way, and it nourishes the soul along with the body. Without this kind of food, the body merely survives and the spirit suffers. Hunting tribes called meat “medicine” (and in the Pacific Northwest, salmon assumed this central role in the culture). This meant that it was sacred because it came from a sacred ceremony—the hunt and its aftermath (just as in the Aboriginal tribes). It also meant that the meat contained the power of the plants (that the animal had eaten) to cure and to soothe. This was one reason why Native Americans did not eat wolf meat: wolves primarily ate meat, not plants. Nor did Native Americans wish to eat cattle once the white man came—it was not sacred to hunt cattle.

It’s clear that in these and other native cultures, the connection between food (particularly mammals and fish) and well-being was at least as much a spiritual connection as a physical one. The capture of wild animals, together with the procurement of plant foods, was at the very heart of the spiritual and physical lives of the people.

Lawlor also noted that “The spiritual dimension is also respected in cooking and food preparation.”

Ideally, an animal is cooked and eaten as close as possible to the place where it was killed; all things, including food, are more sacred by virtue of being in place. When a kangaroo or other large animal is roasted whole on an open fire, it is first exposed to roaring flames for ten minutes, during which time the spirit of the animal escapes to the metaphysical abode of its species. After the initial roasting the carcass of the animal is removed from the fire, its fur is scraped off, and its intestines removed with a sharp stone. It is then returned to a bed of hot coals and cooked on each side for twenty minutes. The warm, partly cooked blood is thought to have magic properties; the men drink it in a post-hunt ritual and rub it on their spears for continued accuracy. . . . Other cooking methods, such as baking in ashes, steaming in ground ovens, or boiling in seawater and tortoise shells, all have ritual and Dreamtime connotations. (p. 310)

It is noteworthy that the meat was cooked. Clearly, a modern primal diet that reflects ancestral ways need not be entirely raw.

In the Kalahari Desert of Botswana, about two hundred members of a contemporary hunter-gatherer tribe, the !Kung, still carry on their ancient way of life. Like all remaining hunter-gatherers, they occupy a marginal area that modern civilization has not yet claimed. They have existed there for at least ten thousand years.

The !Kung are one of the groups that medical teams studied before concluding that contemporary hunter-gatherers do not develop the diseases of modern civilization. According to these studies, about 10 percent of the !Kung were more than sixty years old—approximately the same percentage found in contemporary populations that have been studied. They live quite a leisurely life. Men hunt two or three days a week, and women spend an equal amount of time gathering plant foods, which constitute about two-thirds of the diet. Much time is spent socializing, visiting, sharing food, and teaching children. Some anthropologists have called hunter-gatherers the original affluent societies; many definitely do not lead the hard and short lives of popular conception.

Richard Leakey writes in Origins, his excellent account of human evolution, that the sharing of food formed the strongest of bonds among early hunter-gatherers living in small groups. Many anthropologists believe this socialization led distinctly to our development into complex social beings. The sharing of meat—and for coastal peoples, fish—specifically formed social bonds around which the physical, social, and spiritual lives of early humans revolved, and helped make possible our subsequent evolution. Vegetarian cousins of early humans, the Australopithecines, were solitary feeders who did not share food with companions; they became extinct.

Among the !Kung, Leakey writes that the killing and sharing of meat is surrounded by great excitement and a sense of mysticism. Customs dictate how and with whom animals will be shared (this is true in Aborigine tribes as well). The communal feasting is done with a great deal of fanfare and ritual that is not attendant to the sharing of plant foods. Leakey offers no explanation why meat rather than some other food is the center of such ceremony and holds such importance.

Consideration of historical evidence and recent research reviewed earlier suggests meat and fish were placed on a pedestal simply because native people everywhere recognized how essential animal food was in the diet. These foods were elevated to the status of “sacred” foods, with essential spiritual connotations. In coastal cultures fish was central; later, in some nomadic and agricultural societies, dairy products came to the fore. Hunter-gatherer societies were marvelously efficient. If they hadn’t been, early prehumans wouldn’t have proceeded to three million subsequent years of evolution.

The traditions, rituals, and mysticism of the !Kung surrounding the capture, sharing, and eating of meat are logical. Wild game might supply only one-third of the bulk of their food, but they recognized it as essential and behaved accordingly.

Analysis of some of these hunter-gatherer diets shows an average fiber content of forty-six grams, which is eight to ten times that found in the modern diet. The calcium content of sixteen hundred milligrams in the ancient diet is at least twice as great as is found in the modern diet. This figure is calculated from plant foods and animal flesh consumed, and does not reflect bones that have been ground up or cooked. Trace-mineral content in the ancient diet was high.

The composition of fats in a hunter-fisher-gatherer diet is different from that of fats eaten by most people today. As we’ll see in later chapters, the fatty acids in vegetable oil are precursors of different prostaglandins than those that are derived from the fatty acids of free-ranging animals and in saltwater fish; evidence clearly indicates the latter fatty acids are inadequately supplied in the modern diet. Primitive diets are low in the fatty acids derived from today’s vegetable oils, but high in those richly supplied in fish oils and in meat.

Implications for Post-Agricultural-Revolution Diets

These analyses of ancestral and contemporary native diets present a comparison of primal and modern foods. Whether weighted more toward plant foods or more toward game and fish, ancestral diets included more fiber, less vegetable oil, and more fat-soluble vitamins and minerals than modern diets do.

After the agricultural revolution, diets changed considerably, but many elements of hunter-gatherer diets stayed the same until recently. Fresh meat from free-ranging domestic animals, rich in saturated fats, was a staple that was used regularly almost everywhere. This meat has certain qualities of wild game. Raw milk and dairy products from these free-ranging animals are similarly rich in saturated fats; they too were regularly used until recently. Fish remained a staple for coastal and river people. Fresh raw vegetables and fruits remained a staple for rural people everywhere, as did whole grains (before modern milling techniques were employed).

Agricultural cultures ate these foods for thousands of years; their people were healthy and largely resistant to the diseases that are prevalent today. Whether one ate more like the hunter-fisher-gatherer or more like the agriculturist, a wide spectrum of healthy foods was ¬≠available—the cornerstone to building healthy bodies.

If we are to look to our ancestral heritage for answers to our modern ills, we need to introduce an element of the mystical into our discussions of nutrition and disease. Can consuming organic vegetables and free-range domestic meat, organ meats, whole grains, seafood, vitamin supplements, and the purest water fully nourish us if we fail to maintain the spiritual connection between the earth and ourselves, which our ancestors placed at the core of their existence?

I think not. Ancestral wisdom tells us that feeding the soul is quite literally as important as feeding the body. As we learn how our ancestors fed their bodies, I believe we must pay equal attention to how they fed their souls. And if the few remaining native cultures are to ¬≠survive—and I believe their survival is important not only for them but for everyone on the planet—we must work together to find ways to fully protect these indigenous people. They need space, they need their native habitats left intact, and they need to be left alone.


Reprinted with permission from Primal Nutrition by Ron Schmid, ND, and published by Healing Arts Press (www.innertraditions.com), 2015.