Owen Lloyd: Moving Beyond “Paleo”

By Owen Lloyd / Deep Green Resistance Eugene

Over the last several years, there has been a growing recognition of the damage industrial agriculture incurs on our landbases, on human societies, and on our bodies.

For example, a study last year found that over 80% of global deforestation is caused by agriculture [1]. Another report by the Worldwatch Institute demonstrated the links between agriculture and colonialism, pointing out that every year millions of acres are being snatched up by capitalist investors, who now control nearly 5% of African land that is suitable for agriculture. [2]

In many cities, “gluten free” products have become ubiquitous, and numerous people have dropped wheat products altogether. Seeking alternatives to what Douglas Tompkins has termed “industrial animal concentration camps,” there has been a 20-fold rise in pasture-raised beef since the late 1990s. [3] These changes have been facilitated in part by a broader movement to decolonize our bodies, using the work of anthropologists and geneticists to reclaim a more evolutionarily and ecologically appropriate diet. In 2002 Loren Cordain branded this diet “the paleo diet” and the name has since stuck.

However, it is a term that for numerous reasons we need to abolish from our vocabulary.

Indigenous people as relics

The word “paleo” derives from the Greek palaio-, meaning “old or ancient” [4]. Other terms for the diet follow similar lines, and include “caveman diet”, “stone age diet”,  “primal diet”, and “the original human diet”.

One thing these terms share in common is their situation of the diet in the distant past. This is highly curious, because to a large extent the diet is guided by anthropological research on surviving indigenous peoples. What this means is that the language used by “paleo diet” practitioners situates indigenous people in the distant past. And having relegated them there, having erased and silenced their experience, those adopting a paleo diet can then feel free to take on the mantle of being indigenous themselves.

The idea that indigenous people somehow belong in the past stems from a racist cultural mythology called “unilineal evolution,” which falsely assumes that modern industrial civilization is the most culturally advanced state of human existence, and that all cultures are striving towards that same endpoint.

This mythology has long been used to justify and explain away genocidal activities, insofar as it does not allow indigenous cultures to be understood except as failed civilizations that should be annihilated and replaced, or as pitiable children who need enlightened white colonizers to show them the path forward. In a modern context, this racist mythology is often used by white “experts” who want to claim they are the rightful “successors” of indigenous people. In her famous essay “Just What’s All This Fuss About Whiteshamanism Anyway?”, Wendy Rose wrote:

One famous anthropologist whose specialty was Northern California insisted that Northwestern California Indians were no longer familiar with their ancient form of money, long shells called dentalia or tooth-shells. The comment was stimulated by the fact that I was wearing some of these very same shells around my neck—which had been given to me by a Yurok woman as payment for a painting. A basket specialist assured me that basket-hats are no longer worn by California Indian women; nearly every weekend such women attended the same social functions I did—wearing basket-hats that had been passed down through their families and, most importantly, were still made. A woman who was both anthropologist and art collector told me that pottery was no longer produced at Laguna Pueblo; she continued to insist on this, even after I told her the names of women who produce it there… A very well known linguist asked me to escort a group of Yuki elders around the museum and then confided to me that it was a shame no one spoke Yuki anymore; the elders spoke to each other in Yuki the entire time they were there… Taken singly, these episodes are not important. But taken together… it is apparent that a pattern exists. European-derived Americans consider themselves to be uniquely qualified to explain the rest of humanity. Coupled with this bizarre notion is the idea that natives of a particular culture are inhibited from being able to articulate themselves in a cultural context, or are merely superstitious when they try. [5]

In the same way, white experts have designated themselves the authorities on indigenous diets, and then subsequently adopted language suggesting that indigenous people are relics from the past. Conveniently enough, this brings the message that indigenous people are no longer capable of speaking for themselves. Having erased indigenous existence, these writers can play-act the role of mediums who offer us our only means of connecting with traditional ways.

Essentialized people

Another problem with the concept of the “paleo diet” is that it homogenizes indigenous peoples by suggesting that all traditional diets are essentially the same. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people state definitively that indigenous people generally ate a plant-based diet, or that indigenous people generally ate a meat-based diet.

This is problematic for the reason given above: it’s an example of (generally white) people situating indigenous people in the past and then trying to redefine their experience in their own image. Another problem with it is that it reduces indigenous people to one-dimensional caricatures, all of whom are essentially the same.

I live on land belonging to the Chafan band of the Kalapuya, and have been told by indigenous people that their traditional diet is largely plant-centered, and includes camas bulbs, wapato, acorn mush, tarweed seeds, berries, and hazelnuts, as well as numerous sources of meat including deer, fish, and lamprey eels. Fifty miles to the west, on the Pacific coast, the traditional diet of the Siuslaw people is primarily maritime and included shellfish, finfish, salmon, lamprey, berries, camas, myrtle nuts, and deer. Fifty miles to the east, in the Cascade mountains, the Molalla people were known as big game hunters, and experts at hunting elk and mule deer, as well as at fishing for salmon and steelhead.

Unlike this culture of occupation we live in, for indigenous people the land determined the diet, rather than the other way around. So while the paleo diet explicitly condemns the consumption of grains, my Nipissing and Ojibwe relatives and ancestors have been eating wild rice as a dietary staple for thousands of years.

Another road

Industrial agriculture and factory farming are killing the planet, dispossessing the global poor, and are making us increasingly susceptible to disease and other illnesses. It’s long past time we begin moving away from our factory lifestyles and begin finding ways to live in kinship with the places we call home, to feed not only ourselves but also our landbases. But we need to be mindful about how we apply those changes, and how we talk about them.

