Dr John P Wright
Updated: 25 August 2006
The year is 3300 BC. It is spring. Our hero Fritz has a last meal and heads up the glacier. He wears grass padded leather shoes and a grass overcoat to keep the numbing cold out. He has an axe and bow in his hands. On his back is a leather quiver with a small supply of arrows. All goes well at first and he makes good time. Suddenly chaos breaks loose. Another group of hunter gatherers, probably related to his ex-wife, attack him from the back. He is about to turn to face the foe when he is knocked forwards by a bone tipped arrow plunging into his back. He falls flat on his face on the rock hard ice. Knocked unconscious he rapidly freezes. Nothing moves for 5300 years.
The term hunter gatherer refers to early man from about 3 million years ago to the dawn of agriculture and subsequent urbanization. Initially Homo erectus and later Homo sapiens neanderthalensis were the dominant groups. In about 50000 BC Homo sapiens appeared, possibly ate his distant cousins, and set up the “modern” world as we know it.
The point of interest to gastroenterologists has always been “What did early man eat?”. The presumption is that our genetic makeup was defined during these early millennia and that little has changed in DNA structure since Fritz hit the ice 5300 years ago. The speculative cacophony was largely led by those who believed that early man had no dairy or cereals, ate raw food and existed on berries, fruit and vegetables.
With the evidence from early man’s teeth it was realized that over time man was becoming more carnivore than herbivore. This prompted the high protein, low cereal diets as the answer to obesity and a way of returning to our roots, so to speak. The concept was of early man browsing the forest picking fruit and berries and therefore having no chronic diseases. This picture is a little reminiscent of the life of the chimpanzee who incidentally may also suffer from constipation and haemorrhoids.
Then in 1991 our frozen hero, Fritz, is discovered with much fanfare and expectation as he represents the purest form of hunter gatherer that we have had the privilege of examining. Once his clothes, equipment and cause of death had been explained his transverse colonic contents were examined. Lo and behold Fritz’s last meal was of meat and einkorn bread. In addition to the ground einkorn, a primitive wheat, meat strands of unknown variety and helminth eggs. Pollen was also found indicating he had walked up from the warmer plains below. No fruit or berries were found. Fritz, the hunter gatherer, was a cereal eater.
It now seems reasonable to believe that our ancestors ate meat, cereals, berries, fruit and roots. These of course would have been “in season”. Food such as cereal which kept and meat that could be hunted were reliable food sources and seasonal crops were enjoyed when available. Studies show that early man obtained 31% (22-40%) of his energy from carbohydrates, 42% (28-58%) from fat and 27% (19-35%) from protein. This compares to modern man where the comparable figures are 52%, 33% and 15% respectively.
The fat and protein intake of the hunter gatherer was probably from “wild” animals which contain a low fat concentration of 10%. This is largely unsaturated fat. In contrast cattle contain 30%, largely saturated fat. Some hunter gatherers ate so much meat that there metabolic pathways to handle the protein would have been taxed. As a compensation additional carbohydrate or larger amounts of fat would be needed as in the Eskimo diet.
Contrary to common belief the high protein diets used by slimmers have been shown to reduce cholesterol levels thereby casting some doubt on the low animal protein and fat diet often suggested as a way of reducing cholesterol levels.
What else does Fritz and the other hunter gatherers teach us? Firstly we still have a lot to learn about our ancestors. Secondly a balanced diet probably consists of venison, cereals, fruit and root crops which can be obtained and stored if necessary without refrigeration. Thirdly, we are still evolving as the different races of human from the east and west show us. Finally internecine warfare is as old as man himself.