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Kurt Harris MD

An Archevore is someone who eats based on essential principles, and also someone who hungers for essential principles. Take your pick.

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« Wild vs Grass vs Grain Fed ruminants | Main | Why Paleo 2.0? »

Imagining Head Smashed In

Reader Tim has recommended an outstanding book in comments on the last post.

The book is Imagining Head Smashed In

He says:

The standard-paleo "lean meats" thing has always bugged me, it just makes no sense. In Brink's "Imagining Head Smashed In", a scholarly work on his decades' long excavation of an ancient Bison Jump on the Great Plains, it is made clear that the Blackfoot tribes were after the fattiest parts of the fattiest animals. These bison jumps were huge assembly lines for the harvest of fat. Bones were crushed and boiled in hide-lined pits to extract the maximum fat. Early European contact left reports that the Native Americans would do all that could be done to obtain bison fat, wasting lean to get fat.

It's a great read and very applicable to Paleo 2.0 thinking.

Love to get some more input on this book and some Paleo 2.0 buzz going about it! J. Stanton at gave it a read and a positive review. It's an eye opener to say the least.

Reading any book that claims "lean meats" were preferred by any ancestral population, or indeed any group that predates Ancel Keys and the ensuing epidemic of skinless chicken breasts, just makes you wonder.

Do such writers actually observe what people prefer to eat, or read the historical record, or apply what they already know about foraging theory and the energy density of fat?

Anyway, this is a great book which I was planning to review, but along with dozens of others, I haven't finished it yet. But I've read enough to second Tim's endorsement. A great read.

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Reader Comments (20)

A very interesting place to visit during the summer in southern Alberta is the buffalo jump at the inspiration for the book.

April 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDexter

Not that I've actually bought into the "lean meats" theory, but I always thought "lean meats" referred to game animal as opposed to livestock.

KGH: If you only eat the center of the cut, wild game is usually leaner than livestock. But there can be plenty of interfascicular and visceral and subcutaneous fat. Native populations were biased to eat the fat part first, the way moderns have beed trained to eat the lean cuts an trim the fat, etc...

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjs290

Ok, now I get the whole Paleo 2.0 thing.

I didn't realise that Leo Cordain and Art Devany were seen as the 'mainstream paleo'.

I'm quite sheltered (don't know anyone personally that is into this way of eating) so I assumed that 'fat is good' was what most paleo people ascribed to and I thought Cordain and Devany were the fringe.


"I assumed that 'fat is good' was what most paleo people ascribed to and I thought Cordain and Devany were the fringe."

You are proof that there is hope...: )

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNeill

The skinless and headless fish is another bad low fat food example after skinless chicken breast. O, the pleasure of eating a fish head! It is more easy to arrange than getting an access to a smashing ruminant head .

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGalina L.

Hi Kurt. Is there anywhere on your blog we could find a listing of book recommendations? I'd like to follow some of your readings of the primary literature too. An Essential Reading link here would be greatly appreciated. Cheers, G

KGH: Hi Gunther. There is a book list on the right, and there are some posts a few months ago with more.

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered Commentergunther gatherer

Ok, colour me stupid. I just found the "recommended books" link under the Navigation area to the right. Never mind!

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered Commentergunther gatherer

HALLELUJAH! I'm so tired of the lean meat nonsense. The problem with eating too much lean meat is that it will lead to an excess of methionine, which in turn increases the need for choline, B12, folate, betaine and B6. Choline deficiency is common and is a major cause of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, as Chris Masterjohn has pointed out. The other issue is that methionine competes with tryptophan for transport across the blood brain barrier, which means that too much methionine can lead to serotonin deficiency and depression.

Eating the skin, cartilage and bones of animals (as our ancestors certainly did) solves these problems because they are rich in glycine. Glycine does not compete with tryptophan for transport into the brain and it doesn't deplete choline, B12, folate, betaine and B6. This is one reason why I'm generally a fan of the WAPF and GAPS approach, and it's something that hasn't been written about enough in the Paleo world. Thanks for bringing it up, Kurt.


Hi Chris

I've read some of this about too much methionine and about choline deficiency- no lengthy comment at this time, but I disagree that either of these is that common and especially that choline is a "major cause" of fatty liver. I've read Chris' post on the choline thing. too

People already think meat causes cancer and heart attacks and so we hardly need to terrify them about meat any more.

