Farm-free Fridays: or, pondering the Palaeolithic

So, no comments on my previous post – obviously my contention that medieval agriculture was more efficient than its modern counterpart was wholly uncontroversial. Let me up the ante in this post, then, and shout out for the pre-Neolithic diet as a healthier way of eating than most of what’s come after. This, by the way, is also my attempt to address Clem’s question about why I’ve claimed that a grain/legume diet is not especially healthy.

You can barely move these days for people following the Palaeo diet it’s so faddish, but I think the issues it raises are interesting. I’m not an expert on this, but that’s never stopped me before on this blog, so here’s a tentative appraisal of the issues.

The classic agricultural package developed in various centres of domestication around the world about 10,000 years ago involved a starchy cereal crop (or sometimes a starchy non-cereal crop), a legume and often domestic livestock, perhaps most importantly ruminants. This furnished people with the basic macronutrients they needed (energy, protein) and it furnished farmland with a potentially sustainable nutrient cycle involving crops, grass fallow, nitrogen fixation and manure. In some places (eg. China, New Guinea) crop domestication was more horticultural than agricultural, with a wider range of vegetable crops supplementing the grains, beans and meat. Either way, it’s hard to gainsay the success of the package in terms of productivity and human population growth – what we like to call ‘civilization’ depends upon it, and it seems unlikely we’ll be departing from its main features any time soon.

But it may be that it’s not so good for us. The argument, as I understand it, is that simple carbohydrates cause cardiovascular and immune system problems, and the seedy agricultural diet (grains, beans) causes us to ingest various anti-nutritional agents which the seeds have evolved, presumably as a defence against destructive ingestion by herbivorous animals. This causes illness: the gut-inflaming effect of proteins like gluten leading to long-term immune system problems, anti-nutritional substances in legumes like soy potentially leading to health problems of various sorts (the Weston Price Foundation has produced this indictment sheet against soy), glycaemic load from simple carbohydrates playing cardiovascular havoc and so on. The result, so the argument goes, is the chronic disease prevalence of modern times: heart disease, diabetes, arthritis etc. Pre-agricultural peoples didn’t generally eat such heavily seedy diets, and since there have been many more pre-agricultural generations than post-agricultural ones people are still not evolutionarily well adapted to the agricultural diet. Nevertheless, people have been experimenting with agriculture and its dietary effects for a long time, so perhaps it’s possible to qualify a purist emphasis on a ‘palaeolithic’ diet with the notion of an ‘ancestral’ diet: using the tricks of our farming forebears to lessen some of the negative health effects of our chosen seedy agricultural foods, for example with purely grass fed ruminants, or sourdough bread or fermented soy products.

Well now, what to make of all this? There are those who dismiss it as some kind of deep ecology impulse to return to Palaeolithic lifeways, and who are therefore inclined to point out that life in the Palaeolithic often wasn’t so healthy. That latter point is perhaps somewhat debatable, but is also irrelevant – the point is not to live like Palaeolithic people, but to eat like them inasmuch as that might be better for our health. I haven’t looked in detail at the research evidence. Certainly, there are some peer-reviewed biomedical papers that favour the palaeo diet hypothesis – like this one – but I’d be interested in any comments on the plausibility of the hypothesis from a nutritional point of view. Of course, there was no single palaeo diet –  some folks, like the people who lived at Wadi Halfa in the Nile Valley 15,000 years ago, ate a lot of starchy plants1. Other Palaeolithic people didn’t. I don’t know if archaeologists have been able to reconstruct patterns of morbidity and mortality associated with these various different palaeo diets – probably not in the case of the Wadi Halfa people because their favoured starchy fare was so sought after that many of them died young defending it – early evidence, perhaps, of the dangers attending humanity’s attraction to junk food. I can’t imagine that morbidity data on the basis of the archaeological evidence would be all that robust, which I suppose may weigh somewhat against the Palaeo diet hypothesis itself.

It may be that in fact there are stronger selection effects for the agricultural diet than might be supposed. As I understand it, rates of diabetes and cardiovascular disease are pretty catastrophic among modern hunter-gatherers when they switch to contemporary agricultural diets: if a similar selection effect operated on our early farming forebears then perhaps we’re better fitted to our seedy diet than you’d expect purely on the basis of the timescales involved…though the fact that these are mainly chronic diseases of later (post-reproductive) life, and the fact that they’re highly prevalent today perhaps suggests otherwise.

