Is It Possible To Get Healthy If You Eat Like Your Ancestors?

Joe Fowler
Author: Joe Fowler Time for reading: ~15 minutes Last Updated: November 20, 2022
Is It Possible To Get Healthy If You Eat Like Your Ancestors?

A group of scientists from Northwestern University (Illinois), led by biologist-anthropologist William Leonard and with the participation of doctoral student Asher Rosinger, is studying the life of chimane to learn what the inhabitants of the rainforest eat. Scientists are particularly interested in changes in the state of health of Indians with the transition from traditional nutrition and an active lifestyle to exchanging the gifts of the forest for

Evening falls on the Amazon lowlands in Bolivia. In the reed-covered hut of Ana Cuata, Maito stirs a porridge of plantains and sweet cassava over a fire spread out on the ground and listens for the voice of a man returning from the forest accompanied by a thin-ribbed hunting dog. There is a baby near the chest, and a 7-year-old son is tugging at the sleeve. An exhausted woman hopes that her husband, Deonisio Nate, will bring game today. "Children get upset when there is no meat," says Ana, chasing away mosquitoes.

On this January day, Deonisio left the house at dawn, taking with him a rifle and a machete, in order to reach the primeval forest in 2 hours. There he will peer silently into the canopy, looking for brown capuchin monkeys and raccoon-like coatis, while the dog will sniff out the tracks of peccaries or reddish-brown capybaras. As luck would have it, Deonisio tracks down one of the jungle's biggest suppliers of meat—a tapir with a long, flexible snout that forages in the damp thickets of ferns.


Today, however, Nate returns with no loot. This energetic 39-year-old man does not give up easily. If he is not hunting, fishing or weaving a roof from palm leaves, he is carving a new canoe in the forest. However, at dinner, he complains that it is difficult to provide meat for the whole family: two wives (quite common in the tribe) and 12 children. Lumberjacks scare off animals. And he cannot fish in the river, because the canoe was washed away by a storm.

Similar stories can be heard in every family in Anachere, a community of about 90 people from the ancient Chimane Indian tribe. It is the rainy season, the most unfavorable time for hunting or fishing. More than 15,000 Chimane live in hundreds of villages along the banks of two rivers in the Amazon basin near the big city of San Borja to Anachere - two days' journey by motorized canoe, so the local Chimane have to eat what can be caught in the forest, river or grown in the garden.


A group of scientists from Northwestern University (Illinois), led by biologist-anthropologist William Leonard and with the participation of doctoral student Asher Rosinger, is studying the life of chimane to learn what the inhabitants of the rainforest eat. Scientists are particularly interested in the changes in the state of health of Indians with the transition from a traditional diet and an active lifestyle to exchanging the gifts of the forest for sugar, salt, rice, oil and, increasingly, dried meat and canned fish. This interest is not purely academic. The results of research into the diets of indigenous peoples, such as the Chimane tribe, may suggest optimal menus for the rest of humanity.

Rosinger knows a 78-year-old farmer named Jose Mayer Kunay, who with his 39-year-old son, Felipe Mayer Lero, has spent the past three decades cultivating a luxurious garden above the river with trees laden with golden papayas and mangoes, bunches of green plantains and round grapefruits , which, like earrings, hang from a branch. Bright red heliconia flowers and wild ginger grow like weeds among the corn and sugar cane. "Jose's family has more fruit than anyone else," Rosinger says.

But under the canopy at the family gathering, Felipe's wife Catalina prepares the same tasteless porridge as other housewives in the village. When asked if the harvest from the garden helps to survive the lack of meat, Felipe shakes his head: "You can't get by on this. I have to hunt and finish the fish. My body does not want to feed on the plants themselves."

As we approach 2050, when we will have to feed another 2 billion more people, the issue of optimal nutrition takes on new urgency. Food choices for the coming decades will have extraordinary consequences for the planet. Simply put, a diet based on meat and dairy products, which is now becoming increasingly common in developing countries, will deplete the planet's resources more than a diet based on unrefined grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables.


Before the advent of agriculture (about 10,000 years ago), all people lived by hunting, gathering and fishing. With the development of agriculture, nomadic hunters and gatherers were gradually pushed out of the best arable lands, eventually leaving the forests of the Amazon, the dry savannahs of Africa, the remote islands of Southeast Asia, and the arctic tundra. Today, there are only a few scattered tribes of hunters and gatherers on the planet.

