This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
“I was always conflicted about being from the South” says Andrew Beck Grace at the beginning of Eating Alabama, a documentary about attempting to eat local which I watched while I was in Alabama. This particular line rankled some of my relatives, “Why would you be conflicted about being from the South” one said, mere hours after he had said “I can feel my IQ dropping” as we crossed the border between Florida and Alabama (something that doesn’t make sense on any level considering the state of Florida).
Indeed, I feel like I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time myself not to make such cracks about the places and people of the South, a habit I picked up not in the North, but while young in the South, which I spent over half my life so far. Missed in the controversy about Paula Deen, was that some of the off-color jokes she admits telling were about “rednecks”, a term that some people have applied to Deen herself and one that speaks to an ambivalence that isn’t always introspective.
And sometimes it is brilliantly so, such as Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find, a story I find myself reading often. A story that despite being short, I would struggle to write about all the meaning in it without filing a novel. Part of O’Connor’s brilliance was that she could do that in so few words.
The children in the story express their disdain for their home place early on:
"Let's go through Georgia fast so we won't have to look at it much," John Wesley said.
"If I were a little boy," said the grandmother, "I wouldn't talk about my native state that way. Tennessee has the mountains and Georgia has the hills."
"Tennessee is just a hillbilly dumping ground," John Wesley said, "and Georgia is a lousy state too."
"You said it," June Star said.
Interestingly, nearly all the food in the story is modern industrial food- white bread, canned apricots, Coca-Cola. To me these emphasize that the story takes place in that very Southern-between place, of embracing modernity in its commodity capitalism form existing side by side with a profound consciousness of the past, often with two few questions asked.
Paula Deen fantasized about an “old fashioned” plantation wedding, the grandmother in a Good Man is Hard to Find fantasizes about visiting a beautiful old “Gone with the wind” plantation, a fantasy that ultimately leads the family to their doom.
Some people have pointed out correctly that if we harangued everyone who told jokes like Deen’s, we’d have few people left. But the fact that she said those things didn’t cause her downfall, it was the fact that unsurprisingly it was part of a hostile and miserable culture in the workspaces she and her family ran.
Admittedly I had been critical of Deen for far longer than this recent incident, who not only represented the transmogrified processed food that has unfortunately come to dominate Southern tables, but actively promoted the corporations behind it. For example, she was a spokesperson for Smithfield, a now Chinese-owned pork factory-farming conglomerate. The fastest way to kill a small town is to put one of their hog farms there.
But there has been considerable backlash against the downfall of Deen, which also isn’t surprising to me. Regardless of anything, her food represents a type of opulence which is OK among the kind of people for whom “elitist” (or even worse “elitist Yankee”) is a slur. Regardless of their income, I have been told by many that a place like Whole Foods is for “those people.” And Paula’s food is for people like them. It represents ease, choice, modernity, comfort, and plenty.
The Southern food which is almost impossible to avoid these days at ritzy restaurants in big cities is the food that many people once had to eat when they had few choices. Food made from scratch, from local ingredients that were once widely available, is now largely for rich college-educated city folk both symbolically and in reality. And like it or not, regardless of my roots, I'm "those people" now, and there isn't really going back on that, though I'm not always sure it's a good thing. There are things I've experienced that are amazing, but there are things I'll never understand in the way I would have if I had "stayed home," but it was a choice made for me when I was 15.
And probably some of that backlash is right. It seems like crocodile tears for some of these companies that once sponsored her to care so much about the matter. But in the end, the structures that made her decided she was no longer useful and spit her out. It is in the end OK for corporations (Cracker Barrel survived far more egregious accusations for example) to espouse such ideas, but not for their cogs. This is a time when a corporation can be redeemed, but not a person. Smithfield probably ran the numbers and calculated it was no more profitable to continue to stand behind her than it is to allow sows to give birth to their piglets outside a farrowing crate so small it doesn’t allow them to even turn around.
In A Good Man is Hard to Find, a character called The Misfit consumes the family. I won’t quote the story directly and spoil the ending, but instead I’ll refer to Alex Link’s excellent essay (sadly behind a paywall):
In place of the sentimentalized, commodified estate, the story gives us a commodified South that comes to life to consume the family in its tum. It swallows the family with a "satisfied insuck of breath" ( 129) with the help of the Misfit, the embodiment of Lefebvre's residual "incommunicable." As both a terrifying figure out of the tabloids and a perfect southern gentleman out of nostalgic fantasies like Gone with the Wind, the Misfit embodies the Romantic gloss that interposes itself between subjects and the South, as well as the means of transcending that interposition.
And Paula Deen, despite her willing promotion of that system, was just as much a product of it as anyone else. I remember making her recipes in my college dorm cooking club. We had a miserable cramped dorm kitchen. They were easy and they tasted good (don’t let people tell you things like that don’t, maybe they don’t have any fancy complexity, but my mouth still waters reading about them sometimes). Sometimes at the end of the day, looking at the pile of dirty dishes in the sink, I miss the times when I ate that way.
Cooking has become seen as an empowering act allowing you to take charge of your health and the food system. I want to believe that too, but if I, a young person without any children, find it hard to fit into my life, I don’t have much hope for it at least if things stay they way they are. When I learned to cook from scratch I lived in Sweden, where I maybe went to class a few hours a day, and that’s if I was feeling studious. It’s just the realities of the American economy that part-time work is untenable for a large majority of people (try finding health insurance and having a part-time job) and a 9-5 job often creeps onto other hours, consuming your life with after hours and commutes. Plus it’s hard for me to decide to spend hours in the kitchen when it means sacrificing social and intellectual pursuits.
Also whatever she was, at least Deen was not of the watered down politically-correct version of Southern cooking that has haunted the "those people" media outlets like PBS. You know, like collard greens cooked with olive oil and soy sauce, because butter and ham hocks are soooo bad for you sort of thing.
In Eating Alabama, you can see how time-consuming and somewhat socially isolating their eat only local project is. They spend an inordinate amount of time seeking out wheat and processing it themselves rather than questioning whether or not it belongs in Alabama any more than the fire ants or kudzu do. The amount of time they spend on it (as well as soybeans) only would make it more affordable than just eating even a fairly expensive alternative if you were seriously underemployed and your time was worth nothing. Plus, there has been a recent resurgence of interest in heritage grains advanced by chefs like Sean Brock and entrepreneurs like Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills. Alabama has its own McEwen & Sons organic cornmeal and grits. I don’t know if I’m related to them, but I a can vouch for their quality.
Though I didn’t spend very long in Alabama this time, I thought the selection of local quality food available was pretty impressive, but you can’t look to move there and just find exact local equivalents to foods you already eat like the couple in Eating Alabama seemed to do. Given the climate and geography, if you want to eat local easily you’ll find yourself eating more seafood and less of things like dairy, which coming from the Midwest where it’s not easy to find things like good shrimp I was more than happy to do.
Local gulf shrimp boil, local pecans, a game cookbook my grandmother had, boiled peanuts
Of course it’s hard not to have the oil spill in the back of your mind, that put a bit of worry onto the region’s oceanic bounty, but is only one of the shadows on the food system there. The relentless sprawl that has already rendered my hometown unrecognizable from my memories. The weight of cotton on the soil, the pesticides used to grow it showing up in foods such as rice grown in the region. And sometimes it seems like like nature itself has it out for the place, ravaging New Orleans, one of the few places I’d say is really proud of its old foodways to the point where it has resisted change better than most.
But the televisions networks that made Deen a star are unlikely to feature this food or its cooks. The Food Network for one exists to sell things at scale. If you wanted to make Paula Deen’s recipes in the far North of Wisconsin, you could. There was nothing in them you couldn’t get at a big grocery store or Walmart. To contrast, I can’t make a good crawfish boil in Illinois. The crawfish available here aren’t even close to being the same. Same with Edna Lewis' incredible cookbooks.
Just like there was no reason for the networks to keep her on when she became a liability to what they wanted to promote, there is no reason for them to promote foods and people that aren’t any good at promoting those things in the first place.
My last name came from Scotland. I’m not sure how the McEwens ended up in the United States. The last in the line I can trace is to an overcrowded Philadelphia tenement. They seem to have been very poor. There are rumors of a murder, a flight to South America, and then somehow they ended up in Arkansas.
Much further back, the MacEwans were a Scottish clan that held a fair bit of land by Loch Fyne, a place I have often dreamed of going. In the 1400s they were broken up, seemingly due to the chieftain's financial incompetence, and became the vassals of other clans like the Maclachlans.
When I was a child I liked the idea of my Scottish heritage being defined by deep blue Highland lochs bordered by pines. And swords, and kilts. At the time it was more attractive to me that my more immediate heritage. The reality was probably that my ancestors of that clan were probably poor tenant farmers. And the kilt wasn’t even invented when they lived in Scotland.
But I’ve often thought of the clan crest, a cut oak stump bearing shoots of new growth with the motto “reviresco”- we grow again, underneath.
Two years ago an overzealous logger on our land cut down the big oak tree in the front of the farmhouse. My father was pretty angry about it and stubbornly left the stump there, as if to refuse to let the tree go. I reminded him of the crest. When the spring came the stump sent out shoots with green leaves, as I knew it would.
In forestry school in Uppsala we had a couple of acres of willow coppicing forest, a practice I had not been familiar with before. Coppicing is the very ancient practice of cutting down a tree without killing it in order to utilize the re-growth. They told us that Sweden was the only place in the world that was using willow coppicing to fuel a biomass power plant. The coppice forests were rather beautiful too, whirring with the buzzing of both honey and wild bees.
Coppicing has experienced a renaissance in the United States on small farms, where it can be used as a method of producing firewood or material for crafts like baskets.