When we silence or stereotype indigenous people, whether we realize we are doing so or not, we are helping to prop up the culture of occupation we say that we are trying to stop. As the Dakota writer Waziyatawin told me, the continued use of the word paleo “is part of the de-humanization process through objectification, and… works to de-legitimize our claims to our ancient ancestry and homelands.” It is long past time we excise it.

[1] http://dgrnewsservice.org/2012/09/25/report-finds-that-agriculture-is-directly-driving-80-of-global-deforestation/
[2] http://dgrnewsservice.org/2012/06/28/173-million-acres-grabbed-by-investors-for-agriculture-mining-biofuels-and-timber-industry/
[3] http://www.stltoday.com/business/local/grass-fed-beef-in-more-pastures-and-on-more-plates/article_8ebd5252-41d1-59d0-b5aa-def3bbc99698.html
[4] http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=paleo-
[5] http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/m_r/rose/whiteshamanism.htm

0 thoughts on “Owen Lloyd: Moving Beyond “Paleo””

  1. …White people didn’t drop in from Mars. White people are an indigenous people in places where they were indigenous. The diet touted by these movements is an attempt to return to the more natural forms of diets that has been lost in much of the “western” world.

    There is no reason to assume that in order to speak of paleolithic diets, that the objects must be some one else’s paleolithic diets – some other skin color, ethnicity, or indigenous group. White people have a paleolithic ancestry of their own, however, and accompanying diet.

    For a perfect example, Europeans have a far greater tolerance for dairy products, which is a particular quirk that is not widely shared by other ethnic groups. Paleolithic diets for Europeans will naturally vary from other ethnic diets.

    The only real problem with these books is they don’t account for the variety of ethnic backgrounds and genetic differences that change how our bodies process foods, I will grant you that. But one can’t “appropriate” a diet that existed in their own genetic history.

    1. Again, I think the idea behind the diet is a good one. It makes sense to start eating in a way that is evolutionarily and ecologically appropriate. And absolutely, that goes for everyone. The problem is that the diet itself isn’t based on anything like an ancestral European diet, It is impossible to know at this time what constituted a European diet in the so-called “Stone Age”, particularly since all plant matters from this time broke down millennia ago and were reabsorbed into the soil.

      Instead, the diet is based primarily on the work of anthropologists working with living indigenous peoples. For decades these anthropologists have been recording, codifying, and analyzing these diets, and it is from this work that we have gained a growing recognition that a non-agricultural diet is better suited to our needs, and less damaging to the places where we live. The “paleo diet” abstracts that collected body of knowledge, and attempts to recreate a European diet based on that information. That makes sense to a point– if white people are to eat a diet based on that of their ancestors, it makes sense to extrapolate that from what we do know about non-agricultural diets and apply that knowledge.

      But to say that the diet was somehow uncovered from the European past is a lie. The basis of the paleo diet comes from existing indigenous people, who are quickly being killed and assimilated by the same class of people who extracted knowledge of their diets, and who started applying that knowledge to the way that they eat. The term “paleo” masks that the diet did not come from paleolithic people (European or elsewhere), but from modern day, living indigenous peoples. And insofar as anyone is an “expert” on how to “eat paleo”, those experts are by-and-large white, and profit generously, while the sources of their knowledge are left uncompensated and under threat of extinction.

      1. I thought diets were generally extrapolated from the plaque left on teeth, thus so long as we had access to skeletons we could approximate the diets. Or from any kind of settlement where bones, pollen, etc, would be found.

        If they just based it off living people’s diets, seems to defeat the entire purpose… and I agree is both pointless and not necessarily fitting on a biological level for what our ancestors would have consumed.

        I’m glad I never got into these fad diets.

  2. Indigenous eco agriculture produces almost twice that of corporate agriculture. Young indigenous economics graduates are sent home to tell their government to privatize indigenous land for more efficient corporate farms. And the university endowments use their funds to grab the land from the indigenous people so they can become slave labor, which the efficient corporatists require to be destroyers of the planet.

  3. I love this article! As an anthropologist, I teach about such subjects and find MYSELF eating this diet, for health reasons, but loathing the terminology used to describe it. We need to find a way to describe/name this “diet” without all of the hegemony incorporated into our set of assumptions about the its origin.

  4. Thank you so much! The real problem is that the western scientific ideology about the so-called paleolithic doesn’t even match the evidence, as there is hard-core evidence of “advanced” civilization during the paleolithic (see Gobekli Tepe). This means cities and woolly mammoths co-existed!? Also, many Indigenous people (of all skin shades) did practice Indigenous agriculture along with harvesting non-domesticated food, and were perfectly healthy. So it’s way more complex than the linear marxist-primitivist determinism that much of the “paleo” and anti-civ folks get stuck in.

    Yes, eating only grain and overpopulation did happen in many places, leading to collapse and tooth rot, and that’s the global scenario we’re facing now. I am in favor or claiming “Ancestral Health” over “paleo”, and the “caveman diet” thing is worse than racist.

    I also live in Camas and Salmon country, and the traditional diet here defies both “paleo” and “agricultural” logic. This beautiful reality has been made invisible by the mainstream “Paleo ” diet movement, and it’s past time to reject their dominance of the Ancestral Health movement. Yes!

  5. I just think it’s stupid to market the appropriation of the diet of a culture which your culture is destroying. Also it’s pretty selfish, people are worrying about looking fabulous at the beach, but those things are not going to last for soon.

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