Humans cannot live on protein alone – even for the ancient indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest whose diet was once thought to be almost all salmon.

Shannon Tushingham.

In a new paper led by Washington State University anthropologist Shannon Tushingham, researchers document the many dietary solutions ancient Pacific Coast people in North America likely employed to avoid “salmon starvation,” a toxic and potentially fatal condition brought on by eating too much lean protein.

“Salmon was a critical resource for thousands of years throughout the Pacific Rim, but there were a lot of foods that were important,” said Tushingham the lead author of the paper published online on April 8 in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. “Native people were not just eating salmon. There’s a bigger picture.”

The authors focus on the limits of salmon, which used to be considered a “prime mover” of Pacific Northwest populations, but their analysis also has implications for the study of historical human nutrition. If their argument is correct, it is unlikely that any human society was fully driven by pursuit of protein alone as their diets had to be more complex.

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