Wheat-eating humans?

Us modern humans, Homo sapiens, have walked the earth some 200,000 years. Our upright, bipedal, large-brained, and social hunter-gatherer predecessors, Homo erectus, walked the earth for nearly 10-fold longer, bridging the era when humans first began to eat animal flesh, whether via scavenging or hunting, and the relatively recent (500,000-700,000 years ago) harnessing of fire.

Before these two forms of Homo, we were preceded by Homo habilis (the “toolmaker”), believed to be the first to wield tools (remember the monolith scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey?), and by the varieties of Australopithecus, harking back to a creature more ape-like, with longer, curved fingers and toes, less of an opposable thumb, brains that were much smaller, vertically longer pelvises, and longer arms and shorter legs than more recent versions of Homo. All these forms of human and pre-human now reach back 10+ million years.

When was grain consumption, including wheat, added to the diet of humans? It wasn’t during the time of Austropithecus, nor was it during the reign of Homo habilis. Although the long-successful Homo erectus learned how to scavenge/hunt animal flesh, they did not eat any wild growing grains.

It wasn’t until the last 5% of time since modern Homo sapiens appeared that they learned how to first harvest wild, then cultivate, wheat–einkorn, of course. If we include the time of Homo erectus, then humans have consumed grains for around 0.5% of the time they’ve walked the earth.

My point: Given the relatively slow process of evolution, we need only look at the 2 millions years of eating habits of Homo erectus and the first 190,000 or so years of Homo sapiens to recognize that consumption of grains like wheat is a very recent change to the dietary habits of humans. For millions of years, humans evolved and survived without grains in any form.

Yes, harvesting of wild, then cultivated, grains provided the impetus for creating non-nomadic society and occupational specialization, a source of calories to supplement calories from animal products and plants. But is there any evolutionary or biologically plausible reason that we are now told that 60% or more of our calories should come from grains like wheat?

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72 Responses to Wheat-eating humans?

  1. Lynne says:

    “Given the relatively slow process of evolution…”

    You are not representing evolution accurately. When evolutionary change occurs, it often occurs extremely quickly, and can complete over just a few generations. Here you’re talking about relatively minor changes to our digestion track, not growing a third eye. It took about 20 years for a kangaroo population in Hawaii to gain 7 new liver proteins. Why would we look back over 2 million years for humans to make only moderately more complicated adjustments?

    “Punctuated equilibrium (also called punctuated equilibria [plural form]) proposes that most species will exhibit little net evolutionary change for most of their geological history, remaining in an extended state called stasis. When significant evolutionary change occurs, the theory proposes that it is generally restricted to rare and geologically rapid events of branching speciation called cladogenesis….”

    • Agentzero says:

      1. It’s “digestive tract,” not “digestion track.”
      2. Punctuated Equilibrium, as a theory, has been seriously questioned, by Dawkins among others.
      3. According to the proponents of Punctuated Equilibrium, when evolution happens quickly it does so because there are severe environmental stresses, i.e., everyone without the desired mutation dies out quickly. Wheat has a slow effect on health; it doesn’t stop people from passing on their genes. The theory of Punctuated Equilibrium would not lead one to expect rapid evolution in response to wheat.
      4. Finally, many of the health issues seem to stem from modern wheat, rather than einkorn. that has been part of homo sapiens’ diet for 0.025% of its existence. Not even enough time for Superfast P.E. Evolution (TM) to work!

  2. Alice says:

    I find the best way it was explained was by the Paleo Mom, here: http://www.thepaleomom.com/2012/07/why-arent-humans-adapted-to-grains.html

    Yes, we’ve had a LOT of time to adapt, but, as stuff like Celiacs catches up with you AFTER your prime reproductive age, humans who weren’t adapted to grain-eating (most of us and our ancestors) weren’t removed from the gene-pool. Basically: just because grain wasn’t dangerous enough to stop us breeding doesn’t mean that we, as humans who want to be healthy AFTER 40, shouldn’t avoid grain.

    • Dr. Davis says:

      Interestingly, Alice, celiac disease appears to be on the rise in children, expressed often as type 1 diabetes (average age of onset 4 years), failure to grow/thrive, and, of course, “standard” symptoms of celiac disease, average age of onset 8 years.

      It is an interesting notion that the HLA DQ8/2 genes that predispose to the immunological cascade leading to intestinal destruction characteristic of celiac disease may, in effect, represent evolution at work, only now accelerated by the misguided shenanigans of agribusiness.

    • Rong says:

      Excellent article. While we are young and robust we can tolerate many, many things that aren’t good for us. All nighters and binge drinking come to mind. Hit your 40′s and the price becomes too high for such foolishness. However, what goes on inside us with grain consumption his far more subtle and for many of us more potentially damaging. I completely agree that anyone over 40 can’t afford to test if they are “evolved” enough to risk grain consumption.

      I have been off all grains for a year now and cannot imagine going back. My much improved health at age 68 is astonishing.

  3. bill says:

    Toby does appear to have gotten some of her direction from Julie Jones. I just finished reading Julie’s purported refutation of Wheat Belly. It was inadvertently funny in places, like here, where she tries to say that eating wheat bread is just fine: “…some sourdough whole-wheat breads have a GI <56, which is the value quoted for a Mars bar.” Well then, I'll just put some peanut butter between two Mars bars and have a real healthy sandwich.

  4. John Staley says:

    Do gluten or gliadin affect the lymphatic system. I am seeing some benefit of self massage following the [not too clear] instructions for performing self massage recommended to clear the lymphatic ducts.
    I have been trying to be gluten free for about 6 months, and have given up other grains [with the exception of rice] as well.
    I would appreciate others opinions regarding these efforts.


    • Dr. Davis says:

      Don’t know, John: good question.

      It does, of course, activate lymphocytes to exert abnormal inflammatory effects. But I know of no specific effect on the lymphatic system. It wouldn’t surprise me for a second if it did, however.

  5. Bob says:

    Is there somewhere a point by point response to the statements made by Julie Jones in her article written for the cereal industry? On the surface, many of her points seem valid. I doubt that is the case, but it would be nice to have a refutation to point to.