I just spent a few days up at Harvard, tagging along with Dan Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology. You may know him from his work around barefoot running, but he's also an expert in a bunch of areas that relate to subjects on this blog. I got to sit in on evolutionary biology lectures, running experiments, graduate seminars, see the famous running lab and participate in an experiment, handle some very old bones (see below), and discuss with him a lot of potential material for my book.
Here's the thing -- after you get a book deal, you have to actually write a book. Which means you have to solidify your stance on countless little things, such as:
- What is the earliest evidence that humans started eating grains? (Better not get this wrong, because it's in the intro course.)
- Can I eat quinoa without immediately dying? (Usually.)
- Does un-fermented soy cause your penis to fall off? (A possible plot twist in the paleo diet romance novel.)
Every sentence in a book is an opportunity for the author to make an ass of himself. Which means armchair anthropology just ain't gonna cut it. I'm not writing my book for scientists, but I would like it to stand up to scientific scrutiny. And there's always a danger in any "movement" that it becomes too self-referential, everybody citing only each other, ignoring input from other sources, and having flame wars over orthodoxy. (I did tell Lieberman that the paleo approach is probably the highest IQ dietary movement ever, we revere science, and everybody would love for more scientists to engage with these ideas and directly test hypotheses that we're all experimenting with.)
I saw some hard evidence -- bones -- and the actual remains of ancient Homo sapiens. Harvard has a prized collection of fossilized bones. We went into a locked area filled with tall bookshelves. "Boneshelves" might be a better word, because on each shelf were boxes with labels like: "Chimpanzee -- Congo -- 1932", and "Natufian -- Eynan -- 12000ya". This was real. We put on latex gloves and opened up a few.
Lieberman first showed me the skull of a Natufian. The Natufians lived in the Levant about 12k years ago in semi-permanent settlements. They were proto-farmers, with higher amounts of grains in their diet than earlier Homo. Some of the first evidence of domesticated dogs come from the Natufian culture too. We looked at the skull: straight teeth, as I recall, but heavily worn down and filled with cavities.
Then we looked at Skhul V, a famous set of remains. Also from the Levant, but much older -- this man lived 100-120k years ago. I was holding one of the earliest and best preserved examples of Homo sapiens. "Use both hands," Dan told me. Skhul V also has perfectly straight teeth -- but in contrast to the Natufian, no cavities. Amazing. There must have been a great dentist in the tribe. Next, we pulled out this guy's femur. "I don't know if you've seen many femurs," Dan said, "but this is quite a specimen." The femur was longer than mine, so this fellow was definitely six foot or taller. Thick bone structure. Amazing. You kinda had to pinch yourself. These were the actual remains of one of our wild ancestors.
Above is Skhul V. You can see the straight teeth. Below are pictures of replica hominid skulls because I couldn't take pictures of the real stuff.
And below is a picture of goat meat in Lieberman's lab for raw meat chewing experiments. Nobody ever told me science could be so much fun. Being a history major at Harvard was definitely a big mistake. Human evolutionary biology is where it's at. And by "it", I mean raw goat.