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There have recently been several books written on the theme of the human diet in evolution. All attempts to figure out what we 'ought' to eat based on the lifeway and foods available to our ancestors come up against several difficulties. One is that we there are virtually no 'wild living' human animals left on earth. Another is that of those that are left, most are in harsh living conditions that are not typical of our original lifeway. These groups have been pushed to these marginal environments by invading agricultural and pastoral peoples, primarily urban industrial Westerners, and pastoralist. The diseases we introduced all but wiped out the wild living humans, as they had no natural resistance.
Very little authentic knowledge exists of which plants and animals and animals are edible, how to gather/catch/prepare them. What we can say is that people living in wooded Africa, and in subtropical and tropical forests of Asia and Southeast Asia do give us some insights into the 'natural' food of humankind.
It is dangerous to be categorical about the 'ideal' human diet based on the patterns of existing remnant hunter gatherers. Many of the richest ecosystems, such as the shoreline, are now virtually empty of the animals that once lived there, and entirely empty of the wild humans that lived off them.
It is expensive and difficult to access scientific papers unless you are a member of a scientific institution; and their jargon and style is usually too inaccessible for most of us to want to persevere with. However, references to papers that are quoted by various popular authors or web sites have been included. It is sometimes possible to draw two distinctly different conclusions from the same data presented in a particular paper!
As always, data can be incorrect, incomplete, or missing. Assumptions can be unstated or based on further assumptions, guesswork presented as fact. Conclusions can be drawn from data that the data itself doesn't support. Well, that's life, you will just have to read widely and draw your own conclusions, or tentative positions.
Eaton, S.B., Konner, M, Shostak, M 1988.
in the fast lane: chronic degenerative diseases in evolutionary
American Journal of Medicine, vol. 84: pages 739-749.
Remnant Hunter Gather Societies as a Model for Evolutionarily Appropriate Human Diet
'Nutritional Anthropology' Johnston, Francis E. (editor)
Alan R. Liss, Inc.; New York, 1987.
'Food, Ecology and Culture: Readings in the Anthropology of Dietary Practices.' Robson, John R.K. (editor),
Gordon and Breach; New York, 1988.
'The Dobe !Kung'. Lee, Richard B.
Holt, Rinehart, and Winston; New York, 1979.
Abrams, H. Leon Jr. 1982. 'Anthropological research reveals human dietary requirements for optimal health'.
Journal of Applied Nutrition, vol. 34, no. 1: pages 38-45.
Bower, Bruce 1989. 'A world that never existed: researchers debate the pervasive view of modern hunter-gatherers as a
window to humanity's past.'
Science News, vol. 135 (April 29, 1989): pages 264-266.
Ember, C.R. 1978. 'Myths about hunter-gatherers.'
Ethnology, vol. 17: pages 439-448.
Hawkes, K.; O'Connell, J.F.; Blurton Jones, N.G. 1997. 'Hadza women's time allocation, offspring provisioning, and the evolution of long postmenopausal life spans'
Current Anthropology 38(4): 551-577
Ho, Kang-Jey et al 1972. 'Alaskan Arctic Eskimo: responses to a customary high-fat diet.'
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 25, no. 8 (August 1972): page 737
O'Dea, K. 1992. 'Traditional diet and food preferences of Australian Aboriginal hunter-gatherers.' In: Whiten A. and
Widdowson E.M. (editor),
'Foraging Strategies and Natural Diet of Monkeys, Apes, and Humans'
Proceedings of a Royal Society Discussion Meeting held on 30 and 31 May, 1991. Oxford, England. Clarendon Press: pages 73-81.
Sih, A.; Milton, K. 1985. 'Optimal diet theory: should the !Kung eat mongongos?'
American Anthropologist 87: 396401
Speth, J.; Spielman, K. 1983. 'Energy source, protein metabolism, and huntergatherer subsistence strategies'.
Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 2:1-31.
Yellen, J.1990. 'The transformation of the Kalahari !Kung'
Scientific American April 1990: 96-105
Human Physiological and Anatomical adaptations to particular food sources over evolution
Aiello, Leslie C.; Wheeler, Peter 1995. 'The
hypothesis: the brain and the digestive system in human and
Current Anthropology, vol. 36, no.2 (April 1995): pages 199-221.
Crawford, Michael A. 1992. 'The role of dietary fatty acids in biology: their place in the evolution of the human brain.'
