Skip to navigation – Site map

HomeElectronic sectionsVaria articles: 2008-20242022The myth of the golden past: Crit...


The myth of the golden past: Critical perspectives on the paleo diet

Le Mythe de l’Age d’Or : perspectives critiques sur le régime paléo
Simon Dein


The paper examines the Paleo Diet as a form of primitivism. After describing its constituents, it moves on to assess the evolutionary assumptions surrounding it through the lens of evolutionary mismatch theory. Evolutionary assumptions include the emphasis on one unique evolutionary environment of adaptation (EEA); the assumption of little or no evolution occurring in humans over the past 12,000 years; the use of contemporary hunter-gatherer groups as proxies for Paleolithic populations and the emphasis on genetic rather than developmental and cultural factors influencing dietary choice. There follows a discussion of its health-related benefits, and more specifically its impact upon ‘Diseases of Civilisation’.

Top of page

Full text

Introduction: the Golden Past

1The romantic ideal of a healthier lifestyle in the past ‘Golden Age’ associated with human flourishing was voiced by philosophers and poets of classical antiquity and can be found in the earliest epics. Lovejoy and Boas (1997[1935]) discuss the notion of primitivism arguing that the wishes of the "civilized" to return to a "state of nature" is as old as civilization itself. Primitivism argues for a decline from a past condition of excellence or that salvation necessitates a return to a more ‘primitive’ lifestyle’. Bell (1972) defines primitivism as ‘[t]he nostalgia of civilized man for a return to a primitive or pre-civilized condition’ (p. 1). The natural is valorised above and beyond other human lifestyles. The Greeks speak of a pristine Golden Age. The Garden of Eden in the Judeo-Christian was a place where Adam and Eve led an idyllic lifestyle before the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge.

2Hesiod’s Works and Days and Theogeny (around 700BC) present a vision of a past simple life where humans subsisted on a gathered diet and led a ‘gentle’ life. This author is highly critical of the decadence of the culture in which he lived. He writes: “They had all good things; the grain-giving field bore crops of its own accord, much and unstinting, and they themselves, willing, mild-mannered, shared out the fruits of their labours together with many good things, wealthy in sheep, dear to the blessed gods”. (Hesiod Works and Days 116-120, translation Glenn Most).

3Ovid in his Metamorphoses (8AD) writes of a golden age where humans only ate vegetarian foods and there was an emphasis on gathering plentiful produce without cultivation. Some philosophers like the Pythagoreans and Empedocles saw the absence of meat from the diet as evidence of a harmonious life. Plato in his Republic states: “I was forgetting that they’ll obviously need salt, olives, cheese, boiled roots and vegetables of the sort they cook in the country… they’ll roast myrtle and acorns before the fire, drinking moderately. And so they’ll live in peace and good health…” (Plato Republic 2.372b-d, translated Grube).

4As primitivist John Zerzan (2002) states: “[...] increasingly people are coming to understand that life before agriculture and domestication [...] was in fact largely one of leisure, intimacy with nature, sensual wisdom, sexual equality, and health.”

5In his book Pandora's Seed: Why the Hunter-Gatherer Holds the Key to Our Survival, National Geographic Explorer in Residence, geneticist and anthropologist Spencer Wells (2010) argues that we as a species are ill suited to our modern -day environments and that the transition from hunter gatherer existence to farming had its downside both physically and psychologically. For him agriculture increased sedentary behavior and resulted in overcrowding, inequalities and hierarchies. While the development of agriculture has been ‘blamed’ for the increasing prevalence of these diseases, he notes that it is likely that other factors like overcrowding and lack of clean water played some part.

6This author is one of a number who portrays the Paleolithic and contemporary hunter gathers as more healthy than other contemporary groups alive today and who argue for evolutionary mismatch hypothesis ‘the idea that organisms, including humans, are adapted to a past evolutionary environment and possess traits that conferred a selective advantage in that ecology which are currently “mismatched” to the current environment; also referred to as ‘evolutionary discordance’ (Crittenden and Schnorr 2017). The term evolutionary mismatch refers to the fact that evolved traits were once adaptive but are now maladaptive due to environmental changes.

7Proponents of this hypothesis assert that majority of human evolution occurred during the Pleistocene epoch (approximately 2 million to 10,000 years BCE), and this geological period presented significant adaptive challenges to the species’ survival and reproductive capacity. The Pleistocene was the main context that molded modern humans through processes of natural selection, more specifically their physiological functioning and sociality. Physiological and psychological adaptations from the ancient past are ill suited to contemporary environments resulting in an evolutionary mismatch. Anthropologist John Tooby and psychologist Leda Cosmides sum this idea up well ‘our modern skulls house a stone age mind’ (Shenkmean 2016 : xv).

