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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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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?. PaleoAnthropology, 2017, pp.44-72.
- 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 Evolution, 33(5), pp.555-597.
- 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 Evolution, 33(6), pp.669-690.
- Potts, R. and Shipman, P., 1981. Cutmarks made by stone tools on bones from Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. Nature, 291(5816), pp.577-580.