Nutrition Reviews, vol. 50, no. 4 (April 1992, part 2): pages 3-11.
Davis, Devra Lee 1987. 'Paleolithic Diet, Evolution, and Carcinogens.'
Science, vol. 238: pages 1633-1634
Eaton, S.B.; Nelson, D.A. 1991. 'Calcium in evolutionary perspective.'
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 54: pages 281S-287S.
Eaton, S. B 1992. 'Humans, Lipids, and Evolution.'
Lipids, vol. 27, no. 10 (1992): pages 814-820.
Eaton, S. Boyd; Eaton, Stanley B. III; Konner, Melvin J.; Shostak, Marjorie 1996. 'An evolutionary perspective enhances understanding of human nutritional requirements.'
Journal of Nutrition, vol. 126 (1996): pages 1732-1740
Grundy, S. M.1989. 'Monounsaturated fatty acids and cholesterol metabolism: implications for dietary recommendations.'
Journal of Nutrition. 119:529-33
Grundy, S. M.1988. 'Comparison of monounsaturated fatty acids and carbohydrates for reducing raised levels of plasma
cholesterol in man.'
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 47: pages 965-9
Hladik, C.M. ; Simmen, B. 1996. 'Taste perception and feeding behavior in nonhuman primates and human populations'
Evolutionary Anthropology 5(2): 58-71
Hunt, J.R.; Gallagher, S.K.; Johnson, L.K.; Lykken, G.I. 1995. 'High- vs. low meat diets: effects on zinc absorption, iron
status, and calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, nitrogen, phosphorus, and zinc balance in postmenopausal women.'
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 62: pages 621-632.
Lambert, J. E. 1998. 'Primate digestion: Interactions among anatomy. physiology, and feeding ecology.'
Evolutionary Anthropology 7(1): 8-20.
Milton, Katharine 1993. 'Diet and Primate Evolution.'
Scientific American, August 1993: pages. 86-93.
Milton, K. 1999. 'A hypothesis to explain the role of meat-eating in human evolution.'
Evolutionary Anthropology 8(1): 11-21.
Parthasarathy, S., et al. 1990. 'Low density lipoprotein rich in oleic acid is protected against oxidative modification: Implications for dietary prevention of atherosclerosis'.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA 87:3894-98
Speth, J.D. 1989. 'Early hominid hunting and scavenging: The
role of meat as an energy source.'
Journal of Human Evolution. 18. 329 - 43.
Teaford, M.F. & Ungar, P.S. 2000 Diet and the evolution of the earliest human ancestors.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 97 (25). 13506 - 11.
Food availability and strategies in the environment that existed during human evolution
'Primates in Nature.' Alison Richard. In chapter 4: 'Food ', and chapter 5: 'Primate Diets: pattems and principles' pages 126-205.
W.H. Freeman & Co, New York, 1985.
Andrews, Peter; Martin, Lawrence 1992. 'Hominoid dietary evolution.' In: Whiten A. and Widdowson E.M. (editors), 'Foraging Strategies and Natural Diet of Monkeys, Apes, and Humans'
Proceedings of a Royal Society Discussion Meeting held on 30 and 31 May, 1991. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press: pages 39-49.
Blumenschine, R.J.; Cavallo, J.A. 1992. 'Scavenging and human evolution.'
Scientific American 267 (4) :90-96.
Bunn, H.; Ezzo, J. 1993. 'Hunting and scavenging by Plio-Pleistocene hominids: nutritional constraints, archaeological patterns, and behavioral implications.'
Joumal of Archaeological Science 20: 365-398.
Hayden, B.; Chisolm, B.; Schwarcz, H.P. 'Fishing and foraging. Marine resources in the Upper Paleolithic of France' pages 279-291. In: Softer, O. (editor) 'The Pleistocene Old World Regional Perspectives.'
Plenum, New York, 1981
Marean, C.W. ; Assefa, Z. 1999. 'Zooarchaeological evidence for the faunal exploitation behavior of neandertals and early modem humans'
Evolutionary Anthropology 8(1): 22-37.
Mason, S.L.R.,; Hather, J.G.; Hillman, G.C. 1994 'Preliminary investigation of the plant macro-remains from Dolni Vestonice II, and its implications for the role of plant foods in Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Europe.
