Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Legumes in Hunter-Gatherer Diets

Did hunter-gatherers eat legumes?

According to Sigrid Leger, author of The Hidden Gifts of Nature, Bushmen ate the following legumes:

Wild Coffee Beans (Bauhinia petersiana):  "The seeds are edible and can be gathered from February until May. The pod is removed, the seeds are put into hot ash for a minute and are cooked in this way. After that the seeds can be eaten just as they are or they are pounded and then eaten."

Marama bean (Tylosema esculentum) "The whole pod is put into hot ash for a short time and removed again. After having cooled down, the pods are opened, the skin of the seed is removed and the seed itself is eaten."

These examples appear to illustrate that the absence of pots and pans in the archaeological record does not serve as evidence that prehistoric people did not eat cereals or legumes.  Anyone who has eaten popcorn or peanuts might realize that people can eat grains and legumes roasted as an alternative to boiled.

According to Brand-Miller and Holt, Australian Aborigines also made use of legumes:

"Although seeds, particularly cereals (seeds of the family Gruminae) are thought to have played only a minor role in palaeolithic diets, they appeared to be important in the diet of at least some groups of Australian Aborigines (AA). Before European occupation, collection of seeds was widespread, particularly in arid areas. It was predominant in the grassland areas of Australia but also in the desert areas where acacia trees (wattle trees) yielded abundant seeds. Grindstones used for seed grinding have been found in many areas."


"It appears that ~ 50 of the 800 species of Acacia (wattle trees) native to Australia were used by AA for food.  Despite the wattle being Australia’s national flower, the seeds are generally unknown to non-AA as food sources. But Acacia seeds are outstanding in their nutrient content, being much higher in energy, protein and fat than any cereal crop such as wheat and rice. Their composition more closely resembles that of the legume family to which the Acacias actually belong."

According to some, legumes are among the neolithic foods that cause disease because of their supposed discordance with human genetics, yet both !Kung and AA appeared to have a high immunity to modern diseases of affluence. 


Paleo Phil said...

As you may know, Boyd Eaton did include legumes in his version of a Paleo diet in The Paleolithic Prescription. Within Ray Audette's definition of "Paleo" (foods that are "edible when you are naked with a sharp stick", legumes that are edible raw, such as legume tubers like jicama (aka Mexican potato) and wild African groundnuts (, qualify.

Whether legumes with low lectin levels are "optimal" foods is another question. Perhaps they might be a problem for people with gut and immune system malfunction, so caution may be in order.

I recently experimented with miso soup and jicama soaked in lemon juice with poor results.

Rip & Clip said...

You might want to change your HG diet guide.

Rob A said...

The absence of pots and pans also does not indicate that humans were not savings and cooking with animal fats. I know anecdotally anyway that some North American Indians traditionally would cook with bladders, allowing them to process their meat and fat with more sophistication than simply throwing it on the flame.

Not arguing what HGs necessarily did, but acknowledging that their actions may not have all left an identifiable record.

Rob A said...

See also Melissa's post from a couple months back about the fatty eland, significantly present in the archeological record, with a similar aside about vessels that may have allowed for the use of *refined* animal fats:

Anand Srivastava said...

We know Neanderthals were boiling Sorghum 50,000years ago, so I don't think how it couldn't have been part of the diet. I am not sure how common it would be, because neanderthals are known to have very high percentage of meat protein in their bones.

Regarding technology, I don't think boiling was out of reach for paleolithic people and roasting is definitely easier.

Alan said...

I coressponded with a fellow who works at the National Museum of the American Indian, or somesuch name.

He states that the pre-contact AmerInds did have pottery. He didn't cite references.

He also referred to the colloquialism in his youthful days on the reservation of tallow as "Indian butter". Again, not actually probative of what was going on pre-contact. For example, I don't think anyone can produce any Indian legends of how the Spaniards introduced them to horses - but of course, they did.

there might be some clays which can become fired by campfires.

Paleo Phil said...

Don, I'm curious about something. Back on 1/4/11 you wrote: "for a couple of days Tracy and I reduced our meat intake by half. I reduced my meat intake from more than a pound daily to just about one-half pound, and, as the Jaminets suggest, replaced the protein with starchy carbohydrates (potatoes and sweet potatoes). For both Tracy and I, this resulted in a noticeable decline in mood and a dramatic increase in hunger and intestinal gas, along with a disruption of bowel function." This despite the fact that you reported that "I have been eating [potatoes and sweet potatoes] all along (see posts on my meals). I just increased them when I reduced protein."

