Traces of true paleo diet emerge from muck in northern Israel

A new study by Israeli archaeologists reveals diverse plant diet, adventurous eating of our ancestors 780,000 years ago

Ilan Ben Zion is an AFP reporter and a former news editor at The Times of Israel.

Want to dump the hype and take up an authentic paleo diet? Archaeologists from Israel have a grocery list 780,000 years old.

Until recently, archaeologists scarcely knew what early humans’ diets consisted of, but a new study by scientists at several Israeli universities has cataloged a wide array of edible plants found at an archaeological site continuously inhabited by humans for over 50,000 years during the Pleistocene era.

Most of what scientists know about ancient human diets deep in prehistory comes from the bones left over from meals found at archaeological sites. Animal proteins have a clear bias because bone and shell survive. What vegetables they ate was less clear: plant matter decomposes and is rarely preserved over millennia.

The plant remains found at Gesher Banot Ya’akov in northern Israel, which include 55 different types of fruits, seeds, nuts, roots and vegetables, are the “earliest known archive of food plants,” according to the authors of the paper published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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The site dates to the Achuelean period, around 780,000 years ago, making the people who ate these plants your relatives 39,000 generations distant, give or take.

Tiny grape pip, Vitis sylvestris from 780,000 ago. (Credit: Yoel Melamed)
Tiny grape pip, Vitis sylvestris from 780,000 ago. (Credit: Yoel Melamed)

The researchers from Bar-Ilan University, Tel Aviv University, University of Haifa and Hebrew University studied over 100,000 fragments, of which more than 22,000 were fruits and seeds.

The discovery was the culmination of decades of examining tiny fragments of material unearthed from the prehistoric shoreline of the ancient predecessor of Hula Lake. The waterlogged soil of the lake, which flooded and shrank regularly over the eons, helped preserve the tiny remnants of organic material.

Analysis of the plants shows that our hominin ancestors — in this case likely Homo erectus — consumed a “huge array of sources” of food, many of which were “totally different from the point of origin,” Naama Goren-Inbar of Hebrew University, one of the co-authors of the paper, told The Times of Israel.

Excavations in the waterlogged prehistoric site of Gesher Benot Ya'aqov. (Credit: Naama Goren-Inbar)
Excavations in the waterlogged prehistoric site of Gesher Benot Ya’aqov. (Credit: Naama Goren-Inbar)

The remnants were just part of a “broad spectrum diet” that was likely supplemented by animal protein from “fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals, such as fallow deer, elephants, and various aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates.”

The flora found included acorns, grapes, water chestnuts, almonds, pears and raspberries, to mention a handful.

The starchy white seeds of Euryale ferox, also known as the gorgon nut, were among the most numerous. “These are water nuts that are extremely nutritious,” Goren-Inbar said. Previous studies indicated the gorgon nut could have been popped like corn (which is still done today in India).

Collection of 780,000 year old remains of edible plants. (Credit: Yoel Melamed)
Collection of 780,000 year old remains of edible plants. (Credit: Yoel Melamed)

Having left Africa through the Levantine corridor, modern day Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, Homo erectus and Homo sapiens encountered new plants and animals indigenous to the Mediterranean.

“Our results change previous notions of paleo diet and shed light on hominin abilities to adjust to new environments and exploit different flora, facilitating population diffusion, survival, and colonization beyond Africa,” the authors of the study wrote.

“The fact that we have evidence of consumption and utilization and knowledge of these species means that the power of adaptability of these hominins was quite sophisticated,” Goren-Inbar said.

Moreover, evidence of the use of controlled fire at the site over a decade ago, coupled with the discovery of plants inedible or toxic unless heated, indicates these people must have been cooking their vegetables.

“Once you have control over fire, you can have more edible plants than without the fire, because you get rid of all the tannins and all the poisonous components that exist in some of the plants that they consumed,” Goren-Inbar said.

While no hominin remains have been found at Gesher Benot Ya’aqov, archaeologists found a bounty of stone tools.


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