“I got up early today. The sun was already throwing its rays to the sky, but it was not seen yet. I felt hungry. The roots and nuts we had stored from yesterday were for the children only. Our huts were on top of the hill, and I surveyed the massive plain below. Bushes dotted the green expanse that stretched to the horizon, like a painted fur cloth. This land was good. We, all hundred and forty of us were here for the past twelve years. More than ten years in one place was unusual for us. The last place had no water towards the end, so we had to leave. An entire two days worth of walk was needed for one hunting party of ten men to catch a rat or a weasel. The lake had a lot of fish, and when that dried up, life became hard. That is why we had left.
I said goodbye to Sasha, my wife. She was getting ready to go with Masa and other women in her company, to gather Mungongo nuts, tuber roots and fruits. She was carrying my younger son Machu. My elder son is old enough to run, and he is going with her. As soon as his whiskers start growing, he will join us for the hunt. Men are mighty hunters. Women do all the wimpy gathering stuff. But let me tell a secret though. Most of the time, my belly is filled by the grilled roots and nuts that Sasha brings. My family gets to eat whatever she brings home. But by the ancient rules of our race, all hunted meat and caught fish has to be shared between all the members of the tribe. This is good, as almost every day everyone gets to eat a fistful of meat or fish.
Today we had to wander till the sun went down to find some prey to bring home. Our ten member party managed to catch six lizards, and two of them were as big as a rat. Four of us ran after two large field rats, throwing sticks and axes for a long time, but they got way. Finally after a long chase, we caught a rabbit. I got him with my spear. I was always good at throwing them. Everyone slapped me on the back. I was very happy.
I was ravenous when I got back as I did not have much to eat after yesterday evening. Whole day I had only a tuber which I dug up and a Kara fruit that lay on the way. I was very tired and my whole body ached from all the walking and running. But I was happy thinking about the foods that Sasha would have gathered, and the feast of meat that was to come.”
The hypothetical journal entry is by a thirty year old male human, around hundred thousand years ago, in one corner of the African continent.
Anatomically modern humans appeared on earth, as per available fossil evidence, around two hundred thousand years ago. They were a communal, weedy species, surviving opportunistically wherever they wandered into. But they originally evolved in the bush and grassland plains of Africa. With their large brains, they adapted to a variety of environments, and had an omnivorous diet.
But for most of those two hundred thousand years, they lived by hunting and gathering. Wandered kilometres every day looking for tough roots, seeds, fruits, insects and small animals. Males hunted in packs, making an occasional large kill.
It was only ten thousand years ago that agriculture started in earnest. Only then did grains entered in a big way into our diet. Humans divided into workers and a sedentary ruling class. Even then food in plenty was a luxury.
It was only in the last few centuries that food truly became an indulgence. Work was done by machines and we hardly moved.
Then it is a fact that our bodies evolved to suit the life of a hunter gatherer and served us for millennia. Could it be that there is discordance between our modern lifestyle and our bodies? Could it be true that many lifestyle diseases like heart disease, hypertension and diabetes is due to this difference? Then isn’t it logical to think that we could learn how to live by looking at how our early ancestors lived?
There is some logic in the argument that our bodies and our lifestyles may not be matching. Our bodies evolved in the African continent and for the past two hundred thousand years, have remained more or less the same. For most of that period, Humans were hunter-gatherers, till the agricultural revolution a mere ten thousand years ago. So, the argument goes that if we look at how our Palaeolithic ancestors lived, we can pick up pointers on how to live healthily.
How can we find out how they lived?
We can look at archaeological remains that scientists have dug up from the sites of early human settlements. We find animal bones and fish remains, with marks of stone knives with which the meat has been shaved off. Remains of fireplaces tell us that they cooked their food. Coarse seeds, shells of nuts, fibrous roots and seeds of fruits tell us what else they ate. What else do we find at these dwelling sites of humans?
Well, old human bodies, of course. Fossilised buried bodies, some preserved in ice, enable us to open their stomach and look at the contents. (They sure are thorough, these archaeological chaps). And you know what fossilised chunks of shit are called? Coproliths. (And they stick at nothing). But they tell me that the smell wears off by a few thousand years.
And we are forgetting something. There are hunter-gatherer indigenous societies among us. Some of them have preserved their lifestyles for tens of thousands of years. We can easily study them and their habits.
S.Boyd Eaton and Melvin J Konner were the first to come out with a paper examining these ideas in 1985. It was published in the prestigious journal New England Journal of Medicine, and was termed Palaeolithic Nutrition. In it they have put forward the dietary mismatch hypothesis. They say that modern lifestyle diseases like stroke, coronary artery disease, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancers are caused by a mismatch between our modern diet and the diet and lifestyle of the Palaeolithic age. In 2010 another good article, ‘Palaeolithic nutrition: twenty five years later’ came out, that tried to examine how much of that hypothesis is true. They say that it has ‘considerable validity’. That is just the way these people speak. It just means that much of it seems to be true.
It is generally true that hunter gatherer societies today have a diet that has the following characteristics:
- Much lower levels of refined carbohydrates.
- Much lower levels of Sodium, that is, Salt.
- Comparable or similar levels of fat and cholesterol as our modern diet.
- Much higher levels of physical activity than ours.
In 2012 Lindeberg S examined all the available studies till 2012 and published a review article regarding this subject. Review article is a study that looks at the data of many studies and tries to reach conclusions. He concludes that there is indeed some support and evidence to the theory that the diet of indigenous societies can prevent age-related diseases listed above.
He says- avoid- dairy products, margarine, some oils, refined sugar and starch, cereal grains. These currently constitute seventy percent of the dietary intake in many modern populations.
Then what are we left with? There seems to be hardly anything else.
Well, our remote ancestors did eat the following:
Lean meat, fish, vegetables, tubers and fruit.
Does that mean we can gobble up pork fat, beef liver, eggs, and seafood by the plateful and remain healthy and fit?
I think we should get some perspective here and look at how our neighbours, the present day aboriginal people actually live.
W R Leonard wrote a piece on food and anthropology in the Scientific American 2004. In it he lists out certain populations about which data is available.
The Kung and Turkana of Africa, the Evenky of Russia, the Quecha of Peru and the Inuit of North America. They differ in their total energy intake by wide margins. The Turkana takes 1400 Calories per day, while the Evenky consumes around 2800 per day. They also differ in their diet considerably. The Quecha of Peru gets 95 percent of their energy from plant foods, while the Inuit gets 96 percent of their energy comes from animal and seafood meat. Of course, the common features do remain, as discussed, like lack of sugar and refined starch.
Yet all of them have lower levels of hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, etc than our modern people. Their cholesterol levels are all within normal.
What the hell are we missing here? Let us look at their average BMI. BMI is a measure of their weight in relation to their height. It is a measure, you can say, of their fatness- how fat they are. 18.5 to 24.9 is considered normal. The indigenous people’s average BMI is around 20. They are all quite lean. Compare that to the average BMI of modern day USA, which is 26- it is in the overweight range.
“It is a complex conundrum of the mismatch between energy expenditure vis-a-vis energy intake” Asserts the experts, rather mysteriously.
In our plain English, it means that we are eating far more than we expend by exercise, making us fat in the process.
Are we near the core of our problem? May be.