What did our Ice Age ancestors eat? Once a question primarily entertained by archaeologists and paleontologists, this query forms the basis of dining choices a greater swath of the population is making every day to try to stick with the “Paleo Diet.” For these dietary devotees, this means more meat and treating cereal grains as if they don’t exist, befitting the stereotypical image of prehistoric people as carnivorous nomads.
The trouble is that our ancient ancestors had an incredibly flexible diet that ranged from sweet potatoes to mastodons. Here’s a short list of actual items that people have been eating for thousands of years, including items that would be anathema to today’s paleo dieters.
1. Mammoth and Mastodon
While they didn’t barbeque Flintstones-style racks of giant ribs, prehistoric people really did eat mammoths and mastodons. We know this because they left their table scraps in the fossil record. In North America in particular, paleontologists and archaeologists occasionally find bones of the Ice Age behemoths bearing butchery marks from ancient people who carved up the massive carcasses into more manageable chunks. Unfortunately, no one has yet discovered an ancient tome titled How to Serve Mammoth.
2. Giant Sloths
This one’s a little iffy, but worth considering. At a 30,000 year old site in Uruguay, paleontologists have found a massive accumulation of giant sloth bones. How the sloths got there is a mystery, but at least some of the bones seem to show cut marks indicating that people sliced up some sloth steaks. The main catch is that the site is older than accepted date for the arrival of humans in South America, but that could mean that Lestodon leftovers are among the earliest indicators of humans on the continent.
Thanks to the internet, we know that lemurs are too cute—and too endangered—to eat these days. But the early inhabitants of Madagascar thought differently. Distinctive damage to lemur bones show that people often caught and ate the dog-faced primates, and a taste for the tree-dwelling mammals played a role in driving the larger species to extinction in the not-too-distant past. The very last of the island’s gorilla-sized lemurs may have wound up as entrées.
They’re not going to show up at Whole Foods anytime soon, but lizards were snacks for people who lived in northeastern Brazil around 10,000 years ago. Poop preserved the crucial clues. Ancient human feces found at one site contained the eggs of nematode worms peculiar to lizards and amphibians. The researchers behind the scatological science also found a few lizard scales inside one of the coprolites, confirming that at least one person tried a reptilian morsel.
Almost any time people settled down next to a water source, they dined on shellfish. Shell middens make this abundantly clear. These dumps of split mussels, halved clams, and opened oysters show that shellfish has been on the human menu from the Pleistocene through the present. Best of all, these human-created assemblages contain a wealth of information about prehistoric environments and ancient climates. One person’s trash is an archaeologist’s treasure.
Prehistoric people were the original locavores. Not that they had much choice; people all over the world picked and processed what grew nearby long before the advent of agriculture. People who lived in Northern China around 20,000 years ago, for example, dined on beans, snakegourd roots, and yams. (Thankfully, message boards had not yet been invented, so there was no place to argue about whether or not sweet potatoes count as a paleo food.) And our close Neanderthal relatives, despite their rather carnivorous reputation, chewed greens, too. Neanderthal coprolites found at a site called El Salt in Spain contained biological compounds tied to digesting plant foods, likely tubers, nuts, and berries based upon what grew in the area at the time.
Don’t buy into the modern paleo diet guilt trip. Humans have been throwing back brews since the close of the Ice Age. At an 11,000 year old site site called Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, archaeologists have found troughs that were likely used for brewing beer, not to mention an area nearby to store about 42 gallons of the drink. Other people around the world were doing the same. Residues left on pottery hint that people in China were fermenting beer-like drinks by 9000 years ago, which you can even try in a recreated form. Prehistoric partying really can include beer.
The modern paleo trend may make a big deal about eschewing carbohydrates, but prehistoric humans weren’t so snooty about sugars. The fossil remains of people who lived in Morocco’s “Cave of the Pigeons” between 12,000 and 15,000 years ago show that cavities and tooth decay was pervasive in their population. The cause? Acorns. Even though meat and escargot in the raw were staples of their diet, these people popped acorns like candy, much to the same effect. That’s a sign of the real paleo diet—making the most of the local fare, be it mammoth steak or sweet acorns.
All images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise stated.