Antiquity; a quarterly review of archaeology. March 1994 vol 68, n258: 48
Sept, J. 1994 'Beyond bones: archaeological sites, early hominid subsistence, and the costs and benefits of exploiting wild plant foods in east African riverine landscapes'.
Journal of Human Evolution 1994 27: 295-320.
Sept, J. 1994 'Bone distribution in a semi-arid chimpanzee habitat in eastern Zaire: implications for the interpretation of east African faunal assemblages.'
Journal of Archaeological Science 21:217-235..
Sept, J. 1992 'Archaeological evidence and ecological perspectives for reconstructing early hominid subsistence strategies.' In
'Archaeological Method and Theory', Volume 4: 1-56 M.B. Schiffer (ed)
U. Arizona Press.
Stahl, Ann Brower 1984. 'Hominid dietary selection before fire.'
Current Anthropology, April 1984, vol. 25, no. 2: pages 151-168.
Hunting and gathering animals for food
'Dinner's Ready! An Invitation to Better Nutrition from 9 Healthier Cultures' DeVore, Sally; and White, Thelma : Insect, lake fish, and wild greens eating by the Ganda people of Lake Victoria, Uganda: pages 102-110.
Ward Ritchie Press, Pasadena, California, 1977. ISBN: 0378-02867-7
Blumenschine, Robert J. 1992. 'Hominid carnivory and foraging strategies, and the socio-economic function of early
archaeological sites.' In: Whiten A. and Widdowson E.M. (editors), 'Foraging Strategies and Natural Diet of Monkeys, Apes, and Humans'
Proceedings of a Royal Society Discussion Meeting held on 30 and 31 May, 1991. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press: pages 51-61.
DeFoliart, Gene R. (compiler) 1995. 'The human use of insects as food in Uganda.'
The Food Insects Newsletter, March1995, Vol. 8, No. 1: pages 1, 10.
Broadhurst, C. Leigh; Cunnane, Stephen C; Crawford, Michael 1998. 'Rift Valley fish and shellfish provided brain-specific nutrition for early Homo'
British Journal of Nutrition 79: pages 3-21
Cherry, R. H. 1991. 'Use of insects by Australian Aborigines.'
American Entomologist 37: 9-13.
Crawford M.A., Bloom M, Broadhurst, C.L, Schmidt W. F., Cunnane, S.C., Galli, C., Ghebremeskel, K., Linseisen, F., Lloyd-Smith, J., and Parkington, J. 2000. 'Evidence for the Unique Function of Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) During the Evolution of the Modern Hominid Brain.'
Lipids, 34: S39-S47
Fasoranti, J. O., and D. O. Ajiboye 1993. 'Some edible insects of Kwara State, Nigeria.'
American Entomologist 39: 113-116.
Pemberton, R. W. 1995. 'Catching and eating dragonflies in Bali and elsewhere in Asia.'
American Entomologist 41: 97-102.
Pemberton, R. W., and T Yamasaki. 1995. 'Insects: Old food in
American Entomologist 41:227-229.
Walter, R. C., Buffier, R T., Bruggemann, J. H., Guillaume, M. M., Berhe, S. M., Negassi, Berhane., Libsekal, Y., Cheng, H., Edwards, R. L., von Coselk, R., Neraudeau, D., Gagnon, M. 2000. 'Early human occupation of the Red Sea coast of Eritrea during the last interglacial'.
Nature Vol 405, May 2000, p65-69
Shipman, P., and Walker, A. 1989. 'The costs of becoming a predator.'
Journal of Human Evolution, vol. 18, pp. 373-392.
Gathering plant food-General
'Cultivated Fruits of Britain: Their Origin and
Basil Blackwell Ltd, Oxford and New York, 1985. ISBN 0-631-15523-6
'Edible Wild Plants of Subsaharan Africa: an Annotated Checklist, Emphasizing the Woodland and Savanna Floras of Eastern and Southern Africa, Including the Plants Utilized for Food by Chimpanzees and Baboons.' Peters, C. R., O'Brien, E. M. & Drummond, R. B. Kew: Royal Botanic Gardens, 1992. 240 pages. 245 x 155mm. Soft cover. ISBN0-947643-51-6
[Plants used for food by chimpanzees, baboons, and humans, listed alphabetically by genus and species, and the parts of the plants that may be, or are edible. In total, over 2,000 species are listed, emphasizing the woodland and savanna floras of eastern and southern Africa. Covers all major plant groupings – ferns, gymnosperms and angiosperms]
'Evolution of Crop Plants' Simmonds, N.W (editor)
Longman, London & New York, 1976.
