Introduction: Sacred First Foods

When a group of people would move into a previously unexplored region one of the most immediate things they had to do is to find food. Chances are every plant and animal would be unfamiliar to them. But when the discovery was made of something edible, likely a plant, it was referred to as a Sacred First Food. As a way of life reached some level of security Sacred First Foods were thought of as medicinal panaceas, capable of curing anything. They would be included in rituals and the feasts that followed.

Paleo diets are the most recent craze to address the bewildering challenges faced by everyone today. They are in some sense an attempt to embrace old knowledge and regain an element of control over our health…to live in a good way. I am by no means an expert on nutrition and to suggest I was doing anything more than guessing would be dishonest. But trust me, the experts are just guessing too. And they are most often looking in the wrong place. Over the course of hominid history both we and our planet have undergone extraordinary changes and many of them. All of our distant relatives are extinct; as are most of the plants and animals they ate. With every environmental change came profound adaptations to our genome. We literally might not be able to stomach what we once ate because we have adapted to something else. It has been suggested that it requires 20,000 years or more to effectively adapt to change, and that includes food. When we consider that the last ice age didn’t end until about 10,000 years ago, about the same time the Neolithic disaster commenced, it’s any wonder we have yet to adapt to much of anything.

There is, however, that rarely thought of window of opportunity called the Mesolithic era. It opened at the end of the Paleolithic, prior to the Neolithic. It is the window I have scrutinized for probably forty years, especially in the British Isles, the home of most of my ancestors. It is a post-ice age era that began its decline about 6000 years ago when a new group of people arrived with cultivated food and the domestication of animals. During the course of my studies the diet of my Mesolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors might have had at hand became of great interest to me and eventually became what in the 21st century I would call Sacred First Foods. And as I explored this area I was both comforted with familiarity and surprised by some of the discoveries I made. Slowly, over the decades a picture emerged, and that picture launched a theory that sits in profound contrast to the “Paleo” diets being advocated today. I believe our personal diets should be designed not around Mesolithic people in general but by the diets of our own Mesolithic ancestors. Given that my DNA is primarily British I haven’t genetically adapted to the foods indigenous to, for example, the Mediterranean or Asia. I know this because my body treats most of those foods as toxins. So let’s begin with some realism.

Isolated hunter gatherer groups in the British Isles would have had no access to, for example, the beans, corn, and squash indigenous to the Americas. Tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes would have been unknown to them. Their diets consisted of what was available to them, the species specific to the habitats in which they lived, hunted, and gathered. And the long road of adaption began with those specific species not a vast global smorgasbord of food.

Mesolithic people were also the definitive experts of rotation diets, the only diets that prevent the development of food allergies and the degenerative diseases associated with them. They ate fresh produce when it was in season and for the most part that season only lasted for a few weeks before it was necessary to move on to something else. Game was simply not edible year round. Only a fool would eat meat during late winter, and spring calving season. Hunting took place in the fall and early winter although I believe fishing was probably a year round enterprise. Nevertheless, there is no reason to think that Mesolithic people hadn’t also become proficient at food preservation. Much of a seasonal harvest was likely to have been dried, smoked, or preserved in oil for winter.

There is no possible way, with their likely abhorrence to domesticating animals, that Mesolithic people consumed anything dairy. But don’t kid yourself; they definitely ate grain, many varieties of grain. After all there are thousands of species of grasses in countless families that produce edible seed. What they didn’t do was cultivate a handful of species, and in the case of the British Isles, have access to wheat until Neolithic adventurers introduced them to it. The notion that neither Mesolithic nor Paleolithic people didn’t eat processed food is, frankly, absurd. Grinding grain, cooking meat and fish, steaming vegetables are all means of processing food. We and our relatives have been doing it for a long, long time.

And certainly, as all tribal cultures here and gone, food was regarded as a profoundly sacred thing shrouded in mystery and ritual. My website archives volumes of material on this and Ancestral Airs is likely the most definitive work ever produced about the beauty of the mystery and how our ancestors ritualized both their place within it and the harmony with which they lived their lives. After some thought I realized that the only title that suited this blog was Sacred First Food.

Please know that my journey that will in time unfold here is not a diatribe for or against vegetarians or omnivores. Even though we as a species are omnivores, that doesn’t necessarily preclude the need for deep moral scrutiny for a whole host of reasons such as human starvation and animal cruelty.  But also know that much of what is being marketed as a Paleo diet is at best deceptive.

