The Ancient Human Diet Is Starch-based

John McDougall, MD


Dr John McDougall

Starch grains on human teeth reveal early broad crop diet in northern Peru by Dolores Piperno reported in the December 16, 2008 issue of the Proceeding of the National Academy of Science, found plant parts on the teeth (dental plaque) of people who lived in Northern Peru as long as 11,200 years ago and concluded, “Starch grain studies of dental remains document plants and edible parts of them not normally preserved in archaeological records and can assume primary roles as direct indicators of ancient human diets and agriculture.”1

Researchers examined 39 human teeth found in northern Peru’s Nanchoc Valley from six to eight individuals. Some of the grains had been cooked.  The diet of these people was considered stable for possibly 5000 years (until 6000 years ago).  These people cultivated their crops close to their circular houses.  Starch granules from Lima beans, common beans, peanuts, nuts, squash, grains, and fruits were identified.

Comment:  Often the only findings reflecting the diet of ancient people are the hard bones of animals that are found near their ruins.  Any plant material has decayed and disappeared.  Because of this many people have come to the wrong conclusion that early people were primarily hunters and their diet was largely of meat.  However, this research adds support for my often-stated position, that all large populations of trim, healthy people, throughout written human history, have obtained the bulk of their calories from starch.

The early ancestors of modern humans, from at least 4 million years ago, followed diets almost exclusively of plant-foods. Beginning at least 250,000 years ago, people survived as hunter-gatherers with a subsistence standard of living, eating foods that extended from one extreme to the other in proportions of plant vs. animal foods—from the raw flesh and fat of marine mammals; the Arctic Eskimos—to diets composed largely of wild plants of the Western Desert; the Australian Aborigines.2 Hunter-gatherers took advantage of any dependable sources of food from their wild local environments.  Because of the ease and dependability (compared to obtaining animals), gathering fruits and vegetables was a primary source of food for most hunter-gatherer societies. The emphasis on hunting increased in higher latitudes because of plant scarcity.3 Examination of the dental remains of this ancient culture provides more clear evidence that the natural human diet is starch based.

1) Piperno DR, Dillehay TD. Starch grains on human teeth reveal early broad crop diet in northern Peru. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2008 Dec 16;105(50):19622-7.

2) Milton K.  Back to basics: why foods of wild primates have relevance for modern human health.  Nutrition. 2000 Jul-Aug;16(7-8):480-3.

3)  Milton K.  Hunter-gatherer diets-a different perspective.  Am J Clin Nutr. 2000 Mar;71(3):665-7.




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