Lou Schuler

Author, Journalist, Presenter

Posted 08/02/2012

Ancestral Nutrition: Which Ancestors Matter?


I spent the first months of the year writing a feature on the paleo diet for Men’s Health magazine. As part of my research, I asked a company called Warrior Roots to analyze my DNA and tell me where my ancestors came from.

Warrior Roots’ CEO and cofounder, Tom Murphy, is a former college wrestler who has competed in MMA. As you can guess from the company name, there’s a lot of emphasis on warfare.

My interest wasn’t in my ancestors’ weaponry so much as their gastronomy. The paleo diet is based on the notion that you shouldn’t eat anything your ancestors wouldn’t have eaten. So before you jump into it, shouldn’t you at least know who your ancestors were, and from there extrapolate what they had in their diet?

This 1998 paper by Riccardo Baschetti, M.D., makes an elegant argument about the importance of heritage in tackling problems like obesity and diabetes. Europeans and European-Americans have relatively low rates of obesity and diabetes, perhaps because our ancient ancestors have had the longest exposure to grains, dairy, and alcohol. For example, most of us with European ancestry can digest lactose beyond childhood, whereas the majority of humans are lactose intolerant.

Before I get into the roots of my own DNA, I should say that most of us alive today evolved from a small group of humans who migrated out of Africa some 60,000 years ago. (Most Africans, of course, evolved from Africans who never left.) They went to the Middle East, and from there branched out in multiple directions. My European ancestors would’ve gone north or west. Those who went east populated Asia, Australia, and the Americas.

The Cretan Chronicles

Warrior Roots traces DNA from the Y chromosome, the one you get from your father. My father’s mother, Grandma Vivian, was obsessive about tracing our family tree and linking us to historical figures and events. That’s how I know we had an uncle on the Mayflower (John Howland), and that we’re somehow related to William Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state and the guy who not only bought Alaska, but made bird poop an imperial priority when he was a U.S. senator.

I think Grandma Vivian would roll over in her grave if she knew our Y chromosome comes from haplogroup J2, which originated in the Middle East some 18,000 years ago and spread throughout the Mediterranean, Balkans, Caucasus, and Iran. It’s associated with the spread of agriculture during the Neolithic period. My ancient ancestors, it seems, went wherever they thought they could grow crops.

My particular Y-DNA is J2a1h-M319, a mutation that arose on the island of Crete about 5,100 years ago. That’s about the time that the great Minoan civilization arose, and the transition point from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age. I grew up enthralled by Greek mythology, so to find a genetic connection to one of the great myths was as exciting to me as joining the Daughters of the American Revolution was to my grandmother.

Born and Bread

So what does this have to do with the paleo diet?

For starters, I’m skeptical of any diet that presents itself as one-size-fits-all. It doesn’t matter if it’s low-fat, low-carb, paleo, vegan, or whatever else has come along while I was typing this sentence. Different diets work for different people for different reasons.

As the Baschetti paper explains, the Western diet tends to be a metabolic disaster for populations who’re exposed to it for the first time. Pacific Islanders have the highest obesity rates in the world, and Pima Indians have devastating rates of diabetes. But indigenous populations who still eat whatever their ancestors ate don’t have these problems.

My ancestors would’ve been the first people in the world exposed to diets rich in grains, dairy, and beans. They had hundreds of generations to develop enzymes to process those foods, and defenses against whatever problems those foods create. My particular Y-chromosome strain appears to have arisen on Crete as a direct result of a migration of early farmers and herders to previously unoccupied territory. Put another way, the mutation that created my patrilineal DNA didn’t exist before agriculture. All of my ancestors on my father’s side would’ve been exposed to non-paleo-diet foods like grains and dairy from cradle to grave.

Five thousand years later, my generation is the first to question whether we should eat those foods at all. Which is kind of ironic, considering we probably wouldn’t exist without them.