'Food From the Veld: Edible Wild Plants of Southern Africa.' Fox, F.W.; and Norwood Young, M.E. et al
Delta Books, Johannesburg, 1982. ISBN 0-9-8387-32-6
'Gastronomy: The Anthropology of Food and Food Habits'.Margaret L. Arnott (editor). Section by Coursey, D.G. 'The origins and domestication of yams in Africa.': pages 187-212
Mouton Publishers, The Hague, 1975 : Distributed in U.S. by Aldine Publishing Co., Chicago, Illinois.
'Tropical Legumes: Resources for the Future' Report of a 20 member ad hoc committee, from the National Academy of Sciences.
National Academy of Sciences, Wahington D.C., 1979. Library of Congress Catalogue # 79-64185
Kuhnlein, Harriet V. and Turner Nancy J. 1991. 'Traditional Plant Foods of Canadian Indigenous Peoples:
Nutrition, Botany and Use'. in 'Food and Nutrition in History and Anthropology' Volume 8.
Gordon and Breach Science Publishers. 1991.
Gathering plant food-tubers
Chandel, K.P.S., Arora, R.K., and Joshi, B.S. 1972. 'Vigna capensis Walp.-an edible root legume.'
Current Science 41:537
Baudet, J.C. 1973. 'Notes sur quelques especes africaines du genre Eriosema (DC) Desv.(Papilionaceae).'
Bulletin du Jardin Botanique National de Belgie 43: 17-32
Wehmeyer, A.S., Lee, R.B., and Whiting, N. 1969. 'The nutrient composition and dietary importance of some vegetable foods eaten by the !Kung bushmen.'
South African Journal of Nutrition 5(4): pages 1529-1530
Richard W. Wrangham, James Holland Jones, Greg Laden, David Pilbeam, and NancyLou Conklin-Brittain 1999 'The Raw and the Stolen Cooking and the Ecology of Human Origins'
Current Anthropology Vol 40, Number 5, December 1999
[Review: an article hypothetically linking tuber eating as a key to explain elements of the human species behaviour via ancestral Homo erectus, in particular. Short on specifics of which plant species may have been eaten; provacative; extensively referenced.]
Gathering plant food-legumes, grass seeds, other seeds
Amuti, K., Pollard, C.J. 1974. 'Studies on the bambarra ground nut (Voandzeia subterranea) seeds.'
Journal of the West African Science Association 19: pages 85-90.
Anonymous, 1924. 'Bauhinia esculenta Burch., Economic
Plants of South Africa.'
Notes from the National Herbarium and Museum, SDeries No. 2, Department of Agriculture, Pretoria, South Africa.
Miege, J., and M.-N. Miege >1979? 'Cordeauxia edulis A. Sub-family Caesalpinaceae of arid zones of East Africa, Caryologic, blastogenic, and biochemical features. Potential aspects for nutrition.'
Economic Botany, in press at 1979, publication reference unknown.
Peters, C R. 1987. 'Nut-like oil seeds: food for monkeys, chimpanzees, humans, and probably ape-men.'
American Journal of Physical Anthropology. Vol 73. pages 333-363.
Westphal, E. 1974. 'Pulses in Ethiopia, Their Taxonomy and Agricultural significance'
Centre for Agricultural Publishing and Documentation, Wageningen, The Netherlands: pages 91-104.
Callen, E. O. 1967 'The First New World Cereal.'
American Antiquity 32:535-538.
Review by Alwynne B. Beaudoin "[human] Coprolites from Ocampo Caves, Tamaulipas, Mexico, yielded seeds of Setaria (foxtail millet), identified as from Setaria geniculata. Found in coprolites from lower levels, dated to ca. 6000 - 5500 yr BP. Coprolites almost 2000 yrs older yielded Opuntia and Agave remains. Some grains of larger size may indicate selection process in harvesting. Proportion of Setaria in coprolites increases to 50% at around 3400 yr BP, thereafter declines following introduction of maize..." Full review available at
Picture of S. geniculata ( now S. parviflora) at
Gathering plant food-fruit
'Ethnobotany of the Kwanyama Ovambos.' Rodin, R.J. .
