Welcome to the Neo-Paleo
Note: This is a sample chapter from the recently released book Change Your Body, Change the World: Reflections on Health and the Human Predicament.Cartoon is by the brilliant Andy Singer. Please visit his website
The friendly and flowing savage, who is he? Is he waiting for civilization, or is he past it, and mastering it?
When the going gets tough, many of us long for a simpler time. Squeezed by stress and punished by our modern predicament, our imagination drifts off to some golden age, a time when the pressures of life weren’t quite so onerous, or were at least more comprehensible. Some of us long for childhood, while others dream of the lifestyle of our old home towns. In whatever form, we long for an escape to utopia.
Without question, the modern world is tough. The sedentary living, the relentless pressure to produce, the disorienting effects of modern technology; our bodies, minds and spirits feel disconnected and adrift. Not only do we feel out of place, we feel a disturbing trend of increasing alienation from life-giving habitats and behavior. The more we learn about the body-hostile qualities of our modern environment, the more we look for escape into a more natural and comforting realm.
For some of us, that realm has become the Paleolithic. The paleo, many of us have come to believe, was a time of physical purity and boundless health, a time of harmony with land, tribe and the cosmos as a whole. As the insanity of the modern world closes in on us, we look back, way back, for a sense of refuge and relief.
The word paleo simply means “old,” “ancient” or “prehistoric.” The Paleolithic era refers to “the old stone age,” the period of human prehistory distinguished by the development of the first stone tools. It extends from the introduction of stone tools by hominids such as Homo habilis 2.5 million years ago to the introduction of agriculture around 10,000 years ago.
Today, many of us simply use the word Paleo as shorthand for “before modernity hit the fan.” And now, as human evolution becomes more widely recognized as the true source of our physical identity, we’re seeing a proliferation of Paleo programs and philosophies around the world. We now have Paleo diets, cookbooks, recipes, fitness programs, books and blogs. Paleo is getting big and is bound to get bigger in the years to come.
on one hand...
So what are we to make of this modern dream of an ancient past? On the one hand, our interest in all things Paleo is exciting and refreshing. It suggests that people are looking deeper for a sense of meaning and identity. We’re finally breaking free from the synthetic, stifling atmosphere of big box gyms and going in search of our authentic physical roots.
It’s also clear that there’s valid medical reasons for this renewed interest in our deep past. The “Paleo lifestyle,” as we understand it today, looks to be perfectly congruent with the form and function of the human body. All available evidence points to the health-positive effects of living on the land, eating real food, following circadian rhythms and living in tribes. A flood of new research confirms this belief.
on the other…
It’s tempting to dive right into the Paleo philosophy and lifestyle, but reflection is in order. The main challenge is our considerable ignorance. Despite a flood of recent discoveries in paleontology, molecular biology and evolutionary biology, we really don’t know that much about the Paleolithic or the lifestyle of our ancestors. In short, much of our current Paleo-mania is based on fragmentary information and pure out-and-out romance.
For many, the image of the Paleo lifestyle is little more than a cartoon snapshot of an immensely deep, rich and complex period of history. We read a few books, watch a couple of documentaries and we’ve got the picture: the intrepid hunter-gatherer, club in hand, body wrapped in fur, running an ultramarathon across the grassland, chasing down the evening meal.
Once we’ve got this snapshot in mind, we expand it into a complete world view. The mind grabs hold and starts filling in detail with conjecture and assumptions. We begin to fall in love with the image we’ve created and go on to build entire philosophies, lifestyles, businesses and cults.
In fact, we really don’t know that much about Paleo peoples or their lifestyles. Yes, we know that our ancestors lived in wild, natural habitats and that they probably made their living with some combination of hunting, scavenging and gathering. It’s safe to assume that they lived in tribes and that they moved around a good deal, probably walking long distances on most days, usually barefoot.
This portrait of human prehistory is probably accurate, but it remains a caricature of what must have been a tremendously rich and varied story. What gets lost in our over-simplified narrative is the vast diversity of land, climate, plants, animals and people.
The Paleolithic was not a static monolith of natural history. During this period of over 2 million years, there were wild fluctuations in every dimension of habitat and human experience. To get a sense of this diversity, all that’s necessary is to study the terrain, landscapes and habitats of modern day Africa. Even a short airplane flight reveals an astonishing range of landforms, sometimes radical differences within a single square mile. Deserts, grasslands, wetlands and forests lie in surprising proximity to one another. In all likelihood, conditions were similar in the Paleolithic.
