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Podcast: Isotopic Data Does Not Indicate Hunter-Gatherer Ancestors Consumed Grass - Rebuttal

By The Paleo Diet Team
February 27, 2014
Podcast: Isotopic Data Does Not Indicate Hunter-Gatherer Ancestors Consumed Grass - Rebuttal image

Dr. Loren Cordain: I'm Loren Cordain, Founder of the Paleo movement.

Shelley Schlender: I'm Shelly Schlender. This is The Paleo Diet Podcast for October, 2013. Coming up Loren talks about recent archaeological findings that indicate that fossilized teeth from our ancestors three million years ago carry a lot of DNA from grass. Based on these finding many reporters have announced that early Hominids loved to eat grains and even grass. Loren has responded with a rebuttal that's been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Here's more from Loren.

Dr. Loren Cordain: My colleague Matt Sponheimer from CU, University of Colorado down in Boulder, and I'm at Colorado State University 60 miles up the road in Fort Collins, we’re good friends and have known one another for quite some time. He and his colleagues published a series paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy in June, 2013. They've documented the isotopic signature of a chemical in primarily the teeth, the enamel of Hominids. Hominids are bipedal apes, over the course of the last three million years, actually about 4 million years. The isotopic signature can help us understand what these Hominids were eating.

The interesting part of these papers is that Matt came up with the notion that starting about 3.5 million years ago we see in the fossils of early Hominids, which ended up becoming humans, what see in their tissues were the signature of plants that are either grasses or sedges.

The popular press misinterpreted that and suggested that our early ancestors as far back as 3.5 million years ago, were eating grasses.


Shelley Schlender: You mean that in the popular press this was described as our ancestors from three million years ago were wandering the Savannah grabbing bunches of grass and chewing it up and eating it?

Dr. Loren Cordain: That's the ridiculousness of this whole argument by the popular press. I think my colleague Matt Sponheimer would never suggest that nor did they in any of the articles in the Proceedings of the National Academy. That was our point in our rebuttal to the Proceeding of the National Academy. Was that there's absolutely zero evidence to show that our ancestors were eating grass.

First off Shelley, grass is inedible. If it weren't, why don't we after you mow your lawn, why don't you go out and put all that grass into a bag and put it on your plate and eat it? We and all mammals lack and enzyme called cellulase. Grass is loaded with cellulose and hemicellulose, making it inedible. If we were to chew it we couldn't get any calories out of it.

Shelley Schlender: Not only do we lack cellulase, but we don't have what is it, four or five stomachs like a cow. I've seen the cow up there at your university at CSU; where they have a porthole in its side. Basically if you look inside a cow that is walking around and eating hay, inside it's all hay. Being fermented by the microbes. We don't have that kind of cow gut to do that.

Dr. Loren Cordain: Ah exactly, exactly. That's the fundamental problem that the journalists that read these papers suggesting that we were eating grass three and a half million years ago, they didn't do their homework. Animals that do eat grass that are grazers, they are what are called ruminates. They develop stomachs in which they have this enormous micro flora of bacteria, and the bacteria can break it down.


There are other animals that have developed a very large hind gut. What a hind gut is, is the colon or the cecum. If you have a large hind gut you can have a huge bacterial element there, and those bacteria then ferment the grass and break the cellulose down, and they turn it into what are called short chain fatty acids. Then those can be digested.

Shelley Schlender: A horse has a hind gut, a cow has lots of guts, but how about us people, and how about our ancestors three million years ago, did we have a hind gut?

Dr. Loren Cordain: This is the argument I've made to the PNAS and also to my colleague Matt Sponheimer. There's absolutely no evidence whatsoever. The fossil record doesn't preserve soft tissue so we'll never really know how large or small the hind gut was in our ancient ancestors, but we can look at their bone structure and we can look at body to height ratios, and we can see what was going on in their mid-section. There's absolutely zero evidence to tell us that they had an incredibly large colon or cecum. That just doesn't make any sense.

As a matter of fact, the best available evidence is called the expense to tissue hypothesis. It shows exactly the opposite. Our ancestors, in order to have evolved a large brain we have an evolutionary trade off with our gut. The gut got smaller as the brain got larger. Modern humans maintain very small guts for our size compared to any other primate. The reason for that is that we're eating a lot of meat.

Shelley Schlender: Well compared to a cow, I'm thinking that a cow has a very large gut and very small brain.

Dr. Loren Cordain: Yeah exactly. That's called the encephalization index. Humans have very large encephilization indexes. We have a very large brain relative to our body size; whereas a cow has a small brain relative to its body size.


Shelley Schlender: How did we end up with a big brain and cows ended up with not a big brain? What are we eating that's different than cows from three million years ago?

Dr. Loren Cordain: Well starting about three and a half million years ago for the very first time we see in the fossil record primitive stone tools. We see them more often about two and a half million years ago. These stone tools then were made by our ancestors not to whittle a piece of wood, but rather to butcher and dis-articulate carcasses of animals. At the very same time that this delta thirteen carbon signature appears in the fossil record, this is coincident with when our ancestors started making stone tools.

What our argument was in the PNAS paper, The National Academy paper, was that the delta thirteen carbon signature that suggests grain eating was not grain eating at all. Our ancestors were eating the flesh of animals that consumed grain. Just like in the 21st century, you have the same signature in your hair because you have consumed flesh of cows which have been fed grain in a fed lot. This technique cannot distinguish whether or not you have consumed grasses themselves or the flesh of animal that ate grasses.