8Evolutionary mismatch theorists argue that using the lost wisdom of our ancestors can make us healthier in contemporary post- industrial environments and result in self-improvement both physically and psychologically. Modern day environments have significant health related issues for humans whose behavior and needs were forged in the distant past. They assert that industrialization has resulted in ultra-processed, low cost, readily available foods to sustain a growing population. These foods have increased the prevalence of diseases of civilization like heart disease and type 2 diabetes mellitus.

9The mismatch can be physiological or psychological. The evolutionary mismatch hypothesis has been deployed in the disciplines of evolutionary medicine, Darwinian psychiatry and evolutionary psychology. For instance, in evolutionary medicine there is evidence that humans evolved in environments where helminthic worms which co evolved with them regulated the immune system. These helminths have largely been eradicated by modern medicine and hygiene resulting in hyper -inflammatory conditions like multiple sclerosis and irritable bowel syndromes (Parker and Ollerton 2013).

10Another example is the ‘thrifty gene hypothesis for type 2 diabetes (Neel 1962) which asserts that the recent escalation in the prevalence of type 2 diabetes and obesity derives from genetic variants that have been positively selected during famines when the supply of food was erratic. Exposure to periods of famine in the evolutionary past caused selection pressures which favored a thrifty genotype. This genotype resulted in highly efficient fat storage during periods of abundance. In periods of abundance these genotypes are metabolically disadvantageous since they promote deposition of fat for a potential famine that never arrives. This hypothesis has been criticized in terms of its validity (e.g. Speakman 2008).

11The evolutionary mismatch hypothesis has attracted significant criticism from the scientific community. First, research indicates that in numerous domains humans can rapidly adapt to local and changing conditions via processes of behavioral flexibility or cultural evolution rather than solely through genetic changes. Second, claims about the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA) are vague and highly speculative. The essential question is which ancestral past is most relevant? There is no single EEA (Elton 2008; Potts 1998, Zuk 2013). Third, assertions that the human body has stopped evolving since the Paleolithic has been questioned (Zuk 2013). There are data suggesting that there have been genetic shifts in humans over the past 10, 000 years. Hawks, Wang, Cochran, Harpending and Moyzis (2007) note that humans have evolved during the Neolithic period, possibly at accelerated rates compared to the Paleolithic. Smith (2019 : 1) in relation to evolutionary psychology notes: ‘But for evolutionary psychological explanations to succeed, practitioners must be able to show that contemporary cognitive mechanisms correspond to those that were selected for in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, that these present-day cognitive mechanisms are descended from the corresponding ancestral mechanisms, and that they have retained the functions of the ancestral mechanisms from which they are descended’. In her view, contemporary evolutionary psychology lacks the resources to address these issues. A similar argument can be made for physical adaptation. Finally, Gerstle (2018) asserts that the mismatch theory is highly versatile – it can be deployed to account for any contemporary problem. It is a ‘floating signifier’- a rhetorical form with such numerous and slippery meanings that can potentially construct any argument.

12In support of the evolutionary mismatch theory, Deaner and Winegard (2013) assert that there can be mismatches to the very recent past as well to the Paleolithic. They cite evidence for contemporary mismatches; there is often an irrational response to events which are actually very rare like shark attacks and terrorist plots due to media distortion (see Gaissmaier and Gigerenzer 2012). These authors claim that Zuk has falsely rejected many areas apart from diet where an evolutionary mismatch perspective may facilitate understanding. This includes infant breastfeeding, mating and sexuality, perception, memory, altruism, intergroup prejudice and cultural transmission (Buss 2000).

13One example of supposed evolutionary mismatch pertains to the health -related benefits of ancient diets compared to modern day diets. This paper critically appraises one specific diet- Paleo Diet- as an example of evolutionary mismatch. I begin by describing the Paleo Diet, its advantages and disadvantages. I then critique evolutionary underpinnings of this diet focusing upon contemporary hunter gatherer diets.

The Paleo Diet: Evolutionary perspectives

14There is a long tradition in the weight loss literature of venerating’ ‘primitive’ diets and lifestyles. From the nineteenth century onwards diet reformers have argued for the health -related benefits of pre-agricultural diets and their potential to cure modern day ailments (Johnson 2015). As one illustrative example Dr Harvey Kellogg, American doctor and nutritionist, extolled the virtues of the prehistoric diet to support his theory of the beneficial effects of grains in the diet.

15The publication of a seminal paper in the New England Journal of Medicine (Eaton and Konner 1985) spawned a movement which came to be called the Paleo Movement. Based upon evidence from modern hunter gatherers, archaeology and paleontology, this paper - ‘Paleolithic Nutrition: A Consideration of Its Nature and Current Implications’- argued that humans are genetically programmed to function on a diet consumed by our stone-age ancestors rather than our contemporary diet. This diet comprised higher protein, less total fat, more essential fatty acids, lower sodium and higher fiber than modern-day diets and the authors suggested that it could be used as a reference standard for contemporary human nutrition. In their view Paleolithic humans derived 50-80% of their food from plants and 20-50% from animals. Paleoanthropologist Briana Pobiner (2008; 2013; 2016) argues that by two million years ago humans were regularly eating meat. In this author’s view meat-eating represented a major change in our ancestors’ diets and resulted in many of the physical, behavioral, and ecological changes that make us uniquely human. She further asserts that much of the meat consumed by early humans derived from scavenging rather than from hunting.

