Put “palaeo-diet” into a title field, and wait

I like watching how archaeology news plays out in the mainstream press, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for incarnations of this (via @archaeologynews). It’s a great example of a buzz concept being bolted onto an entirely sober press release:

Nutrients in food vital to location of early human settlements: The original ‘Palaeo-diet’

Research led by the University of Southampton has found that early humans were driven by a need for nutrient-rich food to select ‘special places’ in northern Europe as their main habitat. Evidence of their activity at these sites comes in the form of hundreds of stone tools, including handaxes.

A study led by physical geographer at Southampton Professor Tony Brown, in collaboration with archaeologist Dr Laura Basell at Queen’s University Belfast, has found that sites popular with our early human ancestors, were abundant in foods containing nutrients vital for a balanced diet. The most important sites, dating between 500,000 to 100,000 years ago were based at the lower end of river valleys, providing ideal bases for early hominins – early humans who lived before Homo sapiens (us).

Professor Brown says: “Our research suggests that floodplain zones closer to the mouth of a river provided the ideal place for hominin activity, rather than forested slopes, plateaus or estuaries. The landscape in these locations tended to be richer in the nutrients critical for maintaining population health and maximising reproductive success.”

So not at all research into “palaeo diets” in the twenty-first century sense of the term, as indicated by that cheeky “original”. Researchers are sometimes known to harrumph about press officers’ happy ways with reporting their work, but this is probably one of the more restrained ways to do spin. Most people will have read half the thing before they’ve figured out that it’s just research into, you know, diet, and in fact it’s clearly using “balanced diet” in the same sense as government guidelines do. Hard to see how anyone is going to twist this into an invitation to scarf down bacon and eggs.

As Sir Humphrey said of the Open Government paper, “Always dispose of the difficult bit in the title. It does less harm there than in the text.”

Question is, is it still newsworthy?

Incidentally, this is how it finishes:

The nutritional diversity of these sites allowed hominins to colonise the Atlantic fringe of north west Europe during warm periods of the Pleistocene. These sites permitted the repeated occupation of this marginal area from warmer climate zones further south

Professor Brown comments: “We can speculate that these types of locations were seen as ‘healthy’ or ‘good’ places to live which hominins revisited on a regular basis. If this is the case, the sites may have provided ‘nodal points’ or base camps along nutrient-rich route-ways through the Palaeolithic landscape, allowing early humans to explore northwards to more challenging environments.”

If you are an archaeologist you’re probably now as interested as I am, but basically that’s why you’re at the bottom of a hole and I’m writing on the internet at the kitchen table and neither of us are allowed into rooms where we might try to influence people.

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