Paleolithic workout: fitness fanatics take part in CrossFit training. © corey jenkins/ corbis

Paleolithic diets: bigger on fashion than fact

Take a big helping of a fantasy of our evolutionary past, stir in fears of modern dirt and decadence, and leave out incest and cannibalism
November 13, 2014

Recently, Bobby Chang and Yrmis Barroeta have been experimenting with camel milk. Their restaurant, Mission Heirloom Garden Café, is set to open in Berkeley, California, in November and they still haven’t finalised their menu. The café is going to be the first exclusively “paleo” (short for Paleolithic) eatery in the Bay Area. Everything it serves has to mimic the diet our prehistoric ancestors had before the invention of agriculture. That means no grains, no soy and no sugar. It also means that Chang and Barroeta can’t use any artificial flavourings or additives, or anything that contains chemicals they consider harmful. The list of ingredients banned from their kitchen for containing “free glutamate” fills up a whole page.

In addition to forbidding countless foodstuffs, Chang and Barroeta want to make sure that the food they do serve comes from the best possible sources. All the meat has to be grass-fed, all the vegetables have to be organic and local, and the milk—well, milk is a sensitive topic. Many practitioners of paleo believe that milk has no place in an adult diet. It wasn’t drunk in the Stone Age and it exists only to fatten babies. But with camel milk, Chang and Barroeta think they’ve found a way around these doubts. 

The milk they’ve chosen is raw (unpasteurised) and comes from an Amish farm in Missouri. It’s been credited with relieving everything from diabetes to autism. They serve me some as an accompaniment to dessert, a tray of gluten-free coconut and blueberry muffins. Camel milk turns out to be surprisingly rich, thick with particles of fat and a strong salty aftertaste. To me, it tastes like the Turkish yoghurt drink ayran. Barroeta confided that a previous visitor to the Mission Heirloom kitchen said that it reminded her strongly of her own breast milk. On the whole, it’s quite refreshing, but at $18 a pint I’m not sure how many more glasses I can afford. 

Cost doesn’t seem to be much of a concern at Mission Heirloom. For both Chang and Barroeta the restaurant business is a second career. Barroeta used to be a fashion designer in New York City. Chang created consumer products in San Jose. In response to various health problems, the couple went paleo in 2010 after stints with vegetarianism, veganism, and raw food. In 2011, they sold off most of their possessions and embarked on a round-the-world tour. When they returned, they decided to start a restaurant that would be their answer, in Barroeta’s words, to the question of “how we were going to help humanity.”

Barroeta and Chang have embraced paleo with converts’ zeal, and the Mission Heirloom café is a temple to their belief. It looks like a cross between a laboratory clean room and an old-fashioned apothecary. Glass jars line the walls, filled with spices and dozens of exotic ingredients: angelica seed, dehydrated tomato skins, turkey tails and manzanita berries. The berries, used as a sweetener, come from a local forager who, according to her website, learned plant-based medicine “from an indigenous grandmother in Ecuador’s rainforest” before getting her MBA. 

Purity is a watchword in the kitchen. The doors are festooned with warnings against bringing grain, flour or any other contaminants into the facility. Two giant filters guard the entrance—one for air and one for water. The air filter keeps the space free from particles of gluten and mold. All the water in the kitchen is run through reverse osmosis, before being pumped onward through specially-installed copper pipes. Foods never touch plastic. Takeaway orders come in mason jars. Meat is never seared. All the laundry is done in-house, to avoid bleach. Barroeta tells me that when visitors come to the kitchen and see all the safety measures they’ve installed, many of them break down in tears. 

Cooking paleo food is a bit like working with one hand tied behind your back. But Mission Heirloom’s chef, Christian Phernetton, who had no previous experience with paleo before Chang and Barroetta hired him off Craigslist, has risen to the challenge. For lunch, he has prepared meatloaf from beef hearts (rich in mitochondria), shiitake mushrooms, cauliflower, carrots and lavender, topped with a garnish of foraged succulents. It comes with a pepper and pear ketchup, plantain and quince mash and a salad of shaved beetroot and greens. Cabbage cooked in beef fat and cassava crackers round out the meal. The food is excellent—brightly flavoured, colourful and beautifully plated. It’s a far cry from the geriatric textures and crude substitutions (“meatza” for pizza) that characterise much paleo food. But why go to all this trouble? And what does any of this have to do with prehistory? 

