Paleo Potatoes? Cooking Carbs Helped Early Humans Develop Big Brains

A new study is the latest research on early humans to cast doubt on the popular contemporary diet.
(Photo: Flickr)
Aug 14, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

If you’re convinced that eating like a caveman will make you healthier and that doing so requires disavowing the culinary delights that are bread, potatoes, and other starchy, carb-y food, think again.

A new study that’s bound to draw the ire of Paleo diet fans would suggest otherwise: The research, published in The Quarterly Review of Biology, argues that the addition of carbohydrates to hunter-gatherer diets played a significant role in humans developing larger brains. In other words, without carbs, we might not have the brain capacity to contemplate history and evolution and come up with ideas like a pre–agrarian revolution diet in the first place. We’d be too busy foraging.

Unlike research that has looked at the shift from a diet dominated by raw, fiber-heavy plants to a meat-centric one as being key to the development of humans’ outsize brain, the authors of the paper, The Importance of Dietary Carbohydrate in Human Evolution, say that both cooking and the development of multiple amylase genes, both of which break down carbs, were both “necessary to accommodate the increased metabolic demands of a growing brain.”

Unlike raw starches, which are hard to digest and offer up few nutrients, carbs that are both cooked and broken down by amylase enzymes are far more digestible and offer up a lot of nutrition.

Other research has highlighted the importance of starches, even wheat, to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Back in February, a study published in the journal Science reported on newly discovered evidence suggesting that hunter-gatherers living on the Isle of Wight in what is today the United Kingdom were trading for wheat grown by agrarian communities far to the east 2,000 years before they learned to grow it themselves. Other research investigated tooth decay in human skeletons from up to 15,000 years ago to find evidence suggesting that carbs were an important part of the pre-farming diet.

The new research likely reaches further back into the Paleolithic era: Cooking with fire may have been discovered around 1.8 million years ago, and the increase in the number of amylase genes likely occurred less than 1 million years ago. The two developments, according to the research, kicked off the growth in brain size seen during the Middle Pleistocene, a period that began nearly 800,000 years ago.

Of course, the gruel made from wild tubers and other preagricultural starches are a far cry from, say, highly processed Wonder Bread. But while going Paleo likely means that you’ll be eating healthier—more vegetables and healthy fats, little to no sugar—the demonization of grains and starches so often associated with the diet continues to lose its historical footing.