Your criticism is aptly directed to anyone who uses the phrase "lean meats" and to the zero carb meat-and-water hezbollah, though.

That said, eating a lot of lean red meat and not enough bone broths, dairy and fish is not only boring and very expensive, it is not likely to be as healthy as a greater variety of animal sources. I get more calories from butter and eggs than red meat, although I have some red meat about every other day or so.

And this would be yet another piece of wisdom in Dr. Kwas' optimal diet as well. If you eat low protein, you will find it hard to OD on methionine.

Seeking fat first from a variety of animal sources, which include fatty red meats for your protein, as well as fish and eggs and dairy should work fine. And eggs are great for choline.

Thanks for your comments. Hope the move is going well.

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChris Kresser

Here is a good review (and of Dr Frison's work as well) at


April 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTim

Looks like an interesting read, I follow the Weston A Price way of eating (nearly), and from what I have read of Sally Fallon's comments regarding Paleo diets, it is that they (paleo diets) fail to recognise that fat was eaten and was valued highly, like you say "epidemic of skinless chicken breasts, just makes you wonder."

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLouise Cross

I'm confused about the "standard paleo" remark by your reader. Though some people advocate only lean meats, I consider them to be saying that either as a cynical sop to the SAD mainstream, or out of confusion -- and certainly don't consider them to be "standard paleo" (though luckily there's no central certification authority who hands out such designations :-). There's no need to erect strawmen in arguing for the right interpretation of what's healthy.


If you think "lean meats" is an invented straw man then you have not read any of the top-selling books on "paleo" I guess.

If you played a drinking game based on the phrase with the newest version of the paleo diet you would not make it through the first chapter

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEve M.

Lean by who's standards?
The meat industry considers ground beef that has 60% of the calories coming from fat to be lean. That is about right for my diet. Regular ground beef has at least 70 fat, and some 75%, which has to grain fattened animals to reach that. Extra lean has about 55 of calories as fat. It is difficult to find any ground buffalo here with more than 40 of the calories from fat. Sorry, I have no numbers for solid meat.
For Cree peoples, buffalo fat was the only large source of fat for pemmican. Pemmican was the currency of trade and summer meat. Hunting is not good in the spring and summer. In times of excess, the meat got wasted, but not so much in lean times. Dried meat will keep for weeks, if we can keep it dry. There is a difference if a band of maybe 20 (one extended family group) stampede 2 or 100 buffalo over. Some things are just beyond control. Spring buffalo are lean. Some years there were no buffalo to be found. ( They went south, or east those years) My people spoke of eating cattail roots to survive those years. They produce a bulb like a mild onion, which can be boiled in a skin pouch with hot rocks.
I just listened to the stories.

KGH: You are Cree? Tell us more, Fred.

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterfred

The people who think hunters prefer lean meat are usually the same people who claim wild animals have much less saturated fat and are therefore healthy--another annoying idea.

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjohn

If Genghis Khan is alive today, he'll probably go on a massacre trip out of anger and disgust for people trying to feed him "lean meats".

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Paul

I actually live mere minutes away from Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. It's quite the visual, even without the massive herds. To imagine how it was utilized by the Blackfoot people is quite impressive.

I also cannot imagine a people using only the "leanest" cuts---it just makes zero sense from a survival perspective. Marrow, organs, fat---these are missing from our diets today, and it does show in our health. I recently was encouraged to read "Deep Nutrition" and "Nourishing Traditions", and have started to incorporate bone broths.

On a negative note, it is also painfully apparent how a Westernized diet has affect the Blackoot people---the prevalence of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease seems much, much more frequent than in Caucasian populations I see this daily in my work as a paramedic. This disconnect from their ancestral diet have only been a few generations, and has obviously put them at a predisposition for chronic disease based on poor nutrition.

KGH: We do bone broths at least once a week. Delicous and cheap.

