Uh-Oh, Paleo: Cavemen Ate Less Meat Than Previously Thought

Imitating the carnivorous ways of our Stone Age ancestors is one of the central aims of the modern paleo diet. But according to new research, our prehistoric ancestors may have eaten much less meat than previously believed.

Many contemporary paleo diet gurus advocate a diet that’s 50 percent or more animal products (though contrary to what some people think, this doesn’t just mean chowing down on bacon and burgers — paleo dieters stress the importance of eating lean meat, fish and eggs that come from grass-fed livestock). This is based on the conventional wisdom that paleolithic humans ate a diet of between 60% and 80% protein, mostly from animal sources.

Yet a diet of 60 to 80% animal protein is “very hard to explain physiologically,” said Tamsin O’Connell, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge.

Eating that much protein would literally poison 21st century men and women, by introducing toxic amounts of nitrogen into the body. Today, our diets are typically less than 45 percent protein, from any source.

Because protein is the only macronutrient that contains nitrogen, scientists can measure the amount of nitrogen in fossilized bones to figure out how much protein ancient people ate. In a study published in the November issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, O’Connell and her team used this method — with one important distinction. While previous studies have relied on animal diet as a control, O’Connell’s team measured fossilized bones against human blood samples.

Using this new model, they determined that both Paleolithic hunter-gatherers and the first (Neolithic) farmers ate a much less meat-heavy and protein-heavy diet than previously estimated — “about a third to a half” less, in fact.

Previous studies have overestimated the importance of foods such as meat, milk and fish, the study concludes. Using the new model puts estimates for prehistoric diets “in line with dietary animal/plant protein ratios” in today’s horticultural/agricultural populations.

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    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1316551498 Cherish Greene

      look up the diet of the Masai or Inuits or any nomadic culture if you want a better idea of what was eaten.

      are making an assumption that paleo people only ate lean meats; most
      {if not all} paleo used up the entire animal so that they didn’t waste
      anything {do you really think they tossed the fat?}

      By the way most paleo people are High Fat Low Carb with moderate protein.

      • Old_Backstop

        Well said, and many Paleo dieters (myself included) found that my body preferred higher levels of healthy fat sources and less straight-up animal protein. Animal meat was not easy to catch, prepare, or store. Plants and fats (nuts) were much easier to catch, prepare and store.

    • Nell Stephenson

      The Paleo Diet, when followed properly, is actually very balanced between the three macro nutrients: 40% from unprocessed carbohydrate (mostly veg with some fruit), 30 % from natural fats like avocado and coconut and 30% from wild meats and fish.
      Learn more: http://www.paleoista.com

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jim-Corcoran/1591985520 Jim Corcoran

      Many of the most successful athletes worldwide are now vegan. While they may differ in that they have decided to go vegan to avoid animal cruelty, for their health, to reduce environmental impact, or other reasons, they have one large similarity. They have proved that excellence and veganism often go together.

      Myths still persist that state that it is not possible to be vegan and be successful in sport. These myths do not have a foundation in science, and athletes build muscle, endurance and ability on plant sources and many go on to achieve great things. The performance of these athletes is proof that veganism can and does enable excellence


      • http://twitter.com/StabbyRaccoon Stabby Raccoon

        That there are vegan athletes is by no means evidence that the simple omission of meat from the diet is beneficial to athletes, or even that it is not detrimental to athletes. Check your premises, sir. It is compatible with success but that is all that we can garner from observations. We can’t say that those people wouldn’t be even better if they continued everything else they are doing and added meat to their diets.

        Meat is an excellent source of creatine, cholesterol, beta alanine, choline, and other nutrients that a vegan diet is deficient in. Do you have any studies where the only difference between a control and intervention group was meat vs. no meat where they tested athletic performance? That would supply decent evidence to counter the intuitive answer which is that meat is highly nutritious in ways that plants are not and therefore desirable for athletics. That any particular athlete is better, the same, or worse after the simple omission or addition of a food is an untestable notion and does not constitute a justification for such evangelism. It is an anecdote, and may only be true for some people, or meat may be good for everyone’s performance but just not as good as all of the other changes a person made to their diet in transition from a meat-containing diet to a meatless diet, but the best results come from a great all-around diet that includes meat.

