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It’s putrid, it’s paleo, and it’s good for you How do you get your vitamin C where no fruit and veg will grow?

As our ancestors moved north out of Africa, and especially as they found themselves in climates that supported less gathering and more hunting, they were faced with an acute nutritional problem: scurvy. Humans are one of the few mammals that cannot manufacture this vital little chemical compound (others being the guinea pig and fruit bats). If there are no fruit and veg around, where will that vitamin C come from?

That’s a question that puzzled John Speth, an archaeologist and Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He found clues in the accounts of sailors and explorers shipwrecked in the Arctic. Those who, often literally, turned their noses up at the “disgusting” diet of the locals sometimes paid with their lives. Those who ate what the locals ate lived to tell the tale. John Speth told me the tale of how he came to propose the idea that putrid meat and fish may have been a key part of Neanderthal and modern human diet during the Palaeolithic.

Notes

  1. Read Putrid Meat and Fish in the Eurasian Middle and Upper Paleolithic: Are We Missing a Key Part of Neanderthal and Modern Human Diet? for John Speth’s full chain of reasoning – and all the wonderful first-hand accounts.
  2. Two articles, one from the University of Pennsylvania and one from the University of Chicago, give a flavour of Paul Rozin’s research.
  3. The Centers for Disease Control in the US has an interesting page on botulism in Alaska.
  4. Discover Magazine did a story on Alaskan food.
  5. But you know, I am just so sick of the whole 73-disgusting-foods-you-won’t-believe-people-not-like-us-eat trope, I could throw up. Get over it, people.
  6. I cobbled together the banner image from two images at Wikimedia, a ball and stick model of viatmin C and an illustration from The Arctic whaleman; or, Winter in the Arctic Ocean: being a narrative of the wreck of the whale ship Citizen. I know the whalers were taken care of by local people, but not whether any succumbed to scurvy. Nobody seems to know where the fish stink-head photo comes from — unless you do.

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  1. It’s putrid, it’s paleo, and it’s good for you by Jeremy Cherfas (Eat This Podcast)

    How do you get your vitamin C where no fruit and veg will grow?

    As our ancestors moved north out of Africa, and especially as they found themselves in climates that supported less gathering and more hunting, they were faced with an acute nutritional problem: scurvy. Humans are one of the few mammals that cannot manufacture this vital little chemical compound (others being the guinea pig and fruit bats). If there are no fruit and veg around, where will that vitamin C come from?

    That’s a question that puzzled John Speth, an archaeologist and Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He found clues in the accounts of sailors and explorers shipwrecked in the Arctic. Those who, often literally, turned their noses up at the “disgusting” diet of the locals sometimes paid with their lives. Those who ate what the locals ate lived to tell the tale. John Speth told me the tale of how he came to propose the idea that putrid meat and fish may have been a key part of Neanderthal and modern human diet during the Palaeolithic.

    As always a brilliant episode from Jeremy.
    There’s quite a lot to unpack here and I’m sure there’s a few days of research papers to read to even begin to scratch the surface of some of what’s going on here with regard to the disgust portion of the program.
    One of the things that strikes me offhand within the conversation of botulism and its increase when Arctic peoples went from traditional life ways to more modern ones are related stories I’ve heard, even recently, from researchers who are looking for replacement antibiotics for evolving superbugs. Often their go-to place for searching for them is in the dirt which can be found all around us. I’m curious if there’s not only specific chemistry (perhaps anaerobic or even affected by temperature) but even antibiotics found in the ground which are killing microbes which could cause these types of sickness? Of course, with extreme cold usually comes frozen ground and permafrost which may make burying foods for fermenting more difficult. I’m curious how and were native peoples were doing their burying to give an idea for what may have been happening to protect them.
    Another piece which dovetails with this one is a story I heard yesterday morning on NPR as I woke up. Entitled To Get Calcium, Navajos Burn Juniper Branches To Eat The Ash, it also covered the similar idea that native peoples had methods for fulfilling their dietary needs in unique ways.
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    Author: Chris Aldrich

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  2. A great episode, it could have been titled Eat Shit and Don’t Die. Seriously, I don’t understand why scientists are unprepared to distinguish between fermentation and putrefaction. Just specify which microbes will either preserve or change food that can be appreciated without harm, regardless of how they smell culturally, and those that are pathogens. Sometimes food does really go bad and will harm you. Botulism isn’t a great example because it has no odor. Instead think of the many that do stink: Listeria, E. coli, Staph, etc. Sometimes they’re related to the “good” bacteria in fish sauce, sausages, cheese, etc, but the latter definitely are not poisonous.

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