In my writings on perennial grain cropping I drew on Phil Grime’s competitor-stress tolerator-ruderal ecological framework, and also on Wes Jackson’s idea of agriculture as a failing experiment to produce a large standing crop of humans. Put those two together, and you get the notion of agricultural civilization as a kind of human ruderal strategy in contradistinction to the competitor/stress tolerator strategy of hunter-gatherers: agricultural civilizations produce large numbers of low status, impoverished, poorly nourished and essentially expendable people, while reproducing their basic structures through knowledge transfer among elites. Nowadays we’re a bit more squeamish than civilizational elites of old about accepting the fact that agricultural societies produce a stratum of impoverished and expendable people – which perhaps is why people like Graham Strouts get angry when people like me argue that biotech developments like golden rice essentially just normalise extreme poverty, and why advocates of ‘free’ markets like to insist – despite all historical evidence to the contrary – that capitalism will liberate everybody. It’s curious, come to think of it, how the ‘ecomodernists’ advocate urbanization as a solution to rural poverty, and then deride anybody who suggests that poor urban dwellers ought to be able to afford anything other than rice, as per Mary Mangan’s diatribes against me or the denialist Mark Lynas rather silly ‘let them eat broccoli’ slogan. If the palaeo diet people are correct, then it’s surely ironic that you have to be quite rich in order to eat as healthily today as many of our ‘uncivilised’ forebears did.

I can’t see myself personally or humanity collectively taking to a strict palaeo diet in the near future. But it might be worth thinking about its implications and trying to move a little in that direction. Food policy commentators are pointing to the unsustainable tendency in rich countries for people to eat ‘feast food’ as everyday fare, and also to the unsustainable tendency in those same rich countries to import vegetables from countries where cheap labour is abundant (even if cheap water ultimately isn’t…) So why don’t we take just a few modest steps to move towards a more local and horticultural and a less agricultural (grains-grain legumes-meat) diet? As well as ‘meat-free Mondays’ we could have ‘farm-free Fridays’, in which we tried to source everything we ate for one day of the week from the (local) garden rather than the (global) field, producing veg intensive, carb-light meals (OK, as a small-scale market gardener, I know I’m biased here). And we could try to limit our meat consumption to special occasions when we’d be willing to pay for the true cost of livestock, raised – to use Simon Fairlie’s term2 – as ‘default livestock’ in larger mixed farming systems…which would probably mean sharing out the grass-fed ruminant meat and going easy on the soy-fed monogastrics. Building local solidarity through sharing meat at feasts – well now, there’s another time-tested Palaeo strategy we might do well to try…


  1. Flannery, K. & Marcus, J. 2012. The Creation of Inequality, Harvard, p.40.
  2. Fairlie, S. 2010. Meat: A Benign Extravagance, Permanent Publications.

13 thoughts on “Farm-free Fridays: or, pondering the Palaeolithic

    • Oops! That’s a bit embarrassing – thanks for pointing it out. And there was me thinking the world just didn’t care… I seem to be having a few computer problems of one kind or another at the moment, so I probably need to spend a bit of offline time trying to sort them out, cheers Chris

      PS: comments should now be open on the previous post

  1. Yes, the comments off… and a longish TBP (time between posts?)… you had some of us scared the world had lost one of its finest (and also a vege grower in Frome 🙂 ).

    Today’s counter argument is brought to you by the fine folks at Glycine to the max! Soy short sellers have been around for some time and their dismissive little missives tire me. Is soy the most perfect food on the planet? No. But to follow on to that admission I ask, what is the most perfect food on the planet? Seeing no contender I suppose I should dial back from ‘perfect’ and consider what constitutes a good food? And soy certainly steps forward as a reliable and nutritious staple, capable of inexpensive long term storage, useful as a human food, an animal feed, an industrial raw material, and interminable punching bag for miscreants with little real care for our global situation.