In essence, paleo is an elimination diet. But it’s also an attempt to return to the past. By getting rid of processed foods and gut-clogging carbohydrates, it promises to revive a nutritional golden age, before agriculture made us sick, short and weak. Of course, paleo is not the first movement in history to equate simplicity in diet with health and virtue. The Epicureans were convinced that man needed little more that water and barley bread to be content. Francis Bacon praised the “slender diet” of monks and hermits as a means of extending life. Shakespeare drops a bit of raw-foodism in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when he has Titania wanting to feed Bottom a meal of “apricots and dewberries.” Denis Diderot experimented with a diet of milk and cottage cheese to cure his various illnesses. Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought necessity should be the guiding principle in regulating diet, and looked to Robinson Crusoe for inspiration. But all of these past attempts at dietary reform were rooted in the belief that civilisation, and with it, luxury, corrupted the morals of mankind. None of them were grounded in evolutionary thought—in the conviction that modern food goes against our very genetic programming.

The modern paleo movement began some 70 years ago with an observation about aboriginal dentition. A globe-trotting Canadian dentist named Weston Price noticed that native peoples who stuck a traditional diet had remarkably few cavities or malocclusions (poor alignment of the teeth). But as soon as they switched to processed foods these problems began to surface in abundance. Other physicians working in the tropics and the arctic likewise found that the people they treated tended to enjoy remarkably low rates of cancer or diabetes—that is, until they switched to a more modern, western diet. Little was done with this information, however, until 1985, when a radiologist named Boyd Eaton published a paper on the benefits of Paleolithic nutrition in the New England Journal of Medicine. Eaton helped popularise the notion that the so-called “diseases of civilisation,” including obesity, were caused by our straying from the biological recipe laid down in our genes by our hunter-gatherer ancestors. The paper also caught the attention of a nutritionist named Loren Cordain who was searching for a way to improve his athletic performance. Cordain adapted Eaton’s recommendations into a programme he called the “paleo diet,” and a lifestyle was born. 

In the 12 years since the publication of the original paleo diet, what started as a topic of animated discussion on internet bulletin boards has become the basis of a full-blown industry, with its own conferences, celebrities and product lines. The pages of Paleo Magazine, the journal of “modern-day primal living,” are full of advertisements for paleo cosmetics and tooth-brushing powders made from “mineral rich clays” and “luxurious fatty oils.” At the popular website Mark’s Daily Apple, a spear-carrying caveman named Grok advises paleo devotees on how to bring every aspect of their lives in line with the Old Stone Age. There are paleo sleepers, who try to return to natural circadian rhythm by means of early bedtimes, heavy curtains and wearing amber goggles; and paleo parents, who advocate un-schooling, co-sleeping and late-term breastfeeding. Paleo people also care a great deal about footwear. They have helped popularise barefoot running and minimalist “toe shoes,” ubiquitous now in California. They suggest treadmill desks and exercise balls in place of chairs in the workplace and squat toilets for the home. 

A number of American physicians have made paleo a part of their practices. There are paleo dietitians and paleo psychiatrists, who offer evolution-based treatments for anxiety and mood disorders stemming from such historically novel behaviours as “living among strangers, large social networks and travel.” Chris Kresser, a holistic “health detective” in Berkeley designs “personal paleo plans” for his clients. Before he stopped accepting new patients, the wait for his consults, which cost $1,000 for an initial visit, lasted years. One amateur health practitioner even claims that there is a paleo way to counteract myopia with a program of targeted eye exercises. 

Next to food, though, the two most culturally ubiquitous dimensions of the paleo lifestyle are probably related to exercise and sex. Paleo workouts emphasise weightlifting, to mimic carrying rocks, and sprinting—running away from predators. The rise of paleo has been a major spur to the growth of a popular fitness programme called CrossFit, whose members engage in competitive workouts mixing weightlifting, sprinting and gymnastics. (Much of Mission Heirloom’s catering business comes from local CrossFit gyms). In their bestselling Sex at Dawn, Christopher Ryan and Calcida Jethá conjure an edenic vision of hunter-gatherer sexuality, in which egalitarian clans bonded over shared parental duties and group sex. The book has since become a bible of the polyamory movement, which has deep roots in the Bay Area, and has its own set of gurus, community spaces and social networks. 

