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The REAL caveman diet: Research shows ancient man mainly ate tiger nuts

  • tiger nut.jpg

    A tiger nut, which actually isn't a nut at all, but rather a form of edible tuber. (University of Georgia / Stanley Kays)

  • Skull of "Nutcracker Man" or Paranthropus boisei

    The skull of "Nutcracker Man," or Paranthropus boisei. The image is of Olduvai Hominid 5 (OH 5), the most famous of the early human fossils, which was found at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. (Donald C. Johanson)

  • OH5_2 early hominid.jpg

    Palate and maxillary teeth of Paranthropus boisei (OH 5). (Donald C. Johanson)

  • Amboseli landscape with baboons.jpg

    Baboons wander through the Amboseli National Park in Kenya. The landscape inhabited by Paranthropus boisei was very similar. (Gabriele Macho)

So much for Fred Flintstone’s brontosaurus ribs.

The popular caveman diet claims people will feel more powerful and healthier if they only eat items popular during the Paleolithic, pointing to nuts, berries and red meat. But a new study from Oxford University says meat wasn’t making it for our ancient ancestors: 2.4 million years ago, man survived mainly on “tiger nuts” -- edible grass bulbs still eaten in parts of the world today.

“Tiger nuts, still sold in health food shops as well as being widely used for grinding down and baking in many countries, would be relatively easy to find,” explained Gabriele Macho with Oxford University’s Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art.

“They also provided a good source of nourishment for a medium-sized hominin with a large brain. This is why these hominins were able to survive for around one million years because they could successfully forage – even through periods of climatic change.”

'They provided a good source of nourishment for a medium-sized hominin with a large brain.'

- Gabriele Macho with Oxford University’s Research Laboratory for Archaeology

But early man couldn't live on nuts alone, of course, and Fred Flintstone was likely no exception. These early relatives may have also sought additional nourishment from fruits and invertebrates, like worms and grasshoppers, the study concluded.

To find what cavemen really ate, Macho compared the diet of Paranthropus boisei, nicknamed “Nutcracker Man” because of his big flat molar teeth and powerful jaws, and modern Kenyan baboons. Scientists have debated whether high-fiber foods would have been sufficient nourishment for early man.

Macho found that modern baboons living in an environment similar to Nutcracker Man’s eat large quantities of tiger nuts, and this food would have contained sufficiently high amounts of minerals, vitamins, and the fatty acids that would have been particularly important for the hominin brain.

She concludes that the nutritional demands of ancient man would have been quite similar.

Tiger nuts (Cyperus esculentus) are rich in starches, the study says, and are highly abrasive in an unheated state. Macho suggests that wear and tear on the teeth in that ancient skull points to wear and tear due to these starches. The study finds that baboon teeth have similar marks, giving clues about their pattern of consumption.

The study was published Wednesday in the online journal PLOS One.