Thoughts on the Paleo Diet From a Former Forager

Thoughts on the Paleo Diet From a Former Forager

As a person with a chronic illness, who believes in the healing power of diet, I spend a lot of time thinking about what I ought to eat: specific foods, food categories (fruits, starches, FODMAPS, etc.) and macronutrient ratios. I've read a lot about the rationale behind such food choices. Although I favor paleo, low-carb, and ketogenic style diets, I take issue with some of the statements. Statements like:

-"During the Stone Age, carbohydrates were very uncommon in the wild and consisted of occasional roots, wild fruit or honey. Overall, the availability of carbohydrates was uncommon.  Other than being on a tropical island, when was the last time you saw some fruit such as an apple or orange when walking in the woods?  These foods do not grow commonly in the wild.  They are cultivated plants that became more readily available after the agricultural revolution."- Dr. Nemcheck at nemcheckconsultativemedicine.com

-"On the daily scavenge menu: meats, nuts, leafy greens, regional veggies, some tuber and roots, the occasional berries or seasonal fruits and seeds that other animals hadn't decimated." -Mark Sisson at Mark's Daily Apple

-“If the early man ate fruits, then we can do so too without fear (at least, the ancient, low-sugar varieties)." -blog commenter on Chris Kresser's website

-"But long before these last low carbohydrate cultures were finally suppressed by the agricultural imperative, much of the world's populace subsisted (if not thrived) on continuous or intermittent carbohydrate restriction. For example agricultural carbohydrates such as wheat and rye did not come north of the Alps until brought by the Romans after the time of Christ." -Phinney and Volek in The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living.

-Fruit picked off a tree is available to the most nomadic hunters and gatherers, and fruit was definitely eaten well before the advent of agriculture, although theorizing about precisely what fruits were available during the Paleolithic is an exercise in wild speculation. All we can really tell is that we definitely didn’t evolve to eat a fruit-based diet like apes and chimpanzees, but probably ate at least some fruit as it was seasonally available. These wild fruits would have been small, difficult to get, and comparatively less juicy than their modern equivalents. To get some idea, take a camping trip somewhere in late summer, and go hunting for wild blueberries. If you’re lucky enough to find a patch, you’ll notice that they’re much smaller than the grocery-store equivalents, more acidic, and quite laborious to pick – tasty, but you’d have to scrabble around on your hands and knees all morning to get a fruit salad out of them. -Paleo Leap website

-“We were not evolved to eat much fruit! Modern fruit have been bred for high sugar content, among other things. Older fruit varieties are less sweet and succulent. Proto-fruits were typically sour or nearly so. Think crab apples vs. Fujis.” -mendosa.com (diabetes blog)

I don't have a problem with the paleo diet, or the general tenets of the paleo diet. I'm pro-paleo. I just find some of these explanations very uninformed and food-racist.

One problem is that when trying to formulate rules and guidelines for what is and isn't paleo is you end up with unwarranted prejudice against certain foods and food groups when the truth is more muddled. For example there may be no reason to NEVER eat something like a potato or a legume, and it may be frequency, and lack of variety of more nutrient dense foods in the diet that cause them to cause problems, but people begin to avoid them like the devil. Furthermore, when people say don't eat "legumes" what they really mean is don't eat kidney beans or lentils. But naive readers get the idea that legume=bad and avoid say, carob, a legume where the pod is eaten and seeds are discarded. Carob is a completely different story. Legumes are a gigantic plant family proffering many wild foods beyond dried beans.

On the other hand we don't want romanticize the past and eat things just for the sake of ancestral-correctness, while overlooking health. Perhaps it is healthier not to eat certain foods hunter gatherers ate frequently now that we have enough surplus and variety to choose any diet we want to. Or conversely to eat newer foods like dairy and grains.

One problem with defining a paleo diet is that in actuality the human diet has changed not just at that critical Neolithic juncture where farming began, but several times during the Paleolithic era. First with the advent of fire and then with the extinction of megafauna to name two. As the researcher Mat LeLonde would say, if we had cut off our diet at any point to only eat what we were eating right then under the presumption that we were not evolved to eat anything else, we wouldn't be here. Not having eaten a food before doesn't automatically mean we cannot tolerate it and even thrive on it. We owe our massive brains to thriving on new foods.

 In this article I will be using the word paleo as synomous with any stone-age hunter gatherer diet, which is how most people use it. Lots of paleo research draws from hunter gatherer tribes still alive today. Even though climate and cultural conditions are different the key point is that we consider these diets to be more similar to what people ate many thousands of years ago, than to grain-based agriculture. This is my justification for typifying a modern or time-of-contact North American wild diet as essentially paleolithic, though it is late to the game. Technically a native Californian diet could include camels which died out just 15,000 years ago, not that long in evolutionary time.

Manzanita, a dry berry of the western U.S. that would have stored well.

Manzanita, a dry berry of the western U.S. that would have stored well.

A Realistic Paleo Diet vs. Ideas about the Paleo Diet

They might be nitpicky, but here are some my top complaints. Most of them have to do with the prejudices against carb consumption as illustrated above.

