What Did Paleo Actually Look Like for Our Ancestors?

In the late 1930s, an anthropologically-minded dentist named Weston A. Price observed that native people around the world had great teeth. From Australia to North America, indigenous people did not suffer from tooth decay—one of the most common diseases of modernity—and Price began to wonder why. His odontological curiosity led him to conclude that these peoples’ diets were the source of their dental health; he observed that widespread tooth decay can be directly attributed to the introduction of refined sugar and white flour into human diets.

Today, his research into the nutrient-rich diets of pre-industrial native people is carried on by the foundation bearing his name, The Weston A. Price Foundation, led by a group of physicians, academics, and nutritionists who believe that a diet rich in nutrient-dense foods and fat-soluble vitamins is key to maintaining human health over generations.

Sally Fallon Morell is the founding president of the foundation, in addition to being a bestselling author and activist. She has spent most of her career exploring the ways that native people ate and lived, and the way that modern people can integrate these traditional foodways for holistic health. She’s just released her newest book, Nourishing Diets: How Paleo, Ancestral and Traditional People Really Ate, which she says has been 20 years in the making—and you already know her cookbook, Nourishing Traditions, which introduced readers to traditional foods from around the world.

Shop the Story

To learn more about how our ancestors really ate (and whether or not modern paleo diets are really paleolithic), we spoke to Sally about how to cook grains so they’re more easily digestible, the deliciousness of blood, and how looking to the past can be the key to our future.

Sarah Whitman-Salkin: Could you talk a little bit about your background and what inspired you to write this book and the other books in the series?

Sally Fallon Morell: The first book was Nourishing Traditions, and that was kind of like a bolt out of the blue. A friend of mine suggested that we write a cookbook together and I immediately dismissed the idea. I said, “There’s a thousand cookbooks out there, nobody needs another cookbook!” But the idea then took hold and it became obsessive with me, I just couldn’t get it out of my head. I thought to myself, “if I did write a cookbook, what kind of book would I want to write? I would want to write a book based on how traditional people ate.” So I called up my friend and said, “I think I am going to write a cookbook but I don’t want to write it with you because you cook differently from me and I still want to be friends with you after the book.” And we are still really good friends!

Then I really had to start thinking. Because of the work of Weston Price, I knew that we needed to emphasize the fats and grass-based and traditional cooking ways. But then I started to think about grains. And it was through a wonderful man named Jacques de Langre who introduced me to some books in French which talked about the importance of sourdough and why grains need to be soaked and so forth, and he also introduced me to some books on lacto-fermentation—I’d never heard of lacto-fermentation. So I realized that I would actually have to change the way I cooked if I was going to conform to these principles.

Nourishing Traditions did really well, and then we did the Nourishing Traditions Book of Baby and Child Care and The Nourishing Traditions Cookbook for Children. Then my literary agent came to me, and she wanted to do Nourishing Broth, which I did with Kayla Daniel, and then I did Nourishing Fats and now Nourishing Diets, which is a book I feel like I’ve been writing for 20 years.

SWS: How did you develop the recipes in this book?

SFM: I was really pushing the envelope with these recipes—there’s a whole section on cooking with blood. I was really experimenting in the kitchen with all these blood recipes, and it’s something you definitely have to get used to. I don’t think the recipes in this book are where someone should get started with my cooking, I think they should start with Nourishing Traditions, which has more familiar types of foods.

SWS: One thing that’s so great about these recipes is that they’re so representative of diets from around the world.

SFM: That’s what I wanted to do. And I wanted to introduce things like fufu, which is cassava. Another really fun one in there is flummery, which is made with the soaked oat bran. I think it’s a really good contrast to what we’re “supposed” to do with the oat bran: People were just supposed to mix it with water and eat it, and as a result, people developed a lot of health problems from oat bran. Whereas the flummery is soaked a long time and drained and soaked again, and then the actual bran is thrown away and then you have this kind of thick soaking liquid which is considered very healthy, very good for the sick, very good for digestion.

Another wonderful dish is scrapple, and that is a mid-Atlantic traditional dish with organ meats. We live in the scrapple region and I can’t tell you how many people, especially older people, say, “Oh I just can’t live without my scrapple, I know I’m not supposed to eat it, but I love it.” And I’ve had women say that when they were pregnant they had to eat scrapple.

