Neanderthal A-Go-Go!

Ah, our pesky ancestors! Why can’t their remains fit into a simplistic pattern that we can all just agree on!? Why do they force us to think? Remember the Paleo Bread “scare”? Early humans collected TUBERS, ground them into paste and COOKED them! This changes everything!!! Grok at Panini and Subway! Jared was right after all!


I am your Sadwich Eat’n Daddy!!

Or…it changes nothing: We know hunter gatherers exploited a wide variety of food stuffs, fire has been used for upwards of 3 million years to cook these foods, cooking dramatically improves the digestibility of starch (be it tuber or grain)…should any of this surprise us and does it change anything we understand about the molecular underpinnings of disease or guiding principle such as Evolution via Natural Selection or Optimum Foraging strategy?


No, it does not change much of anything. In fact it seems to support the evidence at hand. So, what about the recent findings of GRAINS and LEGUMES stuck in the teefs of Neanderthals? Is it time to reevaluate everything? AGAIN? Well, cool your heels Paleo-Five-0, you are all sail and no rudder. If you don’t want to fall prey to the same mistakes that the media and even folks in paleontology seem to make you need to view new data in a framework and not just a random factoid.

Ya need a model.

When I was a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Jr. Chemist at CSU Chico, we had weekly forums featuring a speaker on chemistry, toxicology or similarly yawn-worthy topics. I loved this stuff as seeing folks from different areas always helped me come up with ideas for the research I was doing: the enatiomeric selection of pro-chiral ketones using novel reducing agents.

I told you it was boring.

Anyway, one week we had a guy present who was a candidate for a faculty position in the chemistry department. This guy was a GREAT speaker, really funny, dynamic and…he claimed to have found a reaction product that had five bonds to carbon (this is NOT related to 5 fries being the secret to a balanced hormonal profile btw). For the non-chemists out there, this is like saying you have discovered proof of honest politicians ie-Impossible. The room wound down to a bit of quiet disappointment. The folks on our faculty said things to the effect “You need to check your numbers, you have an error somewhere…” You see, what this guy was proposing flew in the face of everything we think we know about chemistry. We have things like molecular orbital theory which has basis in quantum mechanics, and although we are far from knowing everything about these topics, we have a pretty solid model and this particular piece of data would have required a complete revamping of damn near everything we know. As it turns out, this guy had calibration problems on some of his instrumentation and this artifact is what made it appear he was getting 5 bonds on carbon. It may seem hard to believe stuff like this can happen, but I was actually sitting in my high school chemistry class when this wacky idea of cold fusion was put forward and summarily dismissed. It happens. Folks generate data, get excited, don’t do their homework and leap to conclusions. In theory this is what the peer-review process is for, but it certainly has its limitations.

So, should all new ideas and findings be ignored because they do not fit our preconceived notions? Should data that is contradictory be held in high-suspicion? No, but to the best of our ability (humans are quite adept at self deception) we should hold ALL data in a suspicious position, at best with a sign “Good until further notice.”

In disciplines like chemistry, engineering and physics we have controversy but it is nothing like what we see in “nutrition science.” Fat: good, or bad? Vitamin supplements…cure ya or kill ya? These are HUGE paradigm shifting events that seem to blow in with the breeze. Why do we see nothing like this in these other sciences? Because of some basic models that guide our research and data analysis. Said another way: In chemistry, physics and engineering the data fits observations and we can (to a fair degree) predict what will happen when we change parameters of a system. Now, as nice and illustrative as all that is, chemists, engineers and the like cannot get too hoity-toity about the “soft sciences” like anthropology and biology because there are a lot more unknowns and moving parts in the world outside the test tube! Although the models that biologists and anthropologists bring to their craft are not as tidy as quantum mechanics, they are pretty damn good and in fact are indispensable if we are to make sense of things. Let’s take a look at a key model in anthropology and ecology, optimal foraging strategy.

Do you want to do a little or a lot for what you get?

Optimal foraging strategy (OFS) is a way of predicting how a given organism might go about procuring nutrition. For predators (which humans are classified) we are considering how much energy one obtains from a given food relative to the amount of energy expended to procure it. One can also add the further distinction of how digestible that food item is when considering total energy costs. This squares nicely with the expensive tissue hypothesis which we might look at in some detail if folks are interested. So, OFS puts to rest these fanciful notions that folks put forward occasionally about how our ancestors ate: “Animals are hard to catch, plants are plentiful, let’s all be vegan.” Yes, please do. In the wild. With no agriculture.

