Moving Away From The Stone Age

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…to new modern issues

by Charlotte Watts

When you’re walking through the supermarket, picking up boxes and plastic wrappings and then taking them to your car, do you ever consider how very different this how our ancestors were living? It may not seem relevant to our lives now to look back to our distant past, but those who shared our original genes also shaped how our bodies are programmed to behave and respond.

In larger historical terms, it is not too long ago that farming was a completely new way of life. It was still unheard of 10,000 years ago when we were still living a hunting and gathering lifestyle, feeding off what the land provided and moving around with its changing supplies; nomadic and opportunistic.

Now, 10,000 years may seem a fair stretch away but when you think that our DNA evolved from this lifestyle and that the first ‘anatomically acting’ humans (Homo sapiens) first appeared in the last Ice Age at 140,000-110,000 B.C., it starts to seem like recent history. It is at this time – with its harsh and ever-changing climate – that the dietary and lifestyle conditions that shaped our bodies’ needs began to be defined.

Evidence of our ‘behaviourally modern’ ancestors has been dated at around 40,000 to 35,000 B.C. when new types of stone and bone tools, cave paintings and elaborate burial signs show the beginnings of more ‘civilised’ behaviour. From this time up to 10,000-8,000 B.C. we were still full hunter-gatherers although we had begun processing some food by pounding, grinding, scraping, roasting and baking, even employing forward thinking and storing some of plant foods over harsh winters. This whole last period of our existence before farming (around 40,000-9,000 B.C.) is referred to as the ‘Stone Age’.

Although starting to become more modern in our treatment of food, we were still predominantly eating animals that we could kill and only plant foods that we could find or forage. However the most fundamental change that our diets received was beginning around the end of the Stone Age (the ‘Mesolithic’ era 20,000-9,000 B.C.); we had begun to gather wild grains including wheat and barley in Israel and grind them. Pestles and mortars found in what is now modern Israel dating to 17,000 B.C. mark the turning point; it was a profound step to transforming these undomesticated grains to the next, the beginning of agriculture and a huge change in our dietary habits.

Click here to find out more about The Hunter-Gatherer Diet.

Citing specific sources:

  • Foley, Robert, (1995) Humans Before Humanity. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, Inc.
  • Groves, Colin (1993) “Our earliest ancestors.” In: Burenhult, Goran (ed.), The First Humans: Human Origins and History to 10,000 B.C. New York: Harper-Collins Publishers.
  • Burenhult, Goran (ed.) (1993a) The First Humans: Human Origins and History to 10,000 B.C. New York: Harper-Collins Publishers.
  • Scarre, Chris (ed.) (1993) Smithsonian Timelines of the Ancient World: A Visual Chronology from the Origins of Life to A.D. 1500. New York: Dorling Kindersley.
  • Eaton, S. Boyd; Shostak, Marjorie; Konner, Melvin (1988b) The Paleolithic Prescription: A Program of Diet and Exercise and a Design for Living. New York: Harper & Row.
  • 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), pp. 1732-1740.
  • Eaton, S. Boyd (1992) “Humans, Lipids, and Evolution.” Lipids, vol. 27, no. 10 (1992), pp. 814-820.
  • Palmqvist, Lennart (1993) “First Farmers of the Western World.” In: Burenhult, Goran (ed.) People of the Stone Age: Hunter-Gatherers and Early Farmers. New York: Harper-Collins Publishers. (pp. 17-21, 24-26, 28-29, 32-35)
  • Ulijaszek, Stanley J. (1992) “Human dietary change.” In: Whiten A. and Widdowson E.M. (editors/organizers), 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. (pp. 111-119)