Being obese, I’m always looking for a good diet. Just as I was finally considering the “Caveman Diet,” “Paleolithic Diet,” or, simply, “Paleo Diet,” my Discover magazine’s April 2013 issue panned it as the “Paleomythic” diet. The diet encourages folks to model our eating habits after that of our cave-dwelling ancestors by relying upon meat to the exclusion of carbohydrates, sugar, and processed food. The Discover article summarizes scientific research that fossil hominids also ate starchy tubers, bulbs and other plants, in addition to their usual woolly mammoth burgers. The experts now say that, even if our ancestors ate a predominantly meat diet, one cannot infer that such a diet was ideal for them. I have to agree, for every one of those people is now dead.
As a subscriber to Archaeology magazine and a longtime student of paleontology, I knew that examination of camp site bones, coprolites, and, more recently, even the DNA analysis of plaque on ancient teeth reveals that our ancestors ate whatever they could get their furry paws on. That includes lizards, rodents, grass, herbs, insects, etc. (What wine goes with lizard?) An idealistic view of our cavemen ancestors grilling 16 ounce mammoth steaks, medium rare, every night is entirely wrong. Neither did he just roam about harvesting some rich bounty of fruits and vegetables, while whistling “Kumbaya.”
Hobbes had it right in describing “the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” in a state of nature. Evidence indicates that our ancestors rarely lived beyond fifty years. New research reported last month in the journal The Lancet, suggests that atherosclerosis may have been a universal disease in all ancient human societies, and not wholly a result of the modern diet. Study of both intentionally and accidentally mummified remains at five sites dating back thousands of years on three continents found the condition in these prehistoric people. Study co-author Caleb Finch, a neurobiologist at the University of Southern California writes that, while some researchers believed hardening of the arteries was a 20th-century disease that results from modern overconsumption of fatty, sugary foods, "the generality of our observations suggests it is really a basic part of human aging under all circumstances." Nothing in the report offered me any hope for finding a good, life-extending diet, for, without exception, all of the mummies were also dead. However, on the plus side for their diet, the mummies were all very thin, at least at the time of their examination.
What about the vegan diet? I, for one, could not live with it. While some say it extends one’s life, I believe it serves only to make life seem longer and, certainly, drearier. And there is the problem of nutritional deficiencies produced by such a diet. Basketball Hall of Famer, Bill Walton, suffered from serious foot injuries due to his macrobiotic vegan diet. After joining the professional ranks in 1974, he underwent numerous surgeries, costing him four full seasons and parts of three others. The problem diagnosed by a UCSD nutritionist, Dr. Paul Saltman, was calcium deficiency. Walton explained that he got his calcium from broccoli, but Dr. Saltman advised that he would have to eat 30 pounds of broccoli per day to obtain his RDA of calcium. When he retired after 14 years with three NBA teams, Walton had missed more games than he had played – and he was always pale and wan.
In researching for this story, I went to a vegan cookery web site to get the other side’s point of view. Quoted there was a vegan cook: “Everyone thinks veggies are pale and wan,” she giggles. “Not on our courses! Our veggies and vegans are busting with confidence and fun. They are enjoying life, and have a great moral strength and commitment to animals and the environment.” Near that comment was a photo of her large group of vegans chewing on their cuds and grazing on green stuff at a table. All were pale, wan, and gloomy looking. Their vestigial arms looked like the wings of flightless birds. Some would have been indistinguishable from the mummies in the Lancet study.
We do not have to sniff coprolites to find out what our ancient ancestors ate. We have modern models in the form of Mbuti pygmies of the Ituri rainforest of Africa and the Yanomami Indians of the Amazon jungle. Documentary films of their Stone Age lifestyles reveal remarkable similarities and can serve as evidence of what life may have been like for our paleolithic ancestors.
Both the Mbuti and the Yanomami live seminomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyles with some slash and burn agriculture. The Indians, for example, move to areas of the jungle that have a large number of monkeys. The men hunt the monkeys with blowguns. They also clear a patch of land and erect simple shelters. The women plant cassava and other roots and vegetables that they had carried with them from the previous settlement. Eventually, the monkeys and other fauna in the area are exhausted by the hunting. At that point the group lives on dried monkey meat and the women’s vegetables. When they can tolerate the increasingly vegetarian diet no more, the people move to a new monkey rich area to begin the process again.
Similarly, the pygmies hunt forest elephants. They sneak up on an elephant and stab it in the side with an assegai. The elephant runs away, sometimes for days, followed by the pygmies waiting for it to collapse. Then the entire group moves to the site of the dead elephant.
The documentary film showed the happy party atmosphere of the pygmies cutting up the elephant. When they arrived at the carcass, it was bloated with gas. The stench must have been horrendous. They seemed not to notice. The gory sight was enough to make me a vegan for months. Anyway, they turned the elephant into jerky and hacked down the surrounding jungle so the women could plant vegetables. Until the vegetables grew enough to be harvested, the group was on a strict jerky diet,augmented only by the occasional fruit they happened upon in the vicinity of their new camp. As the jerky disappeared and the vegetables turned the people pale and wan (at least as pale and wan as an African pygmy can get), the men began looking for another elephant, continuing the cycle. Our mammoth hunting ancestors must have had a similar lifestyle and diet. Even now one can find knuckle-dragging cavemen buying jerky in convenience stores and truck stops all over the country.
I don’t know what this diet does to the cardiovascular system, but in one scene in the Yanomami documentary, a man, said to be in his sixties, killed a monkey 45 feet up with a blow dart. As if this alone were not enough to demonstrate his great heart/ lung capacity, the wiry man had to shinny the 45 feet straight up a bare tree trunk because the monkey’s corpse was stuck in a crotch of the high limbs. I could not have done that in my prime.
The Caveman Diet is based upon a belief that man has not had time to develop or evolve genetic adaptation to the relatively recent fruits of modern agriculture, particularly grain and processed foods. The Discover article cites the research of University of California, Berkeley anthropologist, Katherine Milton, who has studied and written about the diets of hunter-gatherers and ancient humans. She disputes the idea that because these ancestors ate fat rich diets that these were somehow optimal for health. There is no evidence that humans were ever “in sync” with a particular diet that ensured good health and long life. The best diet has yet to be found.
I must go now, for, ever “the hunter,” I have captured with some difficulty a herd of Omaha Steaks ™, which has just arrived at the front door, and, having no easy means of turning them into jerky, I must quickly find room for them in the fridge. (Also, before I eat them, I must get the brainworm image of rotting elephants and monkeys out of my mind.) My wife, “the gatherer,” meanwhile, is no doubt at Whole Foods market foraging for quinoa, arugula, broccoli, and other exotic, expensive, organically grown, and GMO free vegetables. My dog, who shares my simple preference for meat, is watching with interest what I do with the steaks. If only I could sneak my unwanted cauliflower tidbits to her under the table at dinner without “the gatherer” catching on!