Why Everything Is Paleo




Heated debates about what definitively *IS* and what definitively *IS NOT* “paleo” abound. While that’s often an interesting question, it also often misses the point. You see, everything is paleo. From computers to the agricultural revolution to individual cereal grains themselves… everything is paleo. “Well, we know that’s not historically true, so what are you talking about?” It’s simple really.

Tools. [The End]

The folks whose eating habits are informed by evolutionary biology have all but subsumed the meaning of “paleo” in pop-culture. Since our minds begin to make associations at the mention of a word, this shift in meaning directly impacts how we think. Thus, for many people, the paleolithic era is mentally associated with hunters, gatherers, and grain hating. As one of them, that’s not a judgment, just an assumption that influences the rest of this piece.

For those steeped in the nuances of Pleistocene and Paleolithic research, please excuse me for a moment so we might indoctrinate any newbies: Pleistocene is a geological term which refers to the the planet and its physical properties across a particular period of time.  Paleolithic is an archaeological term that refers to humans (hominin, to be more accurate) across a particular period of time. Pleistocene and Paleolithic refer to roughly the same period of time, but they look at different things. Basically, the former looks at the world, the latter looks at the humans in it. That’s why Paleolithic is the term humans are most fond of. And… why we’ll drop Pleistocene for the rest of today. Paleolithic derives from the Greek: palaios, “old”; and lithos, “stone”. Thus, its etymological translation amounts to  ”old age of the stone” or “Old Stone Age.” The reason stone is in there is because the material used to make the most advanced tools of the time was stone.

If the Paleolithic Era is archaeologically defined by hominid development of stone tools, how can we jettison the stone part and claim all tools are paleo? I prefer a different, but I think equally (if not more) accurate perspective. The psychologically important development in the Paleolithic wasn’t stone, but the tools. Surprise! …stone existed before the Paleolithic, but hominids didn’t make tools out of it, or anything else, really (and don’t try to derail the discussion by saying gravity was a tool, thank you very much). Stone didn’t change, our brains evolved to use it. That reveals the crux of my argument: the concept of tools is paleo. Now, that could rightly be passed off as linguistic trickery if we restricted “Paleolithic” to its archaeological roots. But as I mentioned above, we’ve expanded its use to encompass a period of human evolutionary biology and thus, by default, evolutionary psychology. It’s in the overlap of archaeology, evolutionary biology, and evolutionary psychology that the concept of tools gets significant in a major way.

A study by a team of archaeologists and anthropologists pinned down human brain size as a key factor that kept the hominid line in the stone tool making mindset for millions of years (Faisal 2010). That makes sense, and we know that brain size expanded significantly between the beginning of the paleolithic to its end. However, archaeology says nothing about the adaptive pressures required for evolutionary selection to effect such a change. To explain why our brains got bigger, we need to think about it from a different perspective.

From the standpoint of evolution, the development most important to humans in the Paleolithic was not the stone tools themselves, but the concept of tools. Across this period, humans developed what Marshal McLuhan would later refer to as “extensions of man”. Humans’ manipulation of their surroundings became the dominant strategy upon which evolution exerted its adaptive pressure. Human brains grew as man’s external manipulation abilities proved more efficient than biological “weapons”. We didn’t need to grow bigger, stronger, and faster than surrounding predators once this evolutionary cascade kicked into high gear. Further, once tool use becomes a strategy, it precludes (to varying degrees) biological evolution. McLuhan’s extensions become de facto solutions for the majority of adaptive problems. Every time something is used as a tool it serves as a proxy for evolution. Think surgical solutions to appendicitis, chemical solutions to infertility and impotence, condoms, guns, microwaves, refrigeration, tractors, et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum.

Not only the tools themselves arise in the Paleolithic, but the psychological impulse to solve problems of survival and reproduction through the use of tools, arose during that time as well. Our brains were wired up for tools. So… what does this mean? If we look at this from the perspective of evolutionary psychology, our natural inclination to formulate tool strategies to solve problems is just as “paleo” as eating meats, fruits, and vegetables. This yields some paradoxical outcomes between the historicity of the paleo diet versus the pervasiveness of paleo psychology.

  • Paleo diet enemy: Wheat (agriculture more generally) is, quite literally, a tool. The domestication of wheat was a human extension to solve problems of caloric inconsistency. Paradox!
  • Industrial food processing is a tool.
  • Chemical preservatives are tools.
  • Corn-feeding animals is a tool.
  • Alcohol is a tool! That’s right, people… Tools don’t have to serve an obviously adaptive purpose (though maybe we can pontificate on the reproductive “benefits” of alcohol related reproduction).

Not all tools are such anathemas to the health of humans. I make the illustration to open a space for questioning what is paleo in the historical sense versus what’s paleo in the sense of the shift of hominid conceptualization of tools. And obviously, some tools are amazingly beneficial.

  • Is protein powder historically paleo? Not a chance. Is protein powder a tool that can be utilized for specific purposes?
  • Is coconut oil historically paleo? Again, definitely not. And again… we use it as a tool.
  • Are vitamin D supplements historically paleo? Until we find archaeological evidence of white lab coats in the paleolithic, it’s safe to say no. However, they serve a valid purpose as an absolutely beneficial tool for many modern humans.

So when we talk about paleo being a logical framework, and not a historical reenactment, these are the kind of questions we’re discussing. What historically “incorrect” or #notpaleo or #faileo tools that we have at our disposal should we be using? What are the costs and benefits associated with their use? In reference to paleolithic based diets, it makes sense to talk about the things we ingest, have injected into our veins, or absorb through our skin. That said, this logical framework can be extended to our physical activities, the way we design our lives, the spaces we choose to inhabit, how we interact with one another, and how we spend every moment. Since the question of the best way to optimize our lives is a ridiculously difficult undertaking spanning centuries of thought may be beyond the scope of this article, I’ll save it for the following three zillion posts [subscribe via RSS].

Our Paleolithic ancestors didn’t eat what they ate because they were nutrition experts. They didn’t do what they did because they possessed a superior level of philosophical knowledge or wisdom. [Perspective: speech as we know it didn't exist for more than 2 million years (~85%) of the Paleolithic] Our ancestors simply did what they had to do with what they had available. They died when they did it wrong, and we are the benefactors of those who made the right decisions. We’re lying to ourselves if we think they wouldn’t have utilized many of the tools we have today… both nutritionally and otherwise. And that is a prime reason why romanticizing our Paleolithic progenitors and emulating a historical reenactment completely misses the important point of the Paleolithic. Look at everything that’s available and use the best tool at hand… That’s paleo logic in the modern world. And that’s still only half of the logic… next time…


Aldo Faisal, Dietrich Stout, Jan Apel, Bruce Bradley. The Manipulative Complexity of Lower Paleolithic Stone Toolmaking. PLoS ONE, 2010; 5 (11)