    On the other matter of adaptation to diet… you suggest that 10,000 years is insufficient – relative to pre-agricultural time periods to affect our dietary credentials in an evolutionary way. Hmmmph! Lactose tolerance begs to differ. But there is an even more compelling aspect here (and this actually throws the whole paleo issue under the bus) – the suggestion that pre and post agricultural evolutionary experiences are comparable is, well, how do I say this politely? Misguided? Selection works upon the standing stock. You do mention reactions of modern hunter-gatherers when switching to modern agricultural diets – so at least there is a nod toward what I’m referring to. The natural experiment suggested here is fraught with difficulties. As it may be the only way we can approach the question now (given a 10,000 year loss of appropriate control populations) then I’ll consider it on some level. But it’s a nasty knot to attempt. Better might be considering how other mammalian species respond to dietary modification. I rather dislike comparing us to swine, but as we’re both mammalian monogastrics of rather intelligent bearing (the latter qualification tossed in for mirth) there could be plenty to learn from researches conducted to follow the evolutionary experience of swine afforded different diets. An extensive literature indeed. Now the careful among us have already begun to fidget because swine feeding is not meant to be a substitute for human nutrition… ah, but it is. True, a great majority of swine nutrition experiments are meant to measure effects upon market classes of the critter. Once a young pig has attained a couple hundred pounds (100Kg) within a few months of weaning we’ve accomplished our goal and longer term consequences are not important. But health and wellness of the breeding stock is important. A three or four year old sow has been asked to bear about a half dozen pregnancies and wean more than 50 healthy piglets. You don’t post numbers like that on some skimpy ration.

    For the trivia buffs in the audience – broccoli (subject of dispute with miscreants named above) has a history of about 2,500 years – only a quarter of the time since the suggested birth of agriculture. Our paleo ancestors never had a chance to try it. One imagines they never had a chance to sample Swiss cheese, beer, Champaign, or a whole lot of other really nice foods. Sucked to be them.

    But at the end of this rant I do want to come back to some shared philosophy. A diverse diet is a very good thing. Having access to means of production (small farms, et al.) and the knowledge to be able to produce are also very good things. Comparing our modern gut to a human gut of 10 millennia in the past… not so good.

    Hey, welcome back. I missed you.

    • Clem, thanks for responding…and I’m touched to have been missed! Sticking to the generalities of the matter, I’m not sure I understand your point about evolution. Maybe consider a few of these scenarios: a group of people figure out how to domesticate and milk cattle, which enables them to exploit a whole new ecological niche, or at least greatly intensify their exploitation of an existing one. But those who are lactose intolerant can’t join that party, because their digestive systems can’t really cope with a milky diet – so a strong selection pressure for lactose tolerance arises there. Suppose that grains and legumes cause major problems like Type 1 diabetes for certain populations. Again a strong selection pressure – and maybe that happened among our ancestors, better fitting us their descendants to a seedy agrarian diet. But suppose that diet still has some anti-nutritional effects, which generally manifest as chronic conditions in later life. For a long time, that effect may be occluded by more pressing problems like infant mortality, poor general nutrition, infectious disease and violent death of various kinds. But come industrial society and its long lifespans and perhaps people start suffering these chronic illnesses in later life. Since they’ve usually already reproduced and seen their children through to independent adulthood by the time the illness bites, the selection effect is weak to non-existent. So maybe you’re genetically better fitted to eat this seedy fare than me and won’t suffer chronic health problems in later life, but nonetheless there’s no particular selection effect favouring your progeny over mine. Natural selection may care little for what happens to me in my dotage, but I’d rather be healthy than sick on my own account so maybe I’d be well advised to modify my diet so as to reduce my chronic disease risks. That modification may involve eating less simple carbohydrates and more leafy vegetables – including vegetables that weren’t around in Palaeolithic times. Their absence in the Palaeolithic doesn’t really negate the hypothesis that our long-term evolutionary history has generally fitted people better to eating leafy greens than simple carbohydrates. I’m not saying that all or indeed any of the above is proven fact, but it seems to me to be evolutionarily plausible, no? On the matter of judging Palaeolithic life compared with ours…well, I think you were joking a little but as you know these are matters on which I refuse to be drawn. They were people of their time who faced their own problems…and manifestly managed to solve them at least to the extent that they successfully reproduced and ultimately produced us. I daresay some of them had some fun while they were at it too (I mean had some fun while they were living their lives, not just while they were reproducing…though doubtless they enjoyed the latter too). We’re people of our time facing problems of our own…which we’ll hopefully solve, but who knows? Meanwhile, I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t necessarily find some of the solutions to some of our problems by learning from the Palaeolithic.

