Wednesday, January 28, 2015


Many people still accept a Hobbesian view of prehistoric man - that life was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. 

We’ve all seen the depictions in cartoons and movies of hairy and disheveled savages grunting, waving clubs, tearing raw meat from a giant femur with their teeth and dragging women around by their hair. 

But according to evolutionary psychologist Dr. Christopher Ryan, this ‘Flintstonization’ of Paleolithic man is unfair and just plain wrong. 

Ryan argues our hunter-gatherer forebears were actually quite civilized. They were well groomed, highly social creatures who loved, laughed, played and were probably a lot happier in the most primal sense than your average modern man who has been ‘civilized to death’ (Ryan, 2014). 

A hunter-gatherer life was necessarily about living in the moment. In a nomadic tribe material possessions were a burden. Amassing land, things, or power was simply not an objective. Community was everything. Your life literally depended on your fellow tribesmen. Everything was shared, including the raising of children. There was no state, no land-owners, no taxes or fences. A hippy dream! 

According to Ryan, the average hunter-gatherer only ‘worked’ a few hours a day and spent the rest of their time at leisure, bonding - playing, sleeping, having sex, building relationships, living. 

Sure there were plenty of rough times with weather, famine, injury, lack of medicine, warfare and wild beasts that could potentially kill you, but overall life wasn’t so bad. It certainly wasn’t solitary, brutish and poor.

A member of the Hadza Tribe

Littered throughout the literature on contemporary hunter-gather tribes are countless anecdotes of the inexplicable joy and happiness present among such tribes. Being human means deriving pleasure from simple things - food, shelter, companionship, belonging. 

Modern society has become so complex yet trivial and so detached from our base needs that most people in developed societies need constant stimulation, distraction, pharmaceutical intervention, drugs and alcohol or some other addiction (whether it be exercise or Netflix) just to cope, let alone to be “happy”. It really seems that the more ‘civilized’ become the less happy we are. 

When your biggest anxiety in the day is not getting 40 likes on your latest Instagram post (i.e. a trivial fear) you end up being more neurotic and less happy than when your biggest fear in the day is being trampled by a wooly mammoth (i.e. a real fear). 

Now I don’t want to romanticize Paleolithic times. As much as I love the outdoors and understand the immense satisfaction from getting back to basics and going ‘bush’ once in a while I’m an urban dude, a tamed homo sapiens domesticus fragilis

Comparing me to a hunter-gatherer is like comparing a shaky Chihuahua in a Louie Vuitton bag to a wild wolf in the Alaskan wilderness.  

I am not pining for a hunter-gatherer existence. I don’t even think we should be trying to emulate or replicate aspects of that era, unlike some other Paleo zealots out there.

I mean, if you want to hunt some of your own food, fashion your own sandals out of elk hide and go to bed at sundown that’s totally cool with me but I’m quite happy being a Millennial dude with an iPhone for a hand and having my neatly packaged wild salmon being available at my supermarket from 7am - 11pm seven days a week. 

I’m not saying that my urban life makes me happy, but I’d sure rather be part of our messed up society than an outcast, off-the-grid freak with no community at all. 

So yes, I am “Paleo", but only in the sense that I use an ancestral health framework to inform some of my nutrition choices. I am not in anyway trying to emulate a hunter-gather lifestyle! That’s silly. More on this later.


What I strongly disagree with, however, is this ignorant argument that cavemen died young thus why should we eat like them? 

There are two major flaws in this logic.

Firstly, cavemen did not die that young. People keep quoting an average lifespan of between 25 and 40 years in the Paleolithic era. This is highly misleading. Yes the average, ‘mean' age is quite low when you include a very high infant mortality rate. But infant mortality has always skewed life expectancy downwards until as recently as the early 20th century… not long after we realized it was probably a good idea to wash your hands before delivering a baby!  

During the Upper Paleolithic, life expectancy at birth was 32 years (Kaplan, 2000). But a 15 year old - who made it through infancy and into adolescence - could expect to live another 39 years, to the age of 54. 

Compare this to Classical Roman times where life expectancy was 20-30 and at age 10 one could expect to live 35 more years, to 45 (Frier 2001). 

Even in the early 20th Century life expectancy at birth was still only 31… less than in the Upper Paleolithic! So even by this crude measure it is unfair to pick on the Paleolithic as a period of particularly short life spans when in fact life expectancy has always been this low right up until last century. 

So even using basic averages for lifespan our Paleo ancestors were actually doing just as well, if not better than the Ancient Romans or Medieval Brits. But were hunter gatherers really dropping dead at 40 during a Mammoth hunt or did many live a lot longer than that?

