Original Palaeolithic Diets – Meat or Plants?

It’s been commonly assumed that Palaeolithic humans subsisted mainly on animal protein and fat rather than on plants. But is this assumption based on fact or is it simply that insufficient evidence has been found to suggest the contrary view? A publication1 in the PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America) reported on research undertaken in Europe (Italy, Russia and Czech Republic) looked at a range of geographical and environmental evidence, dated to the Mid-Upper Palaeolithic era (Gravettian and Gorodtsovian), in order to put some meat on the bones of this discussion. Pun intended and immediately regretted!

Analysis of evidence from the three geological sites suggests that plant food processing, possibly along with the production of flour, was a widespread and common practice throughout Europe from at least ~30,000 years ago.

With the researchers concluding that: “It is likely that high energy content plant foods were available and were used as components of the food economy of these mobile hunter–gatherers.

Where is evidence for the Palaeolithic human diet normally obtained?

  • Bone chemistry
  • Dental microwear
  • Zooarchaeological remains
  • Archaeobotanical remains2 3

For a variety of taphonomic (concerning fossilisation) and analytical reasons, archaeobotanical remains are rare at Palaeolithic sites, and this may be part of the reason why Palaeolithic populations were primarily considered to be hunters.

However, a number of studies4 5 6 7  identified plant remains, plausibly representing an important element of the diet, with a survey 8 at the Ohalo site in Israel revealing routine processing of wild cereals and effective methods for cooking ground seeds.

Research9 10 11 at a number of Upper Palaeolithic (beginning around 40,000 years ago) sites also yielded grindstones, some of which may have served for grinding plant tissue, whereas others were used for grinding ochre12 .

Starch grains found in Mid-Upper Palaeolithic sites

Starch grains were recovered on grinding stones from three Mid-Upper Palaeolithic (Gravettian or Gorodtsovian) sites across Europe: Bilancino II in Italy13 , Kostenki 16 in Russia14 , and Pavlov VI in the Czech Republic 15 . Accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) and radiometric/radiocarbon dating were used to identify these plant remains as being something between ~28,000 and ~32,000 years old.

Site 1: Bilancino II, Italy

At the Bilancino II site, lithic use-wear analysis was used. (In archaeology, lithic analysis is the analysis of stone tools and other chipped stone artefacts using basic scientific techniques16 .) Two sandstone cobbles were analysed; the larger artefact was used as a grindstone and the smaller one as a grinder pestle. The remains of mainly cattail rhizomes* were found17 . The similarity of the wear traces and other types of starch grains recovered on the two artefacts at Bilancino confirmed that they were used together.

*Food can be procured from cattails (also called bulrush or typha) during any season – even the dead of winter – and nearly every part of the plant is edible. Perhaps the most distinctive food that comes from the cattail is its rhizome, a root-like, underground stem that is one of the richest wild sources of edible carbohydrates.

Site 2: Kostenki 16, Russia

At Kostenki 16, a pestle-like tool was identified as having been used for three different purposes: as a pestle, an anvil, and a hammer) for grinding vegetable matter. Only a few starch grains were recovered on the surface of the pestle (probably due to previous washing). The majority of the grains were in a poor state of preservation, but appear to be Botrychium (moonworts), a fern that was widespread around the site14 and is characterised by a starch-rich root that is easy to grind. Nevertheless, the scarcity of the grains makes it impossible to arrive at a definitive source.

Site 3: Pavlov VI, Czech republic

At Pavlov VI, a pestle grinder was found which appears to have been used for grinding and pounding. One of the cobbles provided evidence of vegetable residues and wear traces. Many starch grains in a good state of preservation were found on the surface of the pestle grinder. The grains most probably also originated from more than one plant, with some grains being similar to those of Typha (cattail) – perhaps belonging to the same species as in the Bilancino II site. Other starch grains are similar to those of Botrychium (moonworts), which is in the pollen spectra of the Moravian Upper Palaeolithic18 19 . The variety of the starch grains confirms the use of flour of numerous plant species, in accordance with the floral richness of the site.

So were European Palaeolithic humans mainly carnivorous?

In the first place, ethnographic analogy (looking at recent/current populations) and nutritional studies (looking at the effects on health of foods) stress the need for a high percentage of non-protein macronutrients (fat, carbohydrate, fibre) and micronutrients (minerals, vitamins, phytochemicals) which would require the inclusion of plant foods to be integrated into any long-term diet. Also, looking cross-species at the closest genetic cousins of humans (the great apes), it’s not unreasonable to infer that early humans were eating a similar diet – largely plant-based – although with more technological ability to process foods such as grains and tubers than their cousin species.

But additionally, we can now add evidence for plant food processing, on the basis of the recovery of flour residues on coarse (heavy-duty) tools across Europe up to ~30,000 years ago: a grindstone and the related pestle grinder from Bilancino II (Italy), a pestle grinder from Pavlov VI (Czech Republic), and a multifunctional tool from Kostenki 16 (Uglyanka, Russia). Investigations using starch analysis and use-wear analysis of all of these implements show that the grinding and pounding of wild plant foods were performed relatively early in the Upper Palaeolithic.

Which plants were being eaten?

A large number of plant families are likely to have been involved in the diet, dictated by its dominance in the local vegetation, as well as by its size and appearance20 . The evidence suggests that more than one plant species were being processed. These appear to be mostly cattail and fern, both of which are rich in starch and, as such, represent a significant source of carbohydrates and energy. The best-preserved grains, and hence those that are easier to identify, most likely derive from the last grinding episode. Consequently, the best-preserved grains do not necessarily belong to the most used species. The composition of cattail rhizome flour is similar to that found in emmer (faro) whole meal21 .

The flour would have undergone a multistep processing involving root peeling, drying, and finally grinding using specific tools. After this, the flour needed to be cooked to obtain a suitable and digestible food. Studies of current human diets suggest that cooking is essential because raw food, as such, cannot supply sufficient calories22 . These practices demonstrate knowledge in the Gravettian populations of Europe (around ~30,000 years ago) of the starch-rich portions of edible plants, combined with the ability to transform them to produce a complex dried product (flour). This would have allowed them greater independence from environmental and seasonal fluctuations.

Discussion

Whilst the foregoing seems to prove that Palaeolithic humans were producing plant-products such as flour for cooking purposes, it cannot, of course, provide any ratios of plant food to animal food consumption. Also, because of the obvious difficulties in finding recognisable plant remnants that have not perished after such a long period of time, much of our opinions about the geographical spread of plant processing by early humans will probably remain just that – opinions.  However, what cannot be argued now is that Palaeolithic humans were only involved in hunting and gathering and did not process plant foods, specifically for the production of flour.

Finally, it could be claimed that what really matters for our current populations, which are experiencing non-communicable dietary-related diseases on a scale never before known in human history, is whether or not a predominantly meat- or plant-based diet is healthier for the longer lifespans that humans now experience (Neolithic and Palaeolithic humans are estimated to have had average life-spans of between 20 and 33 years respectively) 23 24  . I would like to have been able to say enjoy rather than experience here, but evidence suggests that as our populations reach middle to old age, life is far from the enjoyable experience it could be with better dietary habits.25 26 27 28 29


References:

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  26. BBC News: Nearly 50% take prescription drugs. By James Gallagher. Health editor, BBC News website. 10 December 2014. []
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  28.  Half of Americans Currently Taking Prescription Medication. news.gallup.com/poll/…/half-americans-currently-taking-prescription-medication.aspx. Dec 9, 2005. []
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