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMike

Very accurate... And good reading suggestion. Thank you :)

I'm surprised this myth hasn't died yet. Or even saw life to begin with?! Lean meats!?!!? When Native North Americans were forced to subsist on lean meats in times of scarcity, many succombed to what is called "rabbit starvation". Not something anyone would call "optimal". My grandfather was part Algonquin, and also spent many, many years working up North to "help" the Inuits build houses (that's a whole other story...). Many stories have been retold that are but a distant memory now, but some of it rings back, especially when encountering, through past and recent readings, the likes of Farley Mowat or Stefansson.

Broths and stocks are golden :)

Oh, and from what I keep hearing, mostly through Mat Lalonde, even Cordain has reworked his views on lean meats and fats...

KGH: See the next post about the ephemeral reworking of Cordain's views on sat fat.

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterÉric Lépine

Fatty cuts of meat taste so better. It difficult for me to watch as people cut every spec of visible fat from there meat. I tell them their wasting the best part. Is there a one sentence explanation you can tell people to get them over their fear of fatty meats. It taken me almost a year to convince my parents to increase animal fat intake but glad to visit my mom the other month and for her to actually eat the turkey skin saying that she aways loved it but would rarely eat for fear of the saturated fat.

KGH: Cordain and I may agree on chicken and turkey skin. He says avoid it due to sat fat. I say avoid it due to the PUFA.

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBarney

Hi Kurt,

Fascinating stuff! Having read a lot of Robb Wolf's stuff recently, my understanding of the rationale behind his recommendation of eating lean meats is two-fold, choose one or the other:

a) First, eat grass-fed/pasture raised if you can, and don't worry about the fat.
b) OR, eat lean cuts if you can't afford or don't have access to the above.

The only reason to eat lean cuts of meat was if you didn't have access to, or could not afford the grass-fed/pasture-raised meat. The rationale being that grain-fed, commercially-raised meat is significantly higher in omega-6 which congregates in the fats.

I'm fairly certain I've heard him explain this on more than one occasion on his podcast, usually accompanied by a sighing lament to the effect of "If I advise only grass-fed meat, people accuse me of recommending a diet that's unaffordable, if I advise only lean meats, people accuse me of being fat-phobic" (somewhat paraphrased, but you get the idea :)

Being completely new to Paleo, and loving the common sense approach behind Paleo 2.0, Robb's advice seems to be consistent with yours. However, I am not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV, nor do I watch any on TV :) So, am I missing something ? Or are you and Robb on agreement here?



"The rationale being that grain-fed, commercially-raised meat is significantly higher in omega-6 which congregates in the fats."

That is a myth. Per 100 g of fat, grass and grain fed have about the same n-6. Grass fed tends to have more n-3 and less monounsaturated fat. I've read a couple of papers on this, not immediately on hand.

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPaulL

I actually considered reviewing IHSA from the "dietary fat" angle, but I was swept away by the implications for the evolution of human intelligence and behavior. I'm glad Dr. Harris is going to tackle that part of it, which also deserves a thorough review.

It's a great book, and I'm thankful to Tim for bringing it to my attention.


(Note: If you're having trouble cutting and pasting Tim's link above, click here to read my review.)

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJ. Stanton

Hi Kurt, I love your blog and I've been reading it for quite a while.

Regarding your comment about absolute quantities of omega 6 in grass- vs grain-fed fat, here's a link that suggests that, for dairy, 3 goes up in grass-fed, but 6 goes way down. Does this graph seem credible to you?

This is interesting to me because it does appear that, when cows are fed grass instead of grain, 6 holds steady while 3 goes up. Just as you mentioned, then.

Why would the milk fat be variable while the the tissue fat remains more or less constant?

And why do cows contrast with humans (whose 6 content can be widely varied according to the work of Lands, of which you've written) (I know we're not much like cows, but I still think it's interesting)?

KGH One of the reasons I favor pastured butter or cream is for the exact reason you've stated. Grass feeding can make a 6:3 ratio of close to 1:1 in cream or butter, unlike the 2 or 3 to 1 in meat, and the total PUFA can be lower as well. Ruminants are less sensitive to input and control their fatty acid ratios better. And perhaps 1:1 6:3 in milk is especially beneficial to the growing cow?

April 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterWilliam

PS: I just found a link, also on eatwild, that suggests that omega 6 content in cow tissue does vary...

KGH It varies, but in general according to a least three papers I've read the biggest difference is less mono and more n-3 in grass fed.

April 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterWilliam
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