TOM THE DANCING BUG: The Paleolithic Diet Craze, the PLIO DIET!



suure, you laugh now, but watch – this will happen.


I’ve eaten nothing but ants on a stick for the past week and I’ve already lost 10 pounds! This diet works!


Why would anyone think a caveman diet is a good thing? Life expectancy for a caveman was like 20 years!


But they were quality years.


And in touch with the earth.


Just because you are dirty doesn’t mean you are in touch with the earth.


Seems more like the earth being in touch with you.

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Stone age food is really good
You really should eat stone-age food
Throw a rock, slay a beast
Back to the cave to feast
Berries, roots, fruits and nuts
Grubs, flesh, worms and fish guts

The “life expectancy then was only x years!” thing is mostly a fallacy. The low numbers (which I think is closer to 35, or a range 25-35 for prehistoric humans) are cause by high infant and childhood mortality rates. So while average life span may have been slightly lower at any given point in history (60 or 70’s is the number I see most often), if an individual survived childhood they were quite likely to make it around that far.


Actually, that’s not quite true. The modern, wrong idea that “no one lived beyond 30 (or whatever)” is essentially taking modern mortality patterns (that you can expect to get “old”) and dropping the age that constitutes “old.” The reality was more alien - if you survived childhood (and the odds weren’t great), you had no idea how old you might live to be. That is, currently, in developed countries, you have an elevated chance of mortality as an infant, then the mortality rate drops down low and curves up around your 50s, as your odds of dying each year increase with age. Previous to modern medicine, you did have a very heavy infant/child mortality rate, but once you hit adulthood, your mortality rate was both comparatively flat and high for the rest of your life. That is, your chance of dying (from an infection, for example) at age 20 wasn’t so different from your chance of dying at age 60. So even if you survived childhood, your odds of reaching 60, for example, weren’t necessarily that great.


Well if the average life span absent child/infant mortality is, say, 50 (not accurate and I’m not even sure if that’s something would could accurately ascertain that as I said I do see number like that thrown about) and assuming a standard distribution most people who made it to adult would be dying somewhere around 50 years of age. But you’ve got a very good point looking at it in terms of individuals instead of populations over time it looks a lot stranger and more frightening. And mortality would presumably be higher over all, and far more varied over all. My entirely stock “actually” doesn’t account for that.

Which begs the much better question of why you would want to eat like a group of people who were so constantly at risk of death, and in particularly at risk of death due to malnutrition.

All of which is ignoring the fact that the Paleo Diet has sweet fuck all to do with the way any group of people ate during the Paleolithic, ignores variation among different human populations in the deep past, and likewise assumes that we haven’t changed at all since we first popped up.

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Yeah, in the paleolithic, the life expectancy at birth was something in the low 30s, but if you survived to adulthood, it was something in the low 50s. (But with a fairly flat yearly mortality rate, that would have meant that a significant number of people lived to be older, as many also didn’t live that long.)
Life expectancy actually dropped with the introduction of agriculture, as that, counter-intuitively, increased food insecurity. (That is, you were more likely to be malnourished/starve as a farmer than as a gatherer-hunter. Which raises the question as to why any population made the switch to agriculture and kept doing it.)
And yeah, we actually know for a fact that there were rapid genetic changes related to genes involved in digesting starches that happened post-agriculture (and which vary enormously between various populations around the world), so even if the paleo diet was a real reflection of anything, it still wouldn’t mean much, especially as a “one-size fits all” solution.

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This is anecdotal, but probably useful for a Fermi estimate too…

Of my grandparents’ parents, two mothers lived into their 90s (and I have memories of them, but that’s incidental), but of the rest, two died in their 50s, two in their 60s and two in their 70s. I’d guess that this was repeated across their entire generation - it was certainly true of their siblings and cousins. Keep in mind that they were among the upper middle class of their times; people who could afford the best lifestyle and medical care. I’d put the median life expectancy at around 50-55 years in their time.

Only one of my grandmothers failed to make it to 80 (and that was close). The others were all either nearly 90 or past that when they died. Again, I see this pattern repeating across their generation. Now, the median age people live to is easily in the 70s.

There were some pretty big killers in the past that are just not present anymore. Take smallpox. My granddad’s brother died of it at the age of about 22 or something. In that particular epidemic, every single family in the village lost somebody. You could be treated, but the survival rate was pretty low. Tuberculosis, another champ. Pneumonia, Malaria, Typhoid, Cholera, Jaundice,… Heck, even the common cold could be pretty deadly.

A good indicator is that in traditional Indian culture, someone reaching the age of 60 used to be rare enough that the whole community celebrated it like we celebrate centenarians today. 70, 80,… all celebrated similarly.

If you actually go into the statistics, I think you’ll find that the very young deaths and the very long lives are outliers, and that most people lived up to about 50 or so. That’s why I used the word median - typically that should get rid of the outlier effect.

I’ve heard numbers like this before; but how on earth could anybody know such a thing? We don’t exactly have census data.

I’ve heard numbers like this before; but how on earth could anybody know such a thing? We don’t exactly have census data.

They know the age because they can count the rings in the bones-- one for each year.


Basically they estimate the age at death of the various remains we’ve found based on various features of the bone. Wear on teeth, state of the growth plates, etc. Or burial circumstance, context etc. Then they just do series of statistical analyses just like you would with a modern population. I tend to think they can’t be totally accurate for a couple of reasons. First it can be pretty difficult to establish accurate age at death for partially or poorly preserved remains. Second there really isn’t anywhere near as much material to work with as you’d hope. So sample sizes for given studies can tend to be small. Neither of those things are good for accuracy, and the further back in time you go the more exaggerated those problems become. There’s also a lot of checking these numbers against more recent/modern groups with non-agrarian or pre-industrial or whatever societies. By way of trying to check accuracy against something we can (and often do) get accurate info for. Taking it all together you can probably get a reasonable idea, at least of how various major changes and events affected life expectancy. But I think there’s enough info missing, and enough tendency for the numbers to go up every time we look closer, to be cautious about it. Poke around for more, reanalyse what we’ve got etc. Throw in a lot of “we think”.

  1. Recent (as in over the last 150 years) increases in adult life expectancy can be attributed to modern hygiene and antibiotics. Nobody is saying people are healthier thanks to the modern diet.
  2. Recent increases in obesity and diseases of civilization can be attributed to the modern diet.
    So the cartoon kind of misses the point completely.

No mention here in the discussion on average lifespans about childbirth. Lots of children and risky births meant that death in childbirth was not uncommon.

The last time I looked wherever lifespans were being averaged everybody discarded deaths from 0-6 weeks or even up to as much as toddlerhood. I wouldn’t be surprised to find if someone simply began at age 10 but I’m not going to go looking.

I think it was recognized quite early on that infant & child mortality rates would skew up yo shit when seeking info on lifespans in times past.