Lack of Hands-on Experience with Hunting and Gathering by people making claims leads to conclusions that defy common sense

I am not trained in anthropology or evolutionary science or biochemistry or nutrition. I haven't read a single academic paper on paleolithic diets. However, I studied ethnobotany extensively from both an academic perspective in my undergrad years, even assisting college classes, and from a hands-on perspective, as an “experimental archaeologist”, if you will, a.k.a someone who has actually taught foraging professionally and practiced hunting and gathering in a variety of ecosystems including all four corners of the United States. I both gathered foods from the wild and read books on how the area natives lived wherever I moved. I did this for fun and as a lifestyle choice. There's no particular reason I don't forage anymore. I've simply moved on to other things.

We can only extrapolate what true hunting and gathering peoples may have eaten, because at the time of European contact when all the early records were made, many of the North American people were engaged in various forms of corn, beans, and squash agriculture and growing sunflowers, melons and other goodies. They supplemented this with hunting and gathering. Records also lie, but it's likely that the wild foods these people ate were the close to the same foods their more nomadic ancestors had been eating for millennia.

Few people making these assertions about the availability of carbs and fruit to hunter-gatherers have any experience with stone-age hunting and gathering, botany, or from the sounds of it even a modicum of outdoors experience themselves. These bookworms and internet addicts wouldn't know a carb in the wild if it came up and bit them in the bum. Which it wouldn't. That's why it's called hunting and gathering, or gathering and hunting as some anthropologists have proposed.

Although I have eaten a diet free of starch and fruit for healing my gut, I do not imagine that such a diet would be chosen by any group of people living off the land where carbs and starches were abundant, and abundant they are in all but the most brutal arctic conditions! In my studies I found that nearly every tribe relied heavily upon a storable wild starch of some sort. 

Apios americana, or groundnut. A common tuber of the eastern U.S.

Apios americana, or groundnut. A common tuber of the eastern U.S.

WHAT IS WILD? WHAT IS CULTIVATED?

Not only are fruits and tubers abundant in nature, so were numerous, not obvious to us heavy-handed farmers, forms of cultivation and natural selection. In fact there are few instances when the smart hunting and gathering of a plant species actually diminishes its productivity, or the productivity of the ecosystem as a whole:

  • Controlled burns which often lead to the proliferation of desirable edible plant species that enjoy the nutrient rich ash, sunlight, and early succession or savannah-like conditions, not only means more food for people but food for animals (or should I say other animals) as well. Then you can kill those animals and eat them!
  • The digging of tubers loosens the soil and promotes plant health (like when you divide your irises) which allows for more and larger tubers the next year, and if the digging is timed when the seeds of the parents plant have ripened and withered, those seeds can be accidentally or purposefully scattered back into the soil, a type of unrefined sowing. It just so happens that after the aerial parts have died is when the root is best anyway.
  • Some types of roots or rhizomes also grow whole new plants from broken pieces that get scattered and left behind. River bank plants spread really well this way as bits and pieces float downstream.
  • Choosing a tree or bush known to have the biggest tastiest fruits (cause duh, they're the biggest tastiest fruits) and then shitting out or discarding the seeds from that fruit elsewhere is a type of slow natural selection/propagation, the original seed bomb.
  • Native people absolutely planted and transplanted fruit trees that they liked in new locations, and also killed other trees around fruit trees to let in more light. 
  • Each time you collect the tender aerial parts of a green like a nettle, the plant sends out two more tender shoots in its place.
  • Certain berries like the tiny huckleberries of the pacific northwest are a pain in the ass to pick individually from the bush. Cutting off whole branches and dealing with the separation later, like when they could be dumped into water, was a form of pruning that encouraged denser berry growth, just as commercial farmers prune vines to encourage productive fruiting wood today.

As you can see, the line between hunting and gathering and farming is really more of a continuum than a line and it is my belief that both purposeful and accidental cultivation in the form of perennial polyculture has been around a very long time. We simply don't recognize it as “farming” because it doesn't look like the modern annual monocultures that developed approximate 10,000 years ago. Not saying these monocultures didn't represent some kind of abrupt shift in diet, just saying good foods like fruits and tubers have probably been getting bigger, sweeter, less toxic, and more abundant for awhile, all throughout our species history, and that any time I say wild in this article what I really mean is "wildish" or "wilder".

Although I am basing this article on my experiences with the abundance of wild carbs today and that could be suspect when applied to pre-agricultural Native Americans, it is quite possible that these particular wild plant foods were more abundant in the past and have suffered due to a lack of these sorts of subtle cultivation. Many of our denser forests and protected lands are actually devoid of food plants compared to more disturbed lands. Despite what we have been taught about what horrible rapists we are, removing humans, a keystone species, from the land can actually decrease biodiversity. I do feel that the lack of maintenance on older "crops" is probably balanced out by the abundance of weedy and invasive urban species that can serve as food such as burdock, kudzu, Himalayan blackberries, Japanese knotweed, etc., but that's just a guess. 

Anyway, not many people who believe tubers are hard to dig, or that most fruits were decimated by wild animals and humans were lucky to find them, understand that the upon discovery by Europeans the American wilderness was less a wilderness and more a carefully but invisibly tended garden and that wild humans make more suitable habitats for themselves just as naturally as do beavers.

American Lotus have tasty pinenut-like seeds.

American Lotus have tasty pinenut-like seeds.

CLAIMING Seasonality

One argument against fruit I take issue with is its so-called seasonality. If you go back to the quotes at the beginning of this piece you'll see the subtle undermining of fruit by deeming it “occasional” in comparison to the other foods. But fruits are really no more occasional that other foods. If you follow a seasonal eating cycle in the temperate latitudes of North America most every food has a season when it is the best, but also most every food can be stored. Nut caches could last for many years. 