SWS: Has writing these books changed the way you eat personally?

SFM: Oh, absolutely. When I started writing all these books, I cooked classical French, so lots of fat, lots of cream. I made broth because my mother always made broth and I’d learned to make reduction sauces and all that. But the grains and the fermented foods were things that I had never done before. And organ meats also; I did not grow up with them. So I had to teach myself to cook organ meats.

SWS: One thing that you talk about, that I think is so important and you state so clearly, is the overarching ethos of pre-industrial native people to maximize nutrition at every turn.

SFM: Yes, whether it was the way they cooked or which part of the animal they chose to eat. Fermentation maximizes nutrients, and it certainly maximizes the nutrients in grains. So everything they were doing was maximizing nutrients.

SWS: That feels really different from the way we eat today, how compartmentalized our food has become, and how far we’ve come from the way food used to taste.

SFM: When I was growing up, my favorite piece of chicken was the wing, because it was the most tender and juicy and I liked to chew on the bones. My father was always happy to give me the wing because he didn’t want the wing! And I’ve had people tell me, “Ew, chicken skin, how could you possibly eat chicken skin?” People have become so picky and sensitive to textures and tastes and fat, and all that.

SWS: That makes me think about my own family. My mother tells stories of growing up and she and her sisters would fight over the skin and they would fight over the marrow and they would fight over the bones.

SFM: We used to fight over the fat on the roast beef! My father had to shoo us away because our hands were in there picking the fat off the roast beef.

SWS: You talk about the relationship between what people ate and their agricultural practices, which are essentially one and the same in many ways. Are there lessons for modern farmers in pre-industrial agriculture?

SFM: Just as we’ve gone to industrial food, we’ve gone to industrial agriculture—that’s mono-cropping, mono-species, feeding animals lots and lots of grains. The animals aren’t in the sunlight, they aren’t on pasture, and they’re not as healthy because they do get antibiotics. It’s led to food that is just not as nutritious. Vitamin A content is much much lower in the eggs and the fat and the beef; vitamin D content is much lower.

All these really important fat-soluble vitamins are much lower in animal foods we’re eating today, so they don’t satisfy us the way food used to satisfy us. And I think that’s why we see obesity: Because people are eating, they’re putting food in their mouth, but the body is not full. The body says, “Well wait a minute, but I haven’t gotten the phosphorus I need today, I haven’t gotten the calcium I need today, and so I’m going to tell you to eat some more until I get these things.” So people are always hungry, but they never feel satisfied.

Below, we’ve excerpted Sally Fallon Morell’s new book, Nourishing Diets, to give you a taste of how pre-industrial people really ate.

Whereas native cultures with their accumulated wisdom clearly knew how to eat, modern man is drowning in confusion about what constitutes a healthy diet. Conflicting advice comes from every side. Should we be vegetarians? Avoid fat? Choke down skinless chicken breast? Eat according to our blood type? Make juice out of kale?

And what about the so-called “paleo” or ancestral diets, which advise us to avoid grains and dairy foods? The Paleo diet originated with Dr. Loren Cordain, a professor of exercise physiology at Colorado State University. His 2000 book The Paleo Diet (the diet is now trademarked) launched the current dietary fad with claims of a diet tailored to the “foods we were designed to eat.” The book and paleo diet website recommend lean grass-produced meat, fish and seafood, eggs, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and “healthful” oils (olive, walnut, flaxseed, macadamia, avocado and coconut). The diet is very high in protein and low in animal fats and proscribes all grains, legumes, potatoes, dairy foods (including butter), refined sugar, processed food, refined vegetable oils and all salt. In 2010, Robb Wolf, a student of Cordain, published a slightly different version of the paleo diet, The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet, which eliminates all starches but allow small amounts of salt. A typical meal includes a salad, 200 grams of lean beef, 300 grams of broccoli and fruit for dessert —a meal that would be very difficult to choke down without added carbohydrates, fat or salt, and one bound to result in cravings for sugar, fat and salt.

