The original super-scrimpers who knew how to eat properly

If you’ve seen the TV programme about “Super scrimpers” showing how to make the most of limited resources in straitened times, you might think it’s a new fad.

And it’s probably true that for many of us living in a stable democracy in the long post-WWII boom, it’s easy to forget that, actually, for most of our time on this planet, humans have been super scrimpers who would put Scrooge to shame.

Yet extracting every last bit out of a valuable resource is the key to how we evolved our large brains and became the dominant species on the planet. Two million years ago, our ancestors were not the top predators we are today – but by scavenging leftovers of other meat-eaters such as big cats, they gained access to food which was much more calorific and easier to digest than plant matter.

Before this, our mainly vegetarian hominid ancestors wouldn’t have won many beauty contests if they were around today –  as well as small brains, they had enormous lantern jaws to allow them to chew the tough fibrous plant matter in their diet, and huge guts to process the material enough to get at the nutrients. Nice.

But when these early ancestors included meat in their diet, they gradually lost the need for such big guts and so the energy obtained from food could be diverted to develop other important organs (such as the brain), allowing them get even better at dodging the big cats whose leftovers they were trying to sneak.

Just as important, though, there is evidence of cut marks on animal bones from two million years ago showing that early humans used stone tools to crack open animal bones and get at the marrow. This (now somewhat-neglected) food contains extremely valuable, long-chain fatty acids which are crucial for brain development.

These twin-track changes, leading to the growth of large brains and cognitive intelligence, allowed the development of more complex tools and skills, and so the long process which led to homo sapiens began.

Yet, in our Western diet today, the foods which allowed this vital step change in our physiology are mainly absent. I was thinking about this as I was making a large pot of bone marrow soup this weekend – the most delicious soup I’ve ever had (Get the recipe here).

A Cumbrian farmer happily gave me a large bag of these wonderful bones (from grass fed cows) free  – because there is clearly not much demand for them.

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors would probably fall about laughing if they could see us now – throwing away or bypassing what they knew from long experience to be the best and most nutritious parts of the animal – the organ meats, tongue and the marrow. They ate the entire animal, and the bits that they couldn’t eat, such as the hide, hooves and horns they made good use of for tools, clothes and containers.

Although some offal is clearly in fashion again – calves’ liver for example, can be found on many restaurant menus –  most people never eat kidneys, tripe, brains, heart, sweetbreads and so on. Yet they are all highly nutritious and full of vitamins and minerals. Liver for example, has Vitamin A, all the Bs, iron, selenium, lots of protein, zinc, copper, tryptophan, phosphorus, choline and selenium.

Bone marrow is full of nutrients, including a form of Vitamin K  (MK-4) which is increasingly rare in our modern processed diet, but which seems to be important for bone health and preventing heart disease. And it is extremely delicious….

Native Americans used bone marrow to make nourishing drinks for young children (instead of giving them milk as we do); they fed most of the muscle meat of the animals they hunted to their dogs because they knew it was less valuable than the organ meats.

Somehow, we modern humans have lost the sense of what is best and most nutritious for us – the only meat we tend to see on display in supermarkets or butchers is from the muscle of the animal.

It is really time for us to think again about how we get the best from the animals we use for food and become real super scrimpers like our ancestors.

Since for 95% of our history we have lived as hunter-gatherers, my hope is that these past 50 years will be seen as simply a blip, an aberration, a long, lost weekend when humans forgot for only a short time how to eat properly.