Oak can be coppiced in long rotations. So we’ll leave the stump there to give it a chance to grow again.
American Chestnuts were once an important presence on the landscape here. Their starchy nuts were an important source of food for many humans and animals. I once heard them called “tree potatoes.” When I was a girl I was often fascinated by the “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” of The Christmas Song.
I had never had one. Because of chestnut blight, which was introduced into the United States in the late 1800s from imported Asian chestnut trees, which are immune to the blight. The blight spread quickly, killing over three billion trees.
The American Chestnut should be extinct, but it lives on an an eternal coppice-like state, sending out hopeful shoots that grow and then die again and again in a world that no longer welcomes them. Unless you can get some of the last stock, from nurseries in Oregon and Washington, and plant them far away from these undead remnants. Then they might live, but the odds are against you.
The only hope is for them are scientists, who are have used the genetic material to create resistant varieties. America might yet be covered with chestnuts again. I have wanted to plant some resistant varieties on the farm, but the nursery I want to buy from always sells out so quickly, sure signs that people are replanting.
I tasted my first chestnut while browsing a Christmas market in the Czech Republic, where they sold bags of roasted chestnuts. They were hearty and slightly sweet, not quite the rich fatty nut I imagined in my childhood dreams. These days you can find chestnuts at the local farmer’s market. I think the flour is among my favorite alternative flours, especially for pancakes. It is silky and has maple notes. But it is expensive, which is amusing since in the past, like lobster and oysters, chestnuts were considered an undesirable peasant food.
I was disappointed in not getting the chestnuts this year, but I ordered a random variety of trees from Oikos and the DNR. I’ve been reading Common Sense Forestry by Hans Morsbach, which notes that he like us was a resident of Chicago who had land in Wisconsin. He also owned some restaurants, so I thought it would be interesting to get in contact with him.
Turns out I can’t. Because he died a few years ago. Knowing that imbues the book with a certain sort of melancholy I don’t often experience when reading books on growing things. He talks about how much of what he does he may never see come to maturation. And I know he never will see it.
That’s what’s really incredible. And I honestly can’t see why everybody who isn’t a child, everybody who’s theoretically old enough to have understood what death means, doesn’t spend all his time thinking about it. It’s a pretty arresting thought, not being anything, not being anywhere, and yet the world still being here. Simply having everything stopping for ever, not just for millions of years. And getting to the point where that’s all there is in front of you. I can imagine anyone finding themselves thoroughly wrapped up in that prospect, especially since it’s where we’re going to get to sooner or later, and perhaps sooner.-The Green Man by Kingsley Amis
If the trees I’ve planted could think, they would see me as I see the wood fly that lives for only a few days.
But they don’t think of this. And while trees sometimes take me into melancholy thoughts of mortality, to try to put yourself in the place of the woodland plant is to imagine that which cannot as Wendell Berry says “tax their lives with forethought of grief.”
But it is only for the moment that one can escape there. Even the “peace of wild things” is a “memento mori.” The gaps in our vitality the forest claim. A horticulturalist relative of mine told me he was clearing away the orchard to prepare for this. Past the orchard gate at that same orchard once I remembered peering into the dark forest. The hinges on the gate was twisted, closed by little vines like those oak or chestnut shoots, testing the world outside, seeing if it had been made ready.
Once a friend told me I had trouble sleeping. I told him how I get to sleep when it comes slowly to me. I go in my mind to past dreams, some of them now old enough that perhaps they are worlds of their own. One of the most vivid is a place of murky waters and thick forest. The trees are very old and imposing, holding many strange creatures and towns. It is my grandmother’s Southern Louisiana swamps, the Chattahoochee in Georgia, the dirty miasma of the Skokie canal, the rushlands that were once great Viking rivers in Ultuna. It is all theses places I have known in once, and perhaps places I haven’t. At some point, moving so much, without a home, this became the place I was from.
The call came in the morning, it was some cows we couldn’t keep in our fields, that another farmer had taken to his own farm. They had escaped. We drove northwest there, a shudder crippled my heart. It was as if this were the place in my dreams. The karst topography, holes on the surface of the Earth filled with waters of mystery. There was a heavy fog that morning. The cow had broken her leg in a hole, bellowing sadly stuck in the swamp. There wasn’t much else to do besides get a gun. There wasn’t much blood or commotion. We pulled her out of the swamp into the grass. She looked as if she was sleeping. Her large belly still sighed. It would have been filled with a calf soon, if misfortune hadn’t followed her into the deep green land. Instead the microbes that helped her thrive in life had turned against her flesh for one last meal.
We found a cow skull once; we thought it was
From one of the asses in the Bible, for the sun
Shone into the holes through which it had seen
Earth as an endless belt carrying gravel, had heard
Its truculence cursed, had learned how human sweat
Stinks, and had brayed-shone into the holes
With solemn and majestic light, as if some
Skull somewhere could be Baalbek or the Parthenon.- Galway Kinnell's Freedom, New Hampshire
We cut her open. The butcher handed me her liver, it was heavy and dripped with blood on my boots. I also took her sweet breads, they were large and succulent. They always are the best in a young cow. An unfortunate delicacy.
Like hunters we left the gut pile there by the swamp. An offering to some whose home we had disturbed. This land never belonged to any person, it never could belong. It has too close of a relationship with ancient disorder. That’s why it took our cow before we could. You don’t always get to prepare your orchards for when that day comes. I was reminded of this when my grandmother said she’d brought her son’s ashes back to Louisiana. I felt sorry I had been so far away for so long.
Later at home I was tired, but I had to process all the organs, cut away the sinews and freeze what I couldn’t eat soon. I didn’t want to waste anything, and besides it is one of those rare activities where I can be satisfied with work, where the time of work passes quickly in the mundane work of hands.
I cooked the liver and sweetbreads on a hot cast iron with a little salt. They were the best I’d ever had. The sweetbreads popped like popcorn, salty and fatty. I hesitate to give cooking advice for these things. I don’t recommend recreating that day.
That night I dreamt I gave stillbirth to a young lamb and laid him in the grass. I believe it was the lamb from Magnu’s Nilsson’s Faviken book and this artist's depiction of a small microcosm of life growing out of a death. Nilsson has said “ Meat is the remains of what was a living individual that we selfishly raised and killed with the sole purpose of feeding ourselves.”
I felt a million living tendrils
rooting through the thing I was,
as if I’d turned to earth before my death
or in my death could somehow feel.- Christian Wiiman
We always kept our distance from this particular herd of cows. They don’t have names. They have sharp horns. She died much like a wild deer I had seen while hiking once, its skeletal form bent against its tree where its foot was still tangled. Except maybe we are a little less cruel than nature and she didn’t die slowly, stuck in a hole for a long time waiting for the wolves. A part of me welcomed this nourishment from a death that was not a choice.
But an incarnation is in particular flesh
And the dust that is swirled into a shape
And crumbles and is swirled again had but one shape
That was this man. When he is dead the grass
Heals what he suffered, but he remains dead,
And the few who loved him know this until they die.- Galway Kinnell Freedom, New Hampshire
When I was about thirteen or fourteen and first had regular access to the internet, looking back into the past of my name, in boredom. I came across a women who shared it, Gwendolyn MacEwen, a poet and writer. She had died a year after I was born from the alcoholic malady I sometimes feel is a particularly Celtic curse. In pictures she has the most haunting eyes, eyes that seemed far older than her face.
There is one poem of her that I have been remembering since. It is Dark Pines Under Water:
This land like a mirror turns you inward
And you become a forest in a furtive lake;
The dark pines of your mind reach downward,
You dream in the green of your time,
Your memory is a row of sinking pines.
Explorer, you tell yourself this is not what you came for
Although it is good here, and green;
You had meant to move with a kind of largeness,
You had planned a heavy grace, an anguished dream.
But the dark pines of your mind dip deeper
And you are sinking, sinking, sleeper
In an elementary world;
There is something down there and you want it told.
I think of it often. I think it must be stored in the deepest part of my brain, where it has gathered a hold of the way words are in my thoughts, like a strange prayer that emerges in the woods and at night. Before her I didn’t really write, but it has been like an infection since.
I was never the sort that anyone could call private. But there is so much that just must be left unsaid for now at least, people whose shadows I trace with my words, deftly avoiding showing their faces.
One way I do that is to write of the past. Of things that no longer live in consciousness on this world. But even then people always seem to have a stake in things.
Instead I try to write of things that seem a bit more mundane. Like trees.
I knew it - you would have too, if you'd been there; it was a figure I’d glimpsed in a car park as a child; an expression crossing the face of a stranger late one night at Waterloo Station as I hurried for a train with my parents; a carving in the portico of a mediaeval church. In some nightmarish way it was particular, and it was also infinite. It was itself, it was the wood, it was the last roses in the garden, and yet it was also a wider sentience, perhaps best described as the feeling that the trees and fields we look at have always secretly been looking back into us.- Alasdair MacLean of The Clientele
Someone I know who follows a gluten-free diet said that he saw an ad for this product called GlutenCutter, an supplement that claims it helps people digest gluten, on Facebook. I would assume he "likes" many gluten-free/paleo/etc. blogs on Facebook that that is why he saw this ad. I looked at the product out of curiosity and it is a bit worrying, particularly the FAQ:
Q: Is Gluten Cutter intended for those with Celiac Disease?
A: It is recommended that those with Celiac Disease first consult with a doctor prior to using Gluten Cutter.
I would only hope they have a competent doctor who tells them the truth, which is that while some research is being done on using enzymes that would possibly allow a celiac to digest gluten, this is in very preliminary stages. There is currently no safe accepted dose of gluten for a person with celiac disease.