Greens are pretty much best in spring when the growth is juicy and tender. Roots and tubers are pretty much best in fall after the growing green plant has died back, storing all its sugars after photosynthesizing in the summer sun (they could also be fine in winter but many places the ground is too frozen in winter to dig). Fruits are clearly best when they are ripe: summer-late summer. Animals have their seasons too. Hunter gatherers understood breeding seasons and knew not to fuck with their future. The fat composition of animals also changes throughout the year, not just the amount of fat, but some seasonal fats are better for long-term storage like pemmican making than fats from the same animal killed at a different time of year. In both cases the optimal time to slaughter an animal is fall, as our current hunting seasons replicate. In a snowy area animals are easier to track in winter and there are the least amount of other fresh foods available to gather. I'd probably hunt out of boredom if nothing else.  

Therefore all foods, not just fruit, have a peak season and diet composition would have shifted around these seasons and this would have flowed beautifully for us because we would have put on fat and become more sluggish just when we needed to hunker down for winter and gotten pepped up and leaned out again just when we needed to do our spring cleaning, in rhythm with our surroundings. I do think seasonal and local eating probably play an unappreciated role in health. But all of this it isn't so extreme as some make it out to be because we have a little thing called preservation. 

When people say fruits were "seasonal" are they saying that hunter gatherers are too dumb to collect and dry stuff? As we've all been warned, when fruits are dry, it is even easier to eat loads of sugar. Even some animals collect, dry, and store food so I'm pretty sure paleolithic people would, even if they were "nomadic". I think the problem arises because people are naive to the variety of implications of the word nomadic. They maybe only imagine cavemen traipsing across the Bering straight and down into, say, Washington, in the course of a year, constantly on the move, living day-to-day. The men carrying nothing but their spears, and the women carrying nothing but their babies.

This, of course, is not always the case. It is common for hunter gatherer tribes to move slowly perhaps staying in one valley for many years until it began to show wear, and then on to the next, or to move with the seasons with winter camps at low elevation and summer camps at high elevation but in the same general area, or to disperse into family groups and then reconvene into larger groups. These so-called nomadic people still had the ability to carry dried out-of-season foods with them and to stock up for the winter. It is likely they were rarely without some of the previous year's fruits, nuts, or meats. 

Plus if we are going to examine the probability of something being available in the wild to determine how often we should eat it, in my experience many paleo dieters list eggs as an unrestricted item and fruit/fructose as an item to consume in moderation. Yet eggs are not that abundant in the wild (and seasonal, don't forget, wild mallards, for example only have 1-2 broods a year). I've eaten only a few wild eggs myself in comparison with wild fruits (and not just because that's illegal and because you have to be prepared to eat a half-developed fetus which is a delicacy I find gross.) Hunter gatherers were probably careful not to eat too many eggs even when they found them, knowing that could decimate an animal population. But eggs are nutrient dense and therefore healthier than fruit, you say. Are they? Actually eggs are one of the top food allergens and sensitivities right up there with wheat, soy, and dairy. Just sayin.

The guy from evolvify.com would say “paleo is a logical framework applied to modern humans, not a historical reenactment.” I get that. Nevertheless, I find some of the framework as it currently is explained illogical and prejudicial. 

Nevada soft-shelled pine nuts. Full of PUFAs, but who cares!? 

Nevada soft-shelled pine nuts. Full of PUFAs, but who cares!? 

DISPARAGING CLAIMS AGAINST SIZE AND TASTE and AVAILABILITY OF WILD FRUITS

I've addressed this a bit already, but I'll address it some more. As a general rule the paleosphere is kind of sketched out about fruit, with the very low-carb crowd being the most skeeved, and some claiming all fructose is toxic and any spike whatsoever in bloodsugar is unhealthy. Fat-philia has turned into sugar-phobia. Do we really have to choose a side?

Regardless of whether fruit should be consumed sparingly, the claims about fruit like the ones cited at the beginning of this article just aren't true. There is fruit all over the woods if you know what to look for. 

There are also xenophobic cultural assumptions embedded in those statements. What about all the people who do live in tropical climates where larger wild fruits grow? Sapotes, mameys...I don't know enough about the tropics to know how different, say, a cultivated mango is from a wild mango, but I know in general a lot of cultivated species of fruit really aren't all that different from the wild ones, not as different as people have been led to believe. It is not like the difference between a McIntosh and an  astringent, sugarless crab apple (and by the way not all crabapples are bad raw, and many improve significantly with cooking).

Either way the crabapple in America has little to do with the wild apples of central Asia that produced our domestic apple and are now threatened:

One of these threatened species, Malus sieversii—a wild apple that Newton describes as "small but highly colored with a very nice sweet flavor"—is one of the key ancestors of all cultivated apples grown and eaten around the world. So rich and unique is this species, Newton says, that on one wild apple tree, "you can see more variation in apple form than you see in the entire cultivated apple crop in Britain. You can get variation in fruit size, shape, color, flavor, even within the tree, and certainly from tree to tree." -http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/apples-of-eden-saving-the-wild-ancestor-of-modern-apples/

Note he describes it as "very nice" and "sweet". Apples included, a lot of times all a wild plant needs is to get more light and water and maybe some better soil and it'll grow bigger and sweeter and produce more with no breeding at all. I'd wager that many of the tropical fruits are not so highly selected or altered from their native state.