The Paleolithic Era began about 2.6 million years ago and ended roughly 10,000 years ago. It is divided into three major sub-eras: Lower, Middle, and Upper. Each of these is further divided by the tools that evolved to meet the challenges and effects of wave after wave of climate change. With the advance and retreat of glacial cycles the flora and fauna were in continuous change, adapting or meeting their end depending on the unsettled ecological pressure. Stone tools adapted to both surrounding habitats and the game available in those habitats. Tools for hunting and butchering, axes for constructing shelters, tools for gathering and preparing food, all of them and their countless uses evolved with the demand of environmental changes due to glacial events and retreats (interglacials) alongside of the evolution of tens of thousands of plants and animals.  It is recognized that there were at least nine major events across the northern hemisphere and an unknown number of minor ones in between in the last 1,400,000 years. So which Paleolithic diet are the marketeers, scientists, and nutritionists talking about?

I felt that an honest search required that I reach into the way-back, beyond the 2.6 million year threshold, while constantly keeping in mind that the farther back I went the more theoretical the science would become. And trust me; there is no lack of theories. The one that has the greatest appeal to me argues that there is a formidable link between climate change and bipedalism, encephalization, sexual dimorphism, and an assortment of other anatomical changes that took place to meet the demand of survival. So my search began 85 million years ago, when primates are believed to have diverged from other mammals, suggested by DNA studies. The earliest evidence discovered to date moves us forward to 55 million years ago with the first Hominidae fossils. The Hylobatidae (gibbon) family diverged from the Hominidae 15 to 20 million years ago. Fourteen million years ago the Ponginae (orangutans, genus Pongo) diverged from the gibbons. About six million years ago, possibly eight million, gorillas (genus Gorilla) diverged from orangutans. Chimpanzees (genus Pan) diverged from the gorilla and also split from the independently evolving human branch. During the same period bipedalism began to emerge with who might be our last shared ancestors with gorillas and chimpanzees: Sahelanthropus or Orrorin. Ardipithecus, a full bipedal probably came a little later, 5.6 million years ago, followed by Australopithecus (Lucy) about 4 million years ago. It is widely held that when Australopithecus disappeared 2 million years ago, she left behind the genus Homo that is currently thought to have started with Homo gauntengensis, and led through many prototypes and species before arriving at Homo sapiens sapiens, us. A bit of healthy skepticism here doesn’t hurt; any number of these species was likely to have been living side by side and the fossils have yet to be found. It must always be remembered that new discoveries are constantly being made that shift this vague and ever-changing picture.

So I want to take a closer look at a number of our distant relatives, the climate in which they lived, the tools they evolved, their strides towards bigger brains, and bipedalism to understand what they ate and why. How does that evolution lead to real Paleolithic diets and the Mesolithic apex that followed? Would such knowledge offset the global crisis that began with the Neolithic and is still raging today with devastating effects on our Earth and the health of all creatures struggling to survive?
I thought about this blog for a long time, debating the many possible angles that could be taken. I wanted it to be founded on something real with a modicum of science behind it. But in the end it is first person personal. It is one more thing I can do to better understand my hunter-gatherer ancestors, and by doing so make them an even greater part of my everyday life.

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Responses to “Introduction: Sacred First Foods”

  1. Angela Cheetham Wilkinson June 5th, 2013 - 9:42 pm

    I very much admire your closing paragraph here. It rings with a clear honesty which inspires a trust to move ahead and, as I find science so difficult, I’m bound to warm towards that which you declare ‘personal’.
    I respect the author’s motivations.

    • Thanks Angela. I promise, there is nothing subversive in anything about which I research or write. I have often stated that what I write is informed speculation but I do provide all the references in my bibliography which is, I might add, somewhat buried at the moment. Green Willow (Molly) is going to move the link to my main menu. And you know me well enough to know that it is all “personal”.

  2. Angela Cheetham Wilkinson March 24th, 2014 - 8:53 am

    I feel a certain gratitude to the woman who has put decades of effort and research, married with educated guesswork into offering the rest of us an insight into the lives of our ancestors.
    It was worth reading for a second time.

    • Thank you, Angela. The evolution of humans, and the food they ate can’t be separated from ethnobotany. Food, clothing, shelter, medicine and ritual are not only tightly tied to evolution they form our closest connection with Earth and spirit. Our ancestors cultivated an encyclopedic knowledge of these things and their interconnectedness, never equaled again after many millennia.