Furthermore with the state of our health care systems, I would worry that people with celiac symptoms would use this product. People who haven't had celiac ruled out. In the US I meet many people like this who cannot afford the diagnostic tests, particularly since the gold standard if it's not ruled out otherwise is biopsy that is performed as a surgical procedure. In places like the UK, it is often hard to obtain these tests as well, as it is not easy to see a specialist.
The supplement industry often thrives by filling in the gaps of the healthcare system, and sometimes in unsafe ways. I would not use this kind of product if it were possible that I might have celiac.
I have used Glutenease in the past, but celiac is ruled out in my own case. Glutenease mainly contains one of the enzymes under study, which is dipeptidyl peptidase IV (DPPIV). It seemed to help me transition out of a gluten-free diet, but I stopped taking it late last year and haven't had any problems. I think if i had continued to need it, it would have indicated the possibility of a more serious problem since low levels of it in the body are tied not just to celiac, but to other diseases that cause mucosal damage.
Compared to Glutenease, Glutencutter contains a host of other supplements which might have unintended side effects. One of the many reasons I think people experimenting with supplements should avoid bundled supplements and just supplement what they need in doses that are adjustable.
It just reminds me that gluten is probably a major public health issue in our time because
Not being gluten-free anymore has significantly broadened my ability to travel, eat-out, and go to social gatherings. And that's kind of a sad fact considering not everyone has that choice.
In developing countries, this problem is magnified:
Wheat and barley are major diet constituents with few acceptable alternatives, rendering the convincing of parents that bread is the cause of diarrhea very hard. Also, convincing patients with atypical CD to adhere to a GFD is difficult. Finally, lack of information about CD manifestations, lack of benefit from a GFD and lack of encouragement to adhere to such a diet may contribute. More than 10% of adults with CD do not adhere strictly to long term GFD and more than 30% who believe they are, are actually consuming grams of gluten daily.
Interestingly, some of the most at-risk populations come from the "Fertile Crescent" where wheat agriculture originated. Rather than poor adaptation to grains, celiac might be more of a legacy of more recent evolutionary trade-offs, an issue explored in Aaron Sam's dissertation (PDF). The crop that these early farmers so successful may also have ended up being a curse on their wide-ranging descendants.
Every two years or so I notice a cyclical trend in the online “paleo” community. It’s the resurgence of dogmatic carnivory. It has two main themes: plants are “poisons” that cause most of our health problems and humans “evolved to be” very low carb. Always an undercurrent with some very zealous devotees (“The Bear” of Grateful Dead fame was probably one of its most prominent popularizers), it suddenly finds popularity among normally more moderate people, picking up some non-paleo low-carb followers in the process. Then it goes away again, hilariously with some of its top cheerleaders renouncing it in the process (like Danny Roddy).
It’s been back again lately. A few readers have written me about Anna who writes the blog Life Extension*. She is a graduate student in archaeology and social anthropology. Anna’s most popular post so far is “Debunking and Deconstructing Some ‘Myths of Paleo’. Part One: Tubers.” Sadly, an opportunity for greater communication to the public from a much-maligned discipline becomes a manifesto for low-carb diets. The tagline is “Glucose restriction represents not only the most crucial component of ancestral diets but is by far the easiest element to emulate.” I think we’ve heard this one before, but this time it is in language that is more authoritative than usual. This is the kind of writing I would have liked Paleofantasy to take on.
Unfortunately she doesn’t refer to sources directly in her text, so I’ve done my best to figure out which sources she is referring to.
Most archaeologists don’t go around promoting diets, because they recognize the limitations of their field. There is so much that is unknown and unknowable. It’s pretty easy for nearly anyone to pigeonhole what we do have to fit their own narratives.
The reduction in size and robusticity of the human skeleton is a clear temporal trend of newly agricultural communities. Diachronic skeletal comparisons reveal large-scale, significant reductions in growth rates.
Yes, of some newly agricultural communities, and that doesn't mean it stayed this way. I’ve written about it more than I would have liked. I just wrote about it in my last post about Paleofantasy (which cites this review).
Then a funny thing happened on the way from the preagricultural Mediterranean to the giant farms of today: people, at least some of them, got healthier, presumably as we adapted to the new way of life and food became more evenly distributed. The collection of skeletons from Egypt also shows that by 4,000 years ago, height had returned to its preagricultural levels, and only 20 percent of the population had telltale signs of poor nutrition in their teeth. Those trying to make the point that agriculture is bad for our bodies generally use skeletal material from immediately after the shift to farming as evidence, but a more long-term view is starting to tell a different story. - Marlena Zuk
It also brings up how questionably height is used in these narratives. The few hunter-gatherers that exist today are very very short (mostly due to genetics). The rest of the world has grown taller and taller. Staffan Lindeberg in his magnum opus suggests we are too tall from overnutrition. Other markers that extremists attempt to use to show that agricultural humans show a downward trend in terms of health suffer from similar limitations.
Instances of porotic hyperostosis brought on by iron deficiency anaemia increased dramatically in agricultural settings.
There is a new appreciation of the adaptability and flexibility of iron metabolism; as a result it has become apparent that diet plays a very minor role in the development of iron deficiency anemia. It is now understood that, rather than being detrimental, hypoferremia (deficiency of iron in the blood) is actually an adaptation to disease and microorganism invasion.”- Porotic hyperostosis: A new perspective
Either way, I’m not sure what the transition these communities in upheaval experienced has to do with whether or not tubers or any carbohydrates are bad for you. It wasn’t just the food that changed for these people, it was their entire way of life, and it was a transition that changed their biology. And while there are trends, there is no linear health decline. There is a more systematic database of human remains and health markers that is in the process of being created right now that should be a great resource in the future. At this point a lot of papers claiming a decline are using inappropriate sample sizes and statistical methods.
Far too little evolutionary time has passed for us to be successfully acclimated to the novel conditions of agricultural life.
Another common thread that is begging the question. How long is long enough? How many adaptations are enough?
Speaking of evolutionary time:
Spending most of our human history in glacial conditions, our physiology has consequently been modelled by the climatologic record, with only brief, temperate periods of reprieve that could conceivably allow any significant amount of edible plant life to have grown.
Like Nora Gedgauda's paleo book Primal Body, Primal Mind, which she cites for unknown reasons, this sentences implies to her lay readers than glacial conditions = something out of the movie Ice Age. Which is just not true. A glacial maximum left some people in the cold, but Africa was still quite warm, and if we are talking about evolutionary time, that’s where we spent most of it. Outside Africa, most humans seem to have clustered in fairly temperate refugia such as Southern Iberia during the last ice age.
Many think of the late Pleistocene as the “Ice Age”, a time when continental glaciers coveredmuch of the earth and where the land not under ice was inhabited by giant cold-adapted animals—wooly mammoth, wooly rhinoceros, and cave bears—pursued by hardy humanhunters. While this image may be somewhat accurate for part of the world, most of the earthremained unglaciated throughout the Pleistocene.” -In Glacial Environments Beyond Glacial Terrains: Human Eco-Dynamics in LatePleistocene Mediterranean Iberia
Of course “significant amount” is also going to be a point of contention. Only in the very coldest tip of the arctic do levels of plants in human diet fall to close to zero. Beyond that, many people might not be aware of levels of starch and sugar available in the environment because traditions surrounding them have died out. I have written quite a bit about Northern sources of carbohydrates- “Siberian potatoes” and Alaskan native plant foods.
Further information on the evolution of our diet can be garnered from the genetic data of present populations, which demonstrates the historically-late biological adaptation to less than minimal quantities of starch and to only few and specific starch compounds.
I assume this refers to amylyse (AMY1) copy number, the function and history of which is not quite clear, much like lactase persistence. For example, I do not possess lactase persistence, even though my ancestors probably raised livestock for dairy, they were diversified pastoralists, so it’s likely there was not enough selective pressure for them to develop this trait. They consumed dairy, but the majority of their diet was not dairy.
It is unlikely the ancestral human diet was as high in starch as some horticulturalist tropical diets are now, where the majority of calories come from starch. But in the end, the differences in AMY1 copy number between humans are small compared to our differences with other primates, indicating that perhaps this was selected for in our own evolution. And in the original paper it is kind of mind-boggling they use the Mbuti as a “low-starch” population given their high starch consumption.
The Mbuti are particularly interesting because they are hunter-gatherers, but trade their surplus meat for starch and have done this for quite some time (when this isn't available there are forest tubers utilized as fall-backs). The only time they don’t trade is when honey is in abundance.
Anna’s assertion that starch is comparatively “inefficient” compared to meat using optimal foraging models doesn’t mean that humans would have chosen to eat only or mostly meat. That data includes game from South American environments, which is unusually fatty in comparison to African game. Even in South America, such game is not available in unlimited amounts in the first place, which is why even hunter-gatherer cultures that have access to it like the Ache also extensively gather and process starch and gather honey.
The consequences of limited availability and time investment of edible Palaeolithic plant foods has been analysed by Stiner, who compared food class returns amongst contemporary hunter-gatherer groups. Stiner found the net energy yield of roots and tubers to range from 1,882 kj/hour to 6,120 kj/hour (not to mention the additional time needed to dedicate to preparation) compared to 63,398 kj/hour for large game.
Anna’s assertions stand in stark contrast to the paper she seems to cite:
Staple plant resources present an extreme contrast to large game animals with respect to prevailing economic currencies (Table 11.1). Large animals generally yield high returns per unit foraging time (kJ per hour) but are unpredictable resources. Seeds and nuts give much lower net yields per increment time (kJ per kilogram acquired), but they have potentially high yields with respect to the volume obtained and the area of land utilized.
Surveys of hunter-gatherers show overwhelmingly that preferred foods are fatty game and honey, highly caloric (and delicious), yet these are not the majority of the diet because they are not available in high predictable amounts, like the modern equivalents are.