Since then I understand you have increased your intake of starches (including "brown rice, oatmeal, sorghum, whole corn tortillas, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, yucca root, kabocha squash, occasional white rice") and report health improvement, rather than decline, for both you and Tracy. Do you know what enabled you both to fare better on more starches this time? I tend to experience some of the negative symptoms you reported and others from cooked tubers, and I independently decided to try the method that Paul Jaminet recommended of gradual introduction of them without success, and I'm curious whether you found another means of developing increased tolerance to these foods.

Don said...

Paleo Phil,

Regarding our previous experience, I think that increasing starch while simultaneously still getting ~50% or more of calories from fat reduces the digestibility of the starch, resulting in larger amounts of starch making it to the large intestine for fermentation. Generally, 10-20 percent of starches go undigested anyway, but fats can coat starch molecules, making it difficult for starch-digesting enzymes to break down the starches in time for them to be a result, more undigested starch makes it to the colon than when starch is consumed with very little fat. In fact, this effect of fat on slowing starch digestion is one of the erroneous 'rationales' people give for always eating fats with starches.

Fat also slows the passage of food through the intestines. At that time, both Tracy and I had much slower transit, with Tracy suffering most. I would often wait 2 or 3 days without movement, but Tracy often would not have a bowel elimination for 4 or 5 days, and when it came it was difficult to move, despite our consuming lots of non-starchy vegetables and some fruits. (Now I defecate 2-3 times daily.) This means that when we were eating high fat and increased starches, any intestinal bacteria had much more time to ferment any undigested starch residue.

Now we eat very little fat, and have frequent evacuations, so there is no chance for noticable gas accumulation. We find at this time that even small amounts of excess fat can slow our gut transit, especially Tracy's, enough to retrigger all the previous discomforts and constipation.

Paleo Phil said...

Thanks for the info Don.

I bought tamarinds at the supermarket today and I think they're the first I've tried, but they have a familiar taste, so I'm not certain that it's my first taste. They are the only legume I've tried so far that I like the taste of (they taste like citrus candy to me). I remembered that they are a legume fruit, so this is another legume that's edible raw and could possibly qualify as Paleo under some definitions.

Alan said...

>> "when you are naked with a
>> sharp stick

but that's not the correct definition of Paleolithic Man. That description is not even a correct description of ANY true member of genus homo, or even their ape-men ancestors, genus australopithecus.

You'd have to go all the way back to about 4 million years ago, before you couldn't find hominids using stone tools - often some rather well-executed, sophisticated ones.

Knapped obsidian blades are stilled used in some eye surgeries, because no metal can be brought to such a sharp edge.

Paleo Phil said...

Alan wrote: "but that's not the correct definition of Paleolithic Man. ....
You'd have to go all the way back to about 4 million years ago, before you couldn't find hominids using stone tools "

I'm not defending Ray's definition of Paleo foods (those that can be aquired and eaten "naked with a sharp stick" and are edible raw), but whether Ray included stone tools is irrelevant regarding legumes that are edible raw anyway, as you don't need a stone to acquire and eat some, such as wild African tamarind legume fruit pods (and in his book Ray did not exclude all foods that were not staples before the development of stone tools).

I also mentioned Boyd Eaton. His definition of Paleo (which I'm also not defending), as I understand it, was foods that humans are biologically adapted to. He thought at the time that he wrote The Paleolithic Prescription that there was enough evidence to support consumption of some legumes. Since Eaton's book was published, more evidence has been found of consumption of certain African legumes by ancestral humans and other ancient primates and current hunter gatherers.

So I find it interesting that Don's acceptance of some legumes doesn't necessarily *in and of itself* disqualify his diet as "Paleo/hunter gatherer" under those two prominent definitions. Don eats soy and Ray Audette did specifically forbid soy (even though soy can be made edible via raw fermentation) and other foods that Don eats. I don't know whether or not Boyd Eaton would consider Don's overall diet to be Paleo.

Jack B. Nimble said...