16Eaton and Konner (1985) assert that the human body ‘has remained essentially unchanged since the Paleolithic era’ and that our Paleolithic ancestors were approximately six inches taller than humans living after the advent of agriculture (p. 33). These authors imply that their health was better. Paleolithic ancestral lifestyles (and those of contemporary hunter gatherer groups) are extolled. In a later paper (Konner and Eaton 2010) the authors assert that hunter gatherer groups suffer rarely with chronic diseases of civilization on account of their lifestyles and that their diet is beneficial to people suffering from chronic inflammatory conditions today. Zuk (2013) underscores the role of nostalgia- the human tendency to long for previous times- driving a return to an idealized Paleolithic life when we were perfectly adapted to the environment. Johnson (2015: 104) speaks of a clash between the ‘ancient body and modern world’.

17Konner and Eaton (2010) propose that the human genome has changed little since Homo Sapiens first appeared about 300, 000 years ago. For them, human bodies have been shaped by the significant time -period that humans were hunter gatherers rather than the relatively short time that man has produced food through farming-approximately 10,000 years. In these authors opinion, life in the Paleolithic was more in sync with the environment. Modernity is literally hostile to human biology (Johnson 2015). Advocates of the Paleo movement appeal for a return to the lifestyle of our pre-agricultural relatives. For Eaton and Konner (1985) and Konner and Eaton (2010), humans are genetically programmed to consume pre-agricultural diets. This diet is closely linked to ideas of a universal evolutionary past environment, a lack of microevolution in the past 12, 000 years from the end of the Paleolithic and finally an overvaluing of genetic rather than developmental and cultural facts in dietary choice. As Turner and Thompson (2013) aver, all these ideas are somewhat problematic. There has been significant academic debate pertaining to the evolutionary, anthropological, and nutritional assumptions behind the Paleo Diet (Hardy et al 2015; Konner and Eaton 2010; Turner and Thompson 2013, Beals 2016).

18The Paleo Diet is a modern diet fad which requires the consumption of foods presumed to be available to our prehistoric ancestors. Proponents of this diet argue that it is optimal for human health. The founder of the Paleo Diet Loren Cordain (2010), in The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Foods You Were Designed to Eat, argues that we should eat in accordance with our biological and genetic program. His work was based upon six contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, predominantly inhabiting marginal habitats including the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert and the Inuit of the Artic regions of Greenland. According to Google Trends, the Paleo Diet was the most frequent searched for diet on Google in 2013/2014. This diet is not one single diet but rather a framework for recognizing which foods are optimal for human health deploying anthropological and evolutionary evidence. For its proponents, meat, fruits, nuts, eggs and vegetables were nutritionally beneficial whereas breads, grains, cereal, milk and cheese were not. A significant number of those advocating this diet follow a low-carb/high-fat (LCHF) version of it.

19There remain diverse views about what exactly constitutes the Paleo diet and what should be included or excluded. Should the diet include foods purportedly eaten by our Paleolithic ancestors or should it be based upon nutrient contribution and composition? Bitar (2018) argues that diet books capture the sociopolitical concerns of America and are utopian manifestos for a better bodies and for a healthier and more perfect world. They grow from and reflect the fears present in twenty first Century America. They are critical of post-industrial excesses and the disappearance of traditional morals and lifeways. Physical health disorders like hypertension and obesity are held to arise from a disconnect from nature and natural ways of eating. They reflect a nostalgia for a healthier past and a desire to return to more natural diets.

20According to Johnson (2015), about three million Americans currently adopt the Paleo Diet. This author stresses that the diet is part of a complex and controversial social movement lamenting the loss of the utopia of a Paleolithic paradise where we were once healthy and free of modern -day diseases as pre agricultural hunter gatherers. It is not only the diet which is venerated but includes the whole ‘caveman lifestyle’. For her the Paleo Diet is a whole lifestyle reflecting a balance with the earth- the health of the whole planet. It is a social movement which recreates a ‘pre-Edenic life of ‘closeness and interdependence’. For Johnson this diet includes the social, moral and philosophical aspects of a Paleolithic lifestyle. Pre -agrarian living will restore the health enjoyed by our early ancestors and build a better world. The corporeal and social are closely linked. The 2013 Paleo Manifesto argues that the diet aspires ‘to understand where we come from, to make the best of where we are, and to craft a better future’ (Durant 2014).