        Many athletes make numerous changes to their diets, see an improvement in performance, and then attribute their success to one variable. This is rather fallacious when you think about it, I’m sure that there are many nutrients that become more prevalent in a diet upon its alteration, but it is also true that anybody can obtain enough magnesium, vitamin c, or other nutrients that tend to spontaneously increase when going from a junk-food diet which happens to contain meat to a healthier diet which just so happens to not contain it. Whether or not they consume meat has no bearing on this ability to be adequately nourished, and the omission of meat does ensure that numerous beneficial nutrients are missing. We are unable to discern what the actual cause of improved performance in these anecdotes is; resolving certain nutritional deficiencies after sweeping changes in diet seems to be the most plausible answer to me, but again we don’t know for sure and should probably be more modest about what we choose to preach to the masses based on anecdotal evidence and speculation.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jim-Corcoran/1591985520 Jim Corcoran
      • CavemanDude

        Your claims are exceedingly bias. I read each article for the links you provided and there is absolutely no scientific evidence supporting the claims that are made. It’s like Mitt Romney in the presidential debate. Stating facts without support. You my sir are an idiot

      • http://twitter.com/StabbyRaccoon Stabby Raccoon

        No need to say idiot, some people are just misguided. Check out my response for some good info. Cheers.

      • http://twitter.com/StabbyRaccoon Stabby Raccoon

        I see that you have yet to produce evidence for your assertions and instead have attempted many red herrings, which I wasn’t really interested in. I wasn’t interested in arguing the validity of your ideology, just the effect of meat on performance.

        I will not respond again because you are clearly just interested in evangelizing with non-evidence, however I do feel as if I should attempt to correct some misconceptions.

        First link: doesn’t demonstrate anything, it simply states that there were some gladiators once who didn’t eat meat so they must have known that meat is bad if you want to be a good fighter. Kind of ridiculous. He doesn’t cite the scientific paper so there is no way to verify any of that, and even if they didn’t eat meat that wouldn’t necessarily be because they knew that it made you a worse fighter, perhaps it wasn’t very available to them in their society. Ever see the movie Gladiator? Gladiators were often poor slaves fighting for their freedom. And even if they did eschew meat, why should ancient gladiators’ opinions be more valid than the overwhelming majority of athletes who believe that meat improves their performance? The site you linked to earlier has some vegetarian athletes but there thousands of times more non-vegan athletes.

        If one wants to be a good fighter one needs endurance, strength, and good reaction time. There is no evidence that meat worsens endurance, but there is some evidence that cholesterol-rich animal foods improve strength even after controlling for protein intake, and some that show that basically the more meat you eat the better your reaction time will be. http://anthonycolpo.com/research-update-eating-more-cholesterol-makes-muscles-stronger/ http://www.foodculture.dk/Webnyheder/Uge_4/Nyheder/~/media/A8F781C672C54411AB947317528E603C.ashx

        Second link: this has nothing to do with the paleo diet. I do not follow the paleo diet and although the paleo diet suggests eating meat one can eat meat simply because one finds the evidence to be in its favor, without appealing to the paleo diet. He provides no argument that meat is bad for you, simply his opinion, and appeal to authority is invalid when evaluating a hypothesis. It is kind of ridiculous that he thinks that simply because meat has no fiber than it is unhealthy because of that. It is quite possible to get all of the fiber one can benefit from and eat meat. I do this all of the time. On the other hand meat has many nutrients not found in plants, so this reasoning would seem to favor eating meat.

        Third link: most scientists do think that we have evolved to eat meat. Those arguments are fallacious and betray a lack of knowledge of biology. Here is a good video my friend released recently where he cites a lot of good evidence on the description http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rp8J2RO It is a shame that this man thinks that psychological studies show that meat makes men less cordial when the data that supposedly showed this was faked, and was correlative to begin with http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2011/09/dutch-university-sacks-social.html. The other hypothesis is that meat is calming and facilitates good treatment of one’s fellow man http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/the-hot-button/seeing-meat-calms-you-down-study-says/article4347513/. Controlled trials are where the evidence is at, no psychologist would prefer correlations over experiments. No scientist of any kind. I’m pretty sure grocery stores know this about meat as they always put a big delicious piece of meat on the cover of their fliers, designed to facilitate happy feelings and a warm connection between the store and the shopper. If you think about our ancestors gathering around the fire to share the day’s kill this becomes even more plausible.

        4. I think that they are making the usual mistake of a false dichotomy between carnivore and herbivore. It was found that neanderthals didn’t live solely on meat, it was a high meat diet but they ate some plants too. Therefore they are omnivorous, not vegetarians, not carnivores, omnivores. Read the study.

