Why our distant past holds the keys to a healthy future – Pt I

Modern humans evolved at least 300,000 years ago (according to recent findings in Morocco). For more than 90% of the time since then our ancestors lived in the same way: in small bands of 25 to 50 people, hunting and gathering what was in their immediate environment, following the changing of the seasons, the movements of animals, and rising and setting of the sun. Our bodies and minds evolved under those conditions.

But that’s not how we’re living now. And it’s hurting us. Badly.

ALL of the leading causes of illness, suffering, and death for adults can be directly attributed to a HUGE mismatch between the conditions that prevailed for most of human history – during the Paleolithic or ‘old’ Stone Age, which shaped our bodies and minds – and the circumstances we live under today.

Beautiful bison from the Cave of Niaux in France, painted some between 17,000 and 11,000 years ago. I visited these caves in 2003. Incroyable!

The first big change was the advent of agriculture about 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, which marked the transition from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic (the ‘new’ one). For the first time in human history, people settled in one place and started growing grains. That was great for our absolute numbers – you can have a lot of babies if you’re staying in one place and not hunting and gathering over large territories – and it lead to a population explosion that we’re still experiencing today. But it was terrible news for us as individuals.

“The worst mistake in human history” according to biologist and noted author, Dr. Jared Diamond.

That’s because the grains that became the staple of the human diet were adequate for surviving but not thriving. Contrary to the popular myths, human lifespan and healthspan got shorter with the advent of agriculture. We got shorter (and have still not recovered our height in spite of more than adequate food in the modern world), sicker, and some say dumber – or at least our brains got smaller.

We become susceptible to epidemics of infectious diseases – nearly all of which we caught from our domesticated animals. Our jaws got smaller from the soft foods we eat – hence the need to pull out wisdom teeth (which our Paleolithic ancestors certainly didn’t do). We developed weak backs, necks, and knees, which are often in need of surgery as we age. And more recently, with the recent invention of refined flours, sugars, and seed oils – all courtesy of our modern ag industry – we’ve created and epidemic of deadly illnesses from OVEReating things our ancestors would never recognize as food. Hell, most of our grandparents wouldn’t eat the crap that is part of the Standard American Diet today (Yes, it really is SAD).

Seeing how evolution works reaaallly sloooowly for long-lived critters like humans, we haven’t changed a whole heck of a lot over the past 300,000years but our way of life has – and it’s killing us.

So, it seems logical to a biology nerd like me to look to our past for clues about how to live well in the present. And of course I’m not the only one. This is the driving force behind the ancestral health movement and the well-known ‘paleo’ diet.

A cute cousin but I’ll pass on the leaves for lunch. Photo by Joshua J Cotten via Unsplash

While the paleo diet may seem like a fad, it is an attempt to replicate the oldest diet in human history (as much as possible in the modern world). The one that our bodies evolved to eat. Unlike rodents, we don’t have the teeth or enzymes to chew, metabolize, and benefit from grains – or to neutralize the toxins and ‘anti-nutrients that grain-bearing plants put in their seeds to protect them from predators. so we should stay away from grains. Unlike our cousins the gorillas, we don’t have long, ropey intestines and huge guts needed to ferment and get maximum nutrition from plant material. So we shouldn’t be pure vegetarians.

At the same time, we also don’t have the sharp teeth and short guts of pure predators either. So while meat was clearly a VERY important part of our ancestors’ diet (primate brains got A LOT bigger when our ancestors started eating other animals), we wouldn’t have an impressive set of molars if we didn’t also evolve eating a lot of plants. Yes, our ancestors evolved as omnivores and as far as our genes are concerned that is what we need to be to thrive.

And the science backs this up. The more grains, sugar, and industrial oils we consume, the sicker we get. In the past few decades, as consumption of these foods has gone up, obesity and related metabolic diseases have gotten worse. When I was a kid, Type II diabetes was called “Adult Onset Diabetes” but no longer – now kids as young as 11 have this disorder, which is a direct result of the insulin-resistance that comes from eating sugar in the form of high-fructose corn syrup and refined grains (bread, pastries, cereal).

More specifically, eating sugar leads to ‘hyperinsulinemia’, a condition of perpetually elevated insulin, which is the basis for ALL of the leading causes of illness and death for adults in the US and around the world.

So what is the alternative? How would our ancestors eat and what does that mean for us today? Or as ancestral health leader, and my teacher and hero, Mark Sisson might say WWGE (“What Would Grok – his prototypical ‘caveman’ – Eat”)?

Well, we know that seeds are out – that means grains, legumes, and seed oils (yes, even so-called ‘healthy’ canola – yuck!) Because our bodies cannot process sugar very well. And of course, our ancestors were never exposed to pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and all the other killer chemicals (that’s what ‘cide’ means after all) that make it into our food. So organic as much as possible.

But what’s on the menu? Vegetables. Fruit (in moderation, since it’s high in fructose and was relatively rare in the past). Animal protein: mammal, fowl, and fish. Nuts (which are botanically different from seeds and do not have the same problematic components). But most important from a modern perspective: FAT.

Fat is the stuff our brains are made of. It’s the precursor to our hormones. It’s the literal building block of Every. Single. Cell. In. Our. Bodies.

Fat has gotten a bad rap for historical and political reasons I won’t go into right now – for a good discussion on it, check out Gary Taubes’ books “Good Calories, Bad Calories” and “Why We Get Fat and What To Do About It.” (He also wrote “The Case Against Sugar” which will give you the whole ugly truth about what sugar does to your body and health). But the fact it is that SUGAR (in all forms including grains, flour, etc) is what our bodies convert to stored fat, NOT dietary fat.

So fat is important. And you know what is just as important as WHAT we eat?


I’m gonna get into THAT in the next blog post.


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