The Paleo diet, which prescribes that its followers eat only foods that our Stone Age predecessor would have eaten, might not be as period-correct as its advocates want to think it is. Here to disabuse Paleo follows of their beliefs is a team of Australian researchers, who tested the DNA of the calcified dental plaque found on Neanderthal teeth to discover what they really ate.
Spoiler: Unlike today’s Paleo followers, who eschew carbs and modern processed foods in favor of nuts, meat, and avocado and macadamia oils (and sometimes, insects), the actual Paleolithic-era human was an omnivore, with a diet that varied based on geography.
In Belgium, for instance, Neanderthals dined on wooly rhinoceros, wild sheep, and other meat. Meanwhile, evidence from the El Sidrón cave in Spain shows that a form of the Mediterranean diet existed even 48,000 years ago: Mushrooms, pine nuts, tree bark, and moss sustained the Spanish Neanderthal, who appeared to be completely vegetarian. The plaque of one Spanish cave-person also contained Penicillium–the drug found in aspirin–and the poplar bark from which it’s derived. This Neanderthal had a tooth abscess; it’s possible that chewing the bark was an attempt at self-medicating.
“When people talk about the Paleo diet, that’s not Paleo, that’s just non-carb,” lead author Laura Weyrich told The Atlantic. “The true Paleo diet is eating whatever’s out there in the environment.”
The researchers, based at the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide, sequenced the DNA contained in the dental plaque of Neanderthals, which consisted, in part, of the food leftovers clinging to their teeth when they died. They found that the Neanderthals weren’t quite so formulaic in what they ate as today’s diet makes them out to be.”They had a very good understanding of what foods were available to them,” Weyrich said.
Paleo dieters are perhaps some of the ultimate subscribers to the belief that things were better in the olden days. And now, the followers of this fad diet have even more material to draw from if they want to recreate a historically accurate meal every time they sat down to eat: Some particular Neanderthal favorites, the researchers discovered, were moss and tree bark. For those who chose Paleo as an excuse to eat steak and eggs for breakfast, the news isn’t so great–unless you can get your hands on some wooly rhino meat, that is.