21This author argues that paleo diets are both ‘myths of a golden age’ and ‘utopian manuals’ aimed at improving bodies and creating a ‘more perfect world’- where civilization has ‘outpaced evolution and has created a world which is hostile to our human biology.’ In her view this utopia is embodied – it molds the appetites of those who follow it, reeducates desire and recalibrates the palate away from industrial foods. The palate is trained to resist the extreme flavors of modern foods and instead to enhance desire for natural Paleo foods. Likewise, Gressier (2018) argues from ethnographic interviews with Australian Paleo dieters that what drives them to adopt the Paleo Diet is their experience of chronic illness and obesity. For her, ‘going Paleo’ is associated with a sense of agency and is a form of resistance to neoliberal policies and practices which underlie the escalating prevalence of lifestyle diseases.

22Advocates of the Paleo Diet claim that ancestral diets were healthier than contemporary diet and many extol the virtues of living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. For them hunter gatherer lifestyles reflect those of our Paleolithic ancestors. To what extent are these assertions empirically correct? We now examine hunter gather diets and their relationship to health.

The diet and health of Paleolithic populations

23Crittenden and Schnorr (2017) in their critical overview of hunter gatherer nutrition bemoan the fact that many studies on ‘ancient diet’ are significantly flawed- for instance fail to take account of seasonal variation in diet or just examine male perspectives. In fact, Beals (2016) notes how Paleolithic populations consumed a variety of diets which were influenced by geographical factors and seasonal variations. Molecular biologist Marion Nestle (2000) asserts that ‘knowledge of the relative proportions of animal and plant foods in the diets of early humans is circumstantial, incomplete, and debatable and that there are insufficient data to identify the composition of a genetically determined optimal diet.’ Milton (2002) states that notions about the Paleolithic diet and nutrition are still hypothetical at present. Indeed, there is much uncertainty about human diets 2.5 million to 10, 000 years ago (Cunningham 2012, Jabr 2016). Leonard 2016 asserts that humans did not evolve to subsist on a single optimal diet, and there is and has always been much variation in what we eat dependent upon the ecosystem which inhabit.

24As evidence of the health benefits of the paleo lifestyle, advocates argue that, compared to modern day humans, our predecessors were taller, and healthier with larger brains. They experienced less chronic diseases like atherosclerotic cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease, type 2 diabetes mellitus, (T2DM), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung and colon cancers, essential hypertension, obesity, diverticulosis, and dental caries. But determining rates of disorders like obesity and type 2 diabetes in Paleolithic populations is to say, at the least problematic, if not impossible. While dental analysis indicates declines in oral health in the Neolithic compared to the Paleolithic, this provides no information about general health in Paleolithic populations (Latham 2013).

25We may question the health of both contemporary hunter gatherers and Paleolithic cultures. There are conflicting data deriving from genomic studies (Lewis 2017). There is evidence that Paleolithic populations died of infectious diseases and trauma before they could develop the diseases of civilization (Crews and Bogin 2010). Although still a subject of debate, it appears that ancient populations did experience atherosclerosis (Thompson et al. 2013, David, Kershaw and Heagerty 2010). While it is assumed that following the development of agriculture there were improvements in health and nutrition in the Neolithic human population, research indicates that this assumption is inaccurate. Sedentism and the intensification of agriculture resulted in an increase in the prevalence infectious diseases and nutritional deficiencies. This was especially the case in infants and children (Armelagos, Goodman and Jacobs 1991). Mummert et al. (2011) in a similar vein argue that the transition from foraging to primary food production actually led to deteriorating health from infectious and nutritional deficiencies. In terms of mortality Gurven and Kaplan (2007) note that deaths from heart disease, metabolic disease and cancers is significantly lower than in developed countries accounting for less than ten percent of death in those over sixty years of age. Acute illness (gastrointestinal and infectious) and trauma are the most prominent causes of mortality.

Contemporary hunter gatherers

26Contemporary hunter gatherer groups have been deployed as proxies for Paleolithic life styles. There are however several problems deploying modern day hunter gatherers as survivals of earlier Paleolithic cultures. One may however legitimately ask whether contemporary hunter gatherer lifestyles groups resemble those of their Paleolithic ancestors given the fact that they have been exposed to modernizing influences. Modern day hunter- gathers often live on the margins of developed society and are influenced by them. They are not, as Panter- Brick, Layton and Rowley Conwy (2001 : 260) state ‘immobile cultures fossilized since the Paleolithic’. They are subject to demographic expansion, reduced food resources and exposure to contemporary diseases. Foraging groups have traditionally been employed as models of past Paleolithic lifestyles, but there is increasing recognition that they are not homogeneous- there are ecologically and culturally diverse contemporary populations—each one possessing a unique geopolitical and social history that not only determines their interactions with other ethnic groups, but also with their local environments (Crittenden and Schnorr 2017). Furthermore, there is no single diet consumed by all groups of hunter gatherers – they eat whatever appears to them to be the most efficient food to hunt and gather. Great variations in dietary intake are found between different hunter-gatherer groups, for example, the percentage of calories deriving from animals ranges from twenty five percent for Gwi People in southern Africa to ninety nine percent for the Alaskan Nunamiut (Gibbons 2014).