      • There are a couple different issues rising from your last comment as I read it.

        I agree there is little negative pressure placed upon a population by food sources with subtle dietary consequences. So the more immediate concerns of having sufficient food to survive to adulthood, having clean fresh water, safe shelter and so forth are all going to work harder on our genome (in an evolutionary way) than the relatively minor issues brought about by phytoestrogens or other plant metabolites which may upset a tummy.

        But our ancestors did more than simply choose which critters caused the least tummy upset when eaten. By deliberately husbanding and selecting among the offspring of their favorite food sources they lessened the offending aspects of their domesticates (or in a few cases shortsightedly increased some… overly fat animals comes to mind here). Some domesticates are so modified from their wild ancestors they require our interference (husbanding) in order to survive. Thus, not only are we humans evolving to better tolerate the food… the food is evolving to better suite us (note it’s tolerating of us is not in question).

        Evolution has no ‘goal’… and it doesn’t stop. We are still evolving. New variation arises all the time. Some digestive matters which may seem settled on a population level will still come back to bite a small cohort. Because of our mastery of medicine we can intervene on behalf of members of such an affected cohort. Evolution in this regard is being thwarted. But that conversation takes us toward a different rabbit hole so I’ll drop it for now.

        On the matter of your significance toward human evolution ending once you have raised mature and capable offspring… not so fast. The grandmother effect is real and to be politically correct – is not sexist. Here’s a quote from a 2004 article in Nature (behind a paywall, but this quote sets it up):
        The authors have unearthed firm evidence in support of the ‘grandmother hypothesis’, according to which a grandmother has a decidedly beneficial effect on the reproductive success of her children and the survival of her grandchildren. – end quote. [BTW, senior author is an anthropologist… and one can also note that a grandparent can have a decidedly negative effect… the author’s value judgments should have been parked, but I digress]

        So in your more advanced years you not only have the opportunity to enjoy your grandchildren, but you can directly influence their fitness. In the nature vs. nurture debate your genetic influence further down the chain gets diluted, but your nurture influence gets magnified if you stay alive and actively participate in nest construction.

        I solidly agree with your sentiment that one would rather be healthy (and comfortable) and live to a ripe old age rather than the alternative(s). And I also see some wisdom in considering the ancient ways.

        But I’ve spent quite a bit of time modifying one of our domesticates to be a better human food source. My colleagues and I have made considerable progress in half a human generation… we’ve had the advantages of modern science to help of course. As I look out across the water toward the future I imagine our children will have incredible opportunity to further modify our current domesticates and perhaps domesticate other species to enhance our nest. I just wish the nest foulers among us would cease and desist.

        • Interesting points. I won’t quibble with the existence of a ‘grandmother effect’, but I might be inclined to quibble with the idea that it’s exerted enough selective pressure over the past few millennia to fit humanity entirely to our agricultural diet, especially given natural selection’s rather crude reproductive modus operandi and the shielding of chronic dietary conditions in later life by other sources of morbidity historically. I suspect there’s also a patterning by social status, albeit one probably complicated by nurturing arrangements in which there may be non-kin grandmother effects – this would doubtless play a role in the strong associations between higher social status and better health found globally…but I touched on that in my point about civilization as a ruderal strategy: without wishing to sound like some kind of back-to-nature eugenicist, civilization has been pretty good at preserving reproductive populations of impoverished and unhealthy people. How to improve their health? Well yes, a poor diet and lots of medical intervention is one way to go…still, mightn’t there be something to be said for (palaeo?) dietary approaches all the same? More fresh veg, less meat of higher quality = more people farming smaller plots of land (a familiar refrain on this blog, I admit). On the matter of breeding out the undesirable plant traits potentially causing chronic complaints, you’d know better than me about how plant breeders have gone about this and how successful they’ve been – but you haven’t yet convinced me 100% that it’s been a primary focus of their work. Interesting debate, anyway.