Shelley Schlender: Loren Cordain, I've got a question for you though. You said that there were stone tools that our ancestors were starting to make 3.5 million years ago. Have you examined them closely enough to tell whether they were stone axes or the tips of spears or were they back hoes or something?

Dr. Loren Cordain: Actually the very first stone tool technology was called the Oldowan lithic tradition. We see it most often started about 2.6 million years ago, but we think that it may have occurred earlier.


Essentially what they did is they took a round stone in one hand and then they took a hammer stone in the other, and then hit the stone with one hand, and they were interested in making sharp flakes, so they did. They made these sharp flakes and they made a core that came off of the sharp flakes.

What they did with the sharp flakes is they used those sharp flakes to take the flesh off of an animal and disarticulate the carcass where the joints go from one part to the other. They used it to chop off a leg or an arm of an animal so that they could take it away from a kill site. Then they used those sharp tools to get the flesh off because we don't have the teeth like a carnivore has to rip the flesh from an animal, so we use these sharp flakes to do that.

We know that from that archeologic record. When we dig up bones that are in that same place we find these Hominid bones, what we find are these cut marks of stone tools that appear on the prey of the animals that our ancestors were eating. That's why it's ridiculous to suggest that we were eating grass. When in reality all the triangulation records suggest, the stone tools, the extensive tissue hypothesis, suggest they were using those stone tools to cut the flesh from animals that ate grain.

Shelley Schlender: Loren Cordain, Matt Sponheimer, the researcher at CU, has told me that he agrees with a great deal of what you're saying. That you can't just look at these signatures that they got from the isotopes and the teeth, and say that doesn't mean all of ancestors ate grain. On the other hand he says that his isotopic data is not detailed enough to backup or disprove your idea that humans were eating a lot of meat at that time or early Hominids were.


Dr. Loren Cordain: I completely agree with Matt. We're on the same page. Delta thirteen carbon data cannot tell you whether you were eating grasses or the flesh of animals that ate grasses. However, we need to triangulate the information. It's myopic to look at that delta thirteen carbon data all by itself.

Shelley Schlender: Which is what the reporters did when they first reported on this story?

Dr. Loren Cordain: Exactly. What we need to look at is we need to triangulate that data. Okay? The question comes up. It's a very simple question. Were they eating grass or were they eating flesh of animals that ate grass? As I mentioned, if we look at the archeologic evidence, stone tools appear at the very same time when the delta thirteen carbon signature starts to show an increase in grass in our skeletons.

If you look at stone tool evidence, well it is suggestive that we were eating animals rather than grass, and secondly we don't have the capacity to digest grass. We lack the enzyme cellulase to breakdown grass. All mammals including our closest living ancestors chimps, great apes, they also lack that same enzyme, and most of them don't have large hind guts.

Now a gorilla does, a gorilla has a large hind gut, but a gorilla if we look at its bones or its teeth, does not have a C-4 signature. A gorilla doesn't eat grass either. A chimp doesn't eat grass, a gibbon doesn't eat grass. There's only one primate in the entire world that eats grass. This is a primate on the plains of Africa, it's a baboon species, and it has evolved a large hind gut.


If we look at the hair, the teeth, of this baboon that eats grass. Instead of having a C-3 signature which is a browsers signature. In other words, somebody that eats a lot of leaves, and berries, and roots, and whatever, it has a C-4 signature. There's absolutely no doubt that there's a single species of baboon that does eat grass, but all other large apes don't.

Any C-4 signature, any grass signature that comes through in the archaeologic record, we triangulate this from looking at other species that are primates, it tells us the same story.

Shelley Schlender: Loren Cordain, what Matt Sponheimer told me here at CU about his study, is that he feels that it's mostly an indication that our ancestors 3 million years ago used to be browsers of bushes, and fruits, and roots, and all of these things that you've described. That were more forest like kind of foods or jungle kind of foods, and that this change to the C-4 signature for grasses is certainly an indication that they were moving into the Savannah. They were moving into grasslands.

Dr. Loren Cordain: I am absolutely on board with what Matt is saying. We see a shift from a C-3 signature to a C-4 signature. The popular press has interpreted that shift from C-3 to C-4 as our ancestors were eating more grass. Yet the best available evidence tells us the shift from a C-3 to a C-4 was because we were increasingly as we moved out on the Savannah, we started scavenging the carcasses of grazers that were present on the Savannah.


Modern day studies show that if you're out on the Savannah walking around after hyenas and lions make kills, what they do, they leave the long bones and they leave the skull. The long bones are de-fleshed, the skull is de-fleshed, and if you're a clever Hominid that has stone tools you can take those long bones and you can put them on a flat stone you call an anvil and you can take another stone and hit that long bone with a hammer stone, and suddenly you have marrow. If you eat the marrow from an antelope that's been eating grain, the signature that was previously C-4 now becomes C-3.

That's all for this edition of The Paleo Diet Podcast. Visit my website for past episodes and for hotlinks to the experts and studies that we talked about today.

Shelley Schlender: Our theme music is by Chapman Stick Soloist Bob Culbertson.

Dr. Loren Cordain: If you want to send me questions or comments the place to go is

Shelley Schlender: For The Paleo Diet Podcast, I'm Shelley Schlender.

Dr. Loren Cordain: I'm Loren Cordain.

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