That's why scientists are rushing to learn as much as they can about ancient diets and lifestyles while they still exist. So far, studies of hunter-gatherers such as the Chimane, Inuit, and Hadza have found that they typically do not suffer from high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, or cardiovascular disease. "Many people believe that our diet is different from that of our ancestors," says paleoanthropologist Peter Ungar of the University of Arkansas. The idea that our stone-age-born bodies were trapped in a fast-food civilization caused a frenzy for Paleolithic diets. The popularity of these so-called cave diets is based on the idea that the evolution of modern humans stopped at the diet of hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic era, a period that began 2.6 million years ago and continued until the agricultural revolution.

Therefore, our genes did not have time to adapt to artificially grown food.

The Stone Age diet is “the only diet that perfectly matches our genetics,” writes Lauren Cordain, a nutrition evolutionist (Colorado State University) in her book, The Paleo Diet: How to Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Food We Were Made For created" (The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Foods You Were Designed to Eat). After studying the diet of modern hunter-gatherers, among whom 73% of communities get more than half of their calories from meat, Cordain offers his own paleorescription: eat plenty of lean meat and fish, but not dairy products, beans and grains, which entered our menu with the emergence of culinary processing and agriculture. Proponents of the paleo diet — like Cordain — believe that by eating like hunter-gatherers, you can avoid the diseases of civilization: heart disease, high blood pressure,

Sounds tempting But did we all really evolve to a meat diet? Both paleontologists, who study the fossil remains of our ancestors, and anthropologists, who study the diet of modern indigenous peoples, say that in reality the picture is not so simple.


Meat played an important role in the evolution of human nutrition. Raymond Dart, who in 1924 found the first remains of a human ancestor in Africa, spread the idea of ​​our ancestors living by hunting in the African savannahs. In his works of the 1950s, he depicted primitive humans as "carnivorous creatures who attacked their prey, slaughtered it to death...quenched their thirst with the victim's hot blood and greedily devoured the quivering flesh."

Some scientists consider meat consumption extremely important for the evolution and brain enlargement of our ancestors about 2 million years ago. By switching to high-calorie meat and bone marrow instead of the plant-poor diet of great apes, our immediate ancestor Homo erectus got enough extra energy with each meal to increase brain volume. Digestion of higher-quality food and a decrease in the amount of vegetable fibers led to a smaller intestine. Thus, the released energy was able to feed the hungry brain, says Leslie Aiello, who first put forward this idea together with anthropologist Peter Wheeler. The brain at rest needs 20% of a person's energy; by comparison, an ape's brain requires only 8%. This means that since the time of Homo erectus, the human body needs high-energy nutrition, especially meat.

Fast forward a few million years to when human nutrition changed radically again with the invention of agriculture. The domestication of cereals—sorghum, barley, wheat, corn, and rice—provided a sufficient and predictable supply of food, allowing agricultural women to give birth more frequently (every 2.5 years, as opposed to 3.5 years for hunter-gatherers). There was a population explosion; soon the farmers outnumbered the gatherers.

For the past 10 years, anthropologists have been trying to find answers to key questions about this transition. Biologist and anthropologist Clark Spencer Larsen from Ohio State University paints a bleak picture of the origins of agriculture. When the first farmers became dependent on their crops, their diet was lacking in nutrient diversity compared to that of hunter-gatherers. A daily diet of the same domesticated grains gave primitive farmers cavities and periodontitis that rarely occurred in hunter-gatherers, Larsen says. When farmers began to domesticate animals, cows, sheep and goats became a source not only of milk and meat, but also of parasites and new infectious diseases. Farmers suffered from iron deficiency and delayed development. Decreased growth and body weight.

And although the population increased, the lifestyle and diet of agriculturalists was clearly not as healthy as that of hunter-gatherers. The fact that farmers had more babies, explains Larsen, simply shows that "you don't have to be completely healthy to have children."


However, the real diet of the Stone Age consisted not only of meat and bone marrow. True, hunter-gatherers around the world prefer meat to any other food and usually get about 30% of the calories in their annual diet from animals. But most of them also go through periods of hunger, when a small piece of meat falls on a week. New research shows that not only meat in the diet of ancient people stimulated the development and increase of the brain.

