The issue is this: The very same people who spend hours hunting through overlooked but well-designed published medical research to provide us gems that help us understand metabolism better seem to lose their respect for scientific method as soon as they turn their attention to theories about human prehistory.
People I otherwise respect greatly accept theories about "paleo diets" and the health of early human populations that are either a) based on a very small sample of outdated early 20th century research or b) entirely made up.
It may come as a surprise to some of you that the study of paleontology is a scientific discipline pursued by intelligent, educated scientists using a wide variety of sophisticated tools. These scientists have come up with many findings that tell us a lot about the lifestyles of real "paleo" peoples around the globe.
None of this research is ever cited by the people who have made the so-called "paleo diet" a religious crusade, people who have never taken the time to look into the evidence these myths are based on.
Paleo Fanatics Show Off Their Ignorance
Just this week I read a post on a Low Carb discussion board claiming that the Egyptian mummy that shows evidence of heart disease came from a period "right after the invention of agriculture"--a statement which in off only by about 11,000 years. Agriculture started somewhere around 12,000 BC and the earliest of these mummies are from about 1600 BC.
By the same token, we know a great deal about the lifestyles of hundreds of modern day hunter gatherers painstakingly collected by trained anthropologists who lived with these people for many years. You would never know this from reading the Paleo fantasist's writings, which invariably cite one and only one source, the early 20th century arctic explorer, Vilhjalmur Stefansson.
A recent correspondent went to far as to inform me, based on what he had read on a Paleo fanatic web site, that Stefansson was the only person to ever live with a hunter gatherer culture while speaking their language. This misstatement ignores the work of at least 400 other trained anthropologists who not only did the exact same thing as Stefansson, living with people of pre-industrial cultures all around the world, but in many cases they lived with these people for far longer than the few winter months Stefansson did. They also published more extensively about their observations in writings intended for other anthropologists, not a popular audience, and those writing later in the century were much more aware of the need to see ALL of what was going on in the culture, rather than cherry pick the cultural details that reinforced their personal beliefs and ignore the rest.
So with this in mind, you can see why I find it disturbing that people with a lot of cred in the Low Carb world, including several of the M.D. mega-bestselling authors, continue to parrot Paleo fantasy statements about "our ancestors' diet" or about the diet and lifestyle of modern non-agricultural peoples that have no more basis in science than the idea that eating fat gives people heart attacks.
What Science Knows About Real Paleo Diet and Lifestyle
If you are interested in learning more about what our ancestors really ate, I would highly recommend a new book written by a brilliant Harvard anthropology professor. It opened my eyes to the advances that have occurred in paleontology since I studied it at the University of Chicago in the 1960s when I took my Anthropology degree there.
The book is Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham.
Wrangham's book's very-well documented thesis is that it was the very early discovery of cooking by pre-human hominids which allowed humans to develop the metabolically expensive human brain. His main point is that cooking, because it breaks down starches and proteins, made redundant the long, metabolically expensive digestive tracts found among pre-human hominids and allowed them to atrophy, freeing up the calories no longer needed for 5 hours a day of chewing and round the clock digesting of raw foods to be used to fuel, and grow, our metabolically expensive brains.
But the relevance of this book to our discussions in the online diet community lies not so much in its primary thesis but in the mass of data, derived from extensive research, the author provides about what the historical and anthropological record tells us about what early humans and prehumans ate.
And that research makes it clear that people and "pre-people" eating pre-agricultural diets bear little relationship to the Supermen described in the Paleo Myth invented people ignorant of paleontology and anthropology.
For starters, in most of the many modern era hunter-gatherer societies studied since the late 19th century, it turns out that at least 50% of calories came from gathered, i.e. vegetable, sources not meat, almost always provided by females. And even more importantly, these gathered foods were not made up of leaves which provide very little nutrition, but of starchy foods especially roots, seeds, and tubers.
Wrangham also cites the finding that the Inuit, so beloved by Paleo fantasists, ate more than fat and meat: they savored the raw, full intestines of their prey as well as deer droppings. This suggests the lengths to which humans will go to get the nutrients found from plant-derived sources--and how inadvisable it is to use the Inuit as the model upon which to base your diet.
Nor does research substantiate the idea that the lives of ancient Paleo people were the easy, physically invigorating idylls the Paleo myth describes. Hunting in most environments is an exhausting pursuit that provides marginal sustenance. The usual prey is not an elephant but a few small rodents. In most modern era pre-agricultural societies the sheer volume of food-related labor women are forced to provide is comparable with what was demanded of plantation slaves or the most oppressed factory worker.
The fantasy is that Paleo people lived lives of unparalleled health until they were forced into agriculture and made to live on evil carbs. The reality is that the bones of our "paleo" ancestors show clear signs that they were subject to periodic, severe and crippling famines.
This finding is, of course, reinforced by reports from those who had first contact with modern era hunter gatherers. It is often forgotten that one of the reasons that the earliest French settlers of Canada had so much contact with Native American tribes is that the tribes were starving when Champlain first encountered them, and they came to the French because they offered food.
Wrangham also points out that in modern Africa traditional people's must contend with a long period during the Dry Season when famine is common when game disappears.
