Description | Reading Responses and Discussion | Research Paper | Schedule

Diet and nutrition are favorite subjects of the news media and popular literature. Both new "dietary lifestyles" such as Atkins, Pritkin, South Beach, and well-established lifestyles such as vegetarianism and veganism are regularly endorsed as the natural human diet, and as such, cures to America's affliction with diseases of abundance (obesity, diabetes, and arteriosclerosis).

But is there a natural human diet? What does our evolutionary history reveal about our dietary adaptations? What do our current morphology and physiology indicate? How do genes and disease influence diet, and vice versa? What role does culture play in defining diet, be it adaptive or not, and are Americans alone in their wayward eating habits, or are other cultures also nutritionally challenged?

This course pursues these questions by reviewing research on the human diet from the fields of primatology, palaeoanthropology, archaeology, paleopathology, cultural anthropology, and nutrition. We begin with overviews of the scientific method, evolutionary theory, and nutrition. Next, we explore the evolutionary roots of our basic dietary adaptations--tooth form and gut morphology--with readings on the behavior and physiology of non-human primates, in particular, the apes, and on the fossil evidence for these adaptations in our own lineage, the Hominidae. Readings from archaeology provide information on the transformation of humans from primarily hunter-gatherers, prior to 12,000 years ago, to agriculturalists, the principal modern subsistence mode. Readings on bone chemistry and also on archaeological evidence of subsistence activities explain how we know what we know about prehistoric diet. Research from the field of paleopathology, the study of disease and injury in prehistoric populations, informs us of the costs and benefits of various subsistence lifestyles as represented by specific prehistoric and historic populations. In exploring the modern human diet, we look to cultural anthropology for perspectives on food and social identity, biosocial responses to famine and surplus, colonialism and modernization, and the role of social movements in dietary change. Lastly, we critically evaluate the claims of several popular contemporary diets (e.g., Atkins) with an eye toward assessing what is, after all, the natural human diet.

Readings will be selected articles from the primary literature including journal articles from the primary scientific literature (primatology, palaeoanthropology, archaeology, nutrition, cultural anthropology), and possibly a few book chapters (primary literature).

Students are responsible for participating in discussions, posting online responses to the weekly reading assignments, and writing a research paper on a topic chosen in consultation with the instructor. The writing process will be supervised in steps, from the formulation of the topic and argument, through the writing of one graded draft, and the final graded paper

Reading Reponses and Discussions
Readings consist of journal articles and book chapters from the primary literature, and are provided through Blackboard in the form of PDFs. Two to three articles per class meeting is the typical assignment. There is no textbook for this course.

Starting on the second day of class, you will submit a response to each meeting's readings, online, using Blackboard (response questions will be provided). Your responses will be visible to everyone in the class and will form the basis for in-class discussions (11% of total grade). Participation in in-class discussion is also graded (11%).

Research Paper
A research paper concerning a topic relevant to this course is required--the paper should be problem-oriented. The paper is worth 78% of your final grade, but it is broken down into four separately graded assignments:

  1. The proposal of the paper topic--consisting of the argument, an outline, and a list of at least 5 references. (10%)
  2. The rough draft. (15%)
  3. The final draft (submitted paper)  (45%)
  4. A short presentation of the paper to the class (8%)


  Date Topics  --  Readings TBA
Tues, June 26 Introductions (People, Library, Technology, Blackboard, the Course)
Thurs, June 28 Anthropology, Evolution, Science and the Scientific Method
Tues, July 3 Nutrition
Thurs, July 5 Hunger, Disease, and Health
Tues, July 10 Primate Bodies, Primate Diets

Paper Topic Due

Thurs, July 12 Early Hominid Subsistence: What We Know, How We Know It, and What We'll Never Know
Tues, July 17 Hunter-Gatherers: The Original Affluent Society
Thurs, July 19 Domestication, Agriculture and Population Growth
Tues, July 24 Food and Social Identity

Rough Draft Due

Thurs, July 26 Colonialism, Modernization, and Globalization
Tues, July 31 Social Movements and Food
Thurs, August 2 Evaluating Modern Dietary "Lifestyles"
Tues, August 7 Student Presentations

Final Draft Due