Well, a more pertinent statistic to look at instead of the average (or ‘mean’) lifespan is the ‘mode'. The mode is the value that occurs the most frequently in a set of data. 

Take this set of data points: [0.3, 0.7, 1, 1, 2, 4, 7, 7, 7, 9]. The average (mean) is 3.9, while the mode is 7. Big difference.

The best known study into longevity among hunter-gatherer tribes concluded that the mode age amongst a variety of different hunter-gatherer tribes across the world ranged from 68 to 78 years of age, with the overall mode calculated to be 72 (Gurvan, 2007). 

This means that, by and large, if you didn’t perish as an infant or succumb to infection, illness, warfare or walk off a cliff in the darkness of the night then a healthy hunter-gatherer could expect to live to a respectable ripe old age, even by modern global standards.

So this notion of brutish cavemen dropping dead of old age at 30 is plain bullocks. It’s a myth. 


The second biggest flaw in the “trying to eat like a caveman is stupid” camp is that the Paleo diet is NOT about trying to replicate a caveman diet. I have drummed on about this so much that my neighbors have been lodging ‘relentless percussion’ noise complaints with the landlord.

But my drumming can’t compete with the ignorant argument resonating loudly throughout the mainstream media by your run of the mill “eat-a-balanced-low-fat-diet-with-heart-healthy-whole-grains” blog commenters, dietician and nutritionists. 

You know the ones. They talk like this: trying to eat like a caveman is stupid and as if you would want to live like a caveman anyway since they dropped dead before they were even old enough to get heart disease from all that red meat, and they were ugly and stupid and dragged women around by their hair, blah blah blah. 

Talk about Homo sapiens ignoramuses!

The Paleo diet is not a recreation or replication of some imagined caveman diet from 30,000 years ago. 

Rather, the Paleo diet is a template or framework for optimizing modern nutrition by looking to our past and pondering what we may have eaten for 98.5 percent of our evolution before agriculture came along and changed everything. 

And why would we want to do that? Well, from all the research that has been done over the past century into hunter-gatherer societies - both contemporary and ancient - and by looking at some alarming modern health trends there is some fairly compelling evidence suggesting the following:

  • Hunter-gatherers generally had superior bone density, structure, stature, strength and overall robustness of health than modern agricultural humans (Ryan 2014).
  • Hunter-gatherers did not seem to suffer from most modern ‘diseases of civilization’ such as obesity, diabetes or heart disease. Not to say that it definitely didn’t exist but it was rarely, if ever, observed (Cordain, 2010). 
  • At the advent of agriculture human health took a sharp decline: stature diminished, infectious disease proliferated, infant mortality increased, life expectancy decreased and malnutrition was widespread (Nicholson, 1999).
  • While we have been able to combat the above maladies with technology such as public sanitation, food fortification and modern medicine our collective health has taken another turn for the worse in the last few decades. 
  • The modern epidemics of obesity, diabetes and heart disease are escalating. Today one-in-four Americans have some form of heart disease. By 2050 it is predicted one-in-three adult Americans will have diabetes (CDCP, 2015). 
  • Life expectancy in the US may be on the decline (Olshansky, 2005)
  • It seems increasingly obvious that the industrialization and commercialization of our food since the mid 20th century has been a major culprit in our health decline. The more processed, adulterated and unnatural our foods are, the fatter and sicker we become. 
  • A diet of whole, real, unprocessed, organic, wild, raw, grass-fed, non-GMO, unconcentrated, additive-free, local, fresh, healthy animal and plant foods is clearly the best way to eat in order to thrive and to avoid the preventable diseases that end up killing most of us.  

Now frankly, my dear reader, I don’t give a damn how you arrive at your healthy diet of choice or even what that diet constitutes. As long as you are improving your health and it is working for you then that’s all that matters.

If you have an issue with cute, fluffy animals being murdered so you can ingest their wonderful nutrition and you’d rather eat quinoa (impoverishing Bolivians) and almond milk (worsening the drought in California) to fuel your 90 minute 40.6'C / 105'F Bikram session (contributing to global warming) then power to you! 

There are plenty of paths to better health. NONE OF THEM ARE PERFECT. So you can take your sustainability issues, write them down on a little piece of recycled paper, and burn them. Homo sapiens sustainabilis hypocritis.

As you all know I follow a Paleo template because it makes sense to me. Avoiding animal products does not make sense to me. Eating a lot of carbohydrates does not make sense to me.

And so I focus on healthy fats, lots of above ground vegetables, some roots and tubers, some fruit and berries, wild-caught seafood, some meat - preferably grass-fed and not factory farmed. I eat some full fat fermented dairy. I strictly avoid milk, gluten and industrial vegetable and seed oils.

