Eating 'Paleo?' Don't Forget Worms and Tubers

A new study says meat wasn’t on our ancestors' plates.

So much for Fred Flintstone's brontosaurus ribs.

The popular caveman diet claims people will feel more powerful and healthier if they only eat items popular during the Paleolithic, pointing to nuts, berries and red meat. But a new study from Oxford University says meat wasn't making it for our ancient ancestors: 2.4 million years ago, man survived mainly on "tiger nuts" -- edible grass bulbs still eaten in parts of the world today.

"Tiger nuts, still sold in health food shops as well as being widely used for grinding down and baking in many countries, would be relatively easy to find," explained Gabriele Macho with Oxford University's Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art.

"They also provided a good source of nourishment for a medium-sized hominin with a large brain. This is why these hominins were able to survive for around one million years because they could successfully forage – even through periods of climatic change.

But early man couldn't live on nuts alone, of course, and Fred Flintstone was likely no exception. These early relatives may have also sought additional nourishment from fruits and invertebrates, like worms and grasshoppers, the study concluded.

To find what cavemen really ate, Macho compared the diet of Paranthropus boisei, nicknamed "Nutcracker Man" because of his big flat molar teeth and powerful jaws, and modern Kenyan baboons. Scientists have debated whether high-fiber foods would have been sufficient nourishment for early man.

Macho found that modern baboons living in an environment similar to Nutcracker Man's eat large quantities of tiger nuts, and this food would have contained sufficiently high amounts of minerals, vitamins, and the fatty acids that would have been particularly important for the hominin brain.

She concludes that the nutritional demands of ancient man would have been quite similar.

Tiger nuts (Cyperus esculentus) are rich in starches, the study says, and are highly abrasive in an unheated state. Macho suggests that wear and tear on the teeth in that ancient skull points to wear and tear due to these starches. The study finds that baboon teeth have similar marks, giving clues about their pattern of consumption.

The study was published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One.

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Our early relatives sought nourishment from nuts, fruits and invertebrates, like worms and grasshoppers.

"Ardi" steered clear of abrasive, hard foods, such as nuts, tubers and tough grasses. Instead this ancestor seems to have gone for meat and large amounts of soft fruits from its Eastern Africa home.

A. afarensis

was another early East African member of the human family tree that walked upright, but still looked a lot like a chimp. It had "robust jaws and large, thick-enameled molars," according to new research in the journal Biology Letters that helps to explain what it, and other early human-ish species, ate. 

 The diet might have included seasonal consumption of very tough foods, such as dried grasses, in addition to wild-bird eggs, nuts, seeds, tubers, small prey and fruits.

"Nutcracker Man," also from East Africa, got that nickname due to powerful jaws and huge molars. Nuts were clearly a major part of its diet, along with bugs, fruits and probably whatever else it could sink its big teeth into. There's also evidence that the roots of papyrus, a plant later used to make paper, were on the menu.

Handy Man, from eastern and southern Africa, was not too proud to eat woody plants, leaves and the guts of hunted animals, teeth suggest.

The large and wide molars of East Africa’s

Homo rudolfensis

indicate that this species could do some major chewing, but the jaw -- smaller than that of earlier humans -- would have been a limitation.

Upright Man, living in parts of Africa and Asia, made stone tools suitable for butchering game of all sizes. There is also speculation that Upright Man had a sweet tooth, gorging on high-energy honey whenever lucky enough to find it. 
 Additionally, this human probably cooked some foods. 

"Cooking is what makes the human diet 'human,' and the most logical explanation for the advances in brain and body size over our ape ancestors," Richard Wrangham of Harvard University explained. "It's hard to imagine the leap to

Homo erectus

without cooking's nutritional benefits."

Butchery tools and bones of animals associated with Heidelberg Man suggest that this human hunted -- among other animals --- hippos, rhinos and megaloceros, one of the largest deer that ever lived. Heidelberg Man lived in Europe, Africa and possibly parts of China.

Hailing from parts of Europe and Asia, Neanderthals were meat lovers to the max, hunting mammoths, elephants, deer, reindeer, muskox and more. They also included some fruits, nuts and veggies on the side. Food wasn’t always plentiful for early humans, though. "Looking at these fossilized teeth, you can easily see these defects that showed Neanderthals periodically struggled nutritionally," says anthropologist Debbie Guatelli-Steinberg. She determined, however, that the struggles were no worse than those confronted by modern Eskimos, so lack of food probably didn’t do in Neanderthals.

Living on the Island of Flores, Indonesia, gave this "Hobbit" human access to some unusual prey. Animal bones associated with the Hobbits suggest they ate the pygmy elephant Stegodon, giant rats and possibly huge lizards, such as Komodo dragons.

Cooking techniques, sophisticated tools and an educated palate all added to the broad diet of our species. There is some evidence that early

Homo sapiens

killed -- and ate -- Neanderthals. The idea is perhaps less shocking when one considers that primate meat is still regularly consumed by certain people. Cannibalism has occurred in human history but was usually a last resort during a famine. The bottom line is that, for better and worse, humans and those who came before will eat almost anything.