Paleo may have expanded to include everything from sex to shoes. But at a paleo potluck dinner I attended recently, the practitioners I met were mostly concerned with what was and wasn’t allowed in the diet. The potluck is being held under the auspices of a group called East Bay Paleo People. They gather once a month in Berkeley and nearby towns. Today they’re in Kensington, a wealthy suburb in the East Bay hills, in a house with sprawling view of the San Francisco Bay. Each member has brought a paleo dish with a list of ingredients written out beside it. There’s liver spread, coconut curry cauliflower, Moroccan lamb meatballs, sauerkraut, roasted beets and almond cookies made without sugar or flour.

As she hovers by a chafing dish of breadless sausage stuffing, one woman asks another, “Does this have paprika in it? Can you do paprika on autoimmune-paleo?” 

Another wants to know, “Do you drink alcohol at all? Is that paleo?”

Paleo has a reputation for attracting people, especially men, from the worlds of tech and fitness, but this group encompasses a range of Bay Area careers and personalities. It includes a dance instructor, a housewife, a business woman, a cookbook author and blogger, a student, a copy editor, an employee of the law school, and a marketer for holistic healthcare providers. As they eat, several reminisce about their early experiences with the diet. 

“When I first started paleo, I was starving and angry. I needed a potato or something. And then we discovered kabocha squash!”

“When we started paleo I really missed sweets. I made a coconut pancake. It was really hard and grainy.” 

Dessert is a problem for many people. “I try to stay away from sweets,” the housewife says ruefully while holding one of the almond cookies. “I can eat all this delicious food, but if I have one cookie, that’s what stays with me.”

Another woman agrees. “Desserts are a problem. All the recipes online are for sweets. I really need a good liver recipe.”

If sweets are a source of anxiety, unfettered consumption of meat, is one of the diet’s pleasures. In fact, the amount of meat one has to consume forces many people to branch out. 

“We recently discovered heart meat,” one couple says. “We went online and got a 50 pound box of organ meat for $250: heart, spleen, liver, kidney, tongue—all grass-fed, organic and local.”

People who are paleo invariably want to tell you about the health benefits of the diet. One woman went paleo to fight her Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune condition. Another uses it to combat Lyme disease. A third tried paleo as a remedy for “brain fog.” Weight loss and fitness are also concerns. Sometimes the requirements of living ancestrally lead people into strange conundrums.

“I make my own shampoo and lotion and toothpaste,” a young Korean-American woman newly arrived from Brooklyn confesses. “I feel better making stuff without chemicals. Fluoride kills your kidneys.”

“My trainer is mad at me, because my weight has plateaued. I lost 30 pounds, but he’s threatening to put me on a restriction diet, and that is so not paleo.” 

“Have you ever tried aerial yoga?” someone asks her. 

The practical problems of being paleo are on everyone’s mind. It can be a hard diet to sustain, especially on the road.

“I used to go on yoga retreats, but everything is vegetarian and I can’t anymore.”

“On business trips, I take coffee, butter, beef jerky, boiled eggs, maybe a couple of cans of salmon, and I’m ready to go.” 

Health isn’t the only thing on people’s minds though. Rising rents because of the tech boom, the difficulty of online dating and the dangers of teenage sexting all come up as worries. But as the potluck progresses, deeper issues of authenticity and morality surface. Several of the paleo people admit that the diet can be isolating, especially on an ideological level. 

“This part of the world is still anti-meat and anti-fat. When I say I just want a steak and bring me a side of butter with it, they get offended.” 

“A lot of the diet choices in the Bay Area are related to morality. Just eating meat, saying that it’s healthy, puts people off. They think it’s not spiritually healthy.”