The paleo diet is subject to a wide range of interpretation in hundreds of books, some of which do allow salt, carbohydrates and fats, but the common ground is avoidance of all grains, legumes and milk products on the premise that mankind has not adapted to these foods, which are new to his evolution.

As we shall see, the tenets of the paleo diet have a little in common with the way our ancestors actually ate and can lead to a number of nutrient deficiencies… First, let’s take a careful look at the diet of healthy people from around the world… What becomes clear is the welcome news that we don’t need to deprive ourselves of grains, legumes, milk products, fats or salt in order to eat according to ancestral principles; the emphasis should not be on depriving ourselves of the foods we like to eat but rather on choosing and preparing foods to maximize our intake of nutrients.

We can’t go back—we can’t go back to a primitive lifestyle, nor would we want to. We must be careful not to romanticize tribal or village life with its constant specter of food shortages or even famine, the pressure to conform, the dread of ghosts, the ritual attached to all aspects of existence, the lack of comfort, the constant exposure to smoke….

Modern man is an individualist and would have great difficulty returning to the narrow confines of tribal and village life; our consciousness has changed…but our bodies have not. We still have the same nutritional requirements as our ancestors, and these needs are only met with real, traditional food, chosen and prepared according to the patterns of pre-industrialized people, according to their accumulated wisdom.

"...The emphasis should not be on depriving ourselves of the foods we like to eat but rather on choosing and preparing foods to maximize our intake of nutrients."

Technology has freed us from constant manual labor and given us a life that is more comfortable and more free; but technology applied to our food hacks away at nutritional content in favor of long shelf life. The challenge for modern man is to use technology wisely, opting for wisdom over cleverness when it comes to how we farm, what we choose to eat, and how we prepare our food. Only traditional cultures can show us how.

Pre-Industrial Native Diets vs Modern Diets

The first and fundamental principle of traditional diet is that they contained no industrially processed or refined food… In addition to white sugar, we have various refined sweeteners including corn syrup, maltodextrin, sugar alcohols and high fructose corn syrup; refined white flour appears in bread, pasta, crackers, cookies and pastries; and dangerously rancid industrial see oils, which form the basis of all processed foods—chips, crackers, bread, pastries, candy bars, cereal, fried foods, margarine, shortenings and spreads. The average Westerner gets a major portion of his calories from these empty ingredients.

To enumerate the harmful effects of industrial food ingredients is beyond the scope of this book, but the evidence clearly indicates that all these products are bad for the human body, and incapable of supporting good health. Healthy traditional people never ate these things, and as soon as these food-like substances were introduced into their diet—often by well-meaning missionaries—their health begin to decline.

On Meat

All traditional diets contained animal products… Some groups, such as the Eskimos and Inuits of the far north, ate a diet composed almost entirely of meat and fish, while other groups, including agriculturalists in Africa and the slave classes in the South Pacific, consumed only small amounts of animal foods.

Most cultures from around the world consume a diversity of animal foods—meat, poultry, eggs, fish, shellfish and insects, and have a particular advantage when milk products are included in the diet; at the same time, most cultures also consume high-carbohydrate foods in the form of grains or tubers—in fact, in several cultures we have explored, the high-carbohydrate food is considered the “food” or the “meal,” while animal foods form the basis of the accompanying relish or sauce.

This is good news for modern peoples—we do not need to adopt an extreme diet to re-create the dietary habits of healthy traditional groups. A healthy diet contains both animal foods and high-carb plant foods, and avoids the fringes of too much animal for food or too much plant food.

On Fat

Animal foods were always consumed with the fat—milk with its cream, eggs with the yolks, meat and birds with their fat and fatty organs, fish and shellfish when they were fattest. Fats and organ meat provide vitamin A and many cofactors needed for protein assimilation; too much lean meat leads to “protein poisoning” or, as the American Indians put it, “rabbit starvation.” Full-fat foods are not only satisfying but also support good health in many ways; they should be the basis of any diet.

On Raw Foods

Animals don’t cook their food and neither should we eat, say the raw foodists. True, animals don’t cook, but neither do they wear clothes and shoes, live in houses, talk, write, create works of art, and fill their lives with ritual and process. We are not animals but human beings, and all human societies cook some or even most of their food, even the inhabitants of the frozen north, and even inhabitants of the tropics who do not need to build fires for warmth.