As Kim Hill, who studies the Ache says “High-ranked items may be so rarely encounteredthat they represent only a very small proportion of the diet; low-ranked items in the optimalset may be encountered with sufficient frequency to contribute the bulk. It is interesting to note that on several occasions, reports of nearby palm fruit (ranked 12) were ignored, something that did not happen with oranges. On several other occasions people discussed the relative merits of hunting monkeys (ranked 11). reaching consensus that monkeys should not be pursued “because they are not fat.”
Anthropologists have theorized on the importance of having carbohydrate fallback foods in the event that high-fat game is not available, either because of seasonality or over-hunting. In these cases, “rabbit starvation” from excess protein is a real danger. Surviving off of game is a real challenge, which probably accounts for the fact that many humans have any exploited seemingly tedious to gather plant resources in nearly every environment.
Some of Anna’s arguments indicate that she has decided on some issues that are actually very controversial in anthropology and archaeology, such as the date of regular fire use (Anna asserts it was much later than many think) and that “However, plants have been preserved in the Lower Palaeolithic, and they are used primarily for functional and material – rather than nutritional – purposes.”
She does admit that “I will concede however that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” but then goes on to list some sites that show possible non-food-related plant use that aren’t even associated with Homo sapiens, many are hominid offshoots that are unlikely to have contributed to our line (except for some of us who have a possible small amount of neanderthal ancestry). Other sites she mentions aren’t dated to the lower Paleolithic anyway.
Later sites such as Kebara she also dismisses, implying that legumes would have been used as fire starters rather than food. But admits that hominids would have supplemented their diet with “low glycemic” foods when meat was scarce.
Firstly, Neanderthals were highly carnivorous and physiologically inept at digesting plant foods. This can be measured using the megadontia quotient of Neanderthal postcanine tooth area in relation to body mass, which reveals that H. neanderthalensis must have consumed a greater than 80% animal diet. Nonetheless, the evidence of phytoliths and grains from Neanderthal skeletons at Shanidar Cave may reveal the rare consumption of starches in this singular context, but not the deleterious costs to the health of those that ate them.
The megadontia quotient, which is controversial in the first place, is not meant to be used in this way. Neither is the also mentioned expensive tissue hypothesis. They are meant to analyze use of uncooked fibrous plant foods and is not particularly enlightening in the case of large-brained hominids with cultural adaptations to food such as cooking. Some of the most recent research that reappraises the carnivorous theory of neanderthals is covered in this recent talk by neanderthal experts Dr. Margaret J. Schoeninger and Dr. Alison S. Brooks.
Humans show up as carnivores, even when they are known corn-eating agriuculturalists, like these people. But what happens when you plot other plants?
Now the data makes more sense (remember this data is showing where protein in the diet came from, it doesn't tell us how much protein was eaten).
As you can see, initial isotopic studies (which can only show where the protein came from, not the amount of protein in the diet) that showed neantherthals as top carnivores came into question when farming populations were showing similar values. They realized that they needed to consider analyzing plants based on their most nutritious fractions, since when was the last time anyone sane ate something like a whole stalk of corn, husk and all? Another great paper by John D. Speth also summarizes some of the recent research on neanderthal diets and debunks hypercarnivory.
humans were no longer able to transmute fibre into fat – as other primates can (consequently, they eat a high-fat diet) – through fermentation in the large intestine.
This, as anthropologist Dr. Richard Wrangham has pointed out, could also be an adaptation to cooking. And we didn’t lose this ability, it is just reduced, though no biologist would argue it the SCFA produced in the colon, which can provide calories and also modulate inflammation, are unimportant. SCFA metabolism is not comparable to longer chain fatty acid metabolism, so it’s not really appropriate to call these diets “high fat.” Furthermore, there are other primates with similar guts to ours like capuchins, who most certainly do not eat a carnivorous diet– they eat sugary fruit. But it’s very hard to compare our guts to the guts of other animals since cultural traits like cooking are so important for our food consumption.
I think it’s a bit amusing to read these posts alongside those of PaleoVeganology, written by a graduate student in paleontology who criticizes many popular paleo narratives. However much I disagree with him on the issue of modern diet choices, I commend him for not using his expertise to promote his chosen diet- he is explicit that his dietary choices are built on modern ethics and not the murky past.
The skeletons at Shanidar are certainly the first of many analyses of starches on teeth, which rules out theories like that plants were only used as decorations or fire starters. Since that first paper was published, others using the same method have followed and more will. But there is no way to use such data to speculate on how often or how much of these foods were consumed.
The coprolite “paper” that Nora Gedgaudas frequently cites also comes up, which I’ve addressed here.
Another common thread in carnivore narratives is that plants were used “only” as medicinals. I would not consider this as insignificant in any way– in most cultures, the line between food and medicine is a thin one. Many foods we enjoy as foods these days have medicinal roots.
Anna rightly criticizes the use of non-hunter-gatherers as hunter-gatherer proxies in writings about the so-called paleo diet and then cites a study that does the exact same thing-
In an attempt to reconstruct the diet of ice age hominids, a recent study analysed the macronutrient dietary composition of existing hunter-gatherer groups within latitude intervals from 41° to greater than 60°.
But where did this data come from? Anthropologist Katherine Milton responded quite well to this paper by Cordain:
The hunter-gatherer data used by Cordain et al (4) came from the Ethnographic Atlas (5), a cross-cultural index compiled largely from 20th century sources and written by ethnographers or others with disparate backgrounds, rarely interested in diet per se or trained in dietary collection techniques. By the 20th century, most hunter-gatherers had vanished; many of those who remained had been displaced to marginal environments. Some societies coded as hunter-gatherers in the Atlas probably were not exclusively hunter-gatherers or were displaced agricultural peoples. Because most of the ethnographers were male, they often did not associate with women, who typically collect and process plant resources.- Katherine Milton
The Ethnographic Atlas used in the “study” is available online and quite clearly does not contain 229 pure hunter-gatherer cultures. The 229 Cordain uses includes people who trade for or cultivate foods.
There is no evidence that mostly carnivorous groups of humans have particularly high longevity and in fact mummies, whatever their limits, have shown people eating these diets were not in fantastic condition, which of course like the bad condition of some early agriculturalists cannot be blamed on their diet.
It is awfully convenient to build a narrative to convince people to eat a limited diet based on the murky unknowns of the far past and near-mythical groups of supposedly extremely healthy carnivorous hominids. The carnivore-ape hypothesis is about as credible as the aquatic ape one.
One of the problems with human evolution, as opposed to, say, rocket science, is that everybody feels that their opinion has value irrespective of their prior knowledge (the outraged academic in the encounter above was a scientist, but not a biologist, still less an evolutionary biologist). The reason is obvious – we are all human beings, so we think we know all about it, intuitively. What we think about human evolution "stands to reason". Hardly a month goes by without my receiving, at my desk at Nature, an exegesis on the reasons how or why human beings evolved to be this way or that. They are always nonsense, and for the same reason. They find some quirk of anatomy, extrapolate that into a grand scheme, and then cherry-pick attributes that seem to fit that scheme, ignoring any contrary evidence. Adherence to such schemes become matters of belief, not evidence. That's not science – that's creationism.
I saw the same story building among vegans, who often craft similar narratives around our lineage's long plant-eating past. It speaks for a deep desire for people to justify their own choices. What all these dietary narratives have in common is that they confirm a particular limited diet is our “natural” diet and one that is best for humans, animals, and the environment. It’s not possible for them all to be right, and that’s because none of them are.
Ancient humans ate a large variety of foods, which is why we are adapted to so many. Human variation is high though, since our lineage has become so populous and geographically wide-ranging. There are many reasons for a modern human to adopt a low-carbohydrate or limited carbohydrate diet either temporarily or permanently. None of those have to do with this being the optimal diet for all humans or with a mostly-carnivorous ancestry.
I guess I’m kind of late to the party on reviewing this book, but I actually haven’t noticed a lot of reviews of it, which is surprising given the amount of buzz the articles about it generated. I also suspect some reviewers didn’t actually read it, since they seemed abnormally fixated on defending their paleo diet, when the book only has two out of ten chapters devoted solely to diet and covers many other topics.
Like Marlene Zuk, I am also quite critical of some of the movements that use (and mis-use) evolutionary logic like the paleo diet. So I wanted to like this book.
It has its good moments, but is overall in need of a good editor. It could be much shorter. And much less meandering.
Much of the skepticism is directly towards the frequently-inane postings on online discussion boards, which I a have the misfortune of being very familiar with having moderated one of the most popular until I rage-quit in annoyance.
While a lot of people get dumb advice on internet discussion boards, do they really define these movements? While they are fun strawmen to take down easily, most people don’t take such posts seriously. What they take seriously is the often scientific-sounding books written by various gurus, often with many letters, legitimate and not, preceding and following their names. While she mentions them, it’s only in passing. Her “paleofantasy” seems to consist mainly of cacophony of crowd-sourced internet discussion.
Not to say you won’t learn anything from this book, but it hardly challenges the status quo, which makes the hysteric reactions of many against it and the author seem all the more ridiculous. A lot of it reminds me of the excellent The Beak of The Finch or The 10,000 Year Explosion. She covers many methods that evolutionary biologists use to understand evolution, why they matter, and common misconceptions about them.
But if only people were talking about evolution when they were talking about the paleo diet. Talk about actual evolutionary biology and you might be met by some of the silent crickets that Zuk studies. Only 54% of paleo dieters in a recent survey accept evolution as a fact.
