Hunter-Gatherers Don’t Get Chronic Disease

hunter-gathererHunter-gatherers (there are still a few tribes) rarely get heart disease, cancer, adult onset diabetes, osteoporosis, or dementia. The reasons for this have pertinence to the rest of us.

It may come as some surprise that there are still any hunter-gatherers. In fact, There are still 200 tribes scattered here and there, in various isolated places. One island group off the coast of India is a complete unknown. Potential visitors, helicopters, and passing ships are all met with volleys of arrows.

Research into more accommodating tribes has been going on for at least a century, and a common thread runs through it all: members of hunter-gatherer societies rarely get cancer, heart disease, or other degenerative diseases. This contrasts sharply with our world, where 70% of us now die from one of these. This almost total absence among the hunter-gatherers strongly suggests that degenerative disease is not inevitable.

A hundred years ago, there were far more hunter-gatherer tribes, and much more isolation. There are numerous reports from various explorers and missionary doctors. From Albert Schweitzer, “On my arrival in Gabon [1910], I was astonished to encounter no cases of cancer. I cannot, of course, say positively that there was no cancer at all, but, like other frontier doctors, I can only say that if any cases existed they must have been quite rare.” These sorts of medical surprises seem to have been the rule. Cancer, diabetes, and other diseases were nowhere to be found in the hunter-gatherer populations. There are a variety of references to hunter-gatherer health in the annotated bibliography.

Suppose we were to dive in and join a hunter-gatherer tribe today. Would that reverse degenerative disease? Apparently, the answer is yes! It is reported that various members of Australian Aboriginal tribes moved to the cities, and soon became afflicted with the various “modern” diseases. Some of these people saw the light and moved back to the bush, and within a short period of time, their newly acquired diseases disappeared.

Now it is true that most hunter-gatherers do not live as long as the average Westerner. They tend to succumb to infectious disease, accidents, and, in many cases, warfare. However, they do not all die young. There are elderly hunter-gatherers, and they do not get cancer, heart disease, and the other disease that characterize our modern society. They remain healthy.

The reasons are simple. For hundreds of thousands of years, millions, really, we were hunter-gatherers, and we evolved to thrive on that sort of diet and type of activity. A varied diet and infrequent but explosive, strenuous activity. Civilization, in the form of the Agricultural revolution is a relatively recent development. As recently as 1,000 years ago, perhaps half of us were still hunter-gatherers. Evolution cannot begin to keep up.

The Agricultural Revolution Has Had Deadly Consequences

slaveryImagine the shock of replacing a life of relative leisure, freedom, and equality, with one of toil and slavery. This is what the agricultural revolution, which began 10,000 years ago, meant to 98% of its participants—the have-nots. A few hours of daily hunting and gathering were replaced by 10-14 hours of repetitive, backbreaking toil; and the varied diet, with its numerous beneficial micronutrients, was likewise replaced by a low-grade starch fare, which was frequently in short supply as well. Further, crowded and unsanitary conditions would prove ideal breeding grounds for new bacterial and viral pathogens.

In the May 1987 issue of Discover magazine, noted scientist Jared Diamond called the agricultural revolution “The worst mistake in the history of the human race.” This is a rather stark statement when juxtaposed against the standard textbook version that we all grew up on: that the agricultural revolution was a transition from a crude and desperate savage life to an orderly, well-fed agrarian society.

Diamond’s premise is that this orderly schoolbook view is simply untrue. People converted to agriculture either out of desperation (perhaps due to diminished resources) or because they were forced to. He mentions that worldwide, hunter-gatherer societies spend little time working and a lot of time sleeping and playing. Further, they are far less affected by famines, as they tend to have dozens of potential foods available rather than one staple crop. This is based on evidence gathered from modern hunter-gatherer societies, who by and large occupy marginal lands of no interest to the agricultural settlers.

There is a convincing historical record as well. Skeletons of hunter-gatherers and their agricultural peers have been unearthed, and the differences are dramatic. The hunter-gatherer men were 5’9” and the women 5’5”. The nearby agriculturists were 5’3” and 5’0”. Even as late as the Middle Ages, heights were only beginning to catch up.

Another dig, from an Illinois burial mound, traces a Native American group through their transition from a hunter-gathering lifestyle to corn farming. Numerous skeletal effects, strongly indicative of sharply reduced health, were found. Teeth were bad, and bones had lesions indicating disease and nutritional problems.

The change also brought about class difference. The “haves”—the lucky 2%—tended to be several inches taller and far healthier than the other 98%.

While these notions may be easily dismissed by those of us in today’s wealthy West, consider Diamond’s challenge: “Would you rather be a subsistence farmer in Ethiopia today, or a Kalahari Bushman?”

Hunter-Gatherer Nutrition

p332-200-plantsFrom Anthony McMichael, “Typically there is great diversity . . . Australian Aborigines make use of a total of around 200 different animals . . . 100 different plants. The San and !Kung people 150 plants and 100 animals. With that dietary diversity, micronutrient deficiencies are very unlikely.”

This is indeed variety. Can the local supermarket match it? There are literally thousands of edible and often delicious plants that simply aren’t grown commercially. Many are regional, and many don’t travel well. And meats? Do you ever eat antelope, bighorn sheep, kangaroo, crocodile, turtle, squirrel, gopher, armadillo, snake, lizard, insects, or larvae?

Despite various claims, there is no evidence that hunter-gatherers were vegans. Why would they be unless it was forced upon them? Animal product is nutritionally denser, richer in micronutrients, and can be better preserved for future lean times.

Quantitative Medicine: Hunter-Gatherer Benefits Without the Arduous Life

We are not genetically different from hunter-gatherers. When they adopt our lifestyle, they get our diseases. If we adopt theirs, at least the healthier pieces of it, we will avoid chronic disease. But which pieces? Eat what they could find in a forest: green leafy or colorful organic vegetables, grass fed meat, fish. (Skip the carrion.) Vary your diet.

Exercise in an explosive manner. Do short bursts of activity for short periods of time. Aerobic exercise, though healthier than siting on a couch, looks a lot to the body like migration, and the body will tend to conserve energy, and put off repair and healing to another day.






  1 comment for “Hunter-Gatherers Don’t Get Chronic Disease

  1. Paul Latter
    March 21, 2016 at 10:32 am

    I would like to know if any study of hunter-gatherers noticed or remarked about mental health. I have a son who is diagnosed as bi-polar and in reading about Chinese medicine I find that they treat mental health as a dietary problem. In discussions with my daughter-in-law, a doctor in NC, she estimates that well over 50% of her patients have mental problems. My wife is very involved with the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI); she is teaching a course on how to cope with mental illness- and the course ended up having 36 people in a class that they normally close at 30 and they still had a waiting list. Nobody is making very fast progress in mental health treatment and I was hoping that we might learn from the “savages” still doing hunting-gathering! Thanks so much for your blog!

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