27Studies of old world foragers indicate that it was gathering, not hunting, that was the main activity for obtaining food and, even today, world foragers obtain about a third of their diet from plants and there is no one pan forager diet. There is much variation based upon seasonality, ecology and resource availability. (Crittenden and Schnorr 2017). There is corroborative evidence that our Paleolithic ancestors most likely consumed a plant based diet as well as meat – the exact content was based upon the geographical location (Morin et al 2019). Their diet comprised variegated high-quality foods containing essential nutrients and fiber. In comparison, modern day diets provide significantly less variegated and contain higher levels of artificial sugars and salt. The ability to digest food of anatomically modern humans, differ significantly from those of earlier pre-Homo sapiens , thus refuting the core premise of the Paleo Diet. The fact that the Paleolithic climate was variable and the worldwide spread of human populations during this period would indicate that humans were, by necessity, nutritionally adaptable (Zuk 2013).

28Pontzer, Reichlen and Wood (2018) review the health and diet of hunter gatherer groups and other small -scale societies like subsistence farmers, horticulturalists and pastoralists. They assert: “The idea that modern, industrialized environments depart radically from the environments in which humans evolved and that these recent changes lead to disease is now well established and pervasive in public health”. These authors bemoan the lack of in depth quantitative studies of diet, activity and energetics in hunter gatherer populations and their own fieldwork focuses upon the Hazda of Tanzania. They conclude that the lifespan among these small‐scale populations does not differ significantly from that of contemporary industrialized populations with a significantly lower prevalence of metabolic and cardiovascular disease. Obesity rates are low.  The authors found that diets in hunter‐gatherer and other small‐scale societies were generally less energy dense and richer in both fiber and micronutrients than modern day diets. However, the claim that they are low in carbohydrates is not substantiated.

29Cregan Reid (2018) notes in relation to hunter gatherer groups “In hunter-gatherer groups, life was, and is, undeniably hard, but their lifespan was not as short as the numbers press us to think. If you were a hunter-gatherer and you made it to adolescence, there was a strong likelihood that you would live a long and healthy life – not so different from modern humans.” As one example the Bolivian foragers have a modal lifespan of 70 years (Kaplan et al. 2017).

The benefits of the Paleo Diet

30While the assumptions underpinning the Paleo Movement have a superficial plausibility, many scholars remain skeptical of the overall health effects of the paleo lifestyle (alternatively referred to as the Caveman lifestyle). One issue is there are varying views as to what foods actually constitute the Paleo Diet. This makes it difficult to assess the nutritional efficacy and the scientific validity of this diet. Eaton and Conner appear to be more interested in the distribution of particular micronutrients rather than the inclusion or exclusion of particular foods. Foods absent before the pre -agricultural era like whole grain bread and legumes are not prohibited. Cordain (2010), on the other hand, is interested both in the precise micronutrients and the specific foods consumed in the pre -agricultural era.

31Added sugars and highly processed foods, while high in energy density, are low in nutrient density and should be restricted in the diet; evidence exists linking these foods to obesity and increased prevalence of chronic diseases (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services U.S. Department of Agriculture 2016). However there are nutritional problems with the Paleo Diet: the exclusion of cereal grains which are good sources of fiber, iron, magnesium, and selenium; restriction of dairy products can result in deficiencies of calcium and vitamin D; the high proposed intake of saturated fats can significantly elevate heart disease, kidney disease and cancer risk and finally the high intake of red meat can increase LDL (bad cholesterol).

32The reason proposed for the exclusion of grain in the Paleo Diet is that humans only started eating this staple after the development of agriculture. But, contra this position, there is evidence that humans baked ground starch grain into bread over 30,000 years ago (Revedin et al. 2010). There is a paucity of scientifically proven evidence substantiating Cordain’s assertions that whole grains result in obesity, autoimmune disease, or chronic disease. Contrary this claim, some evidence suggests that whole grains promote better health may possibly facilitate weight loss (Björck et al. 2012). In a similar way, other constituents which Cordain blacklists, like potatoes and legumes, may have both beneficial and detrimental health effects (Beals 2016). Potatoes contain complex carbohydrates which are nutrient dense and provide energy for everyday activity. Legumes may reduce rates of ischemic heart disease and metabolic syndrome (Messina 2014).