Change was constant throughout this period. Tectonic plates crashed into one another, buckling the land and building mountains. Massive volcanoes erupted periodically, spewing forth billions of tons of ash, blanketing the Serengeti and other landscapes. Climactic change was continuous: drying and cooling led to a thinning of the forest of East Africa. Droughts and extended monsoons came and went, drenching and dehydrating entire landscapes.
In addition to climate and habitat diversity, there was clearly a diversity of hominids—pre-human bipedal primates. Paleontologists have clearly identified at least a dozen or more, ranging from Australopithecus to Homo habilis, Homo ergaster and Homo erectus. Like all animals, these hominids must have inhabited different ecological niches, eaten different foods and migrated in different patterns. It’s certain that there would have been huge variations in lifestyle.
Homo sapiens appeared on the scene about 200,000 years ago, but we can be sure that diversity was still the name of the game. Organized into small tribes, these tribes developed unique strategies, methods and cultures for survival. Each tribe had its own relationship to habitat and its own patterns of hunting, gathering and migration.
This would have meant profound differences in lifestyle from region to region. Some tribes practiced highly active persistence hunting, while others were more inclined to wait and let the game come to them. Some would have gathered more than others. Some would have fished and gathered in aquatic habitats. Given this diversity of habitat and peoples, it is folly to say that there was or is a single Paleo lifestyle.
Our cartoon version of the Paleo becomes obvious as soon as we start talking about something called “the Paleo diet.” Experts attempt to make a case that our primal ancestors ate in some consistent, regular pattern that is optimal for modern humans living today.
But this simply cannot be the case. Primal peoples must have eaten all sorts of things. They were hungry opportunists and their habitat was always in flux. We can be certain that there were large regional and seasonal variations. Were we meat-eaters or were we more inclined towards a vegetarian diet? We’ll never really know the full story. We can study modern-day tribes such as the Hadza in Tanzania or the !Kung in Botswana, but these are just two examples out of hundreds of possibilities.
We do know that cooking made a tremendous difference in human evolution, a point driven home by Richard Wrangham in Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human. But this complicates the issue even further: the ability to cook also gave us the ability to consume a far wider variety of foods than every before, making it even less likely that we can point to a single Paleo foodstyle.
We’ll never really know all we’d like about human prehistory, but what about Paleo in today’s world? Aren’t some native peoples living authentic Paleo right now?
Almost certainly not. Without exception, native peoples have been severely impacted by colonialism and modernity. Entire cultures have been destroyed, but even more importantly, the connection between native peoples and the land has been almost completely severed. Tribes have been relocated from one region to another or to reservations. Land has been fenced or partitioned off for cattle, mining or wildlife reserves.
Consequently, most native people are now adopting modern ways or living in desperation, trying to get enough to eat in lands that are no longer familiar to them. Even in cases where primal peoples live in their original habitats, they have adopted new ways of living. Native peoples in the Arctic now use snowmobiles and rifles to hunt. Bushmen in Africa use metal arrow points and knives.
There may be some lingering pockets of authentic Paleo-style living in New Guinea, the Amazon rainforest or the outback of Australia, but there seems little hope that this lifestyle will persist for much longer. Like it or not, true Paleo no longer exists.
a hard life
It’s easy to romanticize the Paleo, but when we really consider the reality of it, we find a fresh appreciation for the pleasures and the pain. Yes, we can long for the immensity and the intensity of raw physical living. The Paleo would have given us Nature in all her glory: spectacular beauty, naked sensation and total immersion in the here and now. Our bodies and our spirits would have thrived under these conditions.
But the Paleo, whatever it may have been, was not all comfortable health and spiritual delight. For all the psychic and physical appeal, the hardships would have been enormous: sleeping on the ground or in trees, suffering heat, cold, drought and an uncertain food supply. The people of the Paleolithic, like most wild animals, lived in intimate proximity to dirt and death.
People of the Paleo were often hungry, hot or cold, scraped up, bruised and dirty, often besieged by insects. No toothpaste or hot showers. No antiseptics, bandages or pain meds. Daily life was rugged. And as for sex, that would have probably have been brief, intense and reproductive. Without a soft bed, candles and music, what more could you hope for?
But let’s suppose you’ve considered both the ups and downs of “going Paleo” and you’re serious about creating such a lifestyle for yourself. How would you go about it?
The basic requirements would be considerable: a true Paleo life would require vast tracts of land and the ability to wander that land unimpeded by fences