The terms Paleolithic diet, paleo diet, caveman diet, and stone-age diet has become synonymous with a fashionable lifestyle and culture trend requiring the sole or predominant consumption of foods presumed to have been the only foods available to or consumed by humans during the Paleolithic era. The truth is that as our cultures and genetics have developed over time and anatomically our digestive abilities are much different than those of paleolithic humans, such approaches to diet and nutrition are therefore both modern and potentially ahistoric.
In regard to Tea I have heard some quite fantastical views upon whether it is suitable for such diets. There is great contradiction in different experts and promoters of the Paleo diet. Some suggest that all oxidised tea is not “Paleo” as it has a high caffeine content, some suggest that as green tea is more closer to natural tea it is more “Paleo”. The truth is that green tea is also processed and many black or red teas actually have less caffeine content. The point seems to be missed that Tea is culturally entwined with human development and over this time it has been both beverage, food and medicine. Often, as still practiced in Traditional Chinese Medicine today, the eating of medicine as food demonstrates that these categories are merged and less distinct in practice. Some early evidence of this is documented in the Vedic texts which state;
“From earth sprang herbs, from herbs food, from food seed, from seed man.”
which led to Ayurvedic principles of “you are what you eat“.The incorporation of a mixture of various plants into early diets for both nutrition and medicine is highly likely. Whether Tea was part of this selection is yet to be confirmed by any archaeological evidence.
The Paleolithic period is considered to extend from as early as 2.6 million years ago to 10,000 years ago. In regard to what we know about tea culture, processing techniques such as grinding and milling, that are expressed in Song and Tang Dynasty tea culture and still exemplified in Japanese tea culture, are present in archaeology dating to the period of 19,500 years ago. Liu et al (2013) have identified three distinct grinding stones to process various plant material from the Shizitan Locality, China that date to the paleolithic period. When resources were generally scarce processed plant foods may have become increasingly important in the human diet to sustain health and life. Tea may have be just one of such species.
In Italy, archaeological remains from 32,000 years ago demonstrate that pre-treatment of various plant grains before grinding to make the product easier to grind and more palatable was part of paleolithic technology (Lippi et al 2015). Eevidence of similiar techniques used with millet grain in China has been documented as early as 13,800 years ago (Bestel et al 2014). We know therefore that Paleolithic humans used fire as part of their food processing technology and it is therefore possible they also experimented with roasting not just grains but also material from various thick leaved plants. Could this have been the beginning of a process that was later applied to Tea as we see exmplified in tea production today?
Certainly, Paleolithic cultures would have recognised the variety of techniques that the technology of fire brought to support food processing to aid survival and human life. The technique of smoking to preserve foods is an old and ancient process, something that is still within Tea culture today, where various teas are smoke dried over pine wood such as the famous Fujian “Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong”teas. It has been suggested that the withering of plant material in lofts or high up in single room dwellings or caves led to smoke from cooking fires accidentally processing them with smoke. This would have also occurred with other gathered and hunted food substances that were often stored safely out of the way, becoming preserved and dried by cooking fires initially by accident but later purposefully.
Pottery older than about 10,000 years has been recovered from a number of areas in East Asia, notably southern China and currently the earliest dates for pottery come from
cave sites in southern China (Gibbs & Jordan 2016), The combination of pottery and fire technology undoubtedly leads to diversification and development in food culture introducing new processing techniques such as the ability to boil and stew. Such advances has lead to re-categorise the period when such technologies boomed and led to significant changes in culture as the Neolithic period (10,200 years ago to 2000 years BCE), however it is not unlikely that such advances in technology pre-existed earlier in pockets of human culture as exemplified in the Xianrendong Cave pottery, Jiangxi province.
Much of what we think we know about paleolithic culture is based on drawing ethnographic comparisons to modern hunter-gatherer cultures. There is a distinct problem with this, not only is it ahistoric but it also assumes that lifestyle dictates culture dictates technology and vice versa. Nobody suggests that the famous Tea hermits who went to live in the mountains to adopt a simple life with Tea were primitive yet many cultures equally living simple un-technological lives in the modern eras are somehow seen as “primitive” or representative of paleo-culture. This is the assumption that follows through with paleo-diets, that by eating food that is symbolic of a past culture we somehow reproduce that diet. This assumption is equally flawed.