Now I will concede that a lot of commercial fruits truly are twice as big as their wild counterparts and I would guess that whenever something gets bigger in size and its macronutrients increase its micronutrient value goes down since with a lot of vegetables and fruits contain the most vitamins and minerals in or close to the skin. But to categorize wild fruits on the whole as sour, tiny, hard to gather, or scarce, or ravaged by wild animals. It just ain't so. 

Here is a description of an ancient peach:

Based on the correlation between modern peach and pit sizes, the team estimate that the late Pliocene peach was 5.2 centimeters (2 inches) in diameter. That’s about the size of the smallest peach you’d find in markets these days. Both size and variation increased as a result of domestication, agriculture, and artificial breeding much later on. But before that, fruit-eating mammals including prehistoric primates likely helped disperse the wild peaches – playing a key role in the fruit’s evolution. "The peach was a witness to the human colonization of China," study co-author Peter Wilf of Penn State said in a statement. "It was there before humans, and through history we adapted to it and it to us." -http://www.iflscience.com/plants-and-animals/worlds-oldest-fossil-peaches-found-china

Two inches is actually a fair-sized fruit, and it doesn't even make sense that it would be terribly unpalatable because fruit trees rely on their sweetness and our love of it to reproduce. Even animals are attracted to the sweetest fruit, as the quote suggests. It is also telling that humans are one of the rare mammals that can't make their own vitamin C and must get it from our diets. Fruit FTW! (By the way, there are many fruits much higher in vitamin C than citrus including rosehips, seaberry, and acerola cherry). 

Mayapples are a little known Native American fruit with a tropical taste.

Mayapples are a little known Native American fruit with a tropical taste.

Fat Ratios, IMPROBABILITY OF SUSTAINED NUTRITIONAL KETOSIS

Not a lot of people are claiming this was likely for paleolithic people, most ties between the paleo and ketogenic worlds have to do with intermittent fasting, assuming our ancestors frequently went hungry. But a few very-low-carb diet enthusiasts hint in the direction of sustained ketosis in hunter gatherers.

If you compare ketogenic diet recipes and wild food cookbook recipes they really have little in common (and not just because most wild food cookbooks are full of added modern ingredients like wheat!) I suppose such absurd levels of fat would be possible if one were hunting buffalo, living basically on its meat and fat alone, and giving most of the lean meats to the dogs, or if one lived on the Pacific Northwest coast where they saved up a shit-ton of oolichan (fish) grease. Those are the two examples of high-fat, hunter-gatherer living touted by Phinney and Volek in the Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living. But while theoretically possible those scenarios seem, to me, improbable.

To be honest I'm not certain Phinney and Volek were actually implying those people were ketogenic, but in defending the historical virtues of fat, they neglect to mention (or maybe don't know) that although they esteemed fat, those same oolichan eaters also ate a ton of camas and wapato which are two very carb-y tubers, and they would have had fresh and dried berries of various sorts: huckleberries, salmonberries, manzanita, elderberries, not to mention protein heavy salmon, elk, and venison. The buffalo hunters would have had a similarly diverse diet. The Inuit or other ice dwelling people are, in my opinion, the only peoples likely to actually be in sustained nutritional ketosis, given the difficulty of sourcing that much fat, and the availability of other foods in most areas. 

If I were to go outside and live off the land in the desert right now where I live in Arizona, almost nothing is appropriate for a ketogenic diet. The first foods that come to mind are things like nopale cactus pads (similar to okra), and sweet cactus fruits, juniper berries (sweet and starchy), agave hearts (sugary, high fructose), mesquite (sweet and starchy) hackberries (sugary), rattlesnakes and lizards (lean), rabbits (lean), amaranth and dock greens...even adding these foods in with good fat sources like walnuts, pine nuts, and elk, antelope, or mule deer meat, I'd anticipate this diet to be no more than moderately fatty.

Various sources say that the hunter-gatherer diets for which we have data tend to roam around 20% carbs, 65% fat and 15% proteins by calories. To me this is still more fat and less protein compared to what I am instinctively inclined to eat. It usually takes me having a fatty bulletproof type drink, or a food like bacon or kobe beef to reach those kind of ratios. In modern food terms that would be like eating 11 tablespoons of lard, 18 oz of sweet potato, and 7 oz of chicken breast on a 2000 calorie diet. But at least I can imagine eating such a diet in the wild if I had a tub of bear grease with me.

It is indeed low-carb by modern food pyramid standards, but would still require substantial access to fruits or tubers as you can see, which supports my experience that such foods are easily found and not hideous for us. As Robb Wolf points out, if nutritional ketosis were our default human state, our bodies probably wouldn't leap out of it at the slightest dietary infraction. 

The dry but sugary hackberry was revered by hunter gatherers all over the country.

The dry but sugary hackberry was revered by hunter gatherers all over the country.

Specific Examples of Tubers, Fruits, and Grains and Other Carbilicious Foods Found Abundantly in North America

What makes sense to me is that our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate whatever was edible and not poisonous or indigestible where they lived, and from what I've encountered foraging on this planet that would have included meats, fruits, vegetables, starchy tubers, grass seeds a.k.a. grains, leguminous plants, unsoaked and unsprouted nuts and seeds (in reading about and witnessing Native American preparation techniques this really isn't that common), and sugary foods like honey and maple syrup. You know that cat meme, "If its fits, I sits?" I feel like the hunter-gatherer version would be something like "if it works, I eats." You can call grains a poison, but the fact is, they taste fuckin' great. 

