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Otzi Man’s Last Meal and the Diet of Neanderthals

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Charles Darwin

Denis Noble

JP Rushton

Richard Lynn

L:inda Gottfredson

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1100 words

The debate on what type of diet in regard to macronutrient differences rages on. Should we eat high carb, low fat (HCLF)? Or low carb, high fat (LCHF) or something in between? The answer rests on, of course, the type of diets that our ancestors ate—both immediate and in the distant past. In the 1990s, a frozen human was discovered in the Otzal mountains, which gave him the name “Otzi man.” About 5,300 years ago, he was frozen in the mountains. The contents of his stomach have been analyzed in the 27 years since the discovery of Otzi, but an in-depth analysis was not possible until now.

A new paper was published recently, which analyzed the stomach contents of Otzi man (Maixner et al, 2018). There is one reason why it took so long to analyze the contents of his stomach: the authors state that, due to mummification, his stomach moved high up into his rib cage. The Iceman was “omnivorous, with a diet consisting both of wild animal and plant material” (Maixner et al, 2018: 2). They found that his stomach had a really high fat content, with “the presence of ibex and red deer” (pg 3). He also “consumed either fresh or dried wild meat“, while “a slow drying or smoking of the meat over the fire would explain the charcoal particles detected previously in the lower intestine content.“(pg 5).

The extreme alpine environment in which the Iceman lived and where he have been found (3,210 m above sea level) is particularly challenging for the human physiology and requires optimal nutrient supply to avoid rapid starvation and energy loss [31]. Therefore, the Iceman seemed to have been fully aware that fat displays an excellent energy source. On the other hand, the intake of animal adipose tissue fat has a strong correlation with increased risk of coronary artery disease [32]. A high saturated fats diet raises cholesterol levels in the blood, which in turn can lead to atherosclerosis. Importantly, computed tomography scans of the Iceman showed major calcifications in arteria and the aorta indicating an already advanced atherosclerotic disease state [33]. Both his high-fat diet and his genetic predisposition for cardiovascular disease [34] could have significantly contributed to the development of the arterial calcifications.  Finally, we could show that the Iceman either consumed fresh or dried meat. Drying meat by smoking or in the open air are simple but highly effective methods for meat preservation that would have allowed the Iceman to store meat long term on journeys or in periods of food scarcity. In summary, the Iceman’s last meal was a well-balanced mix of carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids, perfectly adjusted to the energetic requirements of his high-altitude trekking. (Maixner et al, 2018: 5)

They claim that “the intake of animal adipose tissue fat has a strong correlation with increased risk of coronary artery disease“, of course, citing a paper that the AHA is involved in (Sacks et al, 2017) which says that “Randomized clinical trials showed that polyunsaturated fat from vegetable oils replacing saturated fats from dairy and meat lowers CVD.” This is nonsense, because dietary fat guidelines have no evidence (Harcombe et al, 2016; Harcombe, Baker, and Davies, 2016; Harcombe, 2017). Saturated fat consumption is not even associated with all-cause mortality, type II diabetes, ischemic stroke, CVD (cardiovascular disease) and CHD (coronary heart disease) (de Sousa et al, 2015).

Thus, if anything, what contributed to Otzi man’s arterial calcification seems to be grains/carbohydrates (see DiNicolantonio et al, 2017), not animal fat. Fats, at 9 kcal per gram, were better for Otzi to consume, as he got more kcal for his buck; eating a similar portion in carbohydrates, for example, would have meant that Otzi would have had to spend more time eating (since carbs have less than half the energy that animal fat does). Since his stomach had ibex (a type of goat) and red deer, it’s safe to say that many of his meals consisted mainly of animal fat, protein with some cereals and plants thrown in (he was an omnivore).

We can then contrast the findings of Otzi’s diet with that of Neanderthals. It has been estimated that, during glacial winters, Neanderthals would have consumed around 74-85 percent of their diet from animal fat when there were no carbohydrates around, with the rest coming from protein (Ben-Dor, Gopher, and Barkai, 2016). Furthermore, based on contemporary data from polar peoples, it is estimated that Neanderthals required around 3,360 to 4,480 kcal per day to winter foraging and cold resistance (Steegmann, Cerny, and Holliday, 2002). The upper-limit for protein intake for Homo sapiens is 4.0 g/bw/day while for erectus it is 3.9 g/bw/day (Ben-Dor et al, 2011), and so this shows that Neanderthals consumed a theoretical upper-maximum of protein due to their large body size. So we can assume that Neanderthals consumed somewhere near 3800 kcal per day. The average Neanderthal is said to have consumed about 292 grams of protein per day, or 1,170 kcal (with a lower end of 985 kcal and an upper end of 1,170 at the high end) (Ben-Dor, Gopher, and Barkai, 2016: 370).

Then if we further assume that Neanderthals consumed no carbohydrates during glacial winters, that leaves protein as the main source of energy, since the large game the Neanderthals hunted were not around. Thus, Neanderthals would have consumed between 2,812 and 3,230 kcal from animal fat with the rest coming from protein. We can also put this into perspective. The average American man consumes about 100 grams of protein per day, while consuming 2,195 kcal per day (Ford and Dietz, 2013). For these reasons, and more, I argued that Neanderthals were significantly stronger than Homo sapiens, and this does have implications for racial differences in athletic ability.

In sum, the last meal of Otzi man is now known. Of course, this is a case of n = 1, so we should not draw too large a conclusion from this, but it is interesting. I don’t see why the composition of the diets of any of Otzi’s relatives would have been any different (or that the contents of his normal diet would have been any different). He ate a diet high in animal fat like Neanderthals, but unlike Neanderthals, they ate a more cereal-based diet which may have contributed to Otzi’s CVD and arterial calcification. We can learn a lot about ourselves and our ancestors through the analysis of their stomach contents (if possible) and teeth (if possible), and maybe even genomes (Berens, Cooper, and Lachance, 2017) because if we learn what they ate then we can maybe begin to shift dietary advice to a more ‘natural’ way and avoid diseases of civilization. But, we have not had time to adapt to the new obesogenic environments we have constructed for ourselves. It’s due to this that we have an obesity epidemic, and by studying the diets of our ancestors, we can then begin to remedy our obesity and other health problems.

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