From Sarah Ballantyne, The Paleo Mom, on Facebook:
A new study published yesterday shows evidence that humans were were preparing grains (oats) in a multi-step process as early as 32,000 years ago. As you can imagine, the interwebs are a buzz with chatter, speculation, and rejuvenated critiques.
The researchers examined the composition of starch grains found on a grinding tool dated to 32,000 years before present from the Grotta Paglicci site in Southern Italy. They determined that the tool was used for grinding oats (in addition to other plants) into flour based on the abrasive lines on the surface of the tool and the positions of the remnant starch grains in the abrasion lines. The researchers were even able to tell based on the shape of the starch grains that the oats were heated before grinding. While these wild oats would have been gathered rather than cultivated, this is still some pretty amazing insight into early mans’ ingenuity!
I’ve been asked to publicly comment on this research. What does the fact that humans were processing grains thousands of years earlier than we originally thought mean for the Paleo Diet?
Now, everyone is waiting with baited breath, right? Well, this was my response to one interviewer:
The question of when grains became a substantial component of the human diet is a fascinating one, but it’s also a very different question from whether or not grains are a food that supports human health today, especially in the large quantities typical of the modern Western diet. While the contemporary Paleo Diet may have its origins in evolutionary biology and anthropology, its current scientific foundation is based on understanding how a food may support health by providing a wealth and diversity of essential and nonessential nutrients versus how a food may undermine health by disrupting the gut microbiome, dysregulating hormones, or by instigating inflammation. The fact remains that grains just can not compete with the powerhouses of nutrition that are quality meats, seafood, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds.
The finding that paleolithic man underwent an arduous four-step process to make three varieties of oats edible as far back as 32,000 years speaks to human ingenuity, but it doesn’t speak to the overall quality of man’s diet back then. The presence of other plant residues on their grinding tools as well as the results of many other studies together suggest that seeds of grasses were but one small component of an incredibly diverse prehistoric diet–not only did paleolithic man eat meat and seafood, but over 200 different species of plants. The current food supply can’t hold a candle to paleolithic man’s diet in terms of diversity or density of nutrition–and one of the reasons the average contemporary diet is so lacking in vital nutrients is because of its reliance on foods with the lowest nutritional merits. Given the growing collection of scientific literature linking nutritional deficiencies with chronic disease, steering clear of any food that isn’t abundant with the nutrients our bodies need is a strategy that could simply be called common sense.
Paleo/primal diets focus on the most nutrient-dense foods available to us in the modern food supply, and while they may represent an attempt to swing the pendulum of human nutrition way in the other direction, they can also be viewed as a desperately-needed nutritional intervention for a modern diet that has gone badly awry with its overabundance of calories and its relative lack of essential nutrients. As the Paleo Diet moves away from a firm set of rules and instead toward providing a broader health sciences education and a flexible template for both diet and lifestyle choices, the question becomes less about what cavemen ate and rather what we can eat today to best support health. ——-
Sarah Ballentyne responds to original article: MM Lippi, B Foggi, B Aranguren, ARonchitelli, and ARevedin “Multistep food plant processing at Grotta Paglicci (Southern Italy) around 32,600 cal B.P.” PNAS 2015 ; published ahead of print September 8, 2015, doi:10.1073/pnas.1505213112