I'm gonna say "we" or "our" sometimes here, we had this and that food, which if you're a Native American reading this might sound a little proprietary. I am not talking about my own short-term biological ancestors, the Swedes and Sicilians, but rather my own geographical ancestors, who are also my long-term, biological human ancestors. Sorry, I've never been to Europe and I don't know that much about European foods, although I know the Mid-Atlantic temperate regions of the United States where I grew up are very similar to Western Europe where some of my ancestors are from. Both have deer, rabbits, hawthorn, nettles, beech and birch and the like.

Some claim that a diet tuned to what our ancestors ate 500 years ago is the healthiest, but I also wonder if our epigenetic expression and therefore the best foods for us are related to where we currently live: the day length, climate, and other factors. Should I be considering eating more cacti? Will imbibing their cooling tissues help me adapt to the heat of the summer? I certainly think it's possible, but that is fodder for another post.

For now here are some examples of great tasting foods:

Maple Sugar

 It’s nearly impossible that our ancestors of the Paleolithic constantly ate the same ratio of protein, carbohydrates and fat throughout the seasons, hunts and periods of their lives. -Paleo Leap

You can say that again.

Early settlers found that the tribes of the Northeast over into the Midwest, anywhere with sugar maples, red maples, and cold winters, made tons of sugar. As in literally one band could make 2000 lbs. According to some sources I've read, they veritably gorged on sugar during the sugaring season, but of course they stored a bit for more judicious use for the rest of the year too. Is this so hard to imagine? If I know one thing about Homo sapiens, it's that they love a good party. 

Did our ancestors ever get candida or did their lack of broad-spectrum antibiotics, and cyclical gorging during the Jan-March sugar runs, and incidental consumption of anti-fungal herbs, and the rest of their lifestyle keep things under wraps? They collected the sap in birchbark baskets and boiled it using hot rocks and burned out log troughs until it began to crystallize into dry, storable sugar. Syrup, like we use, would have been harder to store and is prone to spoilage...or fermentation if you're into that kind of thing. 

Lest you think you even need the command of fire to enjoy this sugary treat, I assure you the raw sap, which contains 2-5% sucrose, tastes great.  And all it takes is hammering a hole in a tree trunk, perhaps with a sharpened stick or pointed stone, and inserting a spile, easily made of a pithy hollow wood like sumac and fashioning a catchment basin and you're in business. So easy even a shitty survivalist like me could do it. I'm not sure how many grams of carbs you'd be ingesting if you drank a gallon of sap a day, probably not that many, but it's still basically the soda fountain of the woods. 

One might argue that maples sugar is geographically limited, but birch syrup is also a native food in all the far north regions of the world where the birch grow thick such as Alaska and northern Canada, Russia, and Scandinavia. Given the prevalence of honey and other wild food plants that produce crude sugars around the world including date palms, coconut, and sugar cane, and sorghum this may not have been as rare of an ancestral food as people think. 

Museum depiction of stone age maple sugar harvest.

Museum depiction of stone age maple sugar harvest.

PINOLE

I understand a basic paleo principle is that people were/are demonstrably healthier without grain-based agriculture and this shift is recent and abrupt on the evolutionary timeline, and that there has been insufficient evolutionary pressure to adapt to hefty grain consumption.

And I understand that a large part of the unhealthiness is because more phytotoxins are found in greater abundance in seeds. 

And I do agree with the general paleo principle that grass seeds were probably eaten in small amounts in most areas and that grain consumption drastically increased with the advent of agriculture.

But I am also aware that in the grasslands of California, ironically a hotbed of modern paleo-diet culture, small wild grains were common: parched and ground and mixed with wildflower seeds, chia, and sunflower in a dish now called pinole. What percent of calories did the grains proffer? Who's to say, but those golden hills outside of San Francisco? Those were food. Unfortunately, the composition of grasses and wildflowers nowadays has been severely altered by over-grazing, invasive species, and lack of periodic burning (burning once again a form of horticulture, making these so-called wild foods more “wildish”), so I can't comment on if California grasslands are still a viable food source. For more information on the topic read this excellent PDF. 

This Maidu woman is gathering wildflower seeds in the photo, however grass seeds would have been gathered the same way.

This Maidu woman is gathering wildflower seeds in the photo, however grass seeds would have been gathered the same way.

WILD RICE

Not only did the natives of the Great Lakes region have sugar but they also had rice! What!? I guess you gotta have something to make up for the terrible summer insects and harsh snowy winters. I'd particularly like to see a study on the health of these tribes wouldn't you? 

The upper mid-western states harboring many lakes, such as Minnesota and Wisconsin, had more wild rice than you can shake a stick at. Literally, that is how you collect wild rice. You beat the ripe head of the plant with a stick and the rice drops into your canoe. Much of wild rice today is grown in California, but you can still support indigenous people and buy “wilder”, hand harvested wild rice from sources like the White Earth Land Recovery Project.

