Mar 31, 2014
The paleo diet
gets a lot of things right. First and foremost, it’s a simple and effective system for reducing your daily calories without starving or depriving yourself of important nutrients. The recommended foods include most of the best protein sources—meat, fish, poultry, eggs—along with plenty of fruit, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. It’s hard to go wrong with a diet in which 100 percent of the foods are unprocessed, with no added sugar or salt.
But no one should ever claim with a straight face that it represents what people actually ate in the Paleolithic, an era that started roughly 2.5 million years ago and lasted until the rise of agriculture about 10,000 years ago. Or what more recent hunter-gatherer tribes ate, and in some cases still eat, according to historians and anthropologists.
Some of their culinary choices seem like they’re straight out of your worst nightmare, if your nightmares resemble zombie movies, giving you a whole new appreciation for our modern food industry. Bring on the candy corn!
1. Rumen noodles
“Chyme” is a sweet word for a food source that’s objectively sour: the semi-digested stomach contents of animals. It’s not just a meal ready to eat. It’s already eaten.
Why stomach stew? Imagine you’re a caveman living in an ice age. You have zero access to plant food for months at a time. Along comes an unsuspecting herbivore, looking for moss and lichen and whatever else it can scrape off rocks or bark. After you kill it, those stomach contents give you the first hot meal of the day—no microwave required—and provide nutrients you wouldn’t otherwise get, including active live cultures to aid digestion.
Nearly every pre-modern society had a thing for it, and not just for food. The Kuria in East Africa would rub the chyme of cattle, goats, and sheep all over their bodies, using it as a magical perfume to protect them from bad people. (Maybe it’s just us, but we can’t imagine it would take a lot of magic to persuade bad guys to stay away from someone slathered in goat guts in the boiling African heat.)
Closer to home, Inuits of the 19th and 20th centuries were observed eating partly fermented, pre-digested mush from the rumen of reindeer. Deer, like cattle and sheep, are called ruminants because they digest food through a circular process of chewing, digesting (in a part of the stomach called the rumen), regurgitating, chewing again, and repeating.
If you’ve ever wondered where the word “ruminate” comes from, now you know. Good luck trying to forget.
2. The original Gatorade
Many a young man has taken a sip of a flat, warm beer and said to himself, “Ugh! That tastes like buffalo ****!” And of course nobody would ever drink such a thing on purpose, right?
The Comanche were the most deadly and feared fighting force of the early 19th century on America’s Great Plains. On a long hunt in hot, dry weather, they would sometimes ride for a day or two between water sources. The risk of dehydration, and loss of electrolytes, would’ve been considerable.
The solution, according to Empire of the Summer Moon, a history of the Comanche, was found inside the bison they hunted. As soon as the magnificent mammal bit the prairie, they scrambled for its juicy innards. “Children would … squirt the salty bile from the gallbladder onto the liver and eat it on the spot, warm and dripping blood,” author Sam Gwynne writes.
All fluids were appreciated, including “warm curdled milk from the stomach of a suckling calf.” That warm beer doesn’t look so bad now, does it?
3. Man ham
All in all, the Comanche were so good at what they did that they were typically healthy and robust. But that’s not why a rival tribe, the Tonkawa, were known to eat the Comanche warriors they killed in combat. They were after more than lean protein.
Today we think of cannibalism in terms of the Donner party—something desperate people do during desperate times. But archaeologists and historians have found lots of evidence of cannibalism throughout human history, including the remains of 11 juveniles who were butchered and eaten 800,000 years ago at a cave in Spain. Our close cousins, the Neanderthals, were also known to have feasted on their own.
The open question is why. Did they enjoy the taste of hominid flesh? Was there a nutritional advantage to Soylent Green over, say, chyme? Were they simply desperate? Or was there a ritualistic or magical element that had little to do with appetite?
For the Tonkawa, it was the latter. The goal was to absorb the mojo of their badass enemies. That’s according to an eyewitness report of dead-guy goulash from Noah Smithwick, one of the rare palefaces to live and travel with Indian tribes in the 1800s: “Having fleeced off the flesh of the dead Comanche, they borrowed a big wash kettle … into which they put the Comanche meat, together with a lot of corn and potatoes – the most revolting mess my eyes ever rested on.”