Eat the past: the ‘paleo diet’ in the golden age of antiquity

If only humans followed the simple life-styles and particularly the diet of their primitive ancestors, they would lead healthier lives. This is the claim of contemporary proponents of the ‘Paleo Diet’, whose adherents restrict themselves to the foods they believe were available to early human hunter-gatherers living in the distant past. They argue that humans who eat fruit and nuts gathered from plants as well as hunted meat are living more natural human lives than those who are over-nourished by modern foodstuffs produced using intensive agriculture. Yet their claims echo both ideas about eating in the distant primitive past held by the philosophers and poets of classical antiquity, and their practices echo the use by some groups of philosophers of exclusion and special diets as a means of fostering cohesion among their followers and establishing the identities of their sects.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Golden Age, 1530
The Golden Age (1530) by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

The ‘mythologies’ of the modern ‘paleo diet’ have been criticised by evolutionary scientists, such as biologist Marlene Zuk in her Paleofantasy: what evolution really tells us. Zuk, borrowing the term ‘paleofantasy’ from anthropologist Leslie Aiello, points out that privileging one point in the evolution of both humans and the things they eat makes little sense, and rests her argument, as with much criticism of this diet, on the science of evolution. Both humans and food-stuffs have evolved so significantly since the Stone Age that recreating the paleo-diet, outside the context of the subsistence life-style of indigenous peoples, is impossible, and research on the diet of indigenous peoples in the present day shows both a variety of food choices based on the local ecosystem, and also elements of agriculture and trading that add further choices.

However, the idea that the life-style of a primitive past ‘golden age’ resulted in a quality of human flourishing rendered unavailable by the decadence of the present itself has a long history within ancient thought, appearing from the earliest epics onward. Ancient accounts of the origins and early history of humans, such as Hesiod’s stories of early ‘golden’ humans living in harmony with the gods (Works and Days 109-20), and of the advent of animal sacrifice (Theogony 535-557), explore the food eaten in the distant past, often contrasting it with the present and drawing stern conclusions about the decadent life of the present. Visions of a simple life in which humans subsisted on gathered food are presented in many texts: Hesiod’s account presents an intermediate version in which the golden people enjoy both the spontaneous produce of the earth and of their flocks:

They had all good things; the grain-giving field bore crops of its own accord, much and unstinting, and they themselves, willing, mild-mannered, shared out the fruits of their labours together with many good things, wealthy in sheep, dear to the blessed gods. (Hesiod Works and Days 116-120, translation Glenn Most)

Where the ancient and modern imaginings of the paleo diet differ is in the proportion of meat  that features; given that red meat was an infrequent element of the ancient Greek diet, there is no cultural pressure to imagine it being present in greater quantity in the imagined diet of the golden age. In some versions, the golden age diet is a vegetarian one, with the emphasis on gathering plentiful produce that has been produced without cultivation:

The teeming Earth, yet guiltless of the plough,
And unprovok’d, did fruitful stores allow:
Content with food, which Nature freely bred,
On wildings and on strawberries they fed;
Cornels and bramble-berries gave the rest,
And falling acorns furnish’d out a feast.
(Ovid Metamorphoses 1.106-111, in John Dryden’s translation)

The idea of a diet that predates agriculture and is based on nuts and fruits gathered without effort is central to ancient primitivism. Accounts of the Golden Age (sometimes identified as the ‘Age of Cronus/Kronos’ often linger on the food that it provided in abundance, as well as the simplicity and gentleness of life then, a tradition that Arthur Lovejoy and George Boas described, in their Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity, as ‘soft primitivism’:

A god tended them, taking charge of them himself, just as now human beings, themselves a kind of living creature, but different and more divine, pasture other kinds of living creatures more lowly than themselves; and given that he was their shepherd, they had no political constitutions, nor acquired wives or children, for all of them came back to life from the earth, remembering nothing of the past; but while they lacked things of this sort, they had an abundance of fruits from trees and many other plants, not growing through cultivation but because the earth sent them up of its own accord. For the most part they would feed outdoors, naked and without bedding; for the blend of the seasons was without painful extremes, and they had soft beds from the abundant grass that sprung from the earth. What I describe then, Socrates, is the life of those who lived in the time of Kronos; as for this one, which they say is the time of Zeus, the present one, you are familiar with it from personal experience. (Plato Statesman 271e-272b, translation adapted from Rowe)

Indeed, for some philosophers the absence of meat from the diet was evidence of the harmonious life of the golden age. Such views were associated with the Pythagoreans, and  (reported by sources including Ovid in Metamorphoses 15.75-98) and also with the Sicilian philosopher Empedocles:

And the altar did not reek of the unmixed blood of bulls, but this was the greatest abomination among men, to snatch out the life and eat the goodly limbs (Empedocles Fragment 128)

Health-based claims about the golden-age diet were made by some ancient writers. In some of these texts we can see the transition that Lovejoy and Boas discerned between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ primitivism, in which the golden age is rationalised as a time of peacefulness but nonetheless one in which life was simple and austere. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates’ vision of an early diet offers a healthy life based on simple grains as well as gathered fruits and nuts, but no luxury, even after his interlocutor Glaucon queries its plainness:

I was forgetting that they’ll obviously need salt, olives, cheese, boiled roots and vegetables of the sort they cook in the country… they’ll roast myrtle and acorns before the fire, drinking moderately. And so they’ll live in peace and good health… (Plato Republic 2.372b-d, translated Grube)

Glaucon, identified by Lovejoy and Boas as an ‘anti-primitivist’, swiftly complains that this diet is that of a ‘city for pigs’, in which human life is reduced to the animalistic satisfaction of appetites, and insists that Socrates revises his model to reflect ‘the cooked food and delicacies that people have now’. Socrates concedes some luxury and complexity, but suggests that it will be at the cost of the city’s health, ultimately leading it to war. The idea that luxury and its pursuit caused war between cities and unrest within them would go on to be a staple of Roman thought.