Missouri Botanic Gardens, St. Louis, 1985. 169p
Kokwaro, J.O. and Gillett, J.B. 1980. 'Notes on the Anacardiaceae of Eastern Africa.'
Kew Bull. 34(4): 756
Moss, H. and Taylor, F.W. 1983. 'Final report on the potential for commercial utilization of veld products. I. Resources and their management.'
Gaborone, Botswana: Government Printers. (28p).
Storrs, A.E.G. 1982. 'More about trees: interesting facts and uses of some common Zambian trees, including a selection of honey recipes.'
Ndola, Zambia: Forest Department. 127p
von Teichman, I. 1983. 'Notes on the distribution, morphology, importance and uses of the indigenous Anacardiaceae.
2.The importance and uses of Sclerocaya birrea (the marula).'
Trees in South Africa 35(1&2): 2-7.
Gathering plant food-nuts
The largest volume of literature concerns the 'Mongongo', syn. 'Manketti', nut of sub-equatorial Africa. Details, web links and an extensive list of references is at the URL below.
Harries, H.C. 1990. 'Malesian origin for a domestic Cocos nucifera.' In: P.Baas et al (eds)' The Plant Diversity of Malesia'
Harries, H.C. 1990. 'Origin, evolution, genetic diversity and biosystematics of coconut.' IBPGR Training Course on the
Collection, Conservation and Characterisation of Coconut Genetic Resources. Albay, Philippines.
Menninger Edwin A. 1977. 'Edible nuts of the world'.
Horticultural Books. Florida. 1977. ISBN 0-9600046-4-5.
Use of Fire to cook food
'Fire and Civilization' Goudsblom, Johan
Penguin Books, London, England; New York, 1992.
'The First Humans: Human Origins and History to 10,000 B.C.' Burenhult, Goran (editor)-
in the contribution by Iain Davidson and William Noble 'When did language begin?'
Harper-Collins, New York, 1993.
Brain, C.K., and Sillen, A. 1988. 'Evidence from the Swartkrans cave for the earliest use of fire.'
Bellomo, R.1994. 'Methods of determining early hominid behavioral activities associated with the controlled use of fire at FxJj20 Main, Koobi Fora, Kenya'
Journal of Human Evolution 27(1, 2, 3): pages 173-195
Benditt, John 1989. 'Cold water on the fire: a recent survey casts doubt on evidence for early use of fire.'
Scientific American, May 1989: pages 21-22.
James, Steven R.1989. 'Hominid use of fire in the lower and middle Pleistocene. A review of the evidence.'
Current Anthropology, vol. 30 (1): pages 1-26.
Patel, Tara 1995. 'Burnt stones and rhino bones hint at earliest fire.'
New Scientist, June 17, 1995: page 5.
Industrially available foods' nutrient profiles - congruence with evolutionary available foods' nutrient profiles
Rhee, K.S. et al. 1988. 'Effect of dietary high-oleic sunflower oil on pork carcass traits and fatty acid profiles of raw tissues.'
Meat Science, 24:249-260
Shackelford, S.D.,et al. 1990. 'Effects of feeding elevated
of monounsaturated fats to growing-finishing swine on
acceptability of low-fat sausage.'
Journal of Food Science, 55:1497-1500
Savage, G.P. et al. 1998. 'Vitamin E content and oxidative stability of fatty acids in walnut oils'
Proceedings of the Nutrition Society of New Zealand, 23, 81-90
Prevention and Remediation of Western industro-dietary degenerative diseases through selection of natural foods
Chisholm A, et al. 1998. 'A diet rich in walnuts favorably influences plasma fatty acid profile in moderately hyperlipidaemic subjects'
European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 52(1): 12-6
Ros, Emilio, et al. 2000. 'Substituting walnuts for monounsaturated fat improves the serum lipid profile of hypercholesterolemic men and women: A randomized crossover trial.'
Annals of Internal Medicine, April 4, 2000
Zwarts L, Savage G P, McNeil D. 1999. 'Fatty acid content of New Zealand-grown walnuts (Juglans regia L.).
International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition. 1999. Vol 50. p 189-194.
If you have a book, paper, proceedings, with excellent content that ought to be listed here for further reading, please contribute it. E-mail me at email@example.com Always happy to receive review copies of publications, as well. (apologies - email address has been wrong yet again - now definitely repaired!)