Hunting exerts a deep attraction on several of the paleo people. The businesswoman, a tough-talking transplant from Texas, says she grew up on a farm. “I know what it’s like to raise a calf, turkeys, pheasants. They bring you so much joy. I went hunting. You hoist that deer on a tree, bleed it out, get all the guts out, dump them in the woods. Unless you’ve looked an animal in the eye, shot it, cleaned it and eaten it, don’t talk to me about eating meat.”

Michael, the marketer, says he grew up in San Francisco. “I haven’t done much hunting. For me, eating wild meat would be the ultimate. I’d like to hunt boar. I’ve tried spear fishing, off the coast in Sonoma. I feel like you’re meeting the fish at their level.” 

As the afternoon winds down, the group begins planning a paleo Thanksgiving. It can be a tough holiday for many. 

The Texan says that when she goes home for Thanksgiving, “they bake the turkey, pull off the legs and give them to me. They know I won’t fight them for the pumpkin pie.”

Another person responds that for their own paleo Thanksgiving, they “could make a pumpkin pie with Danielle’s almond milk crust.”

“I love pie crust” someone says, dreamily. 

As the plates and dishes are put away, the housewife who suffers from brain fog says to no one in particular, “It’s so nice to come somewhere and eat safe food.”

Safety comes up again and again in conversations with people on the paleo diet. But underneath that, they’re also drawn in by the hypothetical thrill of the hunt. How to square the two? There’s a certain paradox, after all, to paleo food being prepared in clean-room conditions. After all, although it’s hard to know exactly what our Stone Age ancestors ate, chances are they were much more broad-minded in their dietary choices than we are. Hunter-gatherer diets exemplify the human tendency to act as opportunistic omnivores. An anthropologist who lived among the nomadic Hadza of Tanzania noted that they consume at least 880 different species, including such unfamiliar fare as baobab fruit and pangolin meat. A restaurant that tried to emulate a real hunter-gatherer diet might feature many delicacies which would be hard for modern palates to stomach—dishes like kiviaq, an Inuit dish of sea birds fermented in seal-skin sacks for 18 months, which apparently tastes like a cross between liqorice and unbearably strong cheese; or the tapeworms of tree kangaroos, a treat to the Atbalmin of Papua New Guinea, though one that even their neighbours find repugnant.

Emulating a true hunter-gatherer diet may be impossible under modern conditions. And indeed, most paleo practitioners, Bobby and Yrmis of Mission Heirloom included, claim that they are not turning their backs on agriculture, but simply reverse engineering their food choices with what’s at hand—getting to the Stone Age by way of the supermarket. 

But in emphasising the danger of harmful foods, paleo ignores the robust diversity of hunter-gatherer consumption. It also downplays the importance of hunger and exercise in maintaining the health of pre-modern peoples. Whether by necessity or choice, fasting often played a major role in pre-modern diets. The Pirahã of Brazil often skip a day of hunting—and eating—to indulge in play or conversation. When asked about this custom by the linguist Daniel L Everett they explained that “Pirahãs aren’t eating every day. Pirahãs are hard. Americans eat a lot. Pirahãs eat little.”

If fasting can be a choice, exercise, meanwhile, is generally a mandatory part of the foraging lifestyle. Hadza men walk an average of seven miles a day in pursuit of game. Hadza women walk less far, but expend more calories digging for roots. The health benefits of manual exertion are not limited to hunter-gatherers, however. A 2009 study by Paul Clayton and Judith Rowbotham in the Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that navvies in mid-19th century Britain enjoyed impressively good health. Their lifespans were comparable to or better than today’s (at least after adjusting for higher infant mortality), and their incidence of degenerative disease was 10 per cent of ours. And all of this came with a diet twice as rich in calories. It turns out you can eat double as much without fear of getting fat so long as you’re willing to shift 20 tons of earth in a day. But so far, no one seems to have patented a “navvy diet” for improved health and fitness.

In eliminating sugar and processed foods, the paleo diet surely has some benefits. But it is only one healthy diet among many. There is little reason to think that it is uniquely suited to the requirements of the human genetics. After all, as Marlene Zuk points out in her book Paleofantasies, the human genome is continually changing and offers no single prescription for optimum health. Agriculture has only been practiced for some 10,000 years, but that has been plenty of time for many to adapt to new foods. Milk is an important case in point. All humans evolved to digest mother’s milk as infants, but in the past, most lost the ability to break down milk as they grew older. The ability to process milk seems to have arisen independently in at least three places—Europe, the Middle East and West Africa. The adaptation appeared quite fast. A “milk revolution” swept Europe some 7,500 years ago, as hunter-gathers adopted agriculture, and the fruit of this revolution has been retained in (most of) our genes. A similar process seems to have affected the ability to process starch. 

