Research Archaeologist Loukas Barton Publishes on Solving the “Protein Problem”

Have you ever wondered where the Paleo diet comes from? At its best, the idea behind it comes from the analysis of a global database of hunter-gatherer diets. At its worst, it comes from imaginary notions that all our ancestors ate meat, all the time. In reality, research from around the world reveals that, on average, human hunter-gatherers only acquire about 30% of their dietary energy from protein. Any more than that amount can be insufficient, or even toxic, particularly for infants, children, and pregnant or nursing mothers. Because of this, the other approximately 70% of dietary energy must come from a combination of fats or carbohydrates. European “pioneers” across the American West learned this the hard way: once they ran out of bread flour and dairy products, they found themselves hungry and sick even though they ate wild rabbits all day long. They referred to this phenomenon as “rabbit starvation.” As a result, human culture, technology, and, indeed, cuisine around the world have evolved to solve this “protein problem.”

In a new article published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Dudek Research Archaeologist Loukas Barton and co-authors Shannon Tushingham (Associate Professor and Director of the Museum of Anthropology at Washington State University) and Bob Bettinger (Professor Emeritus at U.C. Davis) evaluate how this insight helps to understand the archaeological record and, therefore, the cultural history of the Indigenous inhabitants of the Pacific Coast of North America. In many places, salmon was critically important to human survival and surplus; however, consumption of dried, stored salmon was only possible if other foods made up the bulk of the diet. In coastal California, acorns were the most likely staple; in the Pacific Northwest, fish oil, fresh fatty fish, and starchy plants made up the balance; and in Alaska, seal oil, whale blubber, and bear fat helped to solve the protein problem of “salmon starvation.”

Illustration showing the solution to the protein problem, namely the different sources of food that made up the diet of the Indigenous people of the Pacific Rim.

For salmon “intensification” (meaning a specialized, labor intensive, year-round dependence on salmon) to work for any group of people over the long run, other food sources must be consumed, and the knowledge, technology, and social organization to procure, process, and store those foods must also be developed. Illustrated by Kathryn Killackey.

Want to learn more about solutions to the protein problem? Read the full paper, “How ancestral subsistence strategies solve salmon starvation and the ‘protein problem’ of Pacific Rim resources.”

Tushingham, Shannon, Loukas Barton, and Robert L. Bettinger (2021). How ancestral subsistence strategies solve salmon starvation and the ‘protein problem’ of Pacific Rim resources, American Journal of Physical Anthropology. (in press).

For more info, contact Research Archaeologist Loukas Barton and learn more about our cultural resources services.