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.

6 Tasty Facts About Scrapple

Kate Hopkins, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Kate Hopkins, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Love it or hate it, scrapple is a way of life—especially if you grew up in Pennsylvania or another Mid-Atlantic state like New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, or Virginia. And this (typically) pork-filled pudding isn’t going anywhere. While its popularity in America dates back more than 150 years, the dish itself is believed to have originated in pre-Roman times. In celebration of National Scrapple Day, here’s everything you ever—or never—wanted to know about the dish.

1. Scrapple is typically made of pig parts. Lots and lots of pig parts.

Though every scrapple manufacturer has its own particular recipe, it all boils down to the same basic process—literally: boiling up a bunch of pig scraps (yes, the parts you don’t want to know are in there) to create a stock which is then mixed with cornmeal, flour, and a handful of spices to create a slurry. Once the consistency is right, chopped pig parts are added in and the mixture is turned into a loaf and baked.

As the dish has gained popularity, chefs have put their own unique spins on it, adding in different meats and spices to play with the flavor. New York City’s Ivan Ramen even cooked it up waffle-style.

2. People were eating scrapple long before it made its way to America.

People often think that the word scrapple derives from scraps, and it’s easy to understand why. But it’s actually an Americanized derivation of panhaskröppel, a German word meaning "slice of rabbit." Much like its modern-day counterpart, skröppel—which dates back to pre-Roman times—was a dish that was designed to make use of every part of its protein (in this case, a rabbit). It was brought to America in the 17th and 18th centuries by German colonists who settled in the Philadelphia area.

In 1863, the first mass-produced version of scrapple arrived via Habbersett, which is still making the product today. They haven’t tweaked the recipe much in the past 150-plus years, though they do offer a beef version as well.

3. If your scrapple is gray, you're a-ok.

A dull gray isn’t normally the most appetizing color you’d want in a meat product, but that’s the color a proper piece of scrapple should be. (It is typically pork bits, after all.)

4. Scrapple can be topped with all kinds of goodies.

Though there’s no rule that says you can’t enjoy a delicious piece of scrapple at any time of day, it’s considered a breakfast meat. As such, it’s often served with (or over) eggs but can be topped with all sorts of condiments; while some people stick with ketchup or jelly, others go wild with applesauce, mustard, maple syrup, and honey to make the most of the sweet-and-salty flavor combo. There’s also nothing wrong with being a scrapple purist and eating it as is.

5. Dogfish Head made a scrapple beer.

The master brewers at Delaware’s Dogfish Head have never been afraid to get experimental with their flavors. In 2014, they created a Beer for Breakfast Stout that was brewed with Rapa pork scrapple. A representative for the scrapple brand called the collaboration a "unique proposition." Indeed.

6. Delaware holds an annual scrapple festival each October.

Speaking of Delaware: It’s also home to the country’s oldest—and largest—annual scrapple festival. Originating in 1992, the Apple Scrapple Festival in Bridgeville, Delaware is a yearly celebration of all things pig parts, which includes events like a ladies skillet toss and a scrapple chunkin’ contest. More than 25,000 attendees make the trek annually.

What's the Difference Between Yams and Sweet Potatoes?

Julia_Sudnitskaya/iStock via Getty Images
Julia_Sudnitskaya/iStock via Getty Images

This Thanksgiving, families across the country will enjoy a traditional meal of turkey, stuffing, and sweet potatoes ... or are they yams? Discussions on the proper name for the orange starchy stuff on your table can get more heated than arguments about topping them with marshmallows. But there's an easy way to tell the difference between sweet potatoes and yams: If you picked up the tuber from a typical American grocery store, it's probably a sweet potato.

So what's a sweet potato?

Sweet potato and yam aren't just different names for the same thing: The two produce items belong to their own separate botanical categories. Sweet potatoes are members of the morning glory family. Regular potatoes like russets, meanwhile, are considered part of the nightshade family, which means that sweet potatoes aren't actually potatoes at all.

Almost all of the foods most Americans think of as yams are really sweet potatoes. The root vegetable typically has brown or reddish skin with a starchy inside that's orange (though it can also be white or purple). It's sold in most supermarkets in the country and used to make sweet potato fries, sweet potato pie, and the sweet potato casserole you have at Thanksgiving.

Then what's a yam?

Yams.
Yams.
bonchan/iStock via Getty Images

Yams are a different beast altogether. They are more closely related to lilies and grasses and mostly grow in tropical environments. The skin is more rough and bark-like than what you'd see on a sweet potato, and the inside is usually white or yellowish—not orange.

They're a common ingredient in parts of Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. Because the inside of a yam is less moist than the inside of a sweet potato, they require more fat to make them soft and creamy. They're also less sweet than their orange-hued counterparts. In many regions in the U.S., yams aren't sold outside of international grocery stores.

Where did the mix-up come from?

Also sweet potatoes.
Also sweet potatoes.
Kateryna Bibro/iStock via Getty Images

So if yams and sweet potatoes are two totally different vegetables that don't look or taste that similar, why are their names used interchangeably in the U.S.? You can blame the food industry. For years, "firm" sweet potatoes, which have brown skin and whitish flesh, were the only sweet potatoes grown in the U.S. In the early 20th century, "soft" sweet potatoes, which have reddish skin and deep-orange flesh, entered the scene. Farmers needed a way to distinguish the two varieties, so soft sweet potatoes became yams.

Nearly a century later, the misnomer shows no signs of disappearing. Many American supermarkets still call their orange-fleshed sweet potatoes yams and their white-fleshed ones sweet potatoes, even though both items are sweet potatoes. But this isn't a strict rule, and stores often swap the names and make things even more confusing for shoppers. So the next time you're shopping for a recipe that calls for sweet potatoes, learn to identify them by sight rather than the name on the label.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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