Year-round observations confirm that hunter-gatherer hunts often end unsuccessfully. For example, the African Hadza and Kung Bushmen return empty-handed from hunting more than half of the time. Meat does not appear too often in the diet of hunter-gatherers, with the exception of subpolar regions, non-Inuit and other peoples usually get as much as 99% of their calories from the meat of seals and narwhals, as well as fish.

So how do hunter-gatherers provide themselves with food when there is no meat? It turns out that the "man-hunter" is helped by a "woman-gatherer" who, together with her children, is responsible for food in times of famine. When meat, fruit or honey is in short supply, foragers turn to "reserve food," says Brooks. The Hadza get almost 70% of their calories from plants. The Kung bushmen have long been saved by root vegetables and mongongo nuts, the Aka and Baka pygmies of the Congo River basin by yams, the Amazonian Chimane and Yanomami by plantains and cassava, and the Australian aborigines by nut grass and water nut.

"It is believed that hunting and eating meat made us human," says Amanda Henry, a paleobiologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Leipzig). — To be honest, this is only half the story, in my opinion. Of course people want meat. But in fact they eat plant food." Henry even found particles of starch on fossil teeth and stone tools, suggesting that humans may have been eating grains in root crops for at least 100,000 years—long enough to evolve resistance to them.


The idea that human evolution ended in the Paleolithic period is simply not true. Our teeth, jaws and faces have shrunk and our DNA has changed since the invention of agriculture. "Do people continue to evolve? So!" says geneticist Sarah Tishkoff from the University of Pennsylvania.

One of the most surprising pieces of evidence is lactose tolerance. All humans digest their mother's milk during infancy, but before the domestication of cattle 10,000 years ago, weaned babies no longer needed to digest it. As a result, the body stopped producing the enzyme lactase, which breaks down lactose into simple sugars. After humans developed herds, the ability to digest milk became extremely useful, and lactose tolerance developed simultaneously and independently among pastoralists in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Groups whose lives did not depend on the presence of livestock (such as the Chinese, the Thai, the Pima Indians of the American Southwest, or the Bantu of West Africa) have retained lactose intolerance.

People also differ in their ability to extract sugar from starchy foods during chewing, depending on the number of copies of a particular gene they inherit. Populations that traditionally ate more starchy foods (such as the Hadza) have more copies of this gene than carnivorous Yakuts from Siberia, and their saliva helps break down starches before food reaches the stomach.

These examples show the proverb "We are what we eat" in a new light. More precisely, we are what our ancestors ate. The range of nutritious and useful food for humans is amazing, depending on genetic inheritance. Today, among the traditional diets are the vegetarian diet of the Jains of India, the meat diet of the Inuit, and the fish menu of the Malay people from Malaysia. The Nokmani people of the Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal get their proteins from insects. "What makes us human is our ability to find food in almost any environment," says Professor Leonard, one of the leaders of the Chimane expedition.


Studies show that for indigenous peoples, the transition from a traditional way of eating and working to a Western lifestyle is harmful. For example, until the 1950s, the Mayan Indians of Central America had practically no knowledge of diabetes. With the shift to a Western diet high in sugar, the incidence of diabetes has skyrocketed. Traditionally, nomadic Siberian peoples (such as the Evenks and Yakuts) ate mostly meat, but had almost no heart disease until they became more sedentary and began to consume more store-bought foods. For many indigenous peoples of Siberia, these changes accelerated after the collapse of the Soviet Union. According to Leonard, now about half of settled Yakuts are overweight, more than a third have high blood pressure. And Chiman Indians who eat store-bought foods are more prone to diabetes than those who

For those of us whose ancestors adapted to a plant-based diet—and who lead a sedentary lifestyle—it would obviously be best not to eat as much meat as the Yakuts. Recent studies confirm previously obtained data that although people have been eating red meat for 2 million years, its significant consumption contributes to the development of atherosclerosis and cancer in most populations, and it is not only saturated fats or cholesterol that are to blame. Our intestinal bacteria digest the vitamin-like substance contained in meat - levocarnitine (L-carnitine). In one experiment on mice, the digestion of levocarnitine activated the clogging of arteries. Research also suggests that the human immune system attacks a compound found in red meat called N-glycolylneuraminic acid (Neu-5Gc), causing inflammation, which does not manifest itself actively in a young organism, but over time can cause cancer. "Red meat is great if you only want to live to 45," says Ajit Varkey of the University of California, San Diego, lead author of the Neu-5Gc study.

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