I am riveted by a book I am reading by Yuval Noah Harari: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. The book is a discussion and analysis of where we humans came from, where we are now and where we are going. In many ways, the book is vital to an understanding of how out of synch we are as a species relative to our diets, lifestyles and activities. And from a health perspective, the book is an eye-opener!
Although Homo sapiens is the last remaining of the six human-like species that emerged through evolution, we have done a great job of mucking up our hopes for survival. There’s no doubt we are the most intelligent creatures known to have ever lived on this planet. But we are also the most foolish. Foolish enough, without doubt, to threaten our existence with every sort of weapon capable of destroying the planet, as well as pollutants and practices (mining, drilling, etc.) to endanger it. I’m not going to discuss the political ramifications of our tribally destructive mentality—just the health ones.
About eight to 10 thousand years ago, our ancestors turned from a hunter-gatherer-based lifestyle to a farming one. On first blush that would seem great. It afforded us dependable and consistent food, as well as enabled us to domesticate many animals, including dogs, goats, chickens and horses. But this farming and domestication came with a price…a price we still pay for in our health today.
You see, our former diet and activities as hunter-gatherers depended upon a staple of fruits, seeds, nuts and lean protein from animal flesh. That diet was, by and large, a very balanced one. Our physical activities—climbing for fruit, digging for tubers and fungus and running after game—was of the type that fit our bodies’ habitus.
But with the advent of farming, our dietary emphasis turned to grain, particularly wheat and corn. Our activities, once domestic animals were around for our protein sources, took a turn for the worse. Farming required clearing land, sowing grain, creating canals and wells for irrigation, burning scrubland and forests to create fields for planting grain and transporting large stores of crop to villages and towns. This, unlike running and digging, our bodies were not designed to do. Indeed, Harari notes in the book that men and women from the Age of Agriculture showed more skeletal evidence of bone and joint disease than our older ancestors.
“So what?” you may say. “How does that relate to me in the 21st century?” Well, I contend it does. In prior blogs, I’ve discussed the dangers of our overly refined diets, high in simple carbohydrates (mostly in the form of wheat and corn) and sugar (mostly cane sugar and high fructose corn syrup). And don’t get me started about our bodies. We know that 70% of Americans, with their sedentary lifestyles, are overweight or obese. We seldom use our bodies in the “functional” ways our hunter-gatherer ancestors did: walking enough, running, climbing, etc. So, what does this mean?
To me the message is simple. Homo sapiens were much better off in pre-Agricultural Revolution days, as the author strongly suggests. We can learn from our relatives who lived more than 10,000 years ago by adopting certain imitative rules:
1. Vary your diet with fruits, nuts, vegetables, fungus (mushrooms and truffles), lean sources of protein and whole grains (in reduced amounts).
2. Incorporate functional exercise, like walking, running, and even climbing (yes, that’s right, climbing). You don’t have to climb a tree; a hill, jungle gym or climbing wall will do.
3. Read the book. Learn how the author calls the Age of Agriculture the biggest fraud of all time (you’ll see why when you read it.).
Think like a hunter-gatherer and act like one for a while. I’ll bet you see the benefits within a few short weeks. (But keep your pets; just don’t eat them!).