Did ancient humans eat a Paleo diet?

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Cave paintings from the Lascaux complex in France to Ubirr in Australia have one characteristic in common—they depict hunters and their prey. Very few of our Paleolithic ancestors seemed interested in doing still-life paintings of fruit and veg. Which is a shame, given that they would almost certainly have eaten a more balanced diet than we often give them credit for, says Cristiani.

“We have had a huge problem talking about the ancient human ,” notes Cristiani, an archaeologist based at the Diet and Ancient Technology Laboratory (DANTE) in Italy. “One reason for this is that decays. So when we come across early prehistoric sites, all we tend to find is preserved bones, and perhaps butchering tools.”

This is one reason why prehistoric archaeologists have tended to focus their resources on looking for such clues. This in turn has fed into the popular idea that prehistoric diets consisted primarily of animal proteins.

Our dietary evolution

The story of what ancient humans actually ate, and how our diet evolved, is far richer. This began around 2.5 million years ago, when Homo habilis would have started to use stone tools. Our earliest ancestors were most probably vegetarian, before meat was introduced to their diets through scavenging. With the invention of and the growth of social cooperation, we would then have learned to hunt for ourselves.

“The controlled use of fire was a great invention that allowed us to cook,” continues Cristiani. “The energy we previously would have needed to digest raw meat, and even raw vegetables, could then fuel our brain.”

A picture of ever increasing dietary complexity follows, with more advanced tools and the use of fire enabling us to outcompete other species. This dietary complexity—based on a mix of vegetation, grains and meat—would also have enabled us to prosper in vastly different climates.

“This is what really differentiated us from other primates,” says Cristiani. “While other species were stuck in an , we could migrate across the world using our tools and our brains, because of our diverse diets.”

Proof of a balanced diet

Still, there has to date been a dearth of concrete proof that ancient humans ate a balanced diet. To address this, Cristiani developed a way of identifying from food, which can remain trapped in hardened (called ) for millennia.

The HIDDEN FOODS project, of which Cristiani was coordinator, also recovered microscopic traces of starch from tools that might have been used to process tubers and grains. The project focused on remains from 40,000 to 8,000 years old, from a number of sites in Europe.

“We found that ancient societies who were thought to rely on fish or meat also ate wild cereals,” adds Cristiani. “Their diets were much more balanced. From the way that starches were preserved on their teeth and tools, we could also tell that they liked to make a sort of porridge.”

The technique was also able to show other behaviors such as the use of the mouth to tan hides, as well as the use of plants that are known for their medicinal properties. “This dental calculus is really a treasure from the past that we are scraping off,” remarks Cristiani.

Did ancient humans eat a Paleo diet? (2022, October 27)
retrieved 27 October 2022
from https://phys.org/news/2022-10-ancient-humans-paleo-diet.html

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New research shows how octopuses may have evolved

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Q&A with a chromosome cartographer

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Credit: Unsplash/CC0 Public Domain

La Jolla Institute for Immunology Associate Professor Ferhat Ay, Ph.D., is building some of the world’s smallest maps. Dr. Ay harnesses computers to transform DNA genomic sequences into 3D maps. These maps can reveal how genes interact and how the body fights disease.

There is an urgent need for computational biologists like Dr. Ay. Thanks to new, more affordable sequencing tools, scientists today are generating bigger and bigger datasets. Dr. Ay has developed new methods to quickly sort through “” and uncover the patterns that matter.

Your lab looks a lot different from the usual immunology lab. What can you accomplish with computers?

Dr. Ay: We look at a number of different features of your DNA, including how it is folded and what parts of it carry marks of biochemical activity. All of these in concert determine the activity levels of your genes and how cells function. With recent methods, we can “see” how DNA, RNA, and proteins all come together to form chromatin.

It’s important to understand how your chromatin is structured and folded inside a tiny cell nucleus and how that is different from one cell type to another. Changes in this intricate 3D organization may lead to disease.

What does it mean to build a genomic ‘map?’

We analyze data by placing each datapoint in a huge matrix. Sometimes a matrix can be a million by a million in size, over a trillion points. We’ve developed really efficient statistical models and image processing tools to scan the matrix—like it’s a map—for specific patterns and then link these patterns to functions in different cells.

Once you sequence billions of reads to quantify proximities between different regions in the genome, you can start telling which genomic regions touch each other a lot. Using these points as anchors, we can turn that information into a three-dimensional map using to show how genes interact.

By developing new computational algorithms and methods, we can analyze sequencing datasets to answer specific biological questions. For example, we can test hypotheses about a specific genomic region playing an important role in an autoimmune disease. Or we can test hypotheses about certain rearrangements in the chromosomes being important for cancer.

How would a chromosome get rearranged in cancer?

My lab is looking at an especially aggressive leukemia subset in . These patients have cells where a chromosome has actually shattered into pieces and those pieces came back together in a sort of random order.

We’ve developed a computational project to detect these rearrangements. Which genes are broken down, and which genes are fused to each other? We’re focused on helping the pediatric patients who are most likely to not respond to treatment and most likely to relapse.

What can your research teach us about infectious disease?

In one collaboration, we were able to link genetic variants to COVID-19 case severity by first finding the genes that neighbor those genetic variants in specific immune cells. People had previously missed these associations because they were looking at the genome in one dimension. By adding these three-dimensional maps, we were able to identify genes that might be relevant to the body’s response to certain diseases, such as COVID-19.

I imagine your field changes faster than most.

It’s both exciting and scary that like every couple of years, we have new technologies that are emerging, essentially making some of the previous technologies obsolete. Each new technology produces much larger and more complex than we have ever seen. As , our task is to develop effective methods that best utilize these data and allow us to ask and answer questions that we could not have before. We really enjoy doing this!

Do you have any advice for students who may want to pursue a career in computational biology?

You should be able to work under the mentality that everything will change. The things that you’re an expert in today—and tools you develop—will be useful for a while, but you should be able to accept they may become obsolete. You need to renew yourself. But it is important that you prepare yourself well by acquiring core computational skills and building a knowledge base that will stay with you wherever the research takes you.

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