I recently read a fascinating biography of a 19th century white child who was raised by Californian Native Americans living a traditional lifestyle, The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman (Women in the West) which made clear what it would be like to live through such a periodic famine. It describes one that occurred in a traditional non-contact Native American society living in SE California. Summary: many children died as did many older adults.
People adopted agriculture because it gave them a much better chance of seeing their children survive. Women probably put a lot of pressure on their men to adopt the agricultural lifestyle because as hard as women work in agricultural societies, their lot in them is far better than those of women in pre-agricultural societies who may have to gather and drag 30 lbs of roots over a range of ten or more miles every single day--before they start cooking dinner for men just returned from hunting.
It is worth remembering that those very few pre-agricultural societies that survived the agricultural revolution--the ones observed by Stefansson and others--were all cultures where people lived in environments where hunting and gathering provided more food than agriculture could--areas with very short (or in the arctic, no) growing seasons, deserts, areas with disease vectors that made settled life fatal, or very rarely, as in Amazonia and New Guinea, tropical areas where nature provided much more food than it does in the temperate zones.
Everywhere else, hunting and gathering was a very hard way to stay alive, and people took to agriculture with the alacrity with which our generation has taken to the computer and for the same reason: because the benefits were undeniable and instantly obvious.
Grain-based agriculture let more children survive to adulthood. Only after its advent did the human population begin to grow at a steady rate, rather than just barely replacing itself.
Grain-based agriculture provides, uniquely in human experience, enough surplus food that some people can put their time into non-calorie producing behaviors, like inventing writing which allows shared knowledge and technology to grow beyond what one person can retain in their memory. It is those grain-provided surplusses that have led to your being able to sit in front of your computer reading this post even if you do it while imagining how much happier you would be if you were "Paleo Man."
Why Does It Matter?
Okay, you might say, maybe the whole Paleo thing is a myth, but why make a big deal about it?
The answer is simple. The minute you support a good idea with made up "facts" and bad science, you invalidate it.
Doctors and nutritionists ignored the Atkins diet because he supported his claims with outdated, discredited studies like the one describing "fat mobilizing substance" and the research that claimed someone lost a huge amount of weight eating ten thousand calories a day of fat. By relying on bad science (and not updating the books to remove it, long after it was known to be bad science) Atkins delayed for a generation the rigorous study of the low carb diet.
We run the risk of doing the same thing to the diet when we argue for it using myths that educated people know to be myths.
What makes it so sad is that there is no need to use myths to make our point. There is plenty of very good science that supports the advantage of cutting down on carbs, eliminating processed foods, and demanding that industry stop polluting our environment with organic chemicals that are damaging our bodies We don't need to argue for our modern dietary improvements by citing imaginary, Eden-dwelling ancestors and misrepresenting their diets to do it.
The truth is, it is irrelevant what ancient people ate 20,000 years ago. Evolution occurs in periods as short as 100 years, so the dietary changes that have taken place in that past 20,000 years have altered our metabolic physiology in thousands of small ways that make us very different physiologically from "paleo" people.
To see an example of this, we need only remember that those of us who are descended from herders can digest milk as adults, while those who did not evolve in cultures with domesticated milk-giving animals are lactose intolerant, like most other adult mammals.
So matter what Paleo peoples ate, those of us who descend from European or Asian stock living in the Temperate Zone can be sure our ancestors' bodies adapted very well to agricultural diets. We are all descended from people who flourished on the energy provided by the stored starchy vegetables and grains that kept them alive through the long cold northern winters when game is very hard to find. Those who did not flourish on those diets did not survive to become anyone's ancestors.
It's Not The Deep Past But The Very Recent Past That Points to The Problems
Rather than imagining the far distant past, we need only look at the very recent past to find much more relevant arguments to support our need for dietary change.
It is the new factors introduced in the past century that we should be focussing the full force of Science on to answer the question of why we have a sudden epidemic of metabolic diseases. Research is turning up a lot of answers, though the corporate-owned media ignore those that point to corporate culpability as the explanation.
The obesity/diabetes epidemic is closely related to the phthalates and other organic molecules that leach from PVC plastics and Bisphenol-A that estrogenize our bodies, the soy proteins that damage our gut linings allowing otherwise benign gluten to get into our blood stream an provoke autoimmune attack, the high fructose corn syrup that turns into intracellular liver fat, the arsenic from coal burning that promotes diabetes, the PCB, pesticide, herbicide and pharmaceutical drugs that are in our water supply and our bodies which all increase insulin resistance.
Let's focus on the real science and make the public aware of the findings of this good science so we can do something about this metabolic epidemic. Until we can heal it, those of us who can't process carbs will have to cut way back on them. But let's leave the myths that reinforce personal belief systems to the churches where they belong. They won't cure what ails us.
UPDATE: Nov 21, 2009:
Check out this fascinating look at Arctic mummies. The link was posted by "Coach Jeff" in the comment section. The book cited is a real eye opener. I will have go get a copy.
Mummies, disease & ancient cultures By Eve Cockburn, Theodore Allen Reyman
Two of the Arctic and Aleutian mummies described here--those of older people--show distinct signs of atherosclerosis. The starved child who died with a tummy full of gravel and hair points out the impact of cyclical starvation on hunter cultures.