Forget Paleo—We're All About the Neolithic Diet

Eating lots of whole grains, legumes and a bit of animal protein here and there? Sounds awesome.

Grains, like barley, were grown by our Paleolithic ancestors, who used animal manure to fertilize some crops. (Photo: Ray Sandusky/Getty Images)

Jul 16, 2013· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

If you find the dogma and strictness of the Paleo Diet grating, let us propose an anthropologically inspired alternative: The Neolithic Diet. A new study of ancient farming sites suggests that our ancient European ancestors relied on the harvests from fields of grain and legumes, and didn’t eat all that much meat.

In the study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers looked at the isotope determinations of “charred cereals and pulses from 13 Neolithic sites across Europe (dating ca. 5900–2400 cal B.C.).” Examining the isotopes—specifically nitrogen-15 and carbon-13—led the authors of the study to determine that “early farmers used livestock manure and water management to enhance crop yields.”

So Neolithic farmers were not unlike any other sustenance farmers—they grew nutritionally dense grains and legumes, plants they put more effort into growing than the pasture crops they let livestock graze on. Agriculturally, they appear to have been a savvy bunch—in Greece in particular. According to Discover Magazine,

“Researchers also discovered, at one Greek site dating back 7,800 years, strategic use of manure: farmers there concentrated on manuring wheat and pulses but expended little to none of the resource on barley, which is more tolerant of poor soil.”

And nitrogen-15, the isotope that points toward the use of manure to fertilize Neolithic staple crops, appears to rewrite the story many like to tell about the place meat held in ancient diet. See, nitrogen-15 is found in the bodies of our ancient ancestors from this period. Previously, the isotope was thought to indicate an animal protein-rich diet. But eating plants fertilized with animal manure can also result in the presence of nitrogren-15 in the body. As Discover reads the new research, “previous studies may have grossly underestimated the importance of cereals and pulses in the typical European diet at the time.”

Not only did Neolithic farmers eat a plant-heavy diet, they may not have been as inclined to an itinerate lifestyle either. Because working with fertilizer isn’t just about this season’s crops—it’s about the next season’s and the season after and the season ten or 15 seasons from then. It’s about managing and maintaining a plot of fertile land for future generations. “The authors conclude that early farmers recognized the inherent value of intensively managed land and sought to maintain it for their descendants,” writes Science Daily.

Last night, before I learned about the study, I mixed up a batch of bread dough, which is currently rising in my refrigerator. I’ll bake it when I get home tonight, and eat a few thick-crusted slices with my dinner, which may very well be vegetarian. In other words, I’ll be eating Neolithic tonight.

Correction: An earlier version of this story conflated the Paleolithic with the Neolithic.