But it’s beyond that the increasing specialization in of academia becomes a limitation. Zuk specializes in the evolution of crickets, which yes, does have surprisingly broad applicability, but she spends a long time on that and other similar research that I think a skeptic would find irrelevant and unconvincing. I read The Beak of the Finch, which discusses this type of research in length, in high school, and it didn't stop me from adopting the paleo diet narrative. I think the most common problems with the “paleo” worldview come from anthropology. For example, misinterpretations of isotopic studies, coprolite fossils, and paleopathological surveys are used very often to justify “paleo” diets.
On the cultural anthropology side of things, people often seem very confused by terms like “hunter-gatherer” or “forager.” Rather than elucidating the complexity of historical humans lifestyles, the book muddles this further in parts. If you were confused about this before, you’ll stay confused, and a clarification would improve her arguments anyway. For example, whether or not the Yanomani (of the Chagnon controversy) are relevant to revealing some aspect of hunter-gatherer “human nature” is pretty questionable considering that while they do forage and hunt for some of their food, they are horticulturalists, a lifestyle that probably not much older than agriculture. Same goes for Jared Diamonds extrapolations from the horticulturalists of Papua New Guinea in The World Before Yesterday.
This is also common in Paleo diet books– authors like Cordain cite starch-cultivating horticulturalists like The Kitavans when convenient, while recommending a diet that bears little resemblance to theirs. I noticed recently that paleo guru Art De Vany’s blog header has a picture of some imposingly muscular tribal warriors. The site doesn’t seem to say anything about them, but I knew they are Asaro “mudmen” of Papua New Guinea, who are horticulturalists and grow many crops that De Vany would view as unhealthy. It is a shame to see them exploited to promote his diet and as of late, extensive advertising of his own supplements.
Fuled by sweet potatoes, sugary fruit, and peanuts they grew in their forest gardens
If you are confused, for almost all of the paleolithic humans were nomadic hunter-gatherers with primitive weapons. There are really no people today who practice this lifestyle. If agriculture is a drop in the bucket of human history from a relative perspective, even the innovations of the Middle and Upper Paleolithic, are similar in relative timescale. These innovations included better weapons- the atlatl and later the bow and arrow, which would have affected hunting significantly. They also included the culinarily important pottery and grease-processing (smashing up bones to make a fat and protein rich broth). I made this crappy timeline that gives a vague idea of some of these innovations in human history. What time do you choose as the optimum?
Our ancestors’ diets clearly changed dramatically and repeatedly over the last tens, not to mention hundreds, of thousands of years, even before the advent of agriculture.
Even the few representatives of nomadic hunter-gatherers that exist on the planet use these relatively modern technologies, like the Hadza’s bows.
I don’t think these groups of people are irrelevant to health discussions though, if anything, these people show that diversity of lifeways in which our species has been able to thrive, a thread that seems constant no matter the time. And every lifeway has involved trade-offs. For example, while rheumatoid arthritis, which is common in industrialized first world cultures these days, seems to have been rare in foraging cultures, osteoarthritis seems to have been more common.
And in the end while it’s fascinating to think about how so much we are familiar with is “new” in their scale of geologic time, Zuk rightly points that evolution works faster than many might imagine.
I think the sections on lactase tolerance, which talk about in how many places and ways humans acquired this trait, are fascinating. But left also many unanswered questions that show just how far we have to go to understanding human evolution.
Interestingly, about half of the Hadza people of Tanzania were found to have the lactase persistence gene—a hefty proportion, given that they are hunter-gatherers, not herders. Why did the Hadza evolve a trait they don’t use? Tishkoff and coworkers speculate that the gene might be useful in a different context. The same enzyme that enables the splitting of the lactose molecule is also used to break down phlorizin, a bitter compound in some of the native plants of Tanzania. Could the lactase persistence gene also help with digestion of other substances? No one knows for sure, but the idea certainly bears further investigation.
But while she mentions a little elephant in the room, which is our microbiota. Of “our” cells, bacterial cells outnumber “human” cells ten to one. And they have had a lot more generations to evolve than “we” have.
Microbiologist Jeffrey Gordon says, “The gut microbial community can be viewed as a metabolic organ—an organ within an organ . . . It’s like bringing a set of utensils to a dinner party that the host does not have.” 44 As our diets change, so does our internal menagerie, which in turn allows us to eat more and different kinds of foods. The caveman wouldn’t just find our modern cuisine foreign; the microbes inside of us, were he able to see them, would be at least as strange.
I like that she takes on the common narrative of “people were really healthy until they became farmers and then they shrunk and had bad teeth etc.” The reality is while some of the earliest agrarian cultures did seem to suffer compared to their predecessors, it wasn’t all about the food and people by and large recovered. Besides, if we were going to pick diets based on bone and teeth health, we might as well pick the pastoralists like Masaai, who tend to be much much much taller than any hunter-gatherers.
Then a funny thing happened on the way from the preagricultural Mediterranean to the giant farms of today: people, at least some of them, got healthier, presumably as we adapted to the new way of life and food became more evenly distributed. The collection of skeletons from Egypt also shows that by 4,000 years ago, height had returned to its preagricultural levels, and only 20 percent of the population had telltale signs of poor nutrition in their teeth. Those trying to make the point that agriculture is bad for our bodies generally use skeletal material from immediately after the shift to farming as evidence, but a more long-term view is starting to tell a different story.
Many paleo diet books present our species as that of fragile creatures rather than what we really are, which is the consummate omnivore resilient and adaptable enough to thrive on a large range of foods. A curious being, that was travelled far and wide and tasted many things, rather than being defined by fear and a narrow food exceptionalism. I’ve even seen people, some of them fairly well-known bloggers, on Twitter and Facebook discussing buying an island where “paleo dieters” could be free from “non-foods” like grains and the people that eat them. It’s not as bad as blog posts from paleo dieters travelling in foreign countries who talk about how difficult it is to explain their special food to the local people. Traditional cultures are venerated, maybe even exploited, unless they don’t fit the paleo narrative.
The question is whether the various forms of the paleo diet really do replicate what our ancestors ate.
Unfortunately Paleofantasy focuses on this absurd strawman of dietary replication and only begins to scratch the surface of neurotic botany of many paleo writings. Books that fret about whether or not “nightshades” grew in Paleolithic Savanna Africa and their plant chemicals, while blithely consuming other classes of similarly alien plants with other potentially problematic chemicals. Because that’s what plants are– bundles of chemicals that can be friend or foe depending on amounts and contexts.
The skeptics she cites aren’t much better than the internet commenters representing paleo. They include the Ethnographic Atlas, a survey of modern populations, that she claims puts to “rest the notion of our carnivorous ancestors.” Or the U.S. News & World Report’s rating of diets.
It doesn’t take an evolutionary biologist to understand what the paleo diet has become, especially in alliance with the low-carb diet promoters, industrial supplement companies, or the standard dieting-culture food fear mongerers. It functions not as an attempt to use evolutionary biology to understand the human diet, but has become a social engineering scam to sell mediocre books, processed powders, and other crap. It was only about evolution in the beginning, mostly it’s just a diet in caveman clothing now.
Paleofantasy has just come along for the ride. It’s not going to convince very many people caught in the scam. It’s just going to make those who haven’t feel smug. At least it might teach a few people about evolutionary biology.
And I liked the section about attachment parenting, which is surprisingly rational about the matter, a welcome break from so many writings that either are almost religious about it or decry it as some kind of upper middle class fad.
The evolutionary psychology section is also not as critical as I thought it would be from the reactions of those are are enamoured with the subject.
There is a long section on barefoot running, which talks about how some paleo diet proponents like Art De Vany think we did not evolve for long-distance running and other evolutionary fitness advocates like anthropologist Dan Lieberman think is it a critical part of our evolutionary heritage. I think this highlights the fact that the past is so hazy that it’s pretty easy to use it to support a whole host of contradictory arguments.
It’s a shame Zuk tilted at internet idiot windmills and not at the far more sophisticated arguments that are dressed up as science. I sometimes wonder if publishing companies don’t want authors to criticize other authors. They have 199 Paleo Fried Chicken Recipes (I made that up, but it’s not that far out) and other book-like products to push before people get bored.
These books are also relentlessly shallow shadows of some of the earliest texts in the genre of using the deep past to better understand how we should live. Recently I was struck by the similarity in the cover of The Primal Connection: Follow Your Genetic Blueprint to Health and Happiness and the late Paul Shepard’s Coming Home to the Pleistocene.
I read Coming Home to the Pleistocene when I was twenty. While I certainly don’t agree with everything in it, it is beautifully-written and thought-provoking. It challenged the way I thought about the world. Paul was not afraid to espouse controversial ideas, unlike the books from the diet industry that turn the original ideas into drivelling Flintstones platitudes in order to appeal to everyone. I suspect people will still be reading Shepard in a decade when all the paleo publishing bubble books languish in the bargain bin.
Zuk says in closing that “I am all for examining human health and behavior in an evolutionary context, and part of that context requires understanding the environment in which we evolved.” I agree with this. I think evolution is important and will continue to improve our understanding of our world. And I eagerly await a book that more fervently challenges common misconceptions about it.
My friends and I got a mention in the Chicago Reader's Food Edition for our themed dinner club that we call The Sup Club. It's been a fun year of cooking with them. We've cooked foods inspired by all kinds of places and times. I've marinated goat legs in beet juice, learned to cook sardines, eaten awesome "egg baos", and had more fun than I can possibly recount here.
We also rustled up a little Wordpress site with some of our favorite photos and stuff. People have asked me how they can get one of these started. And honestly I don't know how. It was pretty much always something I wanted to do, but it was hard to find like-minded people. I guess going to a lot of good food events is a way- it's how I met most of these people. But this is something that probably couldn't have happened in NYC. in NYC who except the super rich have big enough dining rooms to host 15 people?
