Category Archives: Paleolithic food

Hunter-gatherers, acorns and tooth trouble

It has been commonplace to believe that hunter-gatherers had good tooth health and that it was farming what caused dental problems because as cereals became a staple. There was good reason for that: caries were detected only rarely among hunter-gatherer remains (0-14%) while early farmers had much such painful problems much more frequently.
However the Upper Paleolithic people of Taforalt caves (Rif, North Africa), some 14,000 years ago (Oranian culture), had caries in 51% of adult teeth, a frequency comparable to those of early farmers.
This is attributed to the very high levels of nut consumptions, particularly acorns but also pine nuts, juniper berries, pistachios and wild oats. The number of acorn remains found is so large that the archaeologists had to conclude that they were used as year-long staple.

Late Upper Paleolithic of North Africa
· Iberomaurusian, aka Oranian, is shaded in dark green ·
· The core area of Capsian is shaded in gray-blue ·
(credit: Locutus Borg (anticopyright))
Taforalt people had hand mills, which they used to process some of these nuts, most likely the acorns, whose consumption as bread has been documented since antiquity.
Another finding are esparto grasses, which the authors believe were used in basketry. However I must mention that this versatile fiber has known many uses, being documented in Neolithic clothing of nearby Andalusia, used for some types of shoes even today and, of course, being a prime material for rope-making.

Esparto bale
Oranian culture dates to c. 22,000 years ago, with likely (partial?) roots in the Southern Iberian Gravetto-Solutrean (hence the name Iberomaurusian, although the culture as such is not known in Iberia). It was replaced in the Epipaleolithic by Capsian culture, with ultimate roots at the Nile (and hence the most likely vector of Afroasiatic languages leading to Tamazigh, aka Berber).
Source: PhysOrg.
Ref. Louise T. Humphrey et al., Earliest evidence for caries and exploitation of starchy plant foods in Pleistocene hunter-gatherers from Morocco. PNAS 2013 (pay per view, free after 6 months) → LINK [doi: 10.1073/pnas.1318176111]

Posted by on January 9, 2014 in Africa, Morocco, North Africa, Oranian, Paleolithic food


Mouth bacteria changed with civilization… for worse

A premise of Primitivism, which is not really a doctrine or philosophy but more like realistic approach to the human condition, is that our evolutionary past is shaped almost totally by hunter-gathering. That we are basically hunter-gatherers in a jump or maybe formal suit. Why? Because some 95% of the biological history of Homo sapiens, as a formed species is one of hunter-gathering, not of productive economy nor civilization. This percentage can be extended to maybe 99.5% if we consider the whole history of the genus homo, etc. And that is a lot. 
Do I digress? Well, maybe not so much after all. The evolutionary news today is in any case that the bacterial ecosystems in our mouths have been degenerating since Neolithic, and then again with Industrialization. As Not exactly rocket science (a National Geographic blog written by Ed Yong) explains the bacteria in our mouth is not all hostile but, at least for hunter-gatherers, often balanced: some bacteria may attack our teeth but then others protect and even repair them. Much like the better known bacteria of our guts, there is a general balance in which, naturally at least, symbiosis with the human needs tends to dominate. After all those bacteria live in our mouths and therefore need it to exist in good shape: they may not be exactly “aware” of their own needs or the benefits of harm they bring to us but evolution fixes it in the long run, of course. 
Epipaleolithic foragers from Poland with a rather thick plaque, plaque that retained in millennial hibernation the bacteria of their mouth, have provided evidence of Prehistoric hunter-gatherers having a healthy, balanced mouth bacterial ecology. 
Instead Medieval English, who were already eating many carbohydrates from cereals, illustrate with their plaque the beginning of mouth bacterial decadence. There are a total of 34 studied remains between these two dates, illustrating that this change happened exactly with the Neolithic Revolution.
The members of the modern research team used their own mouths as reference for the modern bacterial environment. The results were rather depressing: industrialization has created many refined, unbalanced, foods (white cereals and sugar especially) that cause our mouths to be the boon of dentists.
We are what we eat

A similar kind of bacterial ecology decadence was observed in a previous study between the guts of Burkinabe farmers’ children and those of Italian urban ones. The latter have ecosystems dominated by well-fed firmicutes, associated to obesity.