Evolution has been hard at work on the genes of agricultural populations. Modern foods like milk, sugar and processed grains may be harmful to some groups of people, but not for the reasons many paleo people think. The diseases of civilisation aren’t necessarily caused by the clash between a single primal human blueprint and the dangerous “new” diet. Rather, they stem from a mismatch between modern foods and populations that haven’t had the few thousand years or so it takes to adapt to a new source of sustenance.

But if evolution is constantly hitting the refresh button on the human genome, the fact remains that we carry a lot of very old DNA in our genes. Just what these ancient genes do and where they come from has been the subject of some startling discoveries in recent years. Paleogeneticists, anthropologists who study prehistoric DNA, have been able to prove that as our African ancestors spread across the world, they interbred with older “human” species scattered across Eurasia. Melanesians and Australian aborigines get as much as 5 per cent of their genome from a mysterious group called the Denisovans, who are known to science from just a handful of bones found in a Siberian cave. Europeans get an average of 2 per cent of their genomes from Neanderthal ancestors. As much as 40 per cent of the Neanderthal genome still exists, floating in fragments among the people of Europe and Asia. A few of these inherited Neanderthal genes may be to blame for some of the “diseases of civilisation.” One gene seems to play a major role in the metabolism of fat. It probably evolved as a way of coping with the threat of starvation, but in modern humans it is now a risk factor for acquiring type 2 diabetes.

What other programming errors lurk in this archaic DNA? Every year our understanding of our evolutionary relatives changes, sometimes in troubling ways. Archaeologists have found evidence that the Neanderthals practiced cannibalism. In a Spanish cave, the remains of an entire family showed signs of having been ambushed, killed and eaten. The smaller bones had cut marks from being butchered. The larger ones were crushed, presumably to get at the marrow inside, something to ponder while sipping a cup of Mission Heirloom’s bone broth. Researchers have also found evidence of Neanderthal incest. Genes sequenced from the toe bone of one ancient woman showed that her parents were closely related, either as half-siblings or as uncle and niece or nephew and aunt.

A primal lifestyle that truly took on our Neanderthal heritage might feature incest and cannibalism instead of polyamory and grass-fed beef. The dream of paleo, to turn the clock back on 10,000 years of agriculture and return to a more original, organic lifestyle in tune with our evolutionary programming is a phantom. The past it evokes—healthful, restful and sexually satisfying—is a projection, and the maze of restrictions it places on its more ardent followers may be comforting for some, but impossible for most. What’s more, it’s probably not a good idea for paleo to spread too far. The amount of meat, wild fish and fertiliser-free veg it would take to make the diet widely available would rapidly outstrip the world’s resources, while making greenhouse emissions even worse than they already are. 

Even so, there is something appealing in the dream at the root of the movement, however elusive (or illusory) its target. I’ve succumbed to paleofantasies of my own in the past. In college I spent a summer working at an archaeological site in southwestern France, a collapsed cave which had once been a Neanderthal shelter. After I left, the team found fragments of an infant’s skull, but while I was there we mostly cleared weeds and pulled the occasional stone flake out of the sifter. Still, digging in that pit, I sometimes felt as if I was on the cusp of understanding a great human mystery. 

On weekends we would visit the classic sites that left their names in the annals of prehistory: Cro-Magnon, Le Moustier, Pech Merle. I remember sitting in a café in the Dordogne, in the heart of foie gras country, trying to imagine what life there would have been like when the valley was teeming with bison and mammoth. After a visit to Lascaux, the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert felt himself “a citizen of the earth, an inheritor not only of the Greeks and Romans but of almost the whole of infinity.” Digging in my own, lesser cave, I felt a bit of the same. Seeing the magnificent art and exquisite bone tools, hooks, needles and awls made by supposedly “modern” humans, next to the crude stone tools of the Neanderthals, I felt as if I was witness to the evidence of an ancient cognitive revolution. 

