Ancient Babylonian recipes debunk the modern “paleo” diet

Last month, I discussed two major problems with the overly restrictive, modernized, “pop” paleo diets.

But the real prehistoric diet—as it was practiced starting about 10,000 years ago—does have many health benefits, as I learned during my research and tried to tell the National Institutes of Health during the mid-1980s.

The prehistoric diet was a natural area of interest for me, as I received doctorate degrees in both medicine and anthropology. And in my view, there’s still much we can learn about human health and nutrition in the modern world by studying the eating habits of the earliest hunters and gatherers.

So, it piqued my interest when I learned that a team of researchers from Yale and Harvard recently recreated three authentic Babylonian recipes found on 4,000-year-old cuneiform (clay) tablets.

(Ironically, the tablets had been collecting dust in a display case at Yale for many years.)

Few Babylonians could read, so researchers speculate that the recipes represent “haute cuisine” for the royal palace or priestly temple.

The tablets mostly featured stew recipes—made with meats, savory herbs, and earthy vegetables. And this makes sense, as farmers in ancient Europe and the Middle East/Middle Asia only had 16 different cultigens—which are plants grown as food crops.

Of course, when explorers brought back beans, corn, chocolate, peppers, potatoes, pumpkins, and tomatoes from the Americas in the 1500s, it greatly increased nutritional diversity in Europe and the Old World.

But the ancient Babylonians who wrote these original recipes weren’t as fortunate. And they had to make do with the limited ingredients available to them. Hence, lots of stews.

Three nutritious recipes from the ancient world

The Yale-Harvard team prepared three recipes, which were all from one tablet:

  • A vegetarian stew made with hard, dried grain cakes, leeks, and onions
  • A lamb stew with beets
  • A lamb stew with milk and cakes of grain

Interestingly, the vegetarian stew was called “The Unwinding”—which could have two possible meanings.

For one, when you add the hard, dried grain cakes into the stew, they dissolve. So, “unwinding” could refer to how the grain cakes slowly melt into the stew. Or, the name could also refer to the relaxing effects of eating the stew as a “comfort food.”

I also find it fitting that the ancient Babylonian chefs used lamb in two of the stews. Of all types of meat, lamb has the healthiest essential fatty acid profile, as I reported in the January 2019 issue of my Insiders’ Cures newsletter (“Your ultimate guide to eating right in 2019—and beyond”).

Of course, the stews also contained healthy, nutritious vegetables. And some recipes even contained grains. Which is a bit ironic, considering the pop, modernized version of the paleo diet strictly forbids any grain.

But clearly—they did eat whole grains in the ancient world. Just remember, these whole grains were organic and unprocessed—including the nutritious bran and germ layers—which is a far cry from today’s milled, highly processed, genetically modified options.

You can eat whole, organic grains—in moderation—as part of your healthy, balanced diet.

The problems in health and nutritional status arose when people switched from the original hunter-gatherer paleo diet to a mainly grain-based diet. Back in the late 1970s, my colleague and fellow anthropologist Mark Nathan Cohen called this occurrence, “the food crisis in prehistory.”

I’ll talk more about the benefits of the ancient hunter-gatherer paleo diet—and the shortcomings of its modernized, pop version—in the upcoming May 2019 issue of my Insiders’ Cures newsletter. If you’re not yet a subscriber, now is the perfect time to get started.


“What did ancient Babylonians eat? A Yale-Harvard team tested their recipes.” Yale News, 6/14/2019. (