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Anthropologist Vaughn Bryant Lost 30 Pounds (but Not His Health) Eating What the Cave Dwellers Ate

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The tape player blasts out Handel’s Greatest Hits as Vaughn M. Bryant Jr., 39, tools his Volkswagen Rabbit across the sprawling, 5,142-acre campus of Texas A&M University. Suddenly he spots a grove of sunflowers, slams on the brake, jumps out and grabs a handful. For the next five minutes Bryant chews on the big yellow blossoms in silent bliss, swallowing petals, leaves and seeds.

“The trouble is our taste buds are attuned to the wrong things,” he explains between munches. “These sunflowers may not taste like ice cream, but they’re a hell of a lot better for you than most of the stuff people put into their bodies today.”

It would be wrong to dismiss Bryant as the leading eccentric on the Aggie campus. One reason for the peculiar diet is his academic research as chairman of the anthropology department. Another is that, over Christmas in 1974, he began to worry about being a fat anthropologist. “When I went swimming,” he recalls, “I had to wear a T-shirt to hide my gut.”

He decided to apply scholarly expertise to his burgeoning problem. Bryant specializes in the study of aboriginal Indians who lived in the Pecos River valley of southwest Texas as long ago as 9500 B.C. “There weren’t many fat cavemen,” he says. “I knew an answer to my weight problem was in the stuff I was looking at every day in the lab.”

That “stuff” is what scientists call “coprolites”—fossilized human feces. “You’d be surprised how much you can find out about prehistoric men by poking through their garbage,” says Bryant. He stores thousands of well-preserved coprolites in his lab which he analyzes to discover what prehistoric Indians ate and how they prepared it.

People joke about his fossils, of course. “You have to have a thick skin and a good sense of humor.” Once he was detained by U.S. customs when he tried to bring in five suitcases full of coprolites from a South American dig. “They asked me what I had. I told them, just a lot of crap. You can imagine the look on their faces,” he grins. Government ultimately acceded to the needs of science.

Becoming his own guinea pig, Bryant for months ate high-roughage cactus pads, acorns, berries, yucca and mesquite seeds. For high protein he ate fish and lean meat, but drew the line at prehistoric delicacies like mice, snakes and lizards. He shed 30 pounds and now tips in at 165, his high school football-playing weight.

The son of a peripatetic Associated Press journalist, Bryant attended 32 schools before entering the University of Texas, where he earned degrees in geography, anthropology and botany. He insists he’s not a health-food freak and never subjected his wife, Carol, daughter, Bonnie, 13, and sons Vaughn III, 12, and Daniel, 8, to his diet. Yet he can’t resist proselytizing. “I want to get the message to people that dieting doesn’t have to be drudgery,” he says. “It was fun for me.” To spread the word, he is writing a book. Working title? No, not Look Sharp, Feel Sharp with Cactus or Yucca Doesn’t Have to Be Yuk. It’s The Caveman Diet Book.