To clarify though, I don't think 1950s food is "bad" per-se, but researching it I was surprised how monotonous, bland, and full of industrially processed ingredients it could be. Of course not all of it is that way. I have some good 50s cookbooks. But some I just keep to laugh at.
I liked the Viking food, minus the stockfish smashing in my living room.
Also I'm on the BoingBoing Gweek podcast this week. I'm always a little terrified to listen to these things, so I hope it's good!
I occasionally get emails and tweets admonishing me for being hostile to paleo and low-carb, having moved on and having to take a glancing blow behind me. It’s not an unfamiliar experience– I received the same when I stopped being vegan.
The truth is that I’m not hostile to paleo, low-carb, or vegan. All three represent food subcultures that taught me a lot about food and how it affects my health. I am thankful for that. Unfortunately all have quasi-religious underpinnings that can be detrimental to health. They are also hostile to critics.
It has been very difficult for me as a skeptic since criticism is frequently deemed to be a personal attack and is ironically often answered with personal attacks. Furthermore, when I was embedded with it socially, it was almost if you spoke up, you were in danger of being socially ostracized. It is my own experience that no one is blacklisted even for the worst behavior...unless they are openly skeptical.
It has been hard to leave. I mean there were good things– I got involved with grass-fed livestock because of it and many of my best customers, friends, and mentors also have a similar story. I thought maybe things could go back to the way they were when I started, when it was far more casual on a dietary level and it was largely a movement of people passionate about things like sustainable food, anthropology, evolutionary biology, and figuring out what worked for them.
I have told my own health story what seems like a thousand times, but the thing is I got better without being very restrictive at all beyond a period of very low carbing that had a targeted purpose, which was to allow my stomach to heal. It was more about adding foods to my diet such as meat and seafood then subtracting them, as well as letting go of dietary dogmas that were damaging my health like the idea that the best way to treat stomach issues was with more fiber or that fat was bad. It was also about diversifying the sources of food and the foods I relied on. I was only about 80% paleo then. It was fun and interesting to be a part of. I never worried about some ice cream or beer.
In Sweden I was very healthy until towards the end of my stay, when I think I messed up my stomach with NSAIDs again. I took to the corners of the internet where I found fringe diets for messed up people like the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, VLC (very low carb), raw paleo, and the Failsafe diet. I learned from these, though I never adopted them fully. In some ways they were bad because they foster extreme nitpicking, including lots of combing through papers, finding out of context studies to make people paranoid about food. In other ways they were good, because they helped me realize that there were more targeted approaches to my issues rather than just thinking about what I did or did not probably “evolve to eat.”
When I moved to New York City from Sweden I had trouble adjusting. I met most of the people I hung out with through Paleo meetups. At the time I think the larger community was moving towards those fringe diets I had encountered becoming more what paleo was about. Paleo was adopting the food paranoia of the aforementioned fringe diets combined with the hubris of the idea that it was the optimal human diet our ancestors were supposedly so healthy on. It crossed the line from awareness to fear-mongering, with more and more leaders associated with it promoting the idea that even if you feel good, you are being quietly “damaged” by certain demonized foods. Much to my chagrin as someone who is very interested in evolution, I noticed the movement was minimizing the role evolution played. Around this time I was first called an “elitist” for pointing out a major figure in the movement rejected that evolution even existed.
At the same time it was increasingly hard for me to accept that this dietary philosophy was the optimal solution. My testimonial was true– I did feel better, but better than what? Things were up and down. Episodes of fatigue haunted me, as well as my stomach problems returning intermittently. My response was to turn to the internet, where I became increasingly convinced that certain “bad” foods I was eating occasionally like beer were the culprit. I had to be better at this diet, so I gave them up. I didn’t feel any better. I met a lot of people in real life who had glowing online testimonials, but who were obviously struggling as well. I felt disillusioned.
The composition of people who mattered was also changing from quasi-anarchist back to the land hippy types to more and more slick marketing people who seemed to have little interest in anything beyond selling products, wearing leopard print, and eating bacon. The first processed "paleo" “products” appeared on the market. But at that point I was in too deep. Almost all my friends were from paleo. I wanted to save it from its growing association with stock internet junk science that I had once seen pollute the vegan community.
Also the movement was getting an infusion from some new blood, some input from the Weston A. Price Crowd for example from Chris Masterjohn, and Paul Jaminet’s Perfect Health Diet made people suddenly less afraid of things like rice. Influced by them and NEEDING to make a change very much after my serious fainting episode, I started eating white rice regularly again, as well as more carbs in general. I felt a lot better, but still continued to have health problems, particularly with my energy levels.
The paleo community however was just getting worse. It started looking more like a front to sell crap and a bunch of low-quality content farms rather than a community centered around real food. I started speaking out about it and experienced large amounts of harassment and then when I complained about that I was basically told to shut up and that I was attacking people who had devoted their lives to saving people (sounded pretty familiar to me from veganism). Behind the scenes, many of the figures I had admired were not what they seemed. The discourse had gone toxic.
But I was really really fortunate offline. I moved to Chicago. I waffled about being paleo-ish for a time, trying to get back to that original spirit I had about it in the beginning. I told myself I’d just remain gluten-free and “mostly paleo.” I had learned about FODMAPs and adopted that procol with good results getting my stomach stable. But then I joined Crossfit and completely lacked the energy to do much of anything. I crashed again.
Luckily I went on a trip to Europe. I ate what I wanted and felt great. After that I was pretty much done with paleo, even as paleo-ish or 80% paleo like I was before, though I remain interested in learning from physical anthropology and evolutionary biology, that’s pretty far from what paleo is about these days anyway and when it is it’s a bowdlerized scientifically anemic version. I turned down a book deal, knowing I was not qualified to write a book yet and that paleo community-associated publishers were churning out consistently low-quality books with little critical editing. I was ready to try new things.
Online, I started hanging out with the “bad kids”- the ex paleos, which is its own little movement at this point. It was probably started by Matt Stone who has been variously mocked all over the paleo community despite probably being able to make a good entry into the vapid testimonial wars the various gurus engage in. From Danny Roddy I started exploring Ray Peat’s work, though I don’t completely embrace it 100%, it gave me the courage to eat the ice cream I once enjoyed with impunity, as well as things like orange juice, which pretty much banished the fatigue episodes. I also realized via Amber of Go Kaleo that I needed to just stop trying to have a diet and “Eat the Food,” that all these years I’d been trapped in an unconscious haze of chronic undernutrition calorically. I never meant to eat too little, but so much of appetite is unconscious.
My appetite was frequently suppressed to the point of nonexistence, which was compounded by fear of eating certain foods like grains, so having to make a huge effort to eat a meal. Some people I’ve met seem to be able to get out of it while maintaining a particular diet, particularly if they monitor themselves very carefully, but I wasn’t able to and I think it’s the same for many people. Maybe our hunger signals can be broken both ways, not just in the overeating direction our culture is more worried about. In the end I realized I was doing this out of fear, because of food paranoia, not because it was the best way for me to fuel myself.
Since then a lot of my intolerances have gone away. It could have just been improving my metabolism through ending the chronic undereating or the probiotic supplementation I decided to pursue more aggressively. I stopped taking all supplements except for the Pearls IC, which I make sure to take every single day, and bromelain. I drink milk (despite being genetically lactose intolerant) and eat things like rye, broccoli, cauliflower, and other foods that used to tie my stomach in knots. I think the difference is I am aware that most intolerances are dose-dependent and potentially modifiable (barring a serious autoimmune disorder like celiac), not a limitation of evolution.
I think taking some of the approaches paleo has borrowed from or skimmed off (FODMAPs for digestive issues, very low carb temporarily for heartburn, ketogenic for certain neurological issues, awareness of gluten intolerance and sensitivity) and applying them in a targeted manner would be much more effective without the baggage. A lot of times I see people doing a strict paleo challenge who really could benefit from an elimination diet. Yes, some of the approaches have a re-trial phase after the challenge, but considering what we know about gut bacteria and digestion that is not the best approach. When you don't eat a food, your body will sometimes downregulate enzymes used to digest it and your gut bacterial population will shift. Vegans sometimes have issues re-introducing meat because the production of certain protein-digested enzymes is downregulated. Does that mean meat is bad? No, it means it needs to be reintroduced gradually and carefully.
I also can't deny that there were family members and friends who adopted paleo because of me, as well certain people I met through paleo that I grew close with who I saw really struggle with health issues, caught in the same trap I was. Some of them are doing better now, some of them aren't. I feel just as bad about a few of them as I feel about a friend from my past who I introduced to veganism and who now has terrible health problems and won't even consider there might be something beyond veganism that would help. These people are my anti-testimonials, especially since so many of them post online about their success on the paleo diet while I see them crashing.
Offline, my social life changed as well. I met people who really loved food, all kinds of food, and I’m grateful for them every day. I don’t have a diet anymore. I largely eat what I want, but thankfully what I want is largely from-scratch food made with local plants, pastured animal products, and wild seafood. In some ways my diet is more "paleolithic" in spirit than ever, considering its anti-fragile diversity of plants and animals, including many wild foods.
So I’ll continue to write here about evolutionary nutrition. And point out resources from the paleo community if I feel they are useful and good, as well as continuing skeptic writing about certain paleo topics. But I do not consider myself a paleo dieter, writer, or anything like that. My choice to distance myself is because I do not like the way the community treats skeptics or people who do not do well while paleo. In these ways it is nearly identical to the vegan community it frequently derides. It is sad, but not at all surprising, to see some gurus and bloggers finally come out as feeling not so great. The community’s response seems to usually be to increase fat in the diet or restrict it further. Or to embrace diagnoses that are unknown to the scientific literature (parasites a normal doctor can’t detect but a special “practitioner” can, adrenal fatigue which is usually self diagnosed or diagnosed questionably*) to explain things that are often simply undernutrition. Leave and you simply “didn’t do the diet right,” a convenient way to dismiss problems. It's too bad to see it go this way, but seems to be the way many internet diet communities end up.