100 grams of wild rice has 21 grams of carbs and 2 grams of fiber. This is a very similar nutritional profile to brown rice. Like regular rice, wild rice contains some dreaded anti-nutrients, and the minerals are bound by phytate. What did the natives do about this? I don't think they did anything, wild rice is typically parched immediately after collection to drive out the moisture for better storage meaning sprouting would be impossible, but one of my sources says, “seeds boiled with rabbit excrements, eaten and esteemed as a luxury”, so you Westin A. Price/ Nourishing Traditions enthusiasts may want to try that method.

 

How wild rice is traditionally gathered.

How wild rice is traditionally gathered.

Acorn

Acorns were a staple food of many North American tribes, especially those of California and Central Oregon. Although the acorn requires extensive processing to be palatable, it is a unique nut in that the flour is about 50% fat, 45% carbs and 5% protein. As you can imagine this fat/carb ratio makes for a pretty dang good staple! What other foods in nature have that profile? I can't think of many. Let me put it in perspective for you. That's about the macronutrient ratio you'd find in large sweet potato with two tablespoons of butter. Perfection! If you've had acorn flour and it was bitter, someone didn't make it right. Properly prepared acorn flour is delicious. 

These acorns will need to be dried, shelled, have the papery coating picked off, ground, sifted, leached, and finally boiled to be used as food, but they are worth it. I'd do it and I'm lazy AF.

These acorns will need to be dried, shelled, have the papery coating picked off, ground, sifted, leached, and finally boiled to be used as food, but they are worth it. I'd do it and I'm lazy AF.

Wapato

Paleo enthusiasts usually have a hard-on for the sweet potato while being a bit more finnicky about the white potato. White potato disdain is sourced mostly from Loren Cordain who left white potatoes off his list of appropriate foods because, “potatoes maintain nutrient properties (high glycemic and insulin responses) uncharacteristic of traditional hunter-gatherer plant foods” and because it is a nightshade.  Others suggest the glycoalkaloids are easily broken down in digestion and/or the skin is the most toxic part and can just be removed if you're worried.

As an aside I want to say that people who are new to exploring the origins of their food often get attached to the party line that potatoes come from the Andes and tomatoes come from Central America and so forth. But just because our modern cultivars come from these ancient cultivars does not mean that different species of the same genus were not found on other continents. For example the domestic plum is from Asia, but there has been a different species of wild plum growing in North America for many ages. Thus other species of wild potato, Solanum spp., may have been eaten on continents other than South America. Get what I'm sayin'? 

Solanums aside, sometimes you'll hear people arguing over whether or not hunter gatherers ate much in the way of tubers. Well, if they found them you can bet your flat, potato-starved booty they did.  There are only about a zillion other kinds of starchy tubers in the world.

One such potato imitation that comes to mind is wapato, Saggitaria lancifolia. Wapato contains about 20 grams of carbohydrate and 5 grams of protein per 100 grams. A white potato for comparison has 17 grams of carbs and 2 grams of protein.

"Pollen data indicates that this tuber —called “wapatos” by the Chinook tribe – thrived in the last Ice Age throughout North America, the North American Great Basin, Siberia, and Northern Europe – overlapping the time that during which Perry et al estimate that humans started showing extra copies of the AMY1 gene." -http://donmatesz.blogspot.com/2009/08/primal-potatoes-part-1.html

The AMY1 gene is a gene that codes for amalayse production, a starch digesting enzyme, suggesting tubers are a part of our genetic heritage.

Cooked wapato. Note the resemblance to white potato.

Cooked wapato. Note the resemblance to white potato.

Nowadays wapato is particularly abundant in the swamps of the Pacific Northwest where it was a staple food for the natives. It is harvested by wading deep into the chilly November waters after the leaves die and stomping the muck until the tubers float to the top. It is likely that each harvest increased the conditions for better wapato the next harvest since the procedure tills the muck, letting the remaining tubers grow larger, and other competing plants may have been weeded out since their roots make it more difficult to free the wapato bulbs. Many of the historical Chinook wapato swamps are now, sadly, filled with invasive grasses.

Wapato can be used in just about any way a potato can, including dried, and is similar in taste, but a bit grainier in texture. Unlike some other tubers it can be eaten raw and doesn't contain that pesky prebiotic that turns you into a fart-factory, inulin. Wapato is also called arrowroot, but is not the same as the starch sold in the store for thickening. That plant is from the rainforest. 

True story. I was looking for a good photo of wapato, and I saw this one. And I was like "that hand is really long. That looks like it could be my hand." Lo and behold. It IS my hand. A friend must have taken the photo years ago:

Camas

Speaking of fart-factories, raw or undercooked camas is one. The northwest natives had no decent maple sugar unless they traded because only climates with frozen winters are suitable for high volume sugar production due to the way they create a surge in sap flow in spring, and the native bigleaf maple sap doesn't have a very high sugar content either. But their “brown sugar” was pit roasted, dried camas tubers, a flowering lily that grows in large swaths in the oak savannas that were meticulously maintained by prescribed burns for food purposes. Still today we can see the remnants of this practice where the camas grows thick and dense in large wet meadows. All accounts indicate that camas, a staple food, was long-roasted in pits to insure the breakdown of its inulin into sweet, sweet fructose.

"I never have met with a white person who was not fond of baked cammass [sic], and I do not know any vegetable, except fried bananas, so delicious."
-James Swan 1857, 19th Century ethnographer and naturalist

 

A not atypical camas meadow. The closest thing we have to paleo monoculture.

