The Intrinsic Variation in Hunter-Gatherer Diets: Why there is no one “ideal” Paleo diet

The Intrinsic Variation in Hunter-Gatherer Diets | The Paleo DietEver since the recent growth in the Paleo movement, there has been a great deal of debate surrounding the topic of what an “ideal” Paleo diet should consist of.  Many have debated both the various foods we should eat and the nutrient balance.

But the truth is, there simply is no “ideal” or “exact” Paleo diet.

Indeed, there are general guidelines to adhere to when embarking on a Paleo diet but they are mostly about what to omit – Neolithic foods such as dairy, grains, sugars, legumes, vegetable oils, and processed foods.

If we look at recent and contemporary hunter-gatherer groups, it becomes obvious that humans are inherently opportunistic and will seek to exploit any energy-worthy foods within their environment. In other words, hunter-gatherer strategies for subsistence can vary greatly depending on the group’s ecosystem.

Below are a few brief summaries analyzing the food intake and subsistence strategies of various recently existing hunter-gatherer societies showing just how intrinsically varied the hunter-gatherer diets were.

The Inuit:

Perhaps one of the most controversial diets of any hunter-gatherer group is that of the Inuit. Often heralded by those championing a very low-carbohydrate or ketogenic diet, it was one of the highest fat and protein diets ever observed.  

Prior to the influence of westernization, the Inuit hunter-gatherers occupied the arctic tundra environment of present day northern Alaska. The arctic tundra ecosystem is characterized by extreme cold and very little vegetation. As a result, the Inuit diet was quite low in carbohydrates. Seal, walrus, caribou, and fish comprised the majority of their diet.

Despite consuming a diet almost completely absent of plant foods, the pre-westernized Inuit population consistently demonstrated low blood pressure, cholesterol, and lean body mass,1 and surprisingly, none of the Inuit studied had any symptoms of Vitamin C deficiency.1

Vitamin C deficiency or scurvy tends to become problematic only in those eating a carbohydrate-rich diet in the absence of vitamin C. Scurvy was rampant in 17th and 18th century explorers, but the typical sailor’s diet was high in grain-based foods and alcohol and low in animal products and fresh produce.2 The role of meat consumption in Vitamin C deficiency is an area that still needs additional research.

The Ache:

The Ache hunter-gatherers inhabited the eastern portion of Paraguay, South America. Specifically, in an area referred to as the Eastern Brazilian Highlands located just south of the Amazon tropical rainforest basin.3

The primary Ache subsistence strategy emphasized hunting. Approximately 78% of their diet by calorie consisted of wild game such as armadillos, capuchin monkeys, and agouti paca. The remaining 22% consisted of honey (9%) and gathered foods such as palm resources and oranges (12%).4

The Kalahari Bushmen (!Kung)

The modern day core of the !Kung culture is located in an area known as the Dobe-/Du/da region. The area is found on the northern edge of the Kalahari Desert and straddles the border between Namibia and Botswana in Africa.

The semi-arid environment inhabited by the !Kung  created a strikingly different ecosystem to that of the Ache.

“Dobe” and “/Du/da” specifically refers to the waterholes located in the northern and southern reaches of this area respectively.5 Watering holes served as the main base camps for the !Kung which tended to be centered around the areas with the highest resource density.

Antelope, giraffe, and small game were commonly hunted with poison tipped bow and arrows and snares. Plant foods included berries, baobob, wild melons, wild mangoes, roots, tubers, and the heavily favored mongongo nuts. The !Kung diet was split evenly between plant foods and hunting. However, this 50/50 ratio of plant and animal subsistence varied seasonally.6

The Hadza

The Hadza were a group of hunter gatherers native to North Central Tanzania, Africa. Their diet consisted of five major groups: honey, tubers, berries, meat, and baobab.

When surveyed to find out which foods the Hadza preferred most, honey was ranked first and tubers were ranked last.7 Tubers are very common in the Hadza environment, but were only consumed as fallback foods due to their very fibrous composition.7 The tubers consumed by the Hadza were very different from what we can find in the neighborhood grocery store which are bred for high starch content.

Other studies have demonstrated that the Hadza preferred meat over honey. Additionally, studies of the ratio of plant to animal foods in the Hadza diet have been very inconsistent. The discrepancy was likely due to extreme seasonal variances. Animal abundance can change dramatically from year to year in the African Rift Valley depending on climatic conditions. This can greatly skew food procurement percentages.8

Finding the “Right” Paleo diet for you

The one thing that’s clear is the remarkable variance in hunter-gatherer diets and subsistence strategies. Those differences were largely influenced by environment and whether or not the societies lived in polar (high animal subsistence) or equatorial regions (high plant subsistence.)

At one end of the globe were the Inuit who ate a high-fat and -protein diet. At the other end, were the !Kung who consumed a mixed diet. Yet despite their differences, both populations had excellent health and did not suffer from modern chronic diseases.  

The only thing that all of these populations had in common was a complete absence of Neolithic or agricultural foods.

So, besides the need to limit these modern Neolithic foods, perhaps the most important lesson from these societies is that we should try different dietary strategies, specifically in regards to macronutrient intake. You might be a person that does well on a higher fat, higher protein Paleo diet, or a Paleo diet that incorporates more plant foods. Each individual’s unique genetic makeup and physiology will need fine tuning of fat, protein, and carbohydrate ratios in order to achieve optimum health. The key is to experiment and stay attuned to how your body reacts both mentally and physically.

References

[1] Draper, H. H. (1977). The aboriginal Eskimo diet in modern perspective.American Anthropologist, 79(2), 309-316.

[2] Carpenter, K. J. (1988). The history of scurvy and vitamin C. Cambridge University Press.

[3] Hill, Kim, and A. Magdalena Hurtado. Aché Life History: The Ecology and Demography of a Foraging People. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1996.

[4] Gurven, M., Allen-Arave, W., Hill, K., & Hurtado, A. M. (2001). Reservation food sharing among the Ache of Paraguay. Human Nature, 12(4), 273-297.

[5] Lee, Richard B., and Irven DeVore. Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers: Studies of the!Kung San and Their Neighbors. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1976.

[6] Morgan, E. F. (2008). Human Adaptibility: An Introduction to Ecological Anthropology (3rd ed.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 206-207.

[7] Marlowe, F. W., & Berbesque, J. C. (2009). Tubers as fallback foods and their impact on Hadza hunter‐gatherers. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 140(4), 751-758.

[8] Stanford, C. B., & Bunn, H. T. (Eds.). (2001). Meat-eating and human evolution. Oxford University Press.

About Kyle Cordain, B.A.

Kyle Cordain, B.A.Kyle Cordain is a recent graduate (B.A.) of Colorado State University with a major in Anthropology and a minor in Global Environmental Sustainability. His research focus has emphasized past and present
indigenous peoples, human ecology, and archaeology.

Kyle is a native to Colorado and enjoys many outdoor activities including skiing, hiking, fishing, and camping. In his free time he prefers to play guitar and listen to music.

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“1” Comments

  1. Very poignant article Kyle. It reminds me of a blog post I read at human by design (humanbydesign.info). Instead of trying to figure out what to eat, look into what not to eat. By avoiding those foods you will naturally eat what is appropriate for you.

    Love the information contained within this website. Please keep up the good work.

    Seth

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