When people ask me about paleo these days, I recommend they explore it, but also explore a lot of other food books with a skeptical mind. And to explore less sexy solutions like FODMAPs. And ultimately to consider not adopting a "diet" at all, but a greater awareness and a better relationship with the food system. Like ex-low-carber Darya Pino, I emphasize unprocessed foods from healthy food systems. The farmer's market, the pasture, the woodlands are my solace.
And yeah, I'm enjoying some chilaquiles made with local corn tortillas and a good beer while writing this, and no, my biomarkers haven't changed in the past year except my HDL is a lot higher. And I'm loving food rather than fearing it.
*I was tested for adrenal insufficiency by an endocrinologist when I fainted, which is advised if you suspect adrenal issues
Edit: I honestly can't believe that people are commenting that I'm actually still paleo but with some cheats. C'mon people. I'm eating sandwiches. I bake BREAD with GLUTEN in it. I drink liquid sugar. And other people are commenting that meat is the best food ever and why would anyone eat grains which are inferior. I never understood that argument. Just because a food is more nutritious doesn't mean it should be the only food you eat. Most foraging peoples get their calories from a bland not very nutritious source and fill int he blanks with a variety of plants and animals.
Since I get regular emails on this subject, I thought I might as well create a whole post on restaurants (and a smattering of bars) in Chicago that I think are worth recommending.
The first of these is Elizabeth Restaurant ($$$), run by my friend Iliana Regan and her excellent staff. I chanced on an extra seat back when she was doing dinners at her apartment and ever since I’ve been a fan. I love her intricate approach to showing off what the woods and fields of the region have to offer. She has three menus, the ones that are probably the most interest to a visitor are the Owl, which is focused on Midwestern agriculture, and the Deer, which is focused on foraging and hunting. I’ve had bear, venison, raccoon, wild mushrooms, and other unique local woodland products here, all presented beautifully in multi-course formal tasting menus. You have to pre-buy tickets to this restaurant to secure your seats.
Salmon wrapped in turnip at Elizabeth
People who have serious food allergies who read this blog will be delighted to learn of the existence of Senza ($$$ previous post), a fantastic restaurant staffed by many veterans of Chicago’s most respected fine dining institutions that happens to be very strictly gluten-free, which is a boon for anyone with celiac disease. Unlike other gluten-free restaurants, the cuisine is more focused on meat, fish, fruits and vegetables than gluten-free bread and pasta that dominates the less accomplished restaurants of this genre. Tasting menu only, but it’s a perfect way to experience the talents of the kitchen.
Two less formal restaurants I frequent are Vera ($$) and La Sirena Clandestina ($$) in the West Loop, which is really the hub of the food scene here. Vera is a seasonally-focused Spanish-inspired wine bar. Sit at the Otro bar and enjoy delectable deviled eggs topped with creamy uni, the famous jamon iberico, the most perfectly cooked crispy brussel sprouts with anchovy dressing, and a glass from their very long list of sherries. Menu items change often as the seasons change, so I can’t recommend any one thing, but be sure not to miss ordering something each from the meat, the seafood, and the vegetable sections of the menu.
Bacon wrapped dates in blue cheese fondue and kale salad at Vera
La Sirena Clandestina is a romantic little South American-ish spot. I think some of my readers will enjoy it because the chef uses cassava flour for things like pao de quijo, which are cheese puffs (also found in Lakeview at Cassava, a gluten-free cafe), and fried smelt, which are little fish served with an aioli-like made with Brazillian malagueta peppers. I personally have an addiction to the empanadas, which are always filled with something new and interesting like spicy duck chorizo. Seafood dishes are a highlight here and there are lots of little appetizers that are surprising hits like the cilantro coconut risotto. Don’t miss the excellent cocktail program. I think the pisco sour is one of my favorite drinks in the city.
Cassava battered smelt at La Sirena
Another good option in the West Loop closer to the city core in Embeya ($$$), which has a nice selection of Southeast Asian dishes like this sausage stuffed squid and excellent drinks. If you are wheat-avoidant there is hardly any on the menu.
For Lunch, Blackbird ($$$ except for lunch special) is a great place to get a tasting menu that’s not very expensive. $22 will get you an excellent three-course menu that varies with the season. If you want something a little less formal, Publican Quality Meats ($) is a butcher shop that has a variety of really great options, like the butcher’s meal, which lately is Cocido, a Spanish blood sauage, cumin, and chickpea stew. I also go to Au Cheval sometimes for their chopped liver, which is so far my favorite liver in the city.
In my own neighborhood, which is above the West Loop and is usually called West Town, I am a huge fan of Ruxbin ($$), which is just really wonderfully cooked comfort foods with unique, often Asian-influenced, touches. One of the best dishes I had here was a perfectly cooked steak with miso-butter rice “tots” and the best crispy savory broccolini I’ve ever had. The catch is that it’s impossible to get into on Sunday, which is reservations only, and the rest of the days there are no reservations, so sometimes the wait can be long and unpredictable. I suggest putting your name down and heading to Noble Rot or Lush where you can get great beer or wine to bring back when your table is reading since Ruxbin is BYOB. I need to try more of the Mexican options in Chicago, but I typically go to the dive called Taqueria Traspasada ($), which is on the corner and open late, for simple good tacos.
For lunch, the local butcher shop, The Butcher and the Larder, serves up delicious sandwiches and soups. Other neighborhood staples for me are The Green Grocer, a small grocery store which has an excellent selection of pretty much everything I like, and Nini’s, a little Cuban-Lebanese deli that has an assortment of homemade and high-quality goods.
In Wicker Park I like Carriage House ($$), which features low-country Southern Food, Violet Hour ($$) for cocktails (but on weekends there is often a very long line to get in), and Trencherman ($$) for brunch and cocktails.
Logan Square is another food-lover’s mecca. I really enjoy the cocktails at Billy Sunday($$) and the Japanese-influenced food at Yusho ($$), particularly the savory egg custard known as chawanmushi. Longman & Eagle has delicious tallow fries.
Up north in my old neighborhood of Lincoln park I recommend The Peasantry ($$), which is very rich and delicious dishes inspired by street food, and Rickshaw Republic ($$), which is oddly enough Indonesian street food. I guess it makes up for Chicago’s anemic food truck scene,a consequences of draconian regulations here. For drinks in that area I recommend Barrelhouse Flats for cocktails and Deliahs for beer.
If you are willing to go further north, there are very good Indian, Thai, and Korean restaurants. For Korean I usually go to Dancen ($), which is a Korean dive bar where you can get cod roe soup that is really made with cod sperm sacks. It’s better than it sounds, but if that’s not your style, the seafood pancake is also really really good. For Thai I love Andy’s Thai Kitchen ($) and Sticky Rice ($), which have many authentic dishes, one of my favorites being the fermented sausages.
If you are willing to go way out of the way, Bridgeport is a fun artsy neighborhood further South that has Maria’s ($$), home to a truly impressive beer list and cocktail program, and Pleasant House ($), where they have managed to give British food a good name with their delicious flaky savory pies.
The more central areas of the city are not my preferred place to go, but if I have to be there, I will go to The Purple Pig ($$), a gastropub that is sometimes impossible to get into, Gyu Kaku ($), tasty Korean-Japanese barbeque with many offal options, Slurping Turtle, and Xoco ($), which has good hot chocolate and Mexican caldos (soups). For drinks I like Sable’s cocktails. I keep meaning to try Sumi Robata bar and will report back since that looks really awesome too.
That’s a lot of places, so if you want other recs for other neighborhoods or other types of cuisine, let me know in the comments. Also there are still places I need to try, so I will add more to this as I think of things or find new things.
Also don't forget to try the local Chicago-Swedish spirit, Malort, which I bet all of you will really really enjoy. It's a must!
If you want to know some underground dining options, you can email me privately.
A few months ago when my friends and were planning another themed dinner party, I submitted the idea for Mesopotamia on a whim and it was picked. So I delved a bit into cooking from the Fertile Crescent, where many foods we eat every day originate. There are "recipes" that exist from this time and place, in the form of tablets from Babylon in the Yale collection written in cuneiform. The problem is that these terse "recipes" have certain ingredients that have not been conclusively translated. Perhaps archeology will fill in the gaps. Archeologist Patrick McGovern, for example, used chemical analysis of pottery residue to reconstruct an ancient Phrygian drink and brew something similar for Dogfish Head called Midas Touch.
Jean Bottero published the most complete translation of the Yale Tablet recipes, but interestingly, food bloggers have contested some of his translations. Jean supposedly loved to cook, but perhaps held a French contempt for other cuisines, declaring the Yale Tablet recipes not fit for anyone except his "worst enemies."
It is interesting because a lot of the recipes are for broth and I've been been thinking about the influence French cooking has had on how many people make broths. I sometimes get emails about how I prepare broth and sometimes people are shocked I don't remove the fat from my broth. I leave it in the vast majority of the time.
But in traditional French cooking, which has influenced so much of the Western world, the fat is often removed in various ways such as skimming. This reaches its pinnacle in French consommé, in which egg whites are used to effectively remove the fat. That's cool, but I don't really feel the need to do that at home. I think this is partially because I have been so influenced by Korean food, in which broths are often purposefully cloudy or fatty.