Other philosophers in a range of subsequent Socratic traditions thought that simplicity or austerity was desirable in itself. We learn about one, through a report by Porphyry, a third-century CE neo-Platonist philosopher, written by Dicaearchus, a fourth-century BCE philosopher associated with Aristotle’s Peripatetics. Porphyry, originally from Tyre but working in Italy, used these ideas in his vegetarian tract On Abstinence from Eating Animals:

Dicaearchus tells us of what sort the life of the Age of Cronus was: if it is to be taken as having really existed and not as an idle tale, when the too mythical parts of the story are eliminated it may by the use of reason be reduced to a natural sense. For all things then presumably grew spontaneously, since the men of that time themselves produced nothing, having invented neither agriculture nor any art. If was for this reason that they lived a life of leisure, without care or toil, and also – if the doctrine of the most eminent medical men is to be accepted – without disease… For they did not eat food too strong for their constitutions, but such food as their constitutions could absorb, nor did they exceed the limits of moderation, in consequence of having so much available; on the contrary, by reason of scarcity they often ate less than they needed. (Porphyry De Abstinentia 4.1.2, translated Lovejoy/Boas)

Visions of the ancient diet that identified its persistence among peoples the Greeks labelled barbarian sometimes emphasised hunting and the eating of meat. The Scythians, in Virgil’s account, hunt and eat deer (Georgics  3.367-75), although other authors present them as shepherds dependent on dairy produce.

Just like some versions of the modern paleo diet, some ancient attempts to return to an ancient diet emphasised the eating of meat. One early paleo diet text, Walter Voegtlin’s 1975 The Stone-Age Diet, exhorts readers:

Think for a moment of the Old Stone Age people, who, when hungry, slew a cave bear or a woolly rhinoceros, gorged on a half-dozen pounds of meat and fat and, only when hungry, returned to the hunt. Then 10,000 years ago, the New Stone Age folk added to the menu – when meat and fat was in short supply – a handful of wild wheat or barley which had been well-pounded between stones and baked on a hot rock. (The Stone-Age Diet, Walter L. Voegtlin, 1975)

This meat-based feasting can be seen in another episode in Odysseus’ self-reported story, in which Odysseus tells how he demonstrated his hunting skills and killed a deer which his companions then cooked and ate, escaping the threat of starvation (Od. 10.156-184). The Roman writer on agriculture Columella identifies hunted meat as a key part of the early Roman diet, supplemented by abundant produce (Columella On Agriculture l0.pr. 1; see Purcell 2003). Throughout antiquity, hunting remained a key site for the performance of elite masculinity.

Little Hunt Mosaic, Villa Romana del Casale
Hunting and sacrifice, from the Little Hunt mosaic in the Villa Romana del Casale, Piazza Armerina, Sicily, c. 4th c. CE. Photo: Jerzy Strzelecki.

The advent of meat in the human diet is explained in various ways in ancient accounts of human development, but is often explained as a move away from cannibalism. From Homer and Hesiod onward, rituals of sacrifice and cooking give the eating of meat a special status but also establish a range of practices to manage it. Another way in which philosophers could offer a simpler model of life was to reject these usual social practices associated with eating, as Diogenes the Cynic, the somewhat mythicised founder of Cynicism, was said to have done; Diogenes Laertius (writing several hundred years after the dates his namesake Cynic philosopher is thought to have lived) reports that as well as abandoning the use of plates and cups, Diogenes the Cynic tried to subsist on raw meat as a minimal simple diet that suited dogs, only to find that it made him ill (Diogenes Laertius 6.34). ‘Returning’ to a simple diet became a form of social critique.

The Cynic rejection of prepared food was explored and satirised by adherents to other philosophical sects. Those attempting such alternative practices were liable to face criticism either for the practices themselves or for half-hearted adherence to them. The Roman emperor Julian (writing much later, in the fourth century CE) criticises the Cynics of his day for lack of commitment to Diogenes’ ascetism: unlike Diogenes who tried eating raw meat, they add salt and other flavouring to their meat:

It is not really the eating of raw food that disgusts you, either in the case of bloodless animals or those that have blood. But perhaps there is this difference between you and Diogenes, that he thought that he ought to eat such food raw and in its natural state, whereas you think you must first prepare it with salt and many other things for the sake of pleasure, whereby you do violence to nature… (Julian Oration 6.191-193, translated Lovejoy/Boas)

Just as modern adherents to the paleo diet eat foods that are far removed from their natural state, the Cynics criticised by Julian aimed to emulate a simple life but were unable to eliminate all the trappings of the modern complex life, and luxuries such as seasoning.

The ancient simple diet was a theme to which philosophers and poets often returned, but more as a critique of the luxury of present-day diets than as the presentation of an achievable lifestyle goal. Perhaps it is only the conditions of modernity that enable the nostalgic desire for the human past to become a lifestyle choice for a limited few.

References:

  • Bitar, A.R. (2018) Diet and the Disease of Civilization (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press)
  • Lovejoy, A.O. and Boas, G. (1997) [1935], Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press).
  • Purcell, N. (2003) ‘The Way We Used to Eat: Diet, Community, and History at Rome’, American Journal of Philology, Vol. 124, No. 3, pp. 329-358.
  • Voegtlin, W. (1975) The Stone Age Diet (New York: Vantage)
  • Zuk, M. (2013) Paleofantasy: what evolution really tells us about sex, diet, and how we live (New York: Norton).