Meat-Based or Plant-Based: What Did Paleo Humans Really Eat?

by Alejandra "Alex" Ruani — Get free science updates here.

Conveniently download this 55-page Science Report. Contains links to extra reading materials and scientific references.

The “Paleo diet” craze has swept into the world of nutrition since 2002, when American author Loren Cordain published the book The Paleo Diet.

This “modern” Paleo (or caveman) diet is based on eating the same foods as humans ate during the Paleolithic Era.

But… how do we know what Paleolithic humans really ate?

Some followers believe the majority of the Paleolithic diet was meat-based. While others are in favour of a more plant-based regime.

Which one is it? And how can we tell for sure?

We dive into the scientific record to find out!

Grab “Meat-Based or Plant-Based: What Did Paleo Humans Really Eat?” below:


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Conveniently download this 55-page Science Report. Contains links to extra reading materials and scientific references.

Topics covered in this report:

  1. What did Paleo humans really eat?
  2. What was the Paleolithic Era?
  3. What is the modern “Paleo diet”?
  4. Paleo yes… and Paleo no-no
  5. Are such assumptions correct?
  6. Human morphology changes
  7. The archaeological record
  8. Plant to meat ratio
  9. Could bone chemistry hold the key?
  10. Understanding stable isotopes
  11. Carbon and nitrogen isotopes
  12. Meat-based vs plant-based 13C:15N
  13. Figure: Carbon and Nitrogen Ratios
  14. A meaty debate
  15. So, plant-based or meat-based?
  16. Geographic variation examples
  17. What about aquatic food sources?
  18. Did a “universal” Paleo diet exist?
  19. Modern-day hunter-gatherers
  20. Map: Environmental Influences
  21. Another history lesson…
  22. Neanderthals as the “true” Paleo?
  23. Top-level carnivorous tendencies
  24. Taurine dependency
  25. Finding a common ground
  26. Calorie-dense processed foods
  27. Research on trending Paleo diets
  28. Health benefits of a Paleo-type diet
  29. Paleo vs diabetic guidelines
  30. The other side of the story
  31. Is Paleo only healthy for the unhealthy?
  32. Paleo guidelines matter
  33. Going wild
  34. Can we follow a “true” Paleo diet?
  35. “Paleo” plant foods that no longer exist
  36. Selective breeding
  37. Unrecognisable Paleolithic broccoli
  38. … and Paleolithic carrots
  39. Your key takeaways
  40. Learn more
  41. References and resources


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Alex Ruani leads the research division at The Health Sciences Academy, where she and her team make sense of complex scientific literature and translate it into easy-to-understand practical concepts for students. She is a Harvard-trained scientific researcher who specialises in cravings and appetite neurobiology, nutrition biochemistry, and nutrigenomics. Besides investigating and teaching the latest advances in health and nutrition science, Alex makes it easier to be smarter with her free Science Catch-ups every other Thursday.
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  • Philip Watling

    Reply Reply August 7, 2015

    We are omnivores so should eat vegetables, plants, leaves, fruits and meat, fish etc. The world is our oyster! We have the anatomy of a caveman though even though our brains are in the stars. Biologically we are basically still hunter-gatherers not couch potatoes! We should eat what we can find and what is available – so strawberries in December is very wrong!

    In no way am I saying the vegetarians are right, but we should be more like that. Meat is hard to catch – especially big animals – and fish is only available near rivers or the sea. Small mammals, like rabbits, would be most of the meat consumed (NB in the UK it would be hares, as rabbits were brought here by the Romans I believe and so would not be available!), and boar (which also fight back!), ox etc would be for a Sunday roast… Processed meat is anathema!

    Sugar is rare and produced by bees, which sting and that hurts, but by God it’s worth it for the sweet delights of honey. Eating it (sugar) every day though in myriad foods? It’s no wonder we are all getting fatter. That and the fact that we don’t run after are prey, we sit on the sofa and phone for a take-away :P

  • Philip Watling

    Reply Reply August 9, 2015

    Hi Maria, sadly no. It did sound like an interesting read but I have been so busy. Heck, I am busy most of the time! My views may be a wasted effort typing had I read the report and maybe in the future I will find a few moments to speed read one lol

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