In recent decades, more and more people have taken an interest in human history and what it means for our health. A breathtaking series of scientific discoveries have added tremendously to our understanding of who we are and in turn, we are now able to construct and appreciate the Big History of the human body.
At the same time, we’re coming to the awkward and highly inconvenient realization that the modern world is radically different from the environment in which we evolved. In many crucial respects, we now live in an alien environment, one that is profoundly challenging to the health of our bodies, minds and spirits. This idea, known as the “mismatch hypothesis,” has been embraced by biologists, health scientists and an increasing number of athletes and amateur enthusiasts. Many people now believe that by making our behavior and environments more consistent with our evolutionary heritage, we can maintain and improve our health.
Today, this interest is often expressed in the popular meme known as “Paleo.” As a reference to the Paleolithic period of prehistory, this perspective typically focuses on nutrition and athletic training. Adherents of the Paleo method generally eat a real food diet that includes meat, lots of vegetables and a strict avoidance of refined grains and sugars.
This growing interest in ancestral health holds great promise, but the discipline is young. With its powerful focus on diet and exercise, the recommendations are sound, but fail to address the full scope of human experience in the past and present. Even more troubling, the popular image of human history has yet to move past cartoon images of cavemen, clubs, dinosaurs and roasted meat. A substantial percentage of Americans don’t even believe in evolution in the first place.
In fact, human beings did evolve from ancestral forms and our history is now revealed as a time of incredible depth and diversity. Our lives were complex and dynamic; there was far more to our life experience than food and exercise. Even a simple human life included relationships with nature, people, time, life and death challenges and the cosmos at large. This is why our study of the Paleo must be multi-disciplinary.
So, like hunter-gatherers in a primal environment, we need to climb the nearest hill and get a panoramic, big picture view of the Paleo. We need to go beyond food and exercise and open our minds to the totality of human history. This will make our explorations more accurate, more complete and more true to life. In turn, this will make Paleo a far more powerful and useful meme.
The first thing to understand is the immense time scale of our ancestry. The word Paleo refers to the Paleolithic period, otherwise known as “the old stone age.” This was the time from the first stone tools to the dawn of agriculture: a period from roughly 2 million years ago to 10,000 years ago. During this time, human ancestors ranged over millions of square miles of habitat and experienced frequent fluctuations in climate, vegetation, animal species, soils and water. This period included a huge diversity of tribes, habitats, behaviors and adaptations.
The past, in other words, is vast. There was no single ancestral habitat or lifestyle. We should be extremely cautious about concluding that there was one single Paleo way of life or inferring a single solution to solving our modern health challenges. Nevertheless, we can make some general statements about the lives of primal peoples and use this understanding to inform our behavior in the present. This Big Picture Paleo perspective includes the following elements:
prime directive: learn your habitat
For the vast majority of our time on earth, human beings have been wild, outdoor animals. We were immersed in nature, often naked and exposed. In this context, knowing habitat would have been fundamental to the ability to stay alive. For Paleolithic people, the prime directive of survival was “learn your habitat.” Everything would have depended on your ability to sense the qualities of your environment. In the Paleo, everyone in your tribe would have been a naturalist.
Similarly, ancestral people would have held a sense of biophilia, an innate tendency to affiliate with other forms of life. Biologist E.O. Wilson used the term to describe “the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life.” He suggested that our deep affiliations with nature are rooted in our biology.
hunting and gathering skills
Obviously, survival in the Paleo would have depended on developing good hunting and gathering skills. Success would have depended on acute sensitivity and tracking ability. The ability to see, hear, touch and smell small changes in one’s environment might well make the difference in the ability to stay alive. The successful hunter-gatherer would have needed impulse control, patience, pattern recognition and keen attention to detail. Athletic and locomotor skill would also have contributed to one’s success; the ability to walk and occasionally run long distances over diverse terrain would have been essential. Routefinding would have been fundamental as well. For primal people hunting in a wild environment, physical and metabolic reserves would have been thin. It would have been essential to know the terrain and find the most efficient way to food and water. Routefinding mistakes would have been deadly.
Primal environments were “predator rich” and dangerous. Exposure to dangerous animals and extreme weather was a constant. Survival in such a world would have depended on tribal affiliation and cohesion. Solitary individuals were unlikely to survive for very long. Hunting success would have depended on good interpersonal communication and rapport.
Likewise, bonding and child care would have been vital. Human infants are born premature and are completely vulnerable. In this environment, attachment to a caregiver is an absolute necessity. Tribes that cared for infants were far more likely to prosper. Likewise, the ability to communicate and maintain an oral tradition would have been essential for preserving and extending knowledge of habitat and the means of survival.
time and pace
In a wild, natural environment, the key to hunting and gathering success is moving at the speed of habitat, no faster or slower than the unfolding of light, moisture, plants and animals. In this context, there would have been no racing or rushing. In fact, primal people had a completely different time sense than we do today. For us, time is linear and highly perishable; it’s always getting away from us and so we experience chronic time shortages and stress. In contrast, native people tended to view time as cyclic, organic and rhythmic. Urgency and time shortages would have been almost unheard of.
long body orientation
For native people, the body, habitat and tribe were experienced as continuous with one another. Our bodies were firmly grounded in habitat and tribe, connected through story, culture, songs and an oral tradition. The forests, rivers and grasslands were seen as external organs, vital to keeping us alive. Our consciousness was participatory, we were intimately involved in the flux and flow of natural events; there was no separation between people and the rest of the world. We fully inhabited our habitat.
the power of the bigger picture
When we view the Paleo from this big-picture perspective, it becomes far more interesting. Food and physical athleticism were surely important to survival, but these elements were only a part of a much larger and richer experience. Staying alive in the Paleo was a highly complex, dynamic experience that included all of our human capabilities.
Once we realize the depth and breadth of the Paleo, we also begin to appreciate its power and potential. Big-picture Paleo is about much more than individual physical health. It is about our relationship with the world, with our bodies and with each other. Paleo has a great deal to teach us about a more sustainable and harmonious way to live. Of course, this meme may also be disruptive, counter-cultural and inconvenient, but that is something that comes with the territory. Big Picture Paleo demands some serious attention.