Reference paper:  Christina J. Adler et al., Sequencing ancient calcified dental plaque shows changes in oral microbiota with dietary shifts of the Neolithic and Industrial revolutions. Nature 2013. Pay per viewLINK [doi:10.1038/ng.2536]


Whale remains reinforce the notion of Magdalenian being linked to sea mammal predation

First it was the whale bone spear point of Isturitz (Basque Country), then the isotope evidence of sea mammal based diet of a Magdalenian individual from Kendric Cave (Wales) and now direct evidence of whale remains in the cave of Nerja (Andalusia). The evidence mounts up for a quasi-Inuit lifestyle of at least some people of the Magdalenian culture of late Upper Paleolithic Europe.
Esteban Álvarez Fernández et al., Occurrence of whale barnacles in Nerja Cave (Málaga, Southern Spain): indirect evidence of whale consumption by humans in the Upper Magdalenian. Quaternary International 2013. Pay per viewLINK [doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2013.01.014]


A total of 167 plates of two whale barnacle species (Tubicinella majorLamarck, 1802 and Cetopirus complanatus (Mörch, 1853)) have been found in the Upper Magdalenian layers of Nerja Cave, Mina Chamber (Maro, Málaga, southern Spain). This is the first occurrence of these species in a prehistoric site. Both species are specific to the southern right whale Eubalena australis, today endemic in the Southern Hemisphere. Because of Antarctic sea-ice expansion during the Last Glacial Period, these whales could have migrated to the Northern Hemisphere, and reached southern Spain. Whale barnacles indicate that maritime-oriented forager human groups found stranded whales on the coast and, because of the size and weight of the large bones, transported only certain pieces (skin, blubber and meat) to the caves where they were consumed.

The barnacles

According to the authors, this is the first case of consumption of whale meat and blubber ever documented in Europe. 

The hearth where the remains were found is dated to c. 14,000 years ago. 
Previous evidence from this prolific Andalusian cave have previously informed of consumption of seafood and fish, along with rabbits and the occasional goat, a tradition that dates to Neanderthal times in that region. 
A perplexing curiosity is that one of the whale kinds identified is the southern right whale, which was not known to have lived so far north at all (its main habitat is the Antarctic seas with some extension towards Brazil and the Mozambique Strait). I wonder if it is a case of misidentification and the species is either the North Atlantic right whale or an extinct relative of both.
Sources: Materia[es], Pileta[es].

PS- And what was the blubber used for (besides eating)? Our friend David Sánchez coincidentally just published two successive and quite interesting articles (in Spanish) at his blog on the lamps of the Upper Paleolithic: 1st part, 2nd part.

A particularly beautiful lamp from Lascaux (Dordogne)

Update (Jan 29): another finding of whale consumption in Magdalenian contexts unknown to me until now (h/t David) is from Las Caldas (Asturias). One of the two co-researchers is the same as the lead author of the Nerja paper → direct PDF link.

Update (Feb 22): David again added more interesting information on the matter of possible whaling in the Magdalenian period by pointing us to Colchón Rodríguez & Álvarez Fernández 2008, where they discuss (in Spanish) the presence of sea mammal remains in the cave of Las Caldas (Asturias): a seal tooth (pierced as to be part of a necklace or similar decoration), a pilot whale tooth (only initially worked), a sperm whale tooth (fully sculpted into low reliefs of whale and bison) and also several whale and other sea mammal bones used for tool-making (they made spear points on whale bone, as was documented years ago for Isturitz in the same period) and some mollusks, notably the shell of a whale barnacle (Coronula diadema).

Las Caldas (locator map) is some 20 Km. inland nowadays, in the Magdalenian period maybe 30 Km. or so. The whale barnacle suggests that whale meat was moved all that distance from the coast.


The real ‘paleodiet’ was rich in carbs

Beets and acorns is the real paleofood… or at least part of it.

From Science Nordic (h/t Pileta):

Stone Age hunters liked their carbs

Analyses of Stone
Age settlements reveal that the hunters were healthy and would gladly
eat anything they could get their hands on, including carbohydrates –
contrary to the modern definition of the Paleolithic, or Stone Age diet.

The Stone Age hunter’s food contained large amounts of protein from
fish, lean mean, herbs and coarse vegetables and has formed the basis of
one of today’s hottest health trends: the paleo diet.

The modern
version of the Stone Age diet excludes foods rich in carbohydrates. This
exclusion of carbs is based on the idea that Stone Age hunters didn’t
have access to bread, rice or pasta.

But is it true that Stone Age hunters and gatherers didn’t eat any carbohydrates at all?

Karg, an external lecturer at Copenhagen University’s Saxo Institute,
specialises in archaeobotany. She says that Stone Age hunters, unlike
many followers of the modern Stone Age diet, joyfully munched away at
carbs when the opportunity presented itself.