But I am not dogmatic and I certainly consume my fair share of neolithic foods. I drink wine, tequila, vodka, sometimes a few low-gluten beers. I eat white rice. I’m even partial to a few corn tortillas or some premium full fat ice cream once in a while. 

And if the Paleo Police have an issue with my impurity they can get stuffed because I know my diet is 90 percent awesome. And then 10 percent of the time I go treat myself by doing some things that are clearly bad for my health but oh so much fun - like drinking a couple of Old Fashions or clubbing until 4am in Brooklyn. 

You see life is not meant to be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. It was not like this for our Paleolithic ancestry and it shouldn’t be like this for us. 

Being Paleo is not about trying to be a bad-ass, spear hurling, rock carrying caveman. It is not about creating a perfect grain-free, dairy-free, legume-free diet and sticking to it 100 percent. But it is about avoiding most industrial junk foods to prevent becoming your typical fat, sick and nearly dead Westerner. 

Modern Americans may have a higher life expectancy than our Cavemen ancestors. But not necessarily that much higher - currently it is 78 (World Bank, 2015). And when you consider that the quality of later life for your average American (or Australian) is pretty poor these days we may not have advanced as much as we think. 

Four-out-of-five Americans suffer from at least four chronic illnesses by the age of 67 (AARP, 2015). Most rely on serious pharmaceutical and medical intervention to prolong a pretty crappy life for the final few years, often in a care facility, only to finally succumb to complications from metabolic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease or Alzheimer's. 

The good news is that these diseases are preventable by making the right lifestyle choices over time, especially nutrition. And the best way to optimize nutrition is to focus on a real, whole foods diet… like the Flintstones. 

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References

AARP (2015). ‘Chronic Conditions Among Older Americans’: http://assets.aarp.org/rgcenter/health/beyond_50_hcr_conditions.pdf

Christopher Ryan, PhD (2014): Tangentially Speaking Podcast: http://chrisryanphd.com/tangentially-speaking/

Ryan, C., & Jethá, C. (2010). Sex at dawn: The prehistoric origins of modern sexuality. New York: Harper.


Frier, Bruce W. (2001). "More is worse: some observations on the population of the Roman empire". In Scheidel, Walter. Debating Roman Demography. Leiden: Brill. pp. 144–145.

Gurven & Kaplan (2007). 'Longevity Among Hunter-Gatherers: A Cross-Cultural Examination’: http://www.anth.ucsb.edu/faculty/gurven/papers/GurvenKaplan2007pdr.pdf

Hillard Kaplan, Kim Hill, Jane Lancaster, and A. Magdalena Hurtado (2000). "A Theory of Human Life History Evolution: Diet, Intelligence and Longevity"Evolutionary Anthropology 9 (4): 156–185.


Loren Cordain (2010), The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and Get Healthy By Eating the Food You Were Designed to Eat, John Wiley & Sons.

(OFR) Obesity Facts and Resources. In Campaign to End Obesity (accessed September 2013).

Olshansky et al. (2005) 'A Potential Decline in Life Expectancy in the United States in the 21st Century': http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsr043743

Timothy M. Ryan and Colin N. Shaw (2014). 'Gracility of the modern Homo sapiens skeleton is the result of decreased biomechanical loading’, PNAS 2015 112 (2) 372-377

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (2010). Number of Americans with diabetes projected to double or triple by 2050. [Press Release] (accessed March 2011).

Ward Nicholson (1999), ‘Longevity and Health in ancient Paleolithic v Neolithic Peoples’: http://www.beyondveg.com/nicholson-w/angel-1984/angel-1984-1a.shtml

10 comments:

  1. AMEN Brother! You echo many of my own arguments..ahem...discussions with folks over the years about the "paleo" concept and its role in health. Only, you articulate them much more eloquently. Thanks!

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  2. Thanks for the feedback Aaron. Glad you liked it!

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  4. It's not so much about what people are eating, it's how much of it (spoiler: too much). Then they sit on their couch/car/office chair 19 hours of their waking day, and sleep 5 hours a night!

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  5. I think this article really put paleo into perspective. Makes it seem much Les of a "health nut" category and just a common sense way of thinking of food .loved the article

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  6. I think this article really put paleo into perspective. Makes it seem much Les of a "health nut" category and just a common sense way of thinking of food .loved the article

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  7. Ethopians don't have a lot of issues with obesity either-should we adopt the famine diet? Perhaps the Masai diet-with its emphasis on meat (for the men-the women and children have a caloric deficit, but at least they're not eating grains!)

    Consider the population of Paleolithic man to today-since life is so much worse now, who should die to insure that the rest can chow down?

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    1. What a stupid comment. Famine diet? Nice buzzwords.

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