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Meat has been a crucial part of the real paleo diet for millions of years. However, hunting is hard and modern hunter-gatherers can only kill big game once a month1. Our ancestors had it even tougher, only armed with sharp rocks.

Given the challenges of hunting, humans and our ancestors relied heavily on scavenging. But just how picky were they when it came to these leftovers? Did they avoid rotten food?

Now, I’m certainly quite picky about how much mould I’ll tolerate on my lunch. However, it turns out that putrid food can be surprisingly beneficial. A review of the evidence suggests not only could it form a key part of the hominin Paleo diet; it probably did2.

Why add rotten food to a paleo diet?

Rotten food smells gross and generally sounds like a bad idea. However, scientists are unconvinced by the “argument from ew”. So Professor John Speth set out to investigate if it actually has any benefits2.

His work revealed that there can be surprising benefits to eating food that’s gone a bit off. At the most obvious level, rotten food has begun to break down. This makes it easier to digest than, helping extract extra nutrition from it2.

Of course, cooking and cutting food also does this, but it turns out waiting for nature to take its course can provide extra benefits.

Crucially, the way food breaks down can actually help keep it free from disease-causing bacteria. Instead, other bacteria rush in to feed on rotting meat’s lactic acid. Their presence essentially locks out the more harmful bacteria which can’t get a foothold for weeks, if not months2.

As well as keeping the food somewhat safe, these bacteria gobble up all the oxygen. The resulting anerobic environment preserves vitamin C. So if you don’t have access to fresh fruit and veg, rotten meat can be a great alternate source2.

Modern fondness for putrid food

You probably won’t find many diet books and resources that recommend rotten food. However, Professor Speth searched a bit more than that, examining the anthropological literature to see if any other groups enjoy rotten food. Sure enough, there are plenty of instances of them doing so2.

This includes first contact reports of indigenous people enjoying rotten food, as well as more recent anthropological studies on the subject. My favourite ones are where judgy Europeans actually try some and enjoy it2

The dictionary definition of “don’t know it until you try it”2.

Of course, just because people know (or in historical memory) eat rotten food doesn’t mean it was part of the paleo diet. This simply shows that the hatred of rotten food isn’t as widespread as you might think just from looking at the West.

Finding the Paleo diet

Of course, it’s all well and good talking about how great rotten food is and how many modern groups are partial to it. But we’re curious about where it fits in human evolution. Was it really part of the Paleo diet?

Figuring this out is rather challenging. The ravages of time have only left us with the bones of our ancestors’ prey, with no clues about the state of the meat on them. However, many contain clues that they weren’t eating the freshest cuts of meat: tooth marks.

It turns out our ancestors and relatives, the hominins, often didn’t get first access to the meat. At many sites, the cut marks (made by hominins) are on top of tooth marks (made by carnivores). Or the tooth marks are on the meatier part of the bones, whilst the cut marks are focused elsewhere. Both of these are strong indicators our ancestors often got to the meat after carnivores had their way with it3.

Cut marks and bone marks on a bone from Olduvai Gorge, the layering of which tells us the order carnivores had access to it.

This is readily apparent at Olduvai Gorge, one of the first ancient tool sites discovered. The order of damage to the bones tells a complex story of scavenging. First, carnivores killed their prey and ate what they fancied; leaving behind telltale toothmarks. Then it was the humans’ turn, using stone tools to crack open their bones for the marrow. Finally, another set of animals gobbled up some of the broken bone for grease4,5.

This means that the meat hominins were eating was already old and possibly rotten when they got to it.

Caveats galore

Of course, figuring out “how rotten” is still challenging. All of this predation and scavenging might have taken place over a few hours to a few days. Whilst we know early humans were chomping on less fresh food, we can’t say just how rotten it was.

As such, it’s likely we’ll never find a definitive answer on the subject. However, it is clear that rotten food isn’t quite the taboo it is in Western communities. It can, and sometimes is, a key part of the diet. So the idea it was part of the paleo diet is quite likely.

Which is a big omission from modern Paleo diet advocates. If you really want to eat like our ancestors did be sure to leave your meat out for a few days before you eat it.

Or if you want to have a really authentic Paleo diet, do it Olduvai style and have a predator maul it first.

References

  1. Berbesque, J.C., Wood, B.M., Crittenden, A.N., Mabulla, A. and Marlowe, F.W., 2016. Eat first, share later: Hadza hunter–gatherer men consume more while foraging than in central places.Evolution and Human Behavior.
  2. Speth, J.D., 2017. Putrid Meat and Fish in the Eurasian Middle and Upper Paleolithic: Are We Missing a Key Part of Neanderthal and Modern Human Diet?. PaleoAnthropology2017, pp.44-72.
  3. Capaldo, S.D., 1997. Experimental determinations of carcass processing by Plio-Pleistocene hominids and carnivores at FLK 22 (Zinjanthropus), Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. Journal of Human Evolution33(5), pp.555-597.
  4. Domı́nguez-Rodrigo, M., 1997. Meat-eating by early hominids at the FLK 22 Zinjanthropus site, Olduvai Gorge (Tanzania): an experimental approach using cut-mark data. Journal of human Evolution33(6), pp.669-690.
  5. Potts, R. and Shipman, P., 1981. Cutmarks made by stone tools on bones from Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. Nature291(5816), pp.577-580.

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6 Comments

Rick DeLotto. · 31st August 2017 at 9:03 pm

Hmmm… ever seen the top of the line aged beef at a quality butcher? Many of our paleolithic ancestors must have enjoyed cold-aged megafauna meat. REALLY aged cheese, meat, are still preferred.

    Adam Benton · 31st August 2017 at 11:10 pm

    By digging into the permafost you can make yourself a nice little freezer. There’s some indication a few groups did this during the last glacial period.

Erik Hilsinger · 22nd September 2017 at 7:22 pm

There are a few issues unmentioned here.
In the north, and likely in lower latitudes as well, preservation of food required the use of the tools at hand. Salmon cultures along the Pacific used intentional fermentation in underground pits to create chiqilinqa, also called fish cheese or stinky fish. These techniques also apply to marine mammals and other fatty animal parts, e.g. beaver tails. Intentional fermentation served to store food, created a way to efficiently use gristly or bony parts by letting bacteria soften the hard to chew parts, and created alcohol which on consumption turns to sugars. in the high Arctic, whales that are struck and lost but later found and recovered rapidly become ovtianuk, or smelly, and the meat is usually not eaten today but the blubber is harvested. Stinky flipper and beaver tails, fermented seal oil and other products are actively traded in Alaska.

Preserved meats are common in Europe and part of charcuterie is using lactobacilli to treat meat units. Salami, cured hams, smoked meats, down to jerky and pemmican foods rely on some fermentation or biological curing action. Salami uses lactobacillus, the reason for adding dried milk products. Hanging and smoking of meat for preservation is fairly common technology.

Native folks also used techniques to sour vegetation, usually stored in rendered marine mammal fat stored in permeable membranes like stomachs. Seal oil with sourdock stored in a seal stomach is a traditional food in high demand in western Alaska.

    Adam Benton · 26th September 2017 at 12:33 pm

    Well further north plant resources are generally poorer, forcing a shift to more meat etc. I wonder if that’s the reason for the more thorough exploitation of meat at the higher latitudes, as it becomes more crucial for survival.

sufipeace · 24th September 2017 at 1:09 pm

Aajonus Vonderplanitz diet guru suggests rotten meat

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