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The Real Paleo Diet Includes Starchy Grains (and Bugs)

A new study shows how the cavemen really ate.

The most ardent paleo proponents think that starchy carbs are toxic. Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, they argue, wouldn't have encountered such agricultural foods. So it's all meat, nuts, seeds, and vegetables for this crew.

But a study published today finds a more well-rounded diet for cavemen, one that included both meats and starchy grains, both served raw. Oh, and bugs. The cavemen ate bugs.

The discovery came from the University of York, when a trio of scientists went full dentist on a 1.2-million-year-old skeleton. The specimen had been fossilized in the limestone caves of northern Spain, and scientists extracted "microfossils" from its teeth. They found raw animal tissue, bugs, pollen, and grass—the artisanal starchy plant food of the day. The researchers also found what might be a toothpick fragment wedged in the skeleton's teeth (presumably for those pesky bug legs).

These starches were likely critical for prehistoric man's growth, says study author Karen Hardy. "This has important implications for human evolution," she says. "Early hominins definitely did eat carbohydrates, which were necessary to enable the brain to develop."

The fact that the food wasn't cooked also comes as a surprise. Most experts believe that early humans were using fire 1.8 million years ago, says Hardy. But the first definitive instances were really only about 800,000 years ago, in Spain and Israel. Regardless, the researchers found no signs of char on the food morsels—nor did they find signs of ingested "micro charcoal," which would have indicated that the hominin had been standing near fire.

The question about when humans began preparing food over fire is significant in understanding our evolutionary history. "Cooked carbs provide even greater energy," says Hardy, "And cooking helped our increasing brain size to grow even faster." Further, she notes that salivary amylase, an enzyme that helps digest carbs, likely evolved alongside cooking.

So when your meat-eating, CrossFit-loving, joy-hating pal-eos chastise you for dipping into the bread basket, tell them to shove it. Their diets are as misguided as everybody else's.