A Prehistoric Poo Made Me Think About the Paleo Diet
A recently discovered fossilized turd suggests that early humans ate their veggies with their meat. Perhaps the paleo crowd had it right all along, but should we really follow early man's example, considering the neanderthals went extinct?
Photo via Flickr user Lord Jim
A neanderthal turd, to be precise, dated to about 50,000 years ago in what is now Spain. More significant than its age is the fact this turd contained biological evidence that our ancestors in the Middle Paleolithic ate more than just meat—they ate their vegetables, too. It's long been assumed that neanderthals subsisted primarily on animal protein with a bit of plant matter on the side, but this is the first direct fecal fossil evidence to demonstrate what went through the digestive tracts of Homo sapiens' close relatives.
For critics of fad diets, however, this does little to refute the persistent "paleo" trend, which was the most-Googled weight loss method in 2013. The high-protein, low-carb eating plan posits that grains, milk, and sugar weren't part of premodern man's usual meals, which is only partly bullshit. We know that humans were, in fact, grinding and possibly even baking barley and wheat during the the Upper Paleolithic period, but dairying and Dippin' Dots are clearly far younger.
Going paleo, of course, doesn't mean just eating shih tzu-sized steaks for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I've made Nom Nom Paleo's nutritionally balanced "garbage stir-fry" or some variation on it more times than I can count. Vegetables are still an integral part of the paleo diet, in all its forms—whether you're doing it for bodybuilding or as something as ambitious as curbing panic attacks and autism, which probably wasn't a concern for the neanderthal man.
But for me, this turd does once again raise the ever-looming problem of sustainability vis-à-vis today's paleo diet. Sure, early man ate plenty of meat (and, apparently, roughage), but does that mean it's responsible for us to do so, too? Neanderthals might have been able to balance their dinners of cave bears (or whatever) with berries and tubers, but they didn't have to worry about the atmosphere going to hell because of their penchant for protein and CrossFit. As it is, we raise far too many factory-farm cows, and a meat-focused diet only increases the demand for beef, thereby shoving the planet further down the shitter.
One rebuttal to this is holistic management, a theory developed in the 60s by environmentalist Allan Savory, which suggests that greenhouse gases can be balanced with more cows. By putting feedlot cattle to pasture and putting them on a rotational schedule, Savory says, grazing animals would encourage the growth of grasslands that would not only absorb enough carbon to offset the methane produced by our delicious farty ruminants, but even reduce atmospheric carbon to preindustrial levels.
"The number one public enemy is the cow," Savory has said. "But the number one tool that can save mankind is the cow. We need every cow we can get back out on the range. It is almost criminal to have them in feedlots which are inhumane, antisocial, and environmentally and economically unsound." After Savory delivered a much-discussed TED Talk on his theories last year, even Michael Pollan got behind the prospect of a world with yet more cattle.
Critics, however, point out some serious holes in Savory's plan—one of the most significant being that holistic management can't scale. Small operations in certain ecosystems can and have successfully applied Savory's principles, but even then only under careful observation. His opponents often point out that his own test farm in Zimbabwe collapsed after he fled the country in fear of his life; the workers there blamed the failure on drought, but Savory countered that they had not followed his highly complex instructions to the letter.
With obsessive observation, rotational grazing can bring life back to desertified land. But can holistic management provide the world with piles of inexpensive, carbon-neutral animal flesh? Probably not. Such meat would necessarily carry a higher price tag, as does most premium, non-feedlot meat today.
That brings me back to paleo as a scalable lifestyle for the billions of people who have—ever since that neanderthal took a shit in Spain—adapted to a grain-heavy diet out of necessity. For millennia, grain has fed humans because it is faster, cheaper, and can be replenished more easily than livestock as a food source. In many poverty-stricken parts of the globe, meat is still a luxury, and voluntary vegetarianism is looked upon suspiciously. (According to a 2012 study, Americans eat an average of 275 pounds of meat per capita, while people in Uganda, Nigeria, and over a dozen other countries eat less than a tenth of that.) Replacing starches with meat is a first-world privilege that should be recognized as such.
So keep that neanderthal's number two in mind. He might not have eaten his grains—but then again, he also went extinct.