A not atypical camas meadow. The closest thing we have to paleo monoculture.

Cattail Starch

Cattails are found all over the states. I live in the desert and there are more cattails here within walking distance of my house than there were in Pennsylvania. Though, as with all plants, the starches are most concentrated at specific times of year, the cattail root is available year round as an emergency source of food in places where the ice is not too thick.

No green plant produces more edible starch per acre than the Cat O’ Nine Tails; not potatoes, rice, taros or yams. Plans were underway to feed American soldiers with that starch when WWII stopped. Lichen, not a green plant, might produce more carbs per acre. One acre of cattails can produce 6,475 pounds of flour per year on average (Harrington 1972). -Green Deane of Eattheweeds.com

Cattail roots are more difficult to process than some of these other plants like wapato because first their foamy outerparts must be peeled away and discarded from the starchy core, then their starch must be removed from their inedible fiber. But then again you typically only need to wade up to your ankles to get a cattail root whereas with wapato you might find yourself up to your neck. One way to process them is to mash up the roots in a bucket of water and let the starch sink to the bottom. If you do so you'll be rewarded with a pure white flour. A primitive way to do this is to roast the root letting the outer parts char and then chew up the starch and spit out the fibers. 

 

Here you can see the distinct layering of a cattail root. The center is where the starch resides amidst a tough stringy fiber.

Here you can see the distinct layering of a cattail root. The center is where the starch resides amidst a tough stringy fiber.

Chestnuts

Most nuts are fatty and excellent sources of calories. Acorn, beechnut, hazelnut, pinenut, walnut, etc. were major sources of food for native people despite high phytic acid and PUFA contents. I've seen not much evidence for soaking though plenty for grinding into flour or boiling mashed nuts to harvest the oil. Almost the opposite of the health food rules.

Chestnuts which are high in starch would score poorly amongst the insulin phobic, but well amongst the phytic acid and PUFA-phobes. This is one reason I find it annoying when people lump all nuts together as good or bad foods for a condition. Let's celebrate the diversity of our nut foods and not engage in scurrilous stereotyping! 

Chestnuts can be easily made into a flour, and were harvested in quantity, especially in the Mid-Atlantic regions before chestnut blight hit and wiped out most of the trees. If there is one thing that the health nuts (ha, no pun intended!) have right, it is that native flours were typically pounded just before meal preparation, and the grains or nuts that made up those flours were preserved whole. American chestnuts have a similar nutrient profile to other kinds of chestnuts which is 44 grams of carbs, 1.3 grams of fat and 1.6 grams of protein per 100 grams.

 

American chestnut. Very similar to store bought chestnuts.

American chestnut. Very similar to store bought chestnuts.

Blueberry, Blackberry, Raspberry, Black raspberry, wild strawberry, huckleberry, mulberry, SALMONBERRY, THIMBLEBERRY, etc.

These seem to be the only fruits that the fruit-phobic crowd imagines existed for our hunter gather ancestors. While its true that some of these fruits like the wild strawberry are much smaller than their cultivated counterparts, not all of them are. The description at the beginning of the article from the Paleo Leap writer about picking blueberries is clearly that of someone who has only encountered the native lowbush blueberry such as commonly grows in states like Vermont and Maine. Native highbush blueberries such as the kind found in abundance in the New Jersey pine barrens are an average size, not too big, not too small and grow conveniently at mouth and hand height.

Plus, I'm not so sure our delectable wild strawberries actually have less sugar than the storebought strawberries that are about 5 times as large given that most of the time when I buy those triploid monstrosities they taste like moldy, pulpy cardboard. I don't know if you've noticed but a lot of store-bought fruits are actually quite sour, bland, or bad tasting. Mostly they were just picked too early, but some were bred for size and ship-ability at the expense of sugar.

It is true that raspberries and blackberries are too watery to dry well, and probably were not dried that often, but blueberries, especially the little low-bush varieties found in the Northeast, and the similarly small huckleberries of the northwest are easily dried in the sun as whole fruits. Just because something is little doesn't mean that is wasn't worth picking many pounds of and eaten in abundance and over more months than the fresh growing season.

Red mulberry, Morus rubra, is an oft-overlooked yet prolific native tree in the eastern U.S. with blackberry sized fruits.

Red mulberry, Morus rubra, is an oft-overlooked yet prolific native tree in the eastern U.S. with blackberry sized fruits.

Saskatoon

Amalanchier alnifolia, also known as western serviceberry, was a staple fruit in the Rocky Mountain and high desert type areas. There is an eastern serviceberry too, but I have never found it to be abundant. These small tree fruits were often pounded pits and all, and unlike your more watery berries the resulting paste was thick enough to be dried into storable fruit leathers or pucks. The fresh fruit contains 11.4 grams of carbohydrate/100 grams of berry. If there was one fruit that was definitely eaten out of season, saskatoon would be it.

 
Saskatoon, the size of large blueberries, but with a more dense flesh and cherry-like flavor.

Saskatoon, the size of large blueberries, but with a more dense flesh and cherry-like flavor.

 

NATIVE PLUM

Plum, Prunus americana, is one that most people probably don't realize has a native North American counterpart, but it does and it grows quite widespread on the continent. Again, the fruit is on the small size compared to a normal plum, and the skin tart, but the insides are plenty sweet when ripe and this food was dried and stored as prunes by natives. I'm not sure where it really hits its stride as far as being most easily found. I'm guessing the Midwest which is one place I have never lived. There is a Canadian plum and a Mexican plum as well. This plum actually forms the basis for many modern cultivars.