          • “A primary focus of their work” – well, I have to admit you have a very strong point there. At least your point is strong as one considers the broader sweep of most commercial plant breeding effort. But there is yet the occasional pocket of breeding work here and there, among fruits and veges especially, but also among grains destined for human consumption… to breed for better quality where quality can be interpreted as removing or at least improving the plant in the area of antinutritional matters. Wheat has a particularly fascinating history in this regard, though I’m not a wheat breeding expert by any stretch.

            I might make an observation here that the full extent of the human genome and the role of microbes in human digestion and nutritional health are realms of modern science that are and will continue to address issues of food effects on health and well being. Paleo need not be considered poor or unimportant… it seems a valid choice to turn to, for diversity as much as anything. A broad range of choices is a good thing. As is a fair assessment all the food choices before us.

  2. …your conclusions appeal to me (meat feast! ) but the paleo argument leading up to those is shaky at best and pseudoscience at worst. Recommended reading: Marlene Zuk – Paleofantasy: what evolution really tells us about sex, diet, and how we live. Have fun!

    • Thanks for commenting, Mitch. Well, the biomedical details are beyond my expertise, but I’d be interested to know exactly which arguments you find shaky or pseudoscientific. I haven’t read Zuk’s book, but I did read an article by/about her (sorry…can’t remember where) which I found unconvincing. Her position seemed to be that palaeolithic diets were quite varied and that life in the palaeolithic was no picnic – both true, both irrelevant. The point is whether some of today’s chronic diseases result from modern diets to which we’re not yet well suited evolutionarily, and if so whether there’s anything to be learned from certain palaeolithic diets which may reduce the risks. I haven’t followed the debate in detail and I don’t doubt that there’s some shaky reasoning out there, but it seems to me the basic logic is plausible – I’d be interested to know what you find unpersuasive.

  3. Hi chris,
    The biomedics are beyond me as well, that’s basically why I recommended the read… and I don’t mean to say that you yourself haven’t approached the subject with some question marks and careful thinking.

    Zuk’s position is not just that paleolithic diets were quite varied, also did contain a lot of starch, but more importantly, that these diets varied dramatically over time and place.
    The argument is relevant because the paleodieters set their version of the past in stone (mostly representing the past before agriculture as a monolithic era without changes over time) and so, no talk of evolution during that time, to support their claims of a “more perfect past”, more suited to “who we really are”. Which is an unscientific premise, proven doubtful to say the least. There has never been a time when humans were genetically exceptionally well-suited to their diet.
    Secondly, Zuk maintains, that *if* there were a human intolerance to grains, legumes, sugars and starches, as these paleobelievers state, why wouldn’t these traits have been outselected? Paleoadepts believe “it’s only been 10.000 years” since this perfect monolithic past was abandoned for what they see as a completely new diet. Not enough for meaningful human evolution. Wrong, says Zuk, and quotes a body of evidence to support that claim.

    All that is not to say that any diet, including the modern ones, does not have its drawbacks. Zuk points to higher energy density in the same amount of food, which has dramatically upped our caloric intake. But this augmentation of energy per gram is not just about grains or starches: it goes for our lovingly produced greens as well.
    That’s what I tried to point out. There’s good reason to limit caloric intake, exercise (or just work on our farms) more, and enjoy a good feast shared with our neighbours. But it’s not some mythical paleotheory based on untenable premises and without the science to back up its claims that should incite us to do so!

    • I think I’ll have to read more on both sides of the debate before I can add anything much more here. I take the point that it’s easy to reify the pre-agricultural or the Palaeolithic. But perhaps invoking the Palaeolithic is an unnecessary red herring. Perhaps instead one might simply say that the quantities of simple carbohydrates typically eaten in modern diets are bad for our health, and that there are examples of other, less simple carbohydrate-dense diets which seem to be more health-promoting, and are therefore potentially instructive?

  4. Chris, I don’t know if you ever review new comments to older posts like this (I searched on Grime to get here, and then got caught in the interesting content!), but if you are still interested in this topic, one of the more unbiased sources is Denise Minger, a statistician who strikes me as highly credible (non-dogmatic, scientifically literate, humorous), who wrote: Death by Food Pyramid – amazon URL is – in which she discusses the Paleo diet, along with others including vegan, Mediterranean, whole food, etc. IMO, she’s a rare voice of sanity in a sea of fanatics!

    To get a sense for her approach, check out her blog:



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