        And finally 5: no evidence has been presented that simply eating meat will cause erectile dysfunction. The evidence often cited that meat causes prostate cancer is incomplete and mainly from epidemiology which is a rather dubious source for conclusions. In any case it probably only has to do with overcooked meat, as associations are eliminated when controlling for cooking intensity. It strikes me as plausible that high heat cooking like grilling produces large amounts of carcinogens, but there is no evidence that lighter techniques pose a problem for healthy people.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22132129 This is likely true of all of the few cancers that meat has been associated with. There is most definitely a goldilocks zone between too little cooking and too much that minimizes risk for everything, it is just a matter of knowing how to cook.

        In the future if you wish to continue evangelizing I suggest that you stick to 100% scientific sources and rely less on unreferenced opinion pieces by vegans. It is sure to catch more flies.

      • Old_Backstop

        Great stuff.

    • Arien G.

      I was genuinely interested in what this article had to say. However, it grossly misstates some of the general concepts behind the paleo diet. For example, “paleo dieters stress the importance of eating lean meat, fish and eggs that come from grain-fed livestock.” I’m not actually sure what this means–Usually people advocate grass-fed red meat and chickens who get to eat things OTHER than grains, since they’re naturally omnivorous.

      Furthermore, I have never heard any paleo advocate recommend 60-80% protein. Protein and fat combined, sure . . . but even people who do super low carb have a pretty reasonable protein intake and bump up fat instead. So when you write, “Using this new model, they determined that both Paleolithic
      hunter-gatherers and the first (Neolithic) farmers ate a much less
      meat-heavy and protein-heavy diet than previously estimated — “about a
      third to a half” less, in fact,” what number are you actually referring to? Because a diet consisting of 20-40% animal protein and / or fat actually sounds pretty reasonable, even by “normal” standards.

      • enbrown

        Gah! You’re totally right about the grain/grass fed thing. My (clerical) mistake, I meant one but typed the other. Fixing now.

        The 60 to 80 percent protein figure refers to prior estimates of what prehistoric humans ate, not what modern paleo eaters recommend (“.. on the conventional wisdom that paleolithic humans ate a diet of between 60% and 80% protein, mostly from animal sources”).

        The third to half less refers to that previously estimated 60 to 80 percent. Both figures come from the study in question.

    • Amber

      As others have alreay said, the “lean meat” assumption invalidates these conclusions. It’s a bit embarrassing that scholars publish such things. I recommend this article to help sort out some myths: http://www.gnolls.org/715/when-the-conclusions-dont-match-the-data-even-loren-cordain-whiffs-it-sometimes-because-saturated-fat-is-most-definitely-paleo/

    • Kevin Lin

      a completely vegetarian diet will not work for all people, either….depending on what you like AND what you need based on your body size, type, etc., you should balance the portions of meat, dairy, grains, nuts, and veggies for your diet

    • Wenchypoo

      Cavepeople were eating SECONDARY SOURCES of nitrogen: plant-eating animals! You do not have to be a direct ingester of plants to have a high degree of nitrogen in your bones.

    • http://www.facebook.com/KMarkDemma Mark Demma

      Elizabeth: I think you are confusing protein and animal based foods in general. American’s tend to only eat really lean meat which is mostly protein. In the early days of the paleo movement there was an emphasis on lean meats for a variety of reasons. But if you look at how folks that are closer to nature than us modern folks eat, you’ll notice they tend to prefer the fattier parts of the animals (and eat the whole thing). But even in the “lean meat” days of paleo I don’t think you’d find anyone advocating for 80-90% protein as your article is misleading people into thinking. Something else you aren’t considering is that when studying present era hunter gatherers at least, we see a lot of variation in their macronutrient ratios. There are some that eat a huge amount of meat, with no ill effects, and some that don’t eat that much. What we don’t ever see is any “closer to the earth” people that eat NO animal products at all. And lets be honest here, that’s really what you are advocating for here, I think we all know where you stand on that issue.

      I’d like to read the actual paper, and you’ve only put a link to a “HuffPo” article, can you provide a link to the actual study that folks can read? It might help to have a better understanding of the methodology they used here. Citing quotes from another source that has a political agenda they are pushing isn’t as helpful as the original study. For instance, I’d really like to know where they pulled the 80-90 percent protein figure from. We’ve known since Stefansson that eating too lean protein can cause problems, I can’t imagine any anthropologist wouldn’t have already read his research and know this.