8. The Heart of the Matter: Paleo Diets

We have now taken a brief journey that began 65 million years ago. And we have learned many things. Our evolution was long and difficult; it is hard to imagine the challenges that we faced. But face them we did by evolving bodies that allowed us to walk and brains that allowed us to think, create, and adapt. We went from solitary tree climbing knuckle walkers to a species with complex social structures and a language sophisticated enough to coordinate them. Countless species succumbed to the perils of many climate change epochs but our ancestors forged ahead and managed to survive. It took millions of years and immeasurable effort to arrive at the epic Mesolithic era. There actually is no Paleolithic diet we could replicate now; climate change drove all of those plants and animals into extinction. But, ah, the Mesolithic era tells us a great deal because as people they were very much like us living in a climate much like the one we have today. A great number of the plants and animals by which Mesolithic people were surrounded still exist today. Those that don’t we ourselves destroyed, not climate change, and not geological epochs. But we know from what the Ertabolle left for us to see, what can conceivably still be achieved with our lives at least to a degree, and what of which a real “Paleo diet” actually consists.

Although ancient hunter-gatherers moved throughout the territory familiar to them they didn’t travel much more than a few hundred miles in any given direction. Their diets were ecologically based not drawn from a global smorgasbord that included plants and animals indigenous to six or seven continents. People were hardwired through prolonged adaption to the foods available in the territory in which they lived. For example, the people in Denmark didn’t eat the food indigenous to Southeast Asia or the Americas. They ate “local”, they ate from an ecology that had evolved beside them, and they were genetically adapted to sustain superb health provided that they ate what their immediate world had to offer. Today’s commercial idea of a Paleo diet is just plain wrong on many fronts. Most significant to me is that it takes into account neither personal genetics nor the ecology in which our ancestors evolved. I intend to rectify that.

Because I have spent decades studying the Mesolithic people of the British Isles I have been privy to awareness of that which their diet was likely composed, and in detail. For a brief period those people were isolated and isolation meant living without the influence of what was evolving on the Continent. The chapters that are to follow will begin with those tedious lists for which I am known. Each entry will be a category of food indigenous to Mesolithic Britain before the import and naturalization of species native to other lands. Granted this is somewhat speculative on my part, recognizing that there exists or existed probably many species of value whose uses are no longer known, as well as other circumstances about which I am simply not aware. But my speculation is well founded and I am well informed so an element of confidence does exist.

This is a diet I want to understand first hand, not just by studying it but by making it a part of my life. It will take time; it might not be fully achievable. But I am going to try if for no other reason than I want to feel the health my Mesolithic British ancestors had to have enjoyed. The memory is there, it is in my DNA. I am well aware that such a dietary journey will leave some favorites along the wayside. I will have to walk away from wheat, dairy, chocolate, tea, and coffee. That will be hard but better for my health simply because those items are indulgences for me. Greater challenges will be faced in replacing some top notch superfoods such as tomatoes, apples, and broccoli. As I roll out the list you will notice conspicuous absences of many good things.

The appendixes that will follow will be lists of plant species. It is unlikely I will include lists of meat, fish, or fowl simply because they were so abundant and diverse it seems almost impossible to do. The UK has ocean coasts, saltwater channels, bays, lagoons, brackish river deltas, salt marshes, freshwater streams, springs, rivers, lakes, and lochs. Each of these ecosystems is teeming with unique aquatic animal life that entices birds and mammals, including humans, to their edges to hunt, fish, visit, and live. And don’t forget that fish meant edible fish eggs too. The species list would be hundreds and hundreds of entries long. Birds are much the same way with innumerable species that either lived in or migrated back and forth to the British Isles. And birds meant eggs, many, many choices in eggs. Mammals at one time were also highly diverse and abundant simply because the UK has tremendously diverse ecosystems: acidic and alkaline mountain forests, acidic heath and alkaline grasslands, acidic bogs and alkaline fens and marshy meadows; and of course, there is that luxurious coastline. All of this bounty was crammed into a mere 95,000 square miles, about 30,000 fewer miles than the state of New Mexico where I live. A group of people could easily explore a world that small. I think it was the best kept secret in Europe at the time.

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Responses to “8. The Heart of the Matter: Paleo Diets”

  1. Angela Cheetham Wilkinson June 4th, 2013 - 11:44 am

    Well thank you for this interesting taster, the first forage for me into the diet of people’s long past.
    I enjoyed your style and tone and felt truly beckoned into a different world – a world where I live right now but so very long ago, so very changed.

  2. Beautiful!
    I love looking at the long term history of ‘local food’. I love the point you make about the Paleo diet – and our inability to replicate it.

    Early next year, a Gardening Club has asked that I talk to them about local food. I would love to use your writings to make the points in a way they won’t be expecting. Please let me know if it’s okay.
    Have you started your dietary transition, Verda?
    This morning I ate an egg over field greens and arugala. It was actually delicious. But I had it with a cup of decaf coffee.

    • Of course you can use this at the garden club. I would also recommend the Companion Planting blog too if you are called in to talk about ecologically responsible gardening. Also, I will have Turtle Island’s plant appendix up soon and that is the “real” local diet for you. But of course, it must be remembered that if you are of European descent it wouldn’t be “local” at all.

      I am inching my way through a transition. The greatest challenge is replacing item by item my current diet with the species I want to try. At some point, this blog is going to take a more personal format as I use myself as the lab rat. I have one more essay to do first and that is about protein.

      Thank you for the comment!