What you find is that collecting that broccoli sprig and iceberg lettuce costs more in energy than it gives us. The US government may think that deficits are the Gato’s Meow, but systems that do not crumble and fail need to keep a better eye on the accounting. If we had big, fermentative guts to convert some of that fiber into volatile organic acids that get estherified into lipids it would change things, we could survive on sticks & twigs. We would be chimps and gorillas! There is that expensive tissue concept popping up again, but I digress, we are talking OFS.  Here are a few things to keep in mind:

1-We can tell quite a lot about what a critter ate based on stable isotope analysis. We can tell plant vs animal ratio’s, if that plant was a C3 or C4 plant (like corn) if the animal products were terrestrial or marine. In other words, we can tell a hell of a lot.

2-OFS describes most predator activity quite well, but there are deviations, particularly for humans. Foraging societies have/had a tendency to prize certain items above others, often to the detriment of OFS. The work of Richard Lee who studied the Kung San indicates the kung, who live in a very marginalized area (not particularly rich hunting OR gathering) will go out of their way to collect/hunt those items they PRIZE. When certain fruits come into season the kung would eat those items that were close at hand, and then work progressively OUT from camp looking for the tastier items. This would continue until the area was fairly well stripped of the CHOICE items, but leaving a host of completely edible, albeit, less desirable items remaining. This describes the “digestive efficiency” element of OFS and it is important not only in nutrient intake per calorie expended, but it also decreases/diversifies toxin load.

A real-world example perhaps? From a OFS + digestive efficiency standpoint you may be able to collect a lot of acorns easily, but you are actually better off trekking further to get blueberries, because of the low toxin load. Well, until all the blue berries are gone…then it might actually be worth your while to collect those acorns, shell them, grind them, boil them (to extract the tannins).

Uh, how about those Neanderthal teefs?

Don’t worry, I didn’t forget! So, the recent paper that found a variety of plant material in the dental calculus of Neanderthal teeth lead the researchers to conclude that “Neanderthal extinction was not due to a limited diet as has previously been suspected.” You see, when isotopic analysis of Neanderthals has been compared to that of early modern humans, it was found that early H. Sapiens made use of a broader variety of plants and animals than did their burly brethren the Neanderthal. So, it’s been assumed the less diverse Neanderthal diet might have been a factor in their demise. Now we are faced with a dodgy issue of cause and effect. Did archaic homo sapiens out-compete Neanderthals via a more diversified diet? Is the inclusion of grains and legumes indicative of a “beneficial foraging strategy” on the part of the Neanderthal or early H. Sapiens?

Chico State University: It’s not just for beer

A few weeks ago I attended a presentation by the California State University Anthropology department which looked at the prehistoric diet of the Native Americans who inhabited the San Francisco bay area. Using stable isotopic analysis the relative plant/animal intake was determined. Due to the different occurrences of carbon and nitrogen isotopes in seafood and terrestrial plants and animals, it’s possible to establish fairly clearly what folks were eating. This isotopic evidence followed clear association with refuse piles from animal butchering, shellfish collection etc. Here is what they have found in the area:

The earliest settlers to the area showed a preference for mega fauna (large animals) which is consistent with OFS. Larger animals have more energy density due to a relatively larger fat mass. This occurs linearly with increasing size of an animal and is why rabbit starvation is a problem: not enough fat as a co-factor to metabolize the protein found in small, low-fat varmits. Over time the amount of mega-fauna decreased (our ancestors appear have eaten them all), and the diets of the later inhabitants shifted towards a GREATER diversity of plant and animal consumption. Remember the Kung who would walk far and wide to eat their favorite stuff? Same thing here, only once you deplete the resources of a system sufficiently, you need to shift to diversified options that are actually less appealing. This is consistent with what we also see with the habitation of the Americas in general (the Clovis peoples may have been first, perhaps not) but we see a rapid kill-off of many of the large animals and a subsequent shift to a diversified foraging life-way, and in some cases the eventual adoption/discovery/necessity of agriculture.

What some of these researchers do not get is this: The skeletons of Neanderthals indicate they were top level carnivores (early H. Sapiens show the same thing) and it’s actually the increased diversity of the diet which is indicative of problems. “We” were just too damn good at killing things, and once the big critters are gone you start eating anything you can get. These sub-optimal items increase our toxin load (lectins from grains, legumes) decrease nutrient absorption (gut irritation due to lectins, generally less nutrient dense foods) and increase our energy cost of procurement. It has been well established that Neanderthals learned many cultural innovations from H. Sapiens including bead making and other abstract work. They might have also learned to exploit a larger variety of food from us, or not, perhaps they figured that out on their own. The reality is these foods (grains, legumes) were suboptimal in both energy density and digestibility. Richard Lee described a period of drought in which the Kung exhausted virtually all the resources of their area, defaulting to collecting wild grass seeds before the winter rains came and some semblance of normalcy returned. What was interesting then (and now) is the primitive agriculturalists living around the Kung suffered horrible losses due to the drought. The kung were much less affected than the farmers due to the ability to move and a diversity of food stuffs.