33There is emerging evidence that agricultural diets are not specifically linked to Diseases of Civilization, as was once considered to be the case. Modern day hunter gatherers and horticulturists manifest wide ranges of carbohydrate intakes and even those dependent upon high carbohydrate diets are free from the Diseases of Civilization (Strohle and Hahn 2011).

34So, does the Paleo diet demonstrate positive health benefits? There are four randomized controlled trials of the Paleo Diet (Lindberg et al 2007; Jonsson et al. 2009; Boers et al. 2014; Melberg et al. 2014). These studies have major methodological weaknesses like small sample size, inadequate dietary control, poor compliance with diet, different constituents of the diet, short study durations and poor blinding. Pitt (2016) in his review of studies notes that the Palaeolithic Diet was often associated with increased satiety, independent of caloric or macronutrient composition, alongside some improvement in body weight, waist circumference, blood pressure and lipid profiles. Some studies, but not all, found improved glycemic control. There was no evidence that the diet reduced inflammatory markers. However, those adopting this diet may receive insufficient calcium and have an increased risk of osteoporosis. Compared to diets with the same nutritional value, the Paleo Diet was ten percent more expensive. This author concludes that the Paleo Diet is overhyped and under researched. Furthermore, a comparison of the Paleolithic Diet and the Mediterranean Diet demonstrated similar results in both groups (n=2000) although those consuming the Paleolithic diet decreased their all-cause mortality, oxidative stress, and mortality from cancers, specifically colon cancers (Whalen et al. 2017).


35While accepting that the Paleo Diet has some health-related benefits, the evidence does not support the assertion that ancestral lifestyles were any better for both mental and physical health than contemporary ways of life. Also, although contemporary hunter gatherer groups fare better in terms of physical health (like heart disease, obesity and diabetes) we cannot use these groups as survivals of our Paleolithic ancestors and thus cannot argue backwards that people were healthier in the Paleolithic epoch. The extant literature often fails to take account of the variegated diets of Paleolithic and hunter gatherer groups. The ‘nostalgia’ for stone -age living is not supported by scientific findings.

Top of page


ARMELAGOS, G.J., GOODMAN, A.H. & JACOBS, K.H. 1991. The origins of agriculture: Population growth during a period of declining health. Population & Environment 13, 9–22

BEALS, K. 2016. Pondering Paleo, ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal: November/December 20(6) : 18-25 doi: 10.1249/FIT.0000000000000253

BELL, M1972. Primitivism. London:  Methuen

BITAR, A. 2018. Diet and the diseases of civilisation. New York : Rutgers University Press

BJÖRCK, I., OSTMAN, E., KRISTENSEN, M., MATEO, N., RUTH, A., GUIDO, K., HAENEN, R., HAVENAAR, R. & BACH, K. 2012. Cereal grains for nutrition and health benefits: overview of results from in vitro, animal and human studies in the

HEALTHGRAIN project. Trends Food Science Technology, 25(2):87–100.

BOERS, I., MUSKIET, F.A., BERKELAAR, E., SCHUT, E., PENDERS, R., HOENDERDOS, K., WICHERS, H.J. & JONG, M.C. 2014. Favourable effects of consuming a Palaeolithic-type diet on characteristics of the metabolic syndrome: a randomized controlled pilot-study. Lipids Health Dis.11;13:160. doi: 10.1186/1476-511X-13-160. PMID: 25304296.

BUSS, D. 2000. The evolution of happiness. American Psychologist, 55(1): 15-23. doi: 10.1037/0003-066x.55.1.15

CORDAIN, L. 2010. The Paleo Diet: Lose weight and get healthy by eating the foods you were designed to eat. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley Publishing. Revised Edition.

CREGAN REID, V. 2018. Hunter-gatherers live nearly as long as we do but with limited access to healthcare.

CREWS, D. E. & BOGIN, B. 2010. Growth, development, senescence, and aging: A life history perspective. In C. S. Larsen (Ed.), A companion to biological anthropology (pp. 128–152). New York: Wiley-Blackwell.

CRITTENDEN, A. & SCHNORR, S.L. 2017. Current views on hunter‐gatherer nutrition and the evolution of the human diet. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 162-163: 84109.

CUNNINGHAM, E. 2012. Are diets from paleolithic times relevant today? J Acad Nutr Diet. 112(8):1296. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2012.06.019. PMID: 22818735.

DAVID, A.R, KERSHAW, A. & HEAGERTY, A. 2010. Atherosclerosis and diet in ancient Egypt. Lancet. 375(9716):718-9. doi: 10.1016/s0140-6736(10)60294-2. PMID: 20201135.

DEANER, R. O., & WINEGARD, B. M. 2013. Book Review: Throwing Out the Mismatch Baby with the Paleo-Bathwater. Evolutionary Psychology 11(1), 263–269.

