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Department of Psychology pres.

EHAP Speaker Series: Paleolithic or Paleomythic? Learning from 21st century hunter-gatherers about the evolution of the human diet

Alyssa Crittenden, Associate Professor, Department of Anthroplogy, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

The world’s few remaining foraging populations are often used as referential models of human evolution and ancestral health – with topics ranging from the so-called “Paleolithic Diet” to the “hunter-gatherer workout” or even “re-wilding the microbiome”. We live in a time when our industrialized modes of subsistence have never been more dissimilar to those of our past, the Neolithic farmers or the Paleolithic hunter-gatherers. Despite this, there has been an increase in public curiosity and a revitalized effort on the part of scientists to better understand the lifeway that has characterized 95% of human evolution – that of nomadic foraging for wild foods. But what can modern day hunter-gatherers really tell us about our evolutionary past? Here, I discuss the ways in which data collected among the Hadza foragers of Tanzania are critical for evolutionary reconstructions of nutrition and behavior. I explore foraging profiles across the lifespan, seasonal differences in diet composition, and the phylogenetic diversity of Hadza gut microbiota. I discuss how these findings may have implications for understanding human health and behavior in the post-industrialized west. As we are increasingly aware of the role that microbes play in biology, evolution, and in health and disease patterns, it is important to properly contextualize data collected from the world’s most vulnerable small scale societies – particularly as there is great potential for the commercialization of microbiome research. Furthermore, as shifts in diet composition are often linked to many key milestones in human evolution (like brain expansion, cooperation, and family formation), it is necessary to clearly articulate how data from hunter-gatherers can inform our understanding of both our evolutionary past and our contemporary present.

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