So, yes, the ability to exploit a wide variety of food is good, and may in fact make the difference between life or death, but it is NOT an indicator of a FAVORABLE nutritional state, as has been suggested by the folks doing this research. Those Neanderthal teeth might not indicate a favorable situation. It might indicate desperate measures to stay alive and that actually fits the other evidence better than this “diversity =good” theory.

So, when the next “controversial” discovery related to paleo nutrition rolls out, how are YOU going to assess that information and draw your own conclusions? Hopefully you make some use of the theories that govern this topic instead of flapping in the wind like the media.

Categories: Celiac and Gluten-Free, Paleo Diet Basics


Robb Wolf’s 30 Day Paleo Transformation

Have you heard about the Paleo diet and were curious about how to get started? Or maybe you’ve been trying Paleo for a while but have questions or aren’t sure what the right exercise program is for you? Or maybe you just want a 30-day meal plan and shopping list to make things easier? Then Robb Wolf’s 30 Day Paleo Transformation is for you.


  1. Ben Wheeler says

    Great post Robb. Kind of along the lines of Dr. Kurt Harris’ guest post he recently had.

    I really don’t care how early humans started consuming grains, legumes or anything. It only matters to me what does or doesn’t cause disease. So the next time the media comes out saying “bread linked back 250,000 years” it still doesn’t change what we know about the compounds found in grains/legumes.

  2. David says

    First off let me state that I firmly believe that the most effective diets exploit the thermic effect of protein, maintain glycogen at depressed levels and focus on a more constant stream of nutrients with multiple meals. I’ve also enjoyed reading the tremendous research of Loren Cordain.

    That being said, couldn’t your response to this study’s findings put you in a precarious position in the future? What if more findings, as there will surely be, come to light that the paleolithic diets were a lot more diverse than thought, even in times of abundance? Are you denying the energy density of grains?

    And not to be to tangential, but can your average American effectively jump straight in to a Paleo Diet with out first linking it to a diet that exploits the glucose limiting effects of whole grains? I put my brother on a diet two years ago along with a wieght-lifting regimen that saw him drop from 300lbs. to 154lbs. with a body fat percentage of thirteen percent. I don’t believe it was possible to do this without using paleo like methods, but I also believe that until he was ready mentally or aggressive enough he couldn’t have achieved that paleo-level. couldn’t it be that you are supporting a position that hinders the ability, or the tools available to a trainer or overweight person looking to or for help? Thanks for your in responding.


    • says

      You mean…I could be WRONG about something?!?! David, if they WERE more diverse we’d see that in the stable isotope findings. And the energy density of grains is tripe! This is why early agriculturalists had to work so very hard relative to their HG cousins.

      Please flesh out the “tangential question” as I have no idea what exactly you are asking. If it’s “can a trainer use a paleo diet effectively in a clinical setting?” YES.

      • David says

        Hey Robb thank you for taking the time to respond. I’m not disputing stable isotope theory, just the state of the samples that they were taken from i.e., chemical and physical weathering. I get your point about the NET energy of grains, after taking into account the work that had to be done to achieve harvest, thanks for the clarification.

        About the second part of my earlier comment. I am asking if it is practical to classify as poison and eliminate whole grains and legumes from ones diet immediately? Can’t whole grains and legumes be useful tool in weaning an obese person from their addiction to simple sugars, not in a clinical situation, but an everyday situation? Thanks again for taking the time to respond.

        @ BioEngineer- Just because someone disagrees or needs more clarification on your point of view doesn’t make them a troll. Stop with the ad-hominum dismissals and give rational discussion a try.

        • says

          No, they ARE NOT useful. Work with people, and you will find if you do not get this buy in folks tend to fail. You are asking my opinion, I make my living coaching people, this is my answer. Build a gym, make your house payments with your coaching…what methodology are YOU going to use? Others may get results with what you are recommending…I think they are missing out on an opportunity for BETTER results.

          keep in mind, I’m not selling people bars, shakes, pills or potions. I could make a killing on that stuff, I sell them what WORKS.