“Carbohydrates have
been part of their diet. In flooded settlements from the Palaeolithic
and Mesolithic periods, traces of roots and seeds from various aquatic
plants and wild grasses have been found.”

continue reading at Science Nordic

Acorn “bread” was widely
used in Atlantic Europe until recently because cereals were not always
reliable enough in this humid climate. Beets soon became a common agricultural

Posted by on January 5, 2013 in Denmark, European prehistory, Paleolithic food


Epipaleolithic Sicilian had mtDNA haplogroup HV1

Besides sequencing this individual’s ancient DNA, the study focuses on discerning the earliest stable occupation of the island and the diet of its inhabitants.
Marcellino A. Manino et al., Origin and Diet of the Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherers on the Mediterranean Island of Favignana (Ègadi Islands, Sicily). PLoS ONE 2012. Open access ··> LINK [doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0049802]
The authors argue that this occupation of Sicily could be the oldest stable one and that it happened because of the formation of a land bridge because of low sea levels soon after the Last Glacial Maximum (but actual bathymetries hardly support such land bridge, so soon after the LGM they needed boats again to cross the dangerous Strait of Messina). However some Aurignacian artifacts are known and believed to be of older chronology. 
They also argue that, based on the N/C isotopic ratios, these peoples had a mostly carnivore land-based diet. This leaves me quite perplex because the Nitrogen-15 values are much higher than those of foxes (a mostly carnivore animal) and that is usually considered a signature of feeding off sea mammals. 

Figure 3. Carbon and nitrogen isotope composition of bone collagen from Mesolithic humans and fauna of Grotta d’Oriente.

See also: Magdalenians did eat sea mammals (at my old discontinued blog Leherensuge).


Folic acid deficiency detected in Olduway c. 1.5 Ma ago

The headlines and even contents in commercial media and blogs alike are all about meat eating (much of which must be blamed on the lead researcher himself, who seems to have a bias) but it does not need to be the reason at all and rather reflects an ideological bias. 
All that paleoanthroplogists have detected is a folate deficiency in a fragment of a skull of what is probably an Homo erectus/ergaster young child (est. 2 y.o. or less) from East Africa. There is no dietary isotope research that can confirm or deny the meat hypothesis.
Manuel Domínguez-Rodrigo et al., Earliest Porotic Hyperostosis on a 1.5-Million-Year-Old Hominin, Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. PLoS ONE 2012. Open access ··> LINK [doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0046414]
The authors found exactly this:

Figure 3. Ectocranial (top right) and endocranial (top left) close-up views of the OH 81 fossil, accompanied by magnifications of the porotic hyperostosis paleopathology as observed ectocranially (lower left) and edge-on at the diploic-table junction (lower right).
Scale = 1 mm.

They conclude that this porosity of the bone, known as porotic hyperostosis, should indicate folate deficiency (in which vitamins B9 and B12 are involved) caused by malnutrition. They also argue that weaning may have been a cause because, at least in other contexts, it is a key period for nutritional illnesses, often implying B12 deficiency. 
The archaeo-environmental context (persistent drought) may have contributed to this illness and death as well.
Still the emphasis in meat eating, even if possibly correct, strikes me as very ideological:

The presence of anemia-induced porotic hypertostosis on the 1.5 Ma OH 81 hominin parietal, indicates indirectly that by at least the early Pleistocene meat had become so essential to proper hominin functioning that its paucity or lack led to deleterious pathological conditions. 

Were do we get that from, Dr. Domínguez? Some sort of nutritional lack seems obvious but there are many reasons why folate deficiency can develop; for example excess of solar radiation (it has been proposed that the ancestral dark skin of humans serves to prevent folate loss, rather than cancer, which only develops in the long term). Was this child an albino maybe? 
Or had it celiac disease (another possible cause of malabsorption)?

And (update), as the Subersive Archaeologist discusses rather emotionally, the maybe simplest explanation: that malaria could be the cause is dismissed in the paper without satisfactory explanation.

Sure thing that lack of sufficient animal protein intake is a plausible cause but by no means demonstrated. An isotopic analysis could support or reject this hypothesis, although I am uncertain if it is possible to perform on this particular bone.

See also labels Paleolithic food, human evolution and pigmentation in this blog.  


Claim that cholesterol related gene was positively selected in Africa but not elsewhere

This is one of those genetic studies whose claims are so strongly counter-intuitive that I do not know what part to believe the less. However the raw data is clearly there and that is interesting to know in any case, even if we are to systematically doubt all the claims built around that core:
Rasika A. Mathias et al., Adaptive Evolution of the FADS Gene Cluster within Africa. PLoS ONE 2012. Open access ··> LINK [doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0044926]


Long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFAs) are essential for brain structure, development, and function, and adequate dietary quantities of LC-PUFAs are thought to have been necessary for both brain expansion and the increase in brain complexity observed during modern human evolution. Previous studies conducted in largely European populations suggest that humans have limited capacity to synthesize brain LC-PUFAs such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) from plant-based medium chain (MC) PUFAs due to limited desaturase activity. Population-based differences in LC-PUFA levels and their product-to-substrate ratios can, in part, be explained by polymorphisms in the fatty acid desaturase (FADS) gene cluster, which have been associated with increased conversion of MC-PUFAs to LC-PUFAs. Here, we show evidence that these high efficiency converter alleles in the FADS gene cluster were likely driven to near fixation in African populations by positive selection ~85 kya. We hypothesize that selection at FADS variants, which increase LC-PUFA synthesis from plant-based MC-PUFAs, played an important role in allowing African populations obligatorily tethered to marine sources for LC-PUFAs in isolated geographic regions, to rapidly expand throughout the African continent 60–80 kya.

Whether it is true that those fatty acids are so desperately needed for bigger brains or not really so much, allow me to remain healthily skeptic to begin with (any report on elephants for example, whose diet is purely vegetarian but do have big complex brains?)
I will also remain skeptic of the fact, which is implied by the study, of a primitive vegetarian or almost vegetarian diet of Homo sapiens in Africa: I do not think that such an a priori claim can stand at all. The same logic that applies in Africa should apply in Eurasia-plus but the fact is that Eurasians retain the ancestral allele and related genetic bloc without obvious damage to the brains.
There should be another explanation therefore: for example a founder effect at the Eurasian initial “out-of-Africa” bottleneck after a process of near fixation at previous, or maybe even adaptive introgression from Neanderthals in this aspect.
Finally the authors use absolutely wrong age estimates, all founded in that nonsense as is the molecular clock. According to the authors:

Studies suggest that anatomically modern humans arose in Africa approximately 150 thousand years ago (kya), expanded throughout Africa ~60–80 kya, and to most parts of Europe and Asia ~40 kya[1][6].

A paper that insists in such an obvious error should never pass the peer-review process, in my not-so-humble opinion.
Even if we ignore the absurdity of this molecular-clock-o-logic pseudoscientific insistence, and accept that we have to double or more than double the age estimates to be back into the common sense zone, or better, just ignore them altogether, we still have the problem of why would the allele and the whole genetic block around it be almost fixated in Africa but not at all in that African-derived subset that is Eurasia and the smaller continents.

Figure 3. Geographic distribution of derived allele frequencies in a 100 kb region surrounding rs174537 in the 52 populations represented in the Human Genome Diversity Panel Data. Panel A represents physical position of the SNPs relative to genes in the region, Panel B is SNP name (derived allele), Panel C is frequency of derived allele (in orange) in the populations clustered based on geography, Panel D is an indication of the allele associated with increased LC-PUFA metabolism in published association studies, and Panel E is the detailed overview of rs174537 showing is near fixation within Africa.

SNPedia reports slightly less dramatic levels of fixation in Africa for rs174537 itself but nothing that is too important.
So we do have a clear case of an allele that has been selected for in Africa but, crucially, not elsewhere. 
My highly skeptical questions are: 
  1. How can this have happened in Africa prior to the migration out of Africa, as the authors claim, but not affect that African subset that was the migrant “out of Africa” population, whose formation necessarily happened after the African expansion and close to the overall origin(s) of that African expansion?
  2. If the fixated allele is so important for brain function how is it that many Eurasians-plus, who lack the allele are not plainly dumb? How did they survive along time?
  3. Do the authors have any archaeological evidence that vegetarian sources of food, notably oils, were so extremely important in African Middle Paleolithic (Middle Stone Age)? I do not think so, not at all.
  4. How do the authors explain the lack of selection for this allele in South Asia, a region where total or almost total vegetarianism (dairies excepted) has been very common for many millennia.
  5. How do the authors explain the lack of selection out of Africa or even what would seem to be a tendency for the opposite selection trend in parts of East Asia and Native America?
Actually the only well known adaptive role of this SNP is that it protects against cholesterol but not the allele that appears to have been selected in Africa but the “blue bloc” that survived out if it (and may have been selected for in some regions, speculatively). TT homozygotes, and only them, have lower LDL-C and total cholesterol.These are only truly common among SE Asians and Native Americans (or Mestizos).
So what do we make of this? In truth no idea: the authors hypothesis is there but I fail to find merit in most of it. It may be just a matter of refinement of the original hypothesis however – your take.

Research continues in Santimamiñe Cave (Basque Country) and produces some new information

Littorina littorea
(winkle, magurio, faocha)
Santimamiñe Cave, near Gernika, has one of the most complete archaeological records of all Europe, from Chatelperronian to Iron Age with the only exception of Aurignacian, including some Magdalenian rock art, although not as spectacular as in other sites.
Research continues however and these days a new hearth, at the innermost human habitation area of the cave, dated to c. 12,000 years ago (end of the Upper Paleolithic) has been discovered with tools and food remains that should help us to better understand the way of life of our ancestors.
They ate stuff like deer, goats, bisons, aurochsen, game, salmon, sea snails (winkles) and sea urchins.
The hearth belongs to the Late Magdalenian culture and, for what chief archaeologist Juan Carlos López Quintana says, they are probably contemporary with the artwork located deeper in the cave, in a small hidden room.

Part of the Santimamiñe rock art

The research continues at good pace financed by the Chartered Government of Biscay, having made the work of some 20 campaings in just eight years. They expect to reach the Early Magdalenian layers by 2020 or so. It’s a methodical work. 
Follows video in Spanish:

Sources[es]: ETB, Pileta.


Echoes from the Past (Feb 12)

Some more links for you. 
I’m also lifting the temporary comment moderation filter, hopefully lessons have been learned and no more such measures will be needed. Thanks for your patience.
Prehistory of Europe
Pileta: Más sobre Unas focas pintadas por neandertales podrían ser la primera obra de arte…[es] – Salaman mentions that lack of economic resources do not allow to research further by the moment the possibility that the Nerja seals could have been drawn by Neanderthals. 
Pileta: Catalogan pinturas de Altamira que son 15.000 años más antiguas que los bisontes[es] – Some Altamira paintings are found to be 15,000 years older than the famous bisons. This may make them the oldest rock art in Europe (with permission of Nerja and comparable to Grotte Chauvet). No images of the early Aurignacian art are available yet but it is coincident with a trend to reclassify European rock art as of earlier age and Aurignacian period, as discussed here, but mostly not as early as in this case (before 30 Ka BP).
Neanderfollia[cat] offers us some interesting maps of the MP-UP transition in Europe: 
Prehistory of South Asia
AIOC: Lithic continuity & innovation in Holocene South India – D. Fuller introduces a new paper (ppv) on the Holocene industries of India (pictured below).

AIOC: Sourcing the ‘lost Saraswati’ river: new geological evidence – the same author, discusses how the lost Saraswati river does not match the Holocene geology of the subcontinent but could correspond with that of the Pleistocene.
How to feed a pregnant Neanderthal (AVRPI) – the almost always interesting archaeologist Julien Riel-Salvatore discusses several papers on the apparent myth of high protein Paleolithic diets.
Max Planck Institute Leipzig | A High Coverage Denisovan Genome – The Denisovan genome is available for all to explore (the researchers however request courtesy if used for academic publication).
Ultraconserved regions of the genome do not seem to have any particular importance:
Il tente de décrypter l’ADN de la langue basque (SudOuest)[fr] – Basque cultural journalist Hasier Etxeberria prepares a documentary on the various theories on the origins of the Basque language. 
Psychology and Biology
Tiny primate ‘talks’ in ultrasound – our distant Pinoy wild cousin, the tarsier, is not as silent as was thought, they just talk in ways we can’t hear.
What elephants want: Ranging and raiding in Asia and Africa | EveryONE  – elephants in fragmented habitats need more land, they also follow the lead of the old ones when raiding crops.

Evidence of flour production in Gravettian Europe.

Mundo Neandertal[es] informs us today that of the discovery of evidence of food processing, specifically grain and rhizome milling, by Paleolithic Europeans some 30,000 years ago.

The three sites where this activity has been documented are Billancino in Italy (1), Pavlov-VI in the Czech Republic (2) and Kostenki-16 (Uglyanka) in Russia (3). They belong to the Gravettian and Gorodtsovian cultures (Gorodtsovian is the most “modern” culture at Kostenki, the one with needles, see here and here).
This is not at all the oldest evidence of food processing or milling anyhow, the record corresponds to a Mozambican sites of the Middle Stone Age, some 105,000 years ago. Still it illustrates by means of factual evidence that Paleolithic Europeans already used technologies that would allow them to have some short-term reserves and easy to transport high caloric food such as breads.
Ref. Anna Revedin et al.,  Thirty thousand-year-old evidence of plant food processing. PNAS 2010. Pay per view (depending of where you are and when you try to access – supp. materials freely available).

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.