MEDICAL INSIGHTS: Nut and seed intake dates back to ancestral times
It is understood that our ancient ancestors were hunters and gathers. A significant part of their diet included nuts and also seeds.
Nuts are a fruit surrounded by an inedible shell which also contains a seed that is generally edible. By one author’s definition seeds are really baby plants. Many of the plants and nuts that our ancestors ate are no longer available to us today. In other words they ate plants and foods that we can’t find in a grocery store.
The cashews that we eat today are native to northeast Brazil. They were later taken to India in 1560 and from there spread to Asia and Africa. Pistachios originated in central Asia and are a member of the cashew family. This nut is nutritionally dense with protein, fiber,vitamins, minerals and healthy fats as are many other nuts that we enjoy today.
It takes seven to 10 years for a pistachio tree to reach maturity with peak production being around 20 years. Walnuts are technically identified as a seed by some authors and are rich in essential fatty acids and also eleven vitamins . Ink was made from their hulls by the famous artists Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt.
Nuts, seeds and other fruits are of course seasonal. Some have a longer season than others and there was of course competition by other animals for these same foods. In his excellent book The Triumph of Seeds , Thor Hanson states that it is difficult to survive only on raw food and that a significant energy gain is achiever through cooking.
The first nuts to be roasted were possibly found on the forest floor following a forest fire. Roasting or boiling makes nuts as well as meat and tubers more palatable. Cooking renders many foods more digestible thus more useful calories are available for absorption.
Cooked foods are easier to chew and therefore calories can be consumed more efficiently. Some scientists believe that our ancestors brains became larger and our teeth smaller because of cooking foods. Larger brain size meant better skills at hunting and gathering. Also eating cooked grains seemed to play a large role in human evolution. Wild grains were eventually planted, harvested and then agricultural skills progressed as did communication skills, language skills and community living.
There is a cave in south Africa believed to have sheltered human ancestors more two million years ago . This cave has evidence of controlled fires. Just when humans learned to make and control fire is not known. Signs of controlled fires for cooking have been documented at a site in Israel dating back to 780,000 years ago. At this site there is evidence of burnt seeds, wild grasses, barley and oats.
Stone tools used for grinding thought to be at least 20,000 years old have been found near the Sea of Galilee. A date seed from the ruins of Masada Fortress has germinated into a healthy plant after lying dormant for over 2,000 years. Also an arctic flower seed native to Siberia and carbon dated to be over 31,000 years old which was once hidden in a squirrel burrow 38 meters below the permafrost was planted with some biologic assistance and grew into a lovely flower.
The present day Paleo diet encourages eating only foods that were available to our Paleolithic ancestors. This of course may not be entirely possible today but it is certainly reasonable to avoid highly processed foods . Eating nuts and seeds on a regular basis connects us somewhat with our ancestors but it also makes excellent sense nutritionally.
Not all the foods eaten by our distant ancestors are available to us today, but nature has provided all that we need. Conserving those natural foods and resources and by becoming good stewards of the land will hopefully enable our progeny to enjoy the benefits of nature for tens of thousands of years to come.