  3. Kevin says

    Hi Robb

    Excellent article and my interest in this topic has been aroused after reading the new Panu stuff along the same lines. Maybe im still thinking in Darwin 101 when I need to be thinking Darwin 201 but I find the whole idea of “optimal” in the evolutionary context to be confusing. Surely there is no “optimal” in the sense of HG diet but simply what was/is. To clarify, is it not the case that adaption would occur to allow for periods of significant fruit/tuber/grain/twinkie/whatever consumption in the human metabolism therefore rendering what was optimal meaningless? From an economics perspective I get OFS but weather it informs our understanding of health Im not sure.

    Would love for you to clarify!


    • says

      You are asking if there is an optimum fuel to run a machine? With trade-off’s in procurement? And you are wondering if economics models this!?

      Remember when oil became “scarce” a few years ago and fuel prices doubled, and many industries were crippled?

      What if the food I’m collecting is lower digestibility, higher toxin load and I have to hunt/gather harder to get it? Do you not think there will be consequences to this? How do I just “adapt?” to this? I’m the one confused, flesh your questions out for me.

      • Kevin says

        Hi Robb. I am sorry that my question was not clear. I suppose I am unclear as to how OFS, which is essentially an economic analysis of what we would of eaten, given the opportunity, as opposed to an analysis of what we really eat, informs us regards what we are adapted to eat. If, for example, we were forced to eat grains in spite of their poor cost to benefit ratio in terms of calories, might we not have adopted to them irrespectively?

        The whole idea of what is optimal from a HG’s perspective does not sit easily with me. I believe the calorie cost/benefit analysis is useful in understanding what we would have eaten if we had the choice; On this basis we know that we probaby eat alot of meat and are therefore adapted to high meat consumption. But if we were forced to occasionaly eat nothing but tubors does that not mean that we would have adpated to a diet like this irrespective of how much our ancestors might have disliked it or how much a pain in the ass it was to dig tubors all day?

        I think this my argument does not really apply to grains as the cost of gathering grains would have simply been too high to make it worth it even in times of extreme scarcity, but may apply more to tubors.



        • says

          Well, it’s interesting that we DO have redundancies in out salivary amalyse to help deal with starch. tubers certainly seem to provide a better ROI than grain on many levels. Look, this is what I’m trying to do: Build a bridge between the soft observational science of anthropology and the hard molecular biology mechanisms we can really hang our hats on. I COULD have simply explained away this paper by saying “grains and legumes are not good for you, we have molecular mechanisms to prove this, case closed.” But we DO have an opportunity to weave some things together here. OFS+ the digestive efficiency issue actually accounts nicely for things like lectins, tannins and other toxins. What you are saying is true, if we were FORCED to eat a certain high toxicant item over generations we would see a selection pressure to deal with that. Look at Koala bears and eucalyptus. But that is not us, or at least not to a degree that we are immune to things like grains and legumes. Also, the point of the paper is that ( in my opinion and many other folks in the medical anthropology realm) the “diversified diet” is actually a SIGN of problems. it is a sign of over-hunting the preferred megafauna.

          Don’t look at this as pieces, try to weave a whole from molecular biology forward, then tell me where this stuff fails, and what is the better explanation. Perhaps I’m wrong on this! Ten years ago i was sold that we need to eat 6 meals per day. I’ve stated a case, instead of defending it i’d like to see well crafted responses that involve 5 days of research and writing like what went into my original post. I’d like to be wrong, because then I’ll actually understand all this better!

  4. Bentzurm says

    Great post.
    I agree that your previous research interests were boring. You are also missing an ‘n’ in “enatiomeric”. My research was as boring :)

  5. SunIsBlue says

    Nice article and response. When I initially saw this report and their conclusions I was interested to hear your take on it. I’m glad you responded so quick (I figured I’d have to wait for the new podcast to come out). One of the coolest things eating/researching Paleo has taught me is that there is no reason why we, as a society, should blindly trust and follow what is presented to the mainstream. There are big reasons (money, power, etc) why certain things are mainstream and certain things are not. Instead, we need to look at what is given objectively, do _our own_ analysis, and make _our own_ conclusions. And this goes for everything– not just food and nutrition.

  6. LeonRover says

    Nice post.

    A very small point:

    Rabbit Disease occurs in Late Winter/Early Spring when the rabbits are extra lean before feeding up to be reproductive AND the HG’s plant sources of food also are unavailable.

    No doubt the same result would obtain if the sole dietary source were chicken breast or skinless white fish!

    Running out of preferred food in your niche requires a move to less preferred ones – but only as far as meets the OFS deficit. It’s a nice use of a cost/benefit approach.

