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I am a politically-progressive, ethically-herbivorous anthropoid pursuing a paleontology education in the Los Angeles Basin. I am largely nocturnal, have rarely been photographed, and cannot thrive in captivity.

14 May 2011

What, No Bugs?! -- Paleo-Diet Paper Reveals Glaring Blind Spot

I don't pay as much attention to the "paleo diet" blogosphere as I probably should, seeing as how my humble blog now appears on their Paleobuzz site... so it took me a while to come across this paper written by several head honchos of the paleo diet movement. From what I can tell, it hasn't been discussed too much on any of the paleo-diet blogs.

Now maybe that's because because I don't pay much attention to them and simply haven't noticed. Or maybe it's because the authors undermine an important tenet of the "paleo-diet's" paleofantastical view of the Stone Age:
Secondly, in contrast to common belief, hunting probably played a less dominant role from a nutritional point of view compared with gathering, and on average, it makes up 35% of the subsistence base for present-day worldwide hunter–gatherers, independent of latitude or
environment(27,37). For example, hunting by some surviving hunter–gatherers is still not very successful: the probability for a kill in !Kung bushmen is only 23%(37), and the subsistence of Hadzabe, as described by Woodburn(39), consists of 80% plant foods. In the Paleolithic, however, hunting might have been more productive, due to both higher animal biomass and hunter–gatherers not being displaced to marginal environments, unattractive for crop cultivation or cattle. Consequently, we chose the employed ratios within the range of the most commonly observed hunter–gatherer subsistence ratios(26,27).
In other words, if extant hunter-gatherers equipped with advanced stone tools and modern weapons have such low hunting success rates, it's probably not reasonable to assume that Paleolithic ones did much better. They likely relied more on subsistence plant foods and scavenged meats than they did on big game hunting. This notion contradicts a great deal of what I, at least, have seen in my brief sojourns through the paleo-diet realm, where you'd think hominids are descended from wolves or something, the way resident armchair anthropologists lionize paleo-hunting at the expense of paleo-gathering.

For this reason, the team exclude from their studied ranges the possibility of Paleolithic diets gaining more than 70 percent of the their energy from animal-derived sources; a higher percentage seems inconceivable to them, given the technological constraints they note (to their credit). Personally, I'd say even the 70 percent range is being awfully generous, and would set the upper possible range no higher than 50 percent, and even that would be pushing it.

But that's just splitting hairs. What's more interesting to me about this paper isn't which foods it includes, but which ones it leaves out. The team focus their models on the conundrum of whether early man met his protein and fatty acid needs through various ratios of fish-to-plants-to-terrestrial mammal organs; and in doing so, they unknowingly reveal a confirmation bias in favor of the sorts of animals that modern Western humans prefer to eat.

In short, there are no bugs or worms in this paper. It's as though someone took a big can of Raid to the authors' paleo-imaginations. So steeped are they in their Western food bias and paleofantasies that the possibility of Paleolithic man fulfilling his nutrient requirements with a diet of creepy-crawlies never occurred to them.

But it should have. Insects, grubs, worms and other terrestrial invertebrates have long provided humans and other primates with nutrients, and continue doing so today in most parts of the world. The UN, at least, if not the paleo-diet movement, has taken notice.

What's more, insects have essential fatty acid and protein profiles comparable to poultry and fish. There's no good reason terrestrial invertebrates -- hell, let's just call them "bugs" --  should be excluded either from studies or lifestyles that purport to replicate H. sapiens' "ancestral" diet. But they usually are.

For the most part, bugs remain invisible to such researchers, and to the movement they spawned. By and large, paleo-diet bloggers and writers focus on the traditional American meat sources and indulge themselves in fantasies of a Paleolithic populated by spear-toting personal trainers. Bug-eating just doesn't sell books, I guess.

Entomophagy is conspicuously absent from this "paleo-diet" study, as it is from most of the paleo-diet movement that I have seen. And further, this study itself has been conspicuously absent from the "paleo" blogosphere. Both absences tell us more about the confirmation biases and paleofantasies of modern Western humans than the study itself can ever tell us about the trophic strategies of Paleolithic hominids.

I, of course, do not advocate eating insects or any other animals. But that's just me, and a bunch of other wacky vegans. Nonetheless, I'd be interested to see how popular these (allegedly) "paleo"-diet authors and bloggers would remain if they started admitting that the Paleolithic diet was probably more Fear Factor than Fat Head.

At least National Geographic, bless them, was kind enough to lend a pre-emptive helping hand with some handy bug recipes. Eat that, Cordain, Eaton, et. al.


  1. As a vegan who doesn't eat honey, but will swat at a mosquito if one comes feeding, I have often wondered if bugs could be used as part of a "vegan" diet from a humane point of view. I personally don't think I could stomach it and I'm happy and healthy being vegan over 15 years, but I don't know if I would be against eating roaches on ethical grounds.

  2. That's an interesting point, Linda. Personally, I don't think bugs could be part of a vegan diet, because insects are animals, and "vegan" by definition means no animal products.

    The ethical question is another matter. Ethical vegans don't eat crab, lobster or shrimp, which are just bugs who live in the sea. The case against eating crab, lobster and shrimp is the case against eating bees, grasshoppers and, yes, even roaches.

  3. I'd love to quote you on this subject. I write about entomophagy: www.girlmeetsbug.com. Our opinions may differ regarding omnivory, but at least we agree the modern take on the Paleo-diet overlooks bugs!

  4. @veganlinda, for your purphose the easiest way is to step off your high horse and be a flexitarian. It saves you a lot of hassle and makes you look cooler while at the same time you can do things rendered: "humane".

  5. @Anonymous, oh you mean a hypocrite?

  6. Your post is very interesting with readable material. I am waiting such more stuff from you in future. Diet Program.

  7. What bugs would be "safe" to an Westerner? Worms? NO WAY! I think one could start up with dried grasshoppers. Aren't there Native American traditions that ate scorpions? Maybe a home grown cricket farm raise with organic house hold waste that you can buy a "Whole foods" for $9.87/lbs. I think you got something here my friend.

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  8. Hi there - I would love to quote this blog piece in my upcoming book on entomophagy, but can't find your contact information, nor to whom I could credit the quotation?