Paleolithic Nutrition: Diet in the Neolithic

By John Michael & Dr. John

Early farming archeological site, Picos de Europa, Spain. Copyright 2011, CyberMed, LLC..In the Upper Paleolithic period, which ranged from 50,000 to 10,000 years ago, our human ancestors roamed the Earth in hunter-gatherer bands that probably only rarely exceeded sizes of 150. During this time, our forbearers ate only food that could be hunted or gathered, and which required minimal, if any, processing. The industries required for the process and preparation of food did not exist then; it is only at the beginning of the Neolithic, when our ancestor’s roaming tribes began to form settled communities, that we find the appearance of agriculture and complex industry, which together led to the creation of processed foods.

While we probably settled down long before widespread farming began, it wasn’t until the agricultural revolution that large settlements started to appear. With farming, more food could be obtained from fewer acres; while a hunter-gatherer might have to roam over large spaces to find enough to eat, a farmer could remain on his plot of land, and was often able to feed more than just himself. The surplus of food created by agriculture then led to the emergence of civilization: because some people were able to dedicate themselves to pursuits other than finding something to eat, specialization occurred, and the various offices of modern society, among them the priesthood, the soldiery, the politicians, and the merchants, began to appear.

But, while the free time created by agriculture led to the invention of new technologies, like the wheel and written language, the Neolithic also saw the inception of food science, or, the fine art of turning the unpalatable palatable. Grains were the major crop of early agriculture, and evidence of their processing for human consumption, in the form of grinding stones, goes back as far as 15,000 years ago.

So, while the ratio of number of calories to the amount of effort expended to obtain those calories increased in the Neolithic, their nutrient quality diminished considerably, and this change in diet caused health problems for our ancestors. Among Neolithic Europeans, height, which is a reliable indicator of health, dropped as much as five inches for men, and three inches for women. Diseases like osteoporosis and rickets appeared. Animal husbandry further exacerbated the poor health of our ancestors, as diseases began to jump between animals and their caretakers. Among these originally animal-illnesses were tuberculosis, smallpox, and measles, scourges that have only recently been brought under control. 

We continue to move farther from our original diet. The consequences are only now beginning to be understood.