Many plant foods are indigestible or even poisonous to humans unless they are cooked, especially grains, legumes, many tubers and dark leafy greens—consuming a lot of raw vegetable juice is not a formula for good health. Cooking liberates minerals and other nutrients so that we get more energy and nutrition from plant foods. Gentle cooking unfolds the tightly wound proteins in meat, making them more available to enzymatic breakdown.

On Grains

Grains are a hot topic these days. In fact, they seem to be the enemy du jour, shunned by paleo dieters and the gluten-free crowd. But as we have seen, all traditional cultures in the temperate regions of the world consumed grains—even the “Stone Age” Australian Aborigines. And archaeological research has found evidence of grain consumption in Paleolithic campfires. Starch grains found on grinding stones dating back thirty thousand years have shown up in Paleolithic sites in Italy, Russia and the Czech Republic.

Traditional cultures took great care with seed foods—grains, legumes, nuts and other seeds—by soaking, souring, culturing and fermenting, often for days. These seed foods are also cooked, at the beginning of the process or during, but usually at the end. All these processes release the goodness in grains, minimize irritants and antinutrients, and make them more digestible. Even gluten is broken down by the proper preparation process. Researchers in Italy have found that even diagnosed celiacs can consume genuine sourdough bread without adverse effects.

The Key Principles of Native Diets

Traditional cultures prepared for the next generation by consuming especially nutrient-dense foods before consumption and continuing these foods during pregnancy, lactation and the period of growth; this is the final principal from nourishing traditional diets. They recognized the fact that health was not just about feeling good in the present, but also about ensuring that future generations would be healthy and strong.

Everything that traditional peoples did with their food resulted in the maximization of nutrients—everything from their agricultural practices to their food choices to their preparation techniques. We can do the same with our modern diets—it just requires care in purchasing our food and attention to detail in its preparation.

Excerpted from the book Nourishing Diets: How Paleo, Ancestral and Traditional Peoples Really Ate by Sally Fallon Morell. Copyright © 2018 by Sally Fallon Morell. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Life & Style. All rights reserved.

This interview and excerpt have been shortened and condensed for clarity.

Shake Up Your Greens

Have you tried eating paleo? What was your experience? Let us know in the comments.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Joybird
  • Susan Gandy Renfroe
    Susan Gandy Renfroe


Joybird February 9, 2020
I was gifted Nourishing Traditions in college. I didn’t read much of it at the time, but I did discover kombucha and I cut out most processed foods. This made a world of on my PCOS, energy and mood. I rediscovered shortly after having my first baby. I lost my milk supply at 8 months, and the homemade raw milk baby formula saved us from the industrial crap in cans. I dove deeper into the work of Sally Fallon and the Weston A. Price Foundation as a whole. Now my husband and I and our two babies eat according to ancestral principles. Collectively, our family has been healed of PCOS, chronic fatigue, sleep apnea, anxiety, depression, eczema, and psoriasis. I personally have lost over 40 lbs. For us, we worked better on a lower carb diet, but I’m sure, as Sally says, they’re fine for many (or most) people.

This diet makes the most sense. It’s what’s truly proven through time. It’s what we actually maintained throughout evolution. It’s sufficiently diverse in nutrition. It aligns with how our ancestors truly lived—eating all the plants they had access too, not just the low-carb ones, and eating nose to tail, not just lean muscle meats. And most most significantly, ITS DELICIOUS. By far the most satisfying way of eating I’ve experienced. It’s in line with how we are designed.
Susan G. July 29, 2018
Ate strictly Paleo for over 2 years. Easily lost 50 lbs & greatly improved my overall health (so says my lab results) & energy level. What I found strange, while on vaca in Texas, NM & lower CO last fall, I had a difficult time finding Paleo to eat, except for some salad bars (& had to be very picky when eating off of them). Most days we had to grocery shop & prepare our Paleo meals at the condo. Sure wish more restaurants could/would offer Paleo dishes, without their customers having to order their meat & veggies individually off their menus & then cooked a certain way. I still eat mostly Paleo now, but do occasionally cheat & still maintain my weight & as a bonus, the craving for sweets is gone. :)