If paleolithic societies were sophisticated and organised enough to develop river transport such as rafts and ceramic art, as exemplified by the Venus of Dolní Věstonice (c. 29,000 – c. 25,000 BCE) along with a range of techniques of food processing there is no reason why the more nomadic and hunter gathering culture didn’t recognise and understand different ways to process plant material to bring about powerful and positive effects in the form of life supporting food or medicine. Evidence suggests that the paleolithic period marks the beginning of human consumption of entheogens (Ruck 2014, Saperstein 2014), i.e. plants that are given cultural importance and spiritual power through their ability to alter the current state of consciousness. Tea perhaps being one of many of these. Some have even suggested that use and introduction of entheogens into culture brought about rapid developments in technology and cultural sophistication.
There is botanical evidence (Meegahakumbura et al 2018) to suggest that the hybridisation of tea species first occurred around 22,000 years ago. Whether humans had a hand in this is something of debate, however early recognition of the value of the Tea plant during the paleolithic period could have easily lent itself to some human intervention that promoted hybridisation of the species.
It is a false assumption that paleo diets from history did not contain processed plant material. It is also a false assumption that technology wasn’t present to allow a level of sophistication that resulted in a variety of techniques, cultures and products being developed in creating life supporting diets. It is reasonable to suggest that Tea, where the tea tree was prolific, may have been incorporated into early diets, such that when early processing techniques were applied in its consumption marked the beginning of the first Tea culture. Something that would be acceptable to be called “Paleo-tea”.
Until further evidence exists we have way to confirm the format of this early tea culture, however given the history and existing diversity of Tea culture it maybe likely that it was eaten rather than drank. The trouble with plant material such as Tea in archaelogical records is , unlike grains and starch granules, it the ease of it decomposing through time and hence unless we uncover a find where the leaves have been preserved we have no way of confirming its paleolithic use, even if the likelihood is high. Earliest records of Tea use are in tombs as offerings that have been preserved by natural mummification due to the dry conditions. The fact that these tombs are not located in the natural locations of tea forests suggests that even before the dates of these tombs, Tea had an established value and use in society and had become part of long distance trade routes. We can only speculate what occured before this time of archaeological evidence but it wouldn’t be unreasonable that local tribal use of Tea as a valued medicine and food plant in the paleolithic was dominant where it naturally grew.
Paleo-tea may have been very similar to traditional tea still experienced today. Its value in human culture has led to developments and sophistication around its production and consumption however there may have been equally a diverse way of consumption or processing of Tea in paleolithic times that is somewhat reflected in the traditions of today.
We cannot be sure of how Paleo-tea existed in human cultures of the paleolithic period however we can still appreciate the power and significance of its medicine. If we choose to eat Tea as an ingredient of a broth we might well be experiencing Tea in someway like our ancestors. However, simply drank as leaves in a bowl with water, whether green or oxidised leaves might be something equally indicative of a beverage consumed in the late paleolithic period.
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Gibbs K, Jordan P. A comparative perspective on the ‘western’and ‘eastern’Neolithics of Eurasia: Ceramics; agriculture and sedentism. Quaternary International. 2016 Oct 17;419:27-35.
Lippi MM, Foggi B, Aranguren B, Ronchitelli A, Revedin A. Multistep food plant processing at Grotta Paglicci (Southern Italy) around 32,600 cal BP. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2015 Sep 29;112(39):12075-80.
Liu L, Bestel S, Shi J, Song Y, Chen X. Paleolithic human exploitation of plant foods during the last glacial maximum in North China. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2013 Apr 2;110(14):5380-5.
Meegahakumbura MK, MC Wambulwa, M Li, et al. 2018. Domestication origin and breeding history of the tea plant (Camellia sinensis) in China and India based on nuclear microsatellites and cpDNA sequence data. Frontiers in Plant Science, 25
Ruck CA. Entheogens in Ancient Times. History of Toxicology and Environmental Health: Toxicology in Antiquity II. 2014 Sep 18:116.
Saperstein B. Entheogens: An Overlooked Path to the Divine. 2014