The removal of fat is probably a recent development. The first broths ever made were probably made in the later paleolithic as part of a survival strategy known as grease processing. The very purpose of breaking and boiling bones was to probably acquire extra fat with the added bonus of the savory umami bones impart into liquid. I think a paleolithic human would be horrified by the process of consommé, which involves essentially wasting both the egg whites and a bunch of fat (though if you have a dog at home, they appreciate eating the leftover "fat raft").
Apparently Babylonian broths were similar to paleolithic and Korean broths, in that they were nice and fatty. If you don't like fat, you might call them greasy, but a good cook should be able to design the rest of the recipe in order to make them more balanced.
Similarly, whereas most modern cooks use purified salt, ancient cooks were probably more likely to cook with salted condiments (similar to fish sauce or soy sauce)and other foods like salt-fish or salt-pork. And probably if they were making beer, they were also making other fermented foods like pickles. Unfortunately, the fragments on the tablets don't have much information on the specifics of these things, but I would not be surprised if pickles or salt-cured foods were some of the unidentified ingredients like suhitinnu, though some believe there are spices or even vegetables.
Either way, it was an excuse to whip up some Middle Eastern ingredients that possibly have a long history. Harissa was out, because it relies on peppers, which didn't exist in Babylon since they came to this region of the world through the Columbian exchange. But like how Korea was making kimchi with other Ingrid before the Columbian exchange introduced peppers, it is likely the Babylonians made something like harissa, which is so good because it's essentially a bunch of delicious spices marinating together. I made my regular harissa recipe, but used more garlic and other spices: cumin, coriander, cinnamon, and caraway being the dominant ones (you can see what spices I have on my Trello board). I also made some delicious preserved lemons, though the Babylonians would have more likely had a type of citron.
One ingredient I had a lot of fun with was some tears of mastic I bought in Greektown here. I first had mastic in New York City at a goat ice cream shop (yes, really) called Victory Garden, where they used it to flavor soft serve ice cream. I have a strong affinity for evergreen flavors that evoke both forests and cathedrals, so I was addicted to mastic immediately. It is often sold as "tears", since it is the harvested resin of the mastic tree, and I bought the lowest grade small ones to experiment with. I ground them with a mortar and pestle and made some teas, which are supposed to be very good for your stomach lining, though you have to be careful when adding the mastic to liquid. If you don't add it slowly it literally turns to gum and you realize where humans probably got the idea for chewing gum. There is evidence that ancient humans chewed tree resins. But that doesn't bother me too much, it actually makes a rather nice gum, albeit with a fickle texture. Mastic has a very complex flavor, being both bitter and sweet, but that makes it actually rather perfect for balancing fatty foods.
The small mastic tears I use
I decided to make a goat leg since I had one in my freezer. I hadn't cooked one in a long time, so I googled for some recipes and found one that suggested marinating in beets in order to give an attractive red color. I thought I'd go one further and use the beets for the acidic component of the marinade as well by using some Scrumptious Pantry pickled beets I had in the fridge. Full disclosure is that Scrumptious Pantry invited me to the Localicious event at the Chicago Good Food Festival, but I've been buying their excellent products from the Green Grocer since I started shopping there. At Localicious I sampled many good local foods, like the genius Billy Sunday deviled eggs that had liver mousse whipped into the yolk, and cider from Red Streak. While I was getting some locally cured ham from the chef at Big Jones, my friend and I bumped into a man and we promptly apologized, only to realize it was Sandor Katz, who is largely considered a fermentation god. I love my copy of his Wild Fermentation. We chatted a bit and various things, including the excellent practice of marinating meat in pickles, which he has also tried with good results. God knows what marinating meat in pickles does, I get the impression that pickle juice is a much more complex in its actions than plain lemon or lime juice.
The rest of the goat leg marinade was Midas Touch beer, Wild Blossom mead, and good olive oil. The next day I made my spice/aromatic mixture, which was plenty of shallots, olive oil, garlic, preserved lemons, pistachios, sesame seeds, mastic, cinnamon, fennel, licorice, black pepper, fish sauce, cumin, dates, and fig vinegar processed until smooth and rubbed all over the leg. I braised the leg in the marinating liquid diluted with duck stock for a couple of hours. It was delicious- tender, red, meaty, earthy, slightly sweet, and highly aromatic. I served with some full-fat Greek yogurt mixed with sumac.
Thanks Jen Moran Photography!
I wish I could give exact ingredients to my recipes, but I usually improvise when I cook. I didn't grow up with fancy food- I loved Hot Pockets, Lunchables, Chick File A, and Kraft Handy Snacks. But I was lucky enough to spend a lot of my childhood outside in the woods. I think that helped me develop a "nose" for flavor, and flavor is as much about the nose as the mouth. I have found memories of sweet honeysuckle, crisp wild chives, pungent tulip trees, balmy pine needles, and the fragrant vines of wisteria. When I have my own children, I hope they can be as exposed to things like these as I was, as I think they are not just important in giving children an appreciation of nature, as to give them other sensory experiences that can help them appreciate many other things that draw on nature for inspiration later in life. If you didn't grow up in such an environment, I think educating yourself about flavors and just trying lots of diverse and interesting foods can help you learn to improvise. As far as educating yourself about flavor, I started a book recently called Taste What You're Missing which is written by a food developer who had to develop her palette as an adult on the job, and so far it's pretty good. Also, have plenty of spoons so you can taste while you are cooking and adjust. I tend to use at least seven different spoons a day, which makes me feel very glad I now have a dishwasher.
I've written about mummy abuse before, but today the press is having a field day with the preliminary findings of the Horus study, an examination of atherosclerosis in ancient mummies. Luckily, you don't have to listen to them, because the study is available online for anyone to read. It's also pretty readable as studies go.
The Horus study took a sample of mummies from around the world and CT scanned them for evidence of atherosclerosis, which is accumulation of fatty materials on artery walls.
Here are the raw numbers:
137 total mummies, 34% (47 total) with evidence of atherosclerosis (25 definite, 22 possible)
76 Ancient Egyptians (farmers), 38% (29) with evidence of atherosclerosis
51 Peruvians (farmers), 25% (13) with evidence of atherosclerosis
5 Puebloeans (forager-farmers), 40% (2) with evidence of atherosclerosis
5 Unanagan (true hunter-gatherers living in the Arctic), 60%(3) with evidence of atherosclerosis
Obviously, with such disparate sample size, differences were not statistically significant. Detailed tables give information about each mummy, which is very helpful.
The "with evidence" is important because we are dealing with mummies here and interpreting calcifications are atherosclerosis. Even modern CT scanning of living humans is not perfect at identifying atherosclerosis.
What is really interesting is that these people had very different lifestyles: the Peruvians probably ate a high-carbohydrate diet with lean meats, whereas the Unanagans lived in polar regions and ate mostly marine animals.
I think this can put to rest the idea that Ancient Egyptian mummies had plaque because of their high socioeconomic status allowing them to eat a high-fat diet. But it also questions the idea that a high omega-3 diet can prevent it.
There are a great many factors though that can contribute to atherosclerosis though and the fact that it exists in these different populations emphasizes that we shouldn't forget them. There are several infections that can contribute, smoking and exposure to smoke from primitive cooking fires is also a factor the researchers mention. In the end this is not a study about diets, as most press accounts would have you believe. I have to say that the best coverage comes from the Washington Post, and the worst I've seen is at NPR (inapprorpriately makes it about modern diets) and the Atlantic (fails to mention non-dietary factors).
As I've read different arctic mummy studies over the years, I've made this very incomplete spreadsheet that gives a little idea as to how many different conditions some of these people suffered from. The ones from the Zimmerman papers are from the same cave as the arctic mummies in this study. Live was certainly no picnic. Despite the fact that they are hunter-gatherers, it is pretty debatable whether or not the harsh arctic lifestyle is one ancestral to humans, which is why it is important to gather data from savanna and jungle foraging cultures, who probably live lifestyles closer to what humans did for most of our history as a species. Looking at the mummy data, it seems pretty evident that the arctic lifestyle is one that humans live tenuously, unable to keep their body temperature up without smoky fires and possibly suffering from a fair amount of vitamin deficiencies and famine.
But let's not forget that the atherosclerosis levels are still lower than modern levels. In a study of modern humans, by age 50 atherosclerosis was present in 82% of men and 68% of women, whereas in the mummies at an estimated age of 40-49 years (n=43) only around 55% of mummies evidenced the condition and in the mummies older than fifty (n=20) it was closer to 40% (and interestingly little evidence of sex differences). Even more alarming, a study in the US of those aged 14-19 showed that ALL had atherosclerosis of the aorta (compared to 20% of mummies), and 50% had atherosclerosis of the coronary arteries*, whereas only 4% of mummies showed evidence of this, all of these mummies estimated to be in their 40s and 50s. This study is not an exoneration of modern diets and lifestyles.
Of course the data is of vastly different quality, but if you are going to try to use this study to show that humans have always been unhealthy, this is the reality of the comparison.
And that atherosclerosis is a complex condition that does not always lead to disease. In studies of forager-horticulturalists like the Kitavans (who smoke like chimneys, though cigarettes are probably less unhealthy that arctic cooking fires, which produce coal-miner-like lungs) it has simply been assumed they did not have high rates of atherosclerosis because they did not have high levels of diseases associated with the condition, but in reality this might not be the case because atherosclerosis does not always lead to these diseases. As Chris Masterjohn has written, the connection between atherosclerosis and disease requires the plaque to rupture. There are many factors at play here, from the composition of the plaque to where it is located.
But if anything, this study shows the need to not assume atherosclerosis is low just because disease is low. Since there are few relevant studies even on different Western dieters, it's hard to say if there exists a diet that can possibly prevent this condition.
* Though as Stephan Guyenet points out, the stats in the paper are marred by the fact that they are counting mummies without hearts in the denominator, without them the number rises a bit, but still not to modern levels