New World foods

There is a debate among those interested in Palaeolithic foods as to whether foods endemic to the Americas (the 'New World" or the Western Hemisphere) and not occurring naturally elsewhere within the last 7 million years or so should be considered truly Palaeolithic.

Foods native to the Americas include Brazil nuts, capsicum, cassava, cocoa, peanuts, potatoes, sunflower, sweet potato, tomatoes, turkey.

The logic behind excluding Western Hemisphere foods from a Palaeolithic diet is the same principle drawn on for including or excluding any food: has Homo sapiens been exposed to those foods long enough for adaptation to have taken place? That is the rationale for excluding grains, for example. Humans have been eating grains as a staple for only about 12,000 years, and that appears not to be long enough for most present day humans to be fully adapted to the toxins they contain [1]. According to most paleo-anthropologists, humans have been in the Americas for about 15,000 years, which isn't much longer. So any food that was exclusive to the Western Hemisphere has been part of the human food supply for only that long. If the fact that we've only been eating grains and dairy products for 12,000 years is a good reason to exclude them, then it is apparently also a good reason to exclude Western Hemisphere foods.

Complicating this argument is the fact that Homo sapiens spread out of Africa around 100,000 years ago. Those early people moved into Eurasia, Australia and the Pacific, and were therefore eating many foods that played no part in their evolutionary origins in Africa. If our bodies have evolved to be nourished by a variety of foods, then it seems reasonable to conclude that Western Hemisphere foods would be consistent with Palaeo eating. The dietary problems modern humans face seem more closely related to agriculture and industrialized food processing than to particular foods.

A further complication is that many of the foods from the Western Hemisphere have a high starch content (and Palaeo eating is generally regarded as a low-carb diet) or, in the case of sunflower, have an unhealthy proportion of certain nutrients (in the case of sunflower, Omega-6 fatty acids). However, the Palaeolithic consumption of these foods would have been irregular; they would not have been a staple, let alone eaten year-round) until they were domesticated, that is, until the consumers had descended from the Palaeolithic into the Neolithic.

Notes

1. For more on phytotoxins found naturally in plants see Ben Balzar's introduction to the palaeolithic diet. He explains how the varieties of certain plants which survived best were those that had toxins to deter their most serious predators.

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Last updated 12 February 2009