Nutrition Research Reviews

Review Article

A multidisciplinary reconstruction of Palaeolithic nutrition that holds promise for the prevention and treatment of diseases of civilisation

Remko S. Kuipersa1, Josephine C. A. Joordensa2 and Frits A. J. Muskieta1 c1

a1 Laboratory Medicine, University Medical Center Groningen (UMCG), Groningen, The Netherlands

a2 Human Origins Group, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, Leiden, The Netherlands

Abstract

Evolutionary medicine acknowledges that many chronic degenerative diseases result from conflicts between our rapidly changing environment, our dietary habits included, and our genome, which has remained virtually unchanged since the Palaeolithic era. Reconstruction of the diet before the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions is therefore indicated, but hampered by the ongoing debate on our ancestors' ecological niche. Arguments and their counterarguments regarding evolutionary medicine are updated and the evidence for the long-reigning hypothesis of human evolution on the arid savanna is weighed against the hypothesis that man evolved in the proximity of water. Evidence from various disciplines is discussed, including the study of palaeo-environments, comparative anatomy, biogeochemistry, archaeology, anthropology, (patho)physiology and epidemiology. Although our ancestors had much lower life expectancies, the current evidence does neither support the misconception that during the Palaeolithic there were no elderly nor that they had poor health. Rather than rejecting the possibility of ‘healthy ageing’, the default assumption should be that healthy ageing posed an evolutionary advantage for human survival. There is ample evidence that our ancestors lived in a land–water ecosystem and extracted a substantial part of their diets from both terrestrial and aquatic resources. Rather than rejecting this possibility by lack of evidence, the default assumption should be that hominins, living in coastal ecosystems with catchable aquatic resources, consumed these resources. Finally, the composition and merits of so-called ‘Palaeolithic diets’, based on different hominin niche-reconstructions, are evaluated. The benefits of these diets illustrate that it is time to incorporate this knowledge into dietary recommendations.

Correspondence:

c1 Corresponding author: Dr Frits A. J. Muskiet, fax +31 50 361 2290, email f.a.j.muskiet@umcg.nl

Footnotes

Abbreviations: AA, arachidonic acid; ALA, α-linolenic acid; en%, percentage energy; EQ, encephalisation quotient; Kya, thousand years ago; LA, linoleic acid; MCSFA, medium-chain SFA; Mya, million years ago; RAR, retinoic acid receptor; RXR, retinoid X receptor; TR, thyroid hormone receptor; VDR, vitamin D receptor