Diversity in Prehistoric diet or why the “Paleo” diet is myth

On June 1st, Counter Culture is taking its Neolithic cheese making experiment to the Discovery Zone, for York’s annual Festival of Ideas. So, we thought this would be a good time to blog a little more about the outreach side of the project and why we’ve been making cheese (other than because it tastes good!).

Counter Culture is interested in getting people talking how assumptions we make about the history of our diets informs the food choices we make today. For example, we often think of milk as an essential part of the “food wheel” in the UK, but we have adapted to drink milk since the Neolithic. The project will be also be researching at how diversity and change in diet in prehistory impacted on social organisation in the Neolithic; aiming to illustrate how deeply culturally our food choices really are.

Food is constantly in the headlines today. Either as a boost to health or a barrier to it, what we eat is under constant scrutiny. This tells us something interesting about food and diet. Rather than just providing the sufficient fuel for life, what we eat is shaped by social norms and practices that frame daily routines and special occasions. The research that we’ve carried out into Prehistoric diet, suggests that food and diet was just as shaped by social practices, as by a need for calories. Rather than there being one prehistoric diet, prehistory is characterised by flexibility in diet as well as ingenuity and care in its preparation. Humans have uniquely adapted to almost environments and built their diets out of each specific environmental setting.   

This is no clearer than in the case of cheese and dairy products, an element of the modern diet shunned by proponents of the “Paleo” diet. Only a third of the world’s adult population can digest milk today (they have the ability to digest the lactose sugars in milk). Based on current aDNA research, this ability has evolved since the Bronze Age. This means that if Neolithic people wanted to consume dairy products without experiencing the unpleasant symptoms associated with being unable to digest milk sugars, they need someway to remove the lactose. Processing milk into cheese (separating the curds and whey) removes the sugars as they stay in the whey. We are now finding evidence that they did so. Scientific analysis has shown that dairy products were processed in pots, and may have been associated with particular times of the year or special monuments.