The Paleo diet was vegetarian?

What did Stone Age people eat before the advent of agriculture about 10,000 years ago? The long-standing stereotype that has influenced modern fad diets is that ancient people hunted large animals and ate mammoth steaks.

However, new research on a Paleolithic group called the Iberomaurians, hunter-gatherers who buried their dead in the Taforalt Cave in present-day Morocco 13,000-15,000 years ago, adds to a growing body of evidence that challenges the notion that human ancestors relied primarily on meat, according to a study published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Scientists analyzed chemical signatures preserved in bones and teeth belonging to at least seven different Ibero-Mauritians and found that plants, not meat, were the main source of protein in their diet.

"Our analysis showed that these hunter-gatherer groups included a large amount of plant matter, wild plants, in their diet, which changed our understanding of the diet of pre-cultural populations," says the study's lead author Zineb Mubtahij, a PhD student at Géosciences Environnement Toulouse, a research institute in France, and at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

The share of plant resources as a source of dietary protein in the people whose remains were studied is similar to that seen in the early farmers of the Levant, the present-day countries of the eastern Mediterranean where plant domestication and agriculture were first documented.

The researchers also noted a greater number of caries among the Taforalt specimens than is typically seen in the remains of hunter-gatherers of the period. According to the study, the evidence suggests that Iberomaurus consumed "fermentable starchy plants" such as wild cereals or acorns. The findings raise some intriguing questions about how agriculture spread across different regions and populations.

"While not all individuals in Taforalt obtained their protein primarily from plants, it is unusual to document such a high proportion of plants in the diet of a pre-agricultural population," co-author Clervia Jauin, a researcher at Géosciences Environnement Toulouse, said in an email.

"This is probably the first time that such a significant plant component in the Paleolithic diet has been documented using isotopic techniques," Jaouen adds. | BGNES