Samuel Thayer, forager extraordinaire writes,

“I have seen wild plum trees so laden with fruit that the tips of their branches were resting upon the ground; as I removed their load the limbs slowly returned to their original position several feet higher. Many times I have gone into a plum thicket with a five-gallon pail and left twenty minutes later because I had no more room in it.” -Nature's Garden: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants

Suffice to say just because we don't have native american mangoes or bananas doesn't mean we didn't have sugary native fruits ever since about the time the glaciers stopped covering the ground under miles of ice.

PawPaw

100 grams of pawpaw contains 18.8 grams of carbohydrates and 2.6 grams of fiber, making this large wild fruit sugarier than your average cultivated apple (15.25 grams of carbs). We have quite a lot of larger wild fruits in the warm and wet southeastern U.S., but pawpaw is definitely the largest and also the northernmost of the bunch with a few specimen in Ontario, and a good population in states like Ohio. It has a surprisingly tropical taste and look.

Pawpaws were cultivated by Native Americans, but as with any fruits they would have inadvertently spread the seeds to new areas as they discarded their snacks when moving about. It is also suspected pawpaw achieved their wide range by being consumed and distributed in the poop of ancient megafauna. Where one is found, often many are found because they grow in clonal thickets. Hence the lyrics, "way down yonder in the pawpaw patch".

Pawpaw, North America's largest wild edible fruit.

Pawpaw, North America's largest wild edible fruit.

Muscadine

There are all kinds of wild grapes all over the states, and to be honest a lot of them aren't that great, but for the purposes of illustrating that there are large and sweet fruits in the wild, muscadines are the best grape, being even larger than grocery store grapes! Like a concord, they are best if you chew the tough skin to extract the flavor but spit it out.  Muscadines look an awful lot like paintballs. I've found them in serious abundance in the same woods where the pawpaws grow.

Hey, these paintballs won't fit in my gun...

Hey, these paintballs won't fit in my gun...

Maypop

Maypop, Passiflora incarnata, is our deciduous native american passionfruit, not to be confused with the more tropical varieties you'd find in a grocery store: typically the purple Passiflora edulis of South America. But just because they aren't tropical doesn't mean they aren't around the same size or don't have that same tropical taste. John Muir said maypop was, “the most delicious fruit I have ever eaten”. 

Maypops are larger than an egg, and smaller than a tennis ball.

Maypops are larger than an egg, and smaller than a tennis ball.

Native Persimmon

Another abundant fruit of the southeastern states is the persimmon. Native american persimmons are small compared to the Japanese persimmons you find in the grocery store, but that doesn't mean they aren't just as sweet when ripe or that a single tree doesn't produce a shit ton of them meaning you can make up for their size by eating 10 at once. I'm guessing a lot of people didn't even know there was such a tree, but there is. I've seen them with my own eyes. I know persimmons can be dried, and I don't see any reason why native people wouldn't have done so making them into even more concentrated sugar bombs. 

Cactus Fruits

Now on to a different bioregion. Several kinds of southwestern cactuses have large, sweet fruits including Saguaro and prickly pears. The fruits of the prickly pear, called tuna in spanish, are uber-abundant and can be boiled down into a syrup.  Native tribes made wine out of this (they probably didn't even have to try since a sugar syrup would not keep well in the desert heat). Cultivated varieties are often found in Hispanic markets.

If you're in the Los Angeles area and looking for a wild native fruit this one is for you, although you probably won't even have to head for the hills because prickly pears are found planted in yards across the nation. North, south, east, and west, not rain nor snow nor sleet will keep the humble prickly pear down. Well, snow will dampen its enthusiasm but some native species are found all the way up into Canada. Just read up on harvest and prep because you DO NOT want to get the hairy glochids on your skin or in your mouth. They are not dangerous but supremely annoying. You can eat the pads too but they are more of a vegetable and not terribly relevant for the purposes of this article which was mostly to defend the honor of paleolithic fruits, and other carbohydrates. 

Saguaro fruit.

Saguaro fruit.

Prickly pear fruit.

Prickly pear fruit.

Agave

Another southwestern food is agave. Agave produces pups (small side plants that spawn next to a mother plant). These were cultivated in the desert soils simply by moving these babies and placing them in little rock piles to retain moisture. The agave heart which is what is presently used to make the once vaunted, now maligned agave syrup (and also tequila) contains an inulin rich starch that, as already discussed, when roasted a long time turns sweet and edible and is high in fructose.  Some accounts by the Spanish explorers of the 1500's say agave eaters had poor teeth, but the indians at that time would have also been consuming beans and corn ground with rock mortars that produce an erosive dust (northeastern natives by contrast used wood mortars to grind their corn), and those three foods together may have been a bit much.  

Roasted agave heart.

Roasted agave heart.

I could list a lot more foods, but I'm tired. I hope you have found this article enlightening. Whether by consuming refined sugars, or high-glycemic starches, or high-fructose fruits and tubers, or unsoaked nuts, or unfermented grains, paleo people all across the nation were breaking the rules!! Do with that information what you will.

If you would like to know what wild foods might have been staples in your region please comment below, and I might just be able to rattle off an answer.