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Tuesday, 21 January 2014 00:00

Sources of essential fatty acids in the human diet from the Paleolithic discovered in mammoth meat

Omega-3 acids are essential polyunsaturated fatty acids (the human body cannot synthesize them) which are essential for life. They are found in high proportion in the tissues of certain fish (usually blue fish) and some plant sources like flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds and walnuts.

Professor José Luis Guil Guerrero, a researcher of the Agrifood Campus of International Excellence, from the Department of Agriculture at the University of Almeria (Food Technology area), has always researched on fatty acids, although one of his major interests is the food of the past, specifically of the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods. That is the reason why he started his current research to find out where Omega-3 was obtained from, by human beings during the Ice Age.

Several American researchers, like Dr. Cordain, argue that humans from the Ice Age got Omega-3 through the flesh of the animals they hunted. But, Professor Guil Guerrero, not entirely convinced with these US lines of thinking, wondered how they would achieve sufficient amount of these essential fatty acids within such an icy context. On the other hand, the consumption of meat in large amounts (so as to get all the Omega-3 needed for brain development) would have been toxic to these humans. So, he started to think that the only explanation would be that it was contained in the fat of the animals they hunted at that time.

After contacting the director of the Russian Academy for Sciences in St. Petersburg, Dr. Alexei Tikhonov, he was able to go there and get tissue samples of the famous Lyuba and Yukain Siberian mammoths, in addition to samples of other ice animals such as bison and horses. After returning to Almeria and analyzing the samples, he found that much of the fat was still in good condition and that mammoths and ice horses contained these essential fatty acids.

The mammoths’ fat profile has proved to be similar to the modern Yakutia horse populations (Siberia), which during the winter months maintain a state of semi-hibernation. That is, they develop minimal activity, both regarding feeding and movement. Thus, in the paper recently published in PLoS ONE journal, along with other Russian researchers and colleagues from the University of Almeria, evidence is provided to believe that this state of semi-hibernation could also have been developed by these mammoth populations, since, in order to survive in arctic environments, these animals would have benefited from a similar behavior in the coldest times, in addition to the type of subcutaneous fat found that allows for the adaptation to cold. In summary, it is the mammoths that have in all probability provided the necessary omega-3 for humans from the Paleolithic.

The full scientific article is available at http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0084480

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