Chewing over the real paleo diet: Meat-eating and early humans
“The Scientist Is In,” July 18 at National Museum of Natural History

The paleo diet, which eliminates grains, dairy, legumes and processed foods, is all the rage right now. But what did our paleolithic ancestors, who lived more than a million years ago, actually eat?

That question is at the heart of research by Smithsonian scientist Briana Pobiner, who will discuss her work studying the evolution of the human diet at a special event Thursday. A paleoanthropologist, Pobiner researches the origin of meat-eating among humans. According to Pobiner, eating meat from large animals was the first major dietary shift in human evolution.

“Meat-eating may have led to a lot of what makes us human today,” Pobiner said in a 2011 interview. “[It] has been linked to an increase in brain size, . . . an increase in home-range size and maybe the expansion out of Africa. It’s likely that competing with big carnivores, you needed sophisticated interaction, communication and other social skills that are also another hallmark of being human.”

Pobiner works primarily with fossils of prey animals, using modern tools to determine “who got there first” — humans or other large carnivores. She has found that sometimes humans made the kill and got first dibs on the best parts of a carcass, while other times large carnivores ate first, leaving humans with scraps.

Tooth markings and bone damage help determine who or what killed an animal, what tools may have been used and whether the animal was butchered after it was killed. Examining the remains that modern carnivores leave behind may show what parts, such as bone marrow and organs, our scavenging ancestors may have been left with.

In addition to her work on the early human diet, Pobiner has studied cannibalism in the Cook Islands and carnivory among chimpanzees, omnivores that predominantly eat fruit.

The free event, from 12 to 2 p.m., will be held at the National Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Human Origins. For more information, visit humanorigins.si.edu.

Not just Frankenstein: The science of life, death and reanimation
“How to Make a Zombie” by Frank Swan

There’s no doubt that zombies have stumbled, shuffled and grunted their way into popular culture. Given the success of TV’s “The Walking Dead,” films such as “World War Z” and “Warm Bodies,” and even the smartphone app “Zombies, Run!” — in which escaping a zombie horde qualifies as a workout — it’s fair to say that brain-hungry cadavers have squarely replaced vampires as the undead creatures du jour. We may cower in fear, run away, fall in love and joke about the imminent zombie apocalypse, but few of us wonder if zombies are truly real.

That’s where Frank Swain comes in. In his new book, “How to Make a Zombie,” Swain attempts to tease out the science from the superstition and the pop-culture trope.

The book recounts the history of the zombie concept — Swain says it originated in Haiti and, according to one theory, may be based on the poisoning of slaves to more easily control them — and describes real-life attempts by religious figures and scientists to resurrect the dead. (In the 20th century, he writes, Soviet and American scientists worked like modern-day Dr. Frankensteins to reanimate human and animal corpses.)

The book also explores the scientific explanations — including hypnotism, drugs, infection, toxins and even cannibalism — for why someone may become zombielike. A variety of bugs, worms and fungi could, theoretically, be used to raise a zombie army.

Movie-style zombies may not be real, but zombielike behaviors are, says the book, and may have something to teach us about “what it means to be human, what it means to be alive and what it means to be the master of your own destiny.”