DURANT, J. 2014. Paleo manifesto: Ancient wisdom for lifelong health. New York: Harmony Books

EATON, S.B. & KONNER, M. 1985. Paleolithic nutrition. A consideration of its

nature and current implications. New England Journal of Medicine, 312: 283-289.

ELTON, S. 2008. Environments, adaptation, and evolutionary medicine: Should we be Eating a stone age diet? In: O’HIGGINS, P. & ELTON, S., (eds), Medicine and Evolution: Current Applications, Future Prospects. Boca Raton, Fl. CRC Press, pp. 9-33.

GAISSMAIER, W. & GIGERENZER, G. 2012. 9/11, Act II: A fine-grained analysis of regional variations in traffic fatalities in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. Psychological Science 23(12): 1449-1454

GERSTLE, D. 2018. Modern lives and stone age minds: The ambiguous rhetoric of evolutionary mismatch.

GIBBONS, A. 2014. The evolution of diet. National Geographic

GRESSIER, C. 2018. Illness, identity, and taboo among Australian paleo dieters. Cham, CH: Palgrave Macmillan.

GURVEN, M. & KAPLAN, H. 2007. Longevity among hunter‐gatherers: a cross‐cultural examinationPopulation Demographic Review, 33321365.

HARDY, K, BRAND-MILLER, J, BROWN K.D., THOMAS, M.G. & COPELAND, L. 2015. The importance of dietary carbohydrate in human evolution. Quarterly Review of Biology 290(3):251–68.


MOYZIS, R. 2007. Recent acceleration of human adaptive evolution, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104 (52) : 20753-20758

HESIOD. 2006. Theogony and Works and Days. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press

JABR, F. 2013. How to really eat like a hunter-gatherer: Why the Paleo Diet is half-baked. Scientific American. [(accessed on 10/08/2022]. online:

JOHNSON, A. 2015. The Paleo Diet and the American weight loss utopia, 1975–2014. Utopian Studies 26 (1): 101–124. doi:

JONSSON T, GRANFELDT Y, AHREN B, BRANELL U, HANSSON A, SODERSTROM M, LINDEBERG S 2009. Beneficial effects of a Paleolithic diet on cardiovascular risk factors in type 2 diabetes: a randomized cross-over pilot study. Cardiovascular Diabetology, 8:35.


J., RODRIGUEZ, D.E., MICHALIK, D.E., ROWAN, C.J., LOMBARDI, G.P., BEDI, R., GARCIA, A.R., MIN, J.K., NARULA, J., FINCH, C.E, GURVEN, M., & THOMAS, G.S. 2017. Coronary atherosclerosis in indigenous South American Tsimane: a cross-sectional cohort study. Lancet, 389 (10080):1730-1739. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(17)30752-3. Epub 2017 Mar 17. PMID: 28320601; PMCID: PMC6028773.

KONNER, M.J. & EATON, S.B. 2010. Paleolithic Nutrition: Twenty-Five Years Later. Nutrition in Clinical Practice 25: 594-602.

LATHAM, K. J. 2013. Human health and the neolithic revolution: An overview of impacts of the agricultural transition on oral health, epidemiology, and the human Body. Nebraska Anthropologist. 187(28) :95-102

LEONARD, W. (2016) Food for thought: dietary change was the driving force in human evolution. Scientific American [Internet]. Available from

LEWIS, R. 2017. Were ancient humans healthier than us? PLOS Blog

LINDBERG, S., JONSSON, T., GRANFELDT, Y., BORGSTRAND, E., SOFFMAN, J., SIOSTROM, K., & AHREN, B. 2007. A Palaeolithic diet improves glucose tolerance more than a Mediterranean-like diet in individuals with ischaemic heart disease. Diabetologia. 50 :1795–1807.

LOVEJOY, A.O. & BOAS, G. 1997. [1935], Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

MATHIESON, I., LAZARIDIS, I., ROHLAND, N., MALLICK, S., PATTERSON, N., ROODENBERG, S., HARNEY, E., STEWARDSON, K., FERNANDES, D., NOVAK, M., SIRAK, K., GAMBA, C., JONES, E., LLAMAS, B., DRYOMOV, S., PICKRELL, J. & ARSUAGA, J. 2015. Genome-wide patterns of selection in 230 ancient Eurasians. Nature 528: 499–503.

MELBERG, C., SANDBERG, S., RYBERG, M., ERIKSSON, M., BRAGE, S., LARSSON, C., ILSSON, T. & LINDAHL, B. 2014. Long-term effects of a Paleolithic-type diet in obese postmenopausal women: a 2-year randomized trial. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 68(3): 350–7.

MESSINA, V. 2014. Nutritional and health benefits of dried beans. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 100 Suppl 1:437S–42.

MILTON, K. 2002. Hunter-gatherer diets: wild foods signal relief from diseases of affluence. In UNGAR, P. S. & TEAFORD, M. F. (eds.). Human diet: Its origins and evolution. Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey. pp. 111–22.