  7. Steven says

    Thanks Robb,

    Although I have experienced dramatic improvements in my health from adopting a paleo lifestyle and I agree that grains, dairy and legumes can cause deleterious health problems, the fact is most great civilizations have come from agricultural societies. Could it be possible that more carbohydrates in their diets contributed to more brain power? …. Or, I’m wondering if those in power kept the animal slaughters to themselves and distributed grains to the masses keeping them fat and inebriated just like today? :)

    • says

      Let’s separate these things:
      1-Health of HG vs agriculturalists? Which is better?
      2-Technological developments, what has led to this? Writing, communications, travel…

      The human brain has SHRANK since the pleistocene. I suspect we have significantly less RAM than our forefathers.

    • Householder says

      I’m new here, so hopefully my response isn’t intrusive, if so I apologize. With that said, correlation does not always equal causation, as I theorize, grandiose societies did indeed take off when people learned agriculture, but that does not mean the procured knowledge of making previously inedible food edible made people smarter. What agriculture made possible was the ability to feed workers and large populations in a concentrated area. This led to large business with many minds working together towards a common goal with a large work force at their command which led to larger more powerful civilizations (and even eating terribly, humans are a species gifted with longevity, so much longevity no one would notice the change in health on a large scale). So I would argue while agriculture didn’t lead to smarter individuals it did lead to larger congregations of people working together leading to greater civilizations, a pure numbers game if you will.

      And I believe it is a misunderstanding of the reasoning behind such micro-evolutions that leads to the continued skepticism towards our paleolithic life style.

  8. says

    Well done Robb! It’s funny to realize how amazing humans are at causing ecosystems to collapse (to use Jared Diamond’s term). Even prehistorical humans had this ability. The megafauna on Madagascar, Australia, and other places where humans colonized relatively recently (only a few thousand years ago) is more testament to our singular objective to get ALL the big, choice items first before moving on to salad and bread in anything more than as a side dish (tubers being a possible exception–we love our meat and potatoes!).

    It’s interesting to see parallels between OFS in humans and pigeons. In my work on behavioral variability in operant responses in pigeons (with Seth Roberts), we’ve found that the less likely a good reward is predicted to occur, the greater the variability of behavior (PDFs available on my website). If the predicted reward is really good, behavior varies relatively little. The upshot is, we exploit resources we love and explore more and allow greater variability in our choices when all that’s left is stuff we don’t love quite so much.

    • says

      Aaron!! Thanks for that. It’s funny, but I think this is some of what we see on the other side of the paleo coin: No one complains about bread, cookies and cake “again.” those items spin the neural dials in a number of ways (opioid receptors, blood sugar swings, emotional cues).

      Now that I’m wired up eating protein, fat and veggies, I’m “never” dissatisfied. And yes, I HAVE been enjoying some “Asian jewel sweet potatoes”. Damn yummy!

  9. Tim says

    I stumbled into a great book “Imagining Head Smashed In” which chronicles 8,500 years of humans using a mass bison jump/kill site in Alberta, Canada. Archeology, anthropology and a lot of reading early European contact shows that the aboriginal humans were very good at harvesting and processing massive amounts of fat.

    Give it a scan, these guys were very much optimally foraging! Fascinating stuff, with sources cited to dig a little deeper:

  10. BioEngineer says

    I bet if we stopped using “Paleo” in our vocab when referring to this stuff we’d be able to avoid some trolls….lets go with anti-inflammatory nutrition….we need to somehow rebrand this stuff lol

  11. John Wells says

    I read an article in,I believe Discover magazine about Paleo people having bigger brains and the resulting theories.There were no theories about the inflammatory predispositions,or even the fact that all children were breast fed for a very long time by healthy mothers on a paleo diet.I think maybe high intelligence was the norm(compared to the norm today).

  12. Rob says

    Just started visiting your site, very thought provoking. I think the posts talking about the “sheep mentality” are so spot on. I am a registered nurse and get harassed on a daily basis for my jerky, nuts or other protein meals i bring from home. Any attempt at intelligent discourse on cholesterol, fat intake and the like are all disregarded by my colleagues. In health care we are obligated to teach open-heart surgery patients about the “benefits” of whole-grain, low fat, blah blah blah. Yet, any mention of the relative lack of decent research on the topic is viewed as conspiracy theory. Every nurse has to take a stats course, but it appears the lecture on relative risk versus absolute risk was missed by most. I try to be creative in my diet teaching to patients and recommending resources outside of the mainstream, but it a long uphill battle. I’m glad there are people like you and Mark Sisson who confront the BS with science and practicality.

  13. JW says

    These people always make me laugh because *my* boring graduate research was in large predator management.

    Thank heavens they stick to giving dumb dietary advice to humans! Otherwise we’d have to endure articles like:

    “Blueberries discovered in wild grizzly scat! All captive bears should be switched to a vegan diet!”

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