The more I think, it becomes clear that most humans have subsisited on starchy-based diets. This includes both tubers and legumes. It also becomes clear to me how unlikely it woulda been for the Paleo man to eat a meat-heavy diet. How do you account for the Kitavans, the Pimas, the Tarahumaras, the Okinawans ... It simply would not have been possible to eat meat frequently, let alone at every meal. The Inuits and Masais are exceptions, yes, but for most people, subsisting meant relying on starchy veggies which give them glucose. The Okinawans and Asians eat a plant-heavy diet with very little meat thrown in, despite the recent misrepresentation of their diet as being pork-heavy. The Tarahumaras live off of "3 sisters": corn, beans, and squash.

So it seem like I'm breaking ranks, so to speak, from Paleo as well, and moving towards your camp. Just thinking about how impractical it would have been to eat like a carnivore all these years tells me that a plant-heavy diet that includes legumes might be healthy. Ancel Keys, after all, lived to 100 on a plant-heavy diet that included sardines.

Wisski said...

I've commented on this topic a time or two before on other blogs, but it's an idea I like.

My thinking is as follows : H/Gs basically wandered, following a migratory pattern based on animal availability, season, water availability, known plant growth, and probably a few other things. These patterns change, like everything else in the world. As they change, an H/G tribe would end up in new territory, perhaps even a new biome entirely. This means exposure to new foodstuffs. This is a big deal when you're living off the land. Nothing is off limits for testing as a possible new food source, as long as it's abundant enough to make the effort worthwhile.

So we have an H/G tribe wandering into an area with some form of proto-legume (not the modern, Agrarian Corrupted garbage we eat today). They would have found it in bulk, and they would have tested it for edibility. They might not have found it particularly tasty, but if it wasn't completely and incurably toxic or unpalatable, they ate it. Believe it or not, not all naturally occurring food is delicious. You eat it anyways because you eat everything you find, because otherwise you starve.

Furthermore, IRC, the first evidence of bean cultivation (perhaps not the earliest to exist, just the earliest we've found) dates back to about 8,000 years ago. This is probably early enough to denote a particularly resistant H/G tribe finally putting down roots and shamefully joining the Agrarians.

The Agrarians, as much as I belittle them, weren't entirely stupid. They didn't just blindfold themselves and pick plants at random to start the first planting with. They would have planted what the tribe was eating the most of, which would have been what was most abundant, which would have been growing in bulk.

Which means H/G tribes were almost certainly consuming legumes prior to the Great Stupid Change.

But you've asked the wrong question entirely. The question is not "Did they eat Legumes" but "Where can I get the legumes they were eating before the Agrarians turned them into blight/drought/insect/transport damage resistant garbage the sell in the supermarkets?" :D

Phoenix said...

Hey Don, got a source for this?

"...fats can coat starch molecules, making it difficult for starch-digesting enzymes to break down the starches in time for them to be absorbed."

Not trying to be argumentative, just generally curious.

Alan said...

>> They didn't just blindfold themselves and pick plants at random to start the first planting with. They would have planted what the tribe was eating the most of

gosh, that's funny. becuase i was gonna put forth the proposition that hominids only domesticated the species which chose THAT new path as a way of gaining competitive advantage over the other plants.

Humans think that they domesticated cats; meanwhile, the cats in my neighborhod are writing scientific papers showing that their species out-competed the other small-mammal species in finding a way to get free food and shelter.....

nothing91 said...

"Hey Don, got a source for this?

'...fats can coat starch molecules, making it difficult for starch-digesting enzymes to break down the starches in time for them to be absorbed.'"

Guess not. :-)

Alan said...

it seems to be well-accepted that earliest bipedal non-arboreal ancestors of man, were scavengers.
Adapted to a heavy meat diet (otherwise, why come out of the trees?). Ate that way for quite a long time before they got decent at hunting; and a REALLY long time before they became the apex hunter by virtue of having evolved the deadliest hunting physical adaptation.... a sapient brain.

homo species didn't (do we agree on this?) spent LOTS of time learning how to flintknap stones and attach them to aerodynamic things to make projectile weapons to become better at digging up tubers.

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Virginia said...

Dear Don: I saw your blog on the web. I am currently doing a PhD in archaeology. I work in Chile, in the Atacaa desert. I am looking forward to understand if there could be any nutritional reasons why hunter gatherers with big reliance in animal meat would have avoid legume pods of mezquite trees. I read highly protein diets in the desert are undesirable.But why? And even if legumes are high in protein wouldnt their amount of carbohydrates make them desirable any way? Can you help me with this? THANKS A LOT