Background and Overview
The evolution of human nutrition has gained general prominence in recent years through the popularity of the paleolithic diet that is also popularly referred to as the paleodiet, caveman diet or Stone Age diet. Interest in the paleodiet is largely a response to the epidemic of diseases such as obesity, type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure (among many others) that plague modern civilization. The basic premise is that by returning to the diet of our pre-agriculture, paleolithic ancestors we will achieve better health and well-being. Paleolithic is sometimes taken to include the entire span of the Pleistocene extending back over 2 million years and at other times to include only the Upper Palaeolithic and our pre-agriculture modern human ancestors (e.g. ~40,000 – 50,000 years ago). The common denominator is the exclusion of dietary items such as legumes, grains, and dairy products introduced during the agricultural revolution as well as processed foods of the modern era.
However, pre-agriculture human diets were never uniform and dietary shifts have been associated with the major evolutionary events in human prehistory. These include the first appearance of the genus Homo, the subsequent appearance of Homo erectus and the movement out of Africa. Diet has been associated with the evolution of the large human brain as well as the evolution of human cooperation, division of labor, and life-history variation. The point is that the paleodiet is not a uniform diet. The major purpose of this background and overview (as well as of the larger symposium) is to highlight the evolution of human nutrition from our earliest ancestors to the modern day and to draw attention to the diversity in the human diet and its consequences.