Svante Pääbo, the Swedish geneticist who led the team that sequenced the first complete Neanderthal genome, writes that there are only 78 meaningful mutations separating us from our closest evolutionary cousins. Some of these regulate hair and skin. A few deal with the immune system. But what about the rest? What was the mysterious ingredient that made us human? Was language the key ingredient? A need to teach and learn? Or was the historian of religion Walter Burkert right when he wrote that “man became man through the hunt, through the act of killing?”

The paleo lifestyle offers a promise of a release from the decadence of modern life and a return to the tranquil harmony of our evolutionary past. But an escape into nature is never an escape from culture. The sterile conditions at the Mission Heirloom Garden Café feel awfully far from the Paleolithic, but there is something deeply human about their fears of contamination. In Purity and Danger, her classic study of dietary and sexual taboos across cultures, Mary Douglas notes that ideas of dirt are always relative and connected to anxieties about disorder. Dirt, Douglas writes, “offends against order.” Human dietary laws, however arbitrary they might seem, are part of war on chaos. They’re not an attempt to hold danger at bay but a “positive effort to organise the environment.” And from what we know of the archaeological record, that need for organisation reaches very far into the past. 

Could our relentless lust for order have been the thing that made us modern and, finally, separated us from the Neanderthals? Maybe we’re Homo neuroticus, driven by a need to create elaborate systems of prohibition and then find ways to violate the spirit if not the letter of the law, so that if you start by avoiding modern foods, you end up with paleo muffins and layer cakes. 

Purity and danger were very much on my mind as I made my way to the Stone Age Olympics, held this year in a park outside Fremont in the South Bay. The Olympics are a yearly event in the Bay Area, where they’ve been held for the past five years. While not a paleo event in themselves, they’re in keeping with the broader desire to return to more visceral human past. For the most part, the Olympics are an occasion for practitioners and enthusiasts to show off their ability at various primitive life skills—fire starting, flint knapping, bolo-throwing. But it is also a venue for one deadly serious competition: the little known sport of atlatl dart-throwing. “Atlatl” is the Nahuatl word for a spear thrower. Aztec warriors used them against invading conquistadors, but they developed independently in most parts of the world.

Spear throwers are one of the earliest human instruments. The British Museum has a beautiful example of one from the Lower Paleolithic made from reindeer antler carved in the shape of a mammoth. They’re simple instruments—just a wooden shaft with a hook or hole on one end for the spear—but they are remarkably cumbersome to use. One of the participants in the competition tells me that the “cool thing about using an atlatl is that all of our ancestors one day were pros at this.” 

But the ancestral skill doesn’t seem to translate into the present day. Certainly I prove to be terrible at it. Throwing with one feels unnatural, like using a tennis racket to throw a baseball pitch. All my attempts to hit a target (on the children’s range) fall short and to the left. One of the competitive spear throwers (a very good one—she’s ranked fourth among women in the US) tells me I’m turning my wrist when I throw. I try to make the adjustment but it just sends my spears sailing high and wide. The other competitors also struggle. Although they do better than the amateurs, many of their throws miss the target or barely graze its outermost ring. People joke about starving this winter and hoping the garden works out this year. 

One of the spear throwers seems to be on another plane though. His name is Teddy Eyster and he’s been practicing with an atlatl since the age of 12, after he was inspired by an illustration in a children’s book. Now he makes his own spear throwers out of oak and fashions darts out of bamboo and river cane. After a remarkable outing the day before, he’s now ranked in the top 10 in his sport. He sends dart after dart zipping at the target. When he throws his darts, all seven feet of them seem to bend in mid-flight, then hit the bull’s eye with a satisfying thwack. The presence of mind it must have taken to fling this fragile thing against a marauding rhinoceros or sabre-toothed cat puts a pillow of air in my throat. But watching Teddy throw, it suddenly becomes possible to envision this as a way of life, or at least a way of staying alive. Maybe our little tribe won’t starve this winter after all.

Unfortunately for all of us though, Teddy is a vegetarian. And like that, our collective dream of mammoth suppers drifts away on the autumn breeze.