MORIN, E., MEIER, J., EL GUENNOUNI, K., MOIGNE, A.M., LEBRETON, L., RUSCH, L., VALENSI, P., CONOLLY, J., & COCHARD, D. 2019. New evidence of broader diets for archaic Homo populations in the northwestern Mediterranean. Science Advances. Mar;5(3) :eaav9106.

MUMMERT, A., ESCHE, E., ROBINSON, J. & ARMELAGOS, G. 2011. Stature and robusticity during the agricultural transition: Evidence from the bioarchaeological record. Economics & Human Biology, 9(3): 284-301

NEEL, J.V. 1962. Diabetes mellitus a ‘thrifty’ genotype rendered detrimental by ‘progress’? American Journal of Human Genetics, 14: 352–353.

NESTLE, M. 2000. "Paleolithic diets: a sceptical view". Nutrition Bulletin, 25 (1): 43–7. doi:10.1046/j.1467-

OVID. 2004. Metamorphoses. New York: Penguin Classics; Revised edition. 

PANTER-BRICK, C., LAYTON, R., & ROWLEY-CONWY, P. (eds.). 2001. Hunter-Gatherers: An Interdisciplinary Perspective. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

PARKER, W. & OLLERTON, J. 2013. Evolutionary biology and anthropology suggest biome reconstitution as a necessary approach toward dealing with immune disorders, Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health 1: 89–103,

PITT, C. E. 2016. Cutting through the Paleo hype: The evidence for the Paleolithic diet. Australian Family Physician, 45: 3538.

PLATO. 2018. The Republic. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

POBINER B, ROGERS M, MONOHAN C,& HARRIS J 2008. New evidence for hominin carcass processing strategies at 1.5 Ma, Koobi Fora, Kenya. Journal of Human Evolution 55:103–130.

POBINER, B. 2013. Evidence for meat-eating by early humans. Nature Education Knowledge 4(6):1.

POBINER, B. 2016. Meat-eating amongst the earliest humans. American Scientist. Retrieved 7/8/22 DOI:10.1511/2016.119.110

PONTZER, H., RAICHLEN, D.A. & WOOD, B. 2018. Hunter-gatherers as models in public health. Obesity Review, 19 Suppl 1:24-35. doi: 10.1111/obr.12785

POTTS, R. 1998. Variability Selection in Hominid Evolution. Evolutionary Anthropology, 7:81–96.

SHENKMEAN, R. 2016.  Political animals: How our stone-age brain gets in the way of smart politics. New York: Basic Books.

SMITH, S. E. 2019. Is Evolutionary psychology possible? Biological Theory 1-11.

SPEAKMAN, J. 2008. Thrifty genes for obesity, an attractive but flawed idea, and an alternative perspective: the ‘drifty gene’ hypothesis. International Journal of Obesity 32, 1611–1617

STROHLE, A. & HAHN, A. 2011. Diets of modern hunter-gatherers vary substantially in their carbohydrate content depending on ecoenvironments: results from an ethnographic analysis. Nutrition Research, 31(201):429–435.

THOMPSON RC, ALLAM AH, LOMBARDI GP, WANN LS, SUTHERLAND ML, SUTHERLAND JD, SOLIMAN MA, FROHLICH B, 2013 Atherosclerosis across 4000 years of human history: the Horus study of four ancient populations. Lancet. 6;381(9873):1211-22. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(13)60598-X. Epub 2013 Mar 12. PMID: 23489753.

TURNER B.L, & THOMPSON A.L. 2013. Beyond the paleolithic prescription: incorporating diversity and flexibility in the study of human diet evolution. Nutr Rev. 2013 Aug;71(8):501-10. doi: 10.1111/nure.12039. PMID: 23865796; PMCID: PMC4091895.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th ed. [cited 2016 August 16]. Available from

WELLS, S. 2010. Pandora's seed: The unforeseen cost of civilization. Old Saybrook, Conn: Tantor Media Inc

WHALEN, K., JUDD, S., MCCULLOUGH, M., FLANDERS, W., HARTMAN, T. & BOSTICK, R. 2017. Paleolithic and Mediterranean diet pattern scores are inversely associated with all-cause and cause-specific mortality in adults, The Journal of Nutrition, 147(4): 612–620

ZERZAN, J. 2002 Running on emptiness: The pathology of civilization. Port Townsend, Wash: Feral House.  

ZUK, M. 2013. Paleofantasy: What evolution really tells us about sex, diet, and how we live. New York: WW Norton and Company.

Top of page


Electronic reference

Simon Dein, The myth of the golden past: Critical perspectives on the paleo dietAnthropology of food [Online], Varia articles: 2008-2024, Online since 07 October 2022, connection on 17 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

Top of page

About the author

Simon Dein

Queen Mary College, University of London

Top of page



The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

Top of page
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search