5 Rules for the Paleo Diet from Actual Paleolithic Humans

rez-art/iStock via Getty Images
rez-art/iStock via Getty Images

The paleo diet, also known as the hunter-gatherer diet or the Stone Age diet, recommends eating lean meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, and nuts—foods available to our Paleolithic era ancestors—for optimum health in the modern era. The regimen excludes grains and dairy products, since paleo enthusiasts believe those foods emerged in the human diet less than 12,000 years ago, after the advent of agriculture.

But the Paleolithic era began at least 2.5 million years ago, and human diets have altered over that time. Just in the past decade, our impression of what ancient humans ate has changed drastically. If you’re seeking diet advice from some actual paleo humans, try these five rules based on recent archaeological findings that have revolutionized our understanding of the real paleo diet.

1. Scavenge your meat.

Our first tip takes us to Ethiopia, the cradle of humanity. In 2009, paleoanthropologists there found 3.4-million-year-old animal bones with cut marks from stone tools that indicated butchering. The marks were particularly significant because they suggested that the Paleolithic era, or Old Stone Age—when early human ancestors created and used stone tools—began 800,000 years earlier than previously thought. The animal bones were so old that the beings using the tools weren’t even human; they were early hominins, probably Australopithecus afarensis. Previously, stone tool use was attributed only to our genus, Homo, which emerged about 2.5 million years ago.

The two animal bones came from “an impala-sized creature, the other from one closer in size to a buffalo," researchers reported in Nature. They concluded that our early ancestors didn’t hunt the game; they scavenged it by butchering the meat from an existing carcass, likely the prey of another large predator. Scavenging is an important step in human evolution that differentiated hominins from apes. "Chimpanzees do not recognize large animals or carcasses killed by other animals as food," Paleolithic archaeologist David Braun told Nature at the time. "At some point, hominins did.”

2. Cook your dinner over an open fire.

A 300,000-year-old hearth in Israel, reported in the Journal of Archaeological Science in 2014, is the earliest physical evidence of humans consistently building fire over a period of time. The hearth demonstrates that humans controlled fire for their daily needs, which also suggests that the people had a social structure and increased intellectual capacity. Stone tools for butchering and charred animal bones found nearby indicate that the people were cooking meat.

But our cooking skills may go back even further: A deposit of 1-million-year-old ash was found in South Africa’s Wonderwerk Cave. Anthropologist Richard Wrangham has proposed a theory—the Cooking Theory—that suggests learning to cook our food promoted the development of brains that are massive compared to those of other primates. By unlocking nutrients and reducing the time we had to spend chewing, cooking allowed hominins to spend time learning other skills. For this theory to correlate with our known evolutionary path, humans would have had to be cooking with fire about 2 million years ago.

3. Eat your starches and veggies.

The paleo diet, and other low-carb diets, are famously meat-heavy. That M.O. reflected the prevailing theory that early humans, particularly Neanderthals, ate meat almost exclusively. But our understanding of paleo human dining changed in 2014 after the discovery of some fossilized human poop in southern Spain, reported in the journal PLOS ONE. The 50,000-year-old coprolite is the oldest-known human feces. Chemical analysis revealed that the donor did eat meat, but also ate his or her share of vegetables.

Evidence of plant consumption has also been found on Neanderthal tools, and even in their calcified dental plaque. In 2017, Australian researchers analyzed dental calculus dating to 50,000 years ago and turned up a variety of carbohydrates and starch granules from plants, but very few lipids or proteins from meat. Neanderthals seemed to be broadly omnivorous, and in some areas, primarily plant eaters.

4. Go ahead, gorge on grains.

The modern paleo diet forbids all grains, arguing that grain production was a result of the development of agriculture about 12,000 years ago and came after the optimal paleolithic period. The no-grain rule, however, doesn’t reflect the diet of actual paleo humans.

At another ancient site in Israel, Ohalo II on the Sea of Galilee, occupied about 20,000 years ago, researchers found uncultivated wheat and barley alongside an oven-like hearth. The wild grains were harvested with flint blades, processed, and baked. Additionally, analysis of 40,000-year-old dental plaque obtained from human teeth found in Iraq and Belgium indicated the presence of cooked grains.

Both of these discoveries predate the development of agriculture by tens of thousands of years, showing humans living in different places were consuming grains, and perhaps some version of bread, during the Paleolithic era.

5. Eat sweets sparingly.

Paleo humans liked the sweet stuff when they could get it, including wild treats like dates and honey. How do we know? Then as now, one of the effects of sugar in one’s diet is the appearance of tooth cavities. In 2015, Italian researchers found the oldest known evidence of dental work in a 14,000-year-old molar, which showed markings from sharp tools used to dig out rotten tissue. Two years later, the same team of scientists discovered the oldest known filling, dating back roughly 13,000 years. An incisor showed a cavity that had been drilled and plugged with bitumen, a semi-solid form of petroleum. Cavities were not thought to be a major part of human experience until after the advent of agriculture, but these paleo chompers suggest otherwise.

9 Surprising Things You Can Make in Your Instant Pot

There might be fresh bread in there. Or wine.
There might be fresh bread in there. Or wine.
Instant Pot, YouTube

For years now, Instant Pot enthusiasts have been spreading the word about the magical kitchen appliance that seems to be able to cook just about anything. If you’ve mainly been using yours for stews, soups, and other traditional pot-related meals, there’s no time like the present to branch out into uncharted territory. From fresh bread to DIY lip balm, here are nine surprising things that you can make right in your Instant Pot ($79).

1. Bread

Everyone seems to be jumping on the bread-baking bandwagon these days, but many have yet to discover the wonders of making it in an Instant Pot. This recipe on the I Don’t Have Time For That! blog calls for just five ingredients—water, yeast, flour, sugar, and salt—and you’ll also need a 6- to 8-inch cake pan (as well as an Instant Pot large enough to fit a cake pan of that size). From start to finish, the process takes about three hours—two to let the dough rise, 45 minutes to bake, and 15 minutes for the Instant Pot to naturally release the pressure—but you can cut the rise time to 45 minutes if your pot has a “yogurt” setting. No yeast? Find out how to grow your own sourdough starter here, as long as you have lots of flour and a little patience.

2. Jam

Since you’ll need something delicious to spread on your fresh bread, here’s Tastes Better From Scratch’s recipe for strawberry jam, which requires strawberries, sugar, lemon juice, corn starch, and water. If your jam looks like runny soup before you pour the cornstarch in, don’t worry—it’s supposed to. And if you’re trying to satisfy your sweet tooth without indulging in too much processed sugar, here’s a similar recipe for blueberry jam with directions for substituting honey instead.

3. Dog food

Meal-prepping for your fluffy best friend is as easy as tossing all the ingredients in your pot, cooking for a little over an hour, and ladling the stew into containers. You can, of course, come up with your own recipes based on what you have in your pantry and what nutrition your dog needs in its diet, but feel free to try this chicken-and-vegetable mixture from Rover.com.

4. Vanilla Extract

Normally, making your own vanilla extract entails soaking vanilla beans in vodka for weeks—if not months—but your magical pressure cooker can accomplish the same thing in less than an hour. For this classic recipe from Tidbits, all you’ll need are vanilla beans, vodka, and a Mason jar. It will smell pretty strongly of alcohol right when it’s finished, but that will gradually lessen as it ages, and the vanilla aroma will get stronger.

5. Hard-Boiled Eggs

Boiling eggs on the stove is rarely as straightforward as it seems, but your Instant Pot can make it an exact science. With the 5-5-5 method, as seen in the video above, you cook on high pressure for five minutes, let your Instant Pot naturally release for five minutes, and then give your eggs a five-minute ice bath. If you’re partial to soft-boiled eggs, here’s a recipe for those from A Mind “Full” Mom.

6. Wine

While concocting wine in an Instant Pot definitely takes some time, it’s a lot quicker than founding a winery—and you’ll still get the satisfaction of having turned water into wine, so to speak. This recipe calls for grape juice, sugar, and wine yeast (as The Manual explains, you can technically use regular yeast, but the alcohol content and flavor of your wine will be pretty subpar). It will take 48 hours to cook and at least 10 days to finish the fermentation process. After that, be sure to raise a glass to your incredible Instant Pot.

7. Lip balm

Making your own lip balm gives you the opportunity to customize it with essential oils, vitamin drops, and flavors of your choice, and making it in an Instant Pot turns it into a kid-friendly DIY project that doesn’t involve a child standing on a chair near the stove. The Awe Filled Homemaker blog, run by a licensed cosmetologist, uses beeswax, mango butter, coconut oil, and more in this recipe.

8. Cheesecake

For anyone who has (or is willing to purchase) a 7-inch spring-form pan, Amy in the Kitchen’s Instant Pot cheesecake could be your new go-to crowd-pleaser. To prevent lumps in your filling, make sure you let your ingredients warm to room temperature before you start mixing them, and to prevent cracks, avoid over-mixing. If the center still looks jiggly after it’s cooled on the counter, you’ve done it right—it’ll solidify more once it’s been refrigerated.

9. Humidity

There’s a reason (or rather, reasons) why humidifiers have been a mainstay product on the market for years—a little humid air goes a long way for people with dry skin, allergies, congestion, and more. (And even if you don’t have a chronic issue, a humidifier can help you breathe and ease your dry cough if you happen to catch a cold or other respiratory virus).

According to Ginger Casa, you can use your Instant Pot to add humidity to the air by heating water on the “sauté” setting and then flipping it to “warm” for a while. Just don’t leave it unattended, and make sure you don’t let the water level drop beneath about halfway full, to be safe. If you like the humidifying effect and want to invest in something a little more self-sufficient, check out this humidifier from Amazon—it costs $70, lasts for 50 hours, shuts off automatically when it runs out of water, and even includes a tray for essential oils.

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

The Reason Americans Buy Refrigerated Milk and Europeans Don't

Buying cold milk is a very American phenomenon.
Buying cold milk is a very American phenomenon.
ziggy1/iStock via Getty Images

Nothing goes better with cookies or cereal than a cold glass of milk. (Or almond milk, if that’s your preference.) Few people in the United States pull cartons of milk from their cupboard. Milk is sold and stored cold, but America is a bit of an outlier in that regard. So what gives? Why do we buy milk chilled while Europe and other parts of the world stock and store it outside the refrigerator?

It comes down to different pasteurization methods. In the U.S. and Canada, milk manufacturers make use of high-temperature short-time pasteurization, or HTST. Able to kill bacteria in large batches, HTST is efficient but results in milk that expires relatively quickly—about seven to 10 days after opening. That’s because the temperature used (about 161°F for 15 seconds) is enough to kill most bacteria, but some will proliferate if the milk hangs around long enough.

In Europe and other parts of the world, another technique called ultra-heat-treated pasteurization, or UHT, is used. Milk is exposed to higher temperatures of 284°F for three seconds, decimating virtually all the bacteria and making it shelf-stable for about six months if left unopened. (Once opened, it has to be refrigerated.) Because it’s “cooked” at high heat and burns off some of the sugar, UHT milk also has a slightly different flavor.  

Pasteurization is named after Louis Pasteur, a French scientist in the 1860s who realized heating beer could kill bacteria. Decades later, German agricultural chemist Franz von Soxhlet applied the principle of high heat to milk, since dairy products had a nasty habit of harboring contaminants that could cause diphtheria or tuberculosis. HTST and UHT methods followed, and Europe picked up on the promise of UHT producing milk that wouldn’t spoil quickly.

Even though companies have tried getting Americans to warm to shelf-stable milk—the Parmalat company tried a marketing campaign with Luciano Pavarotti in the early 1990s—it may simply be too late. The idea of purchasing milk in the middle of a grocery store, unrefrigerated, is something that doesn't fit with U.S. food storage habits. While UHT milk is still sold in the U.S., it’s primarily for portable cartons thrown in lunchboxes or for people who want to have milk on hand in a backpack. For most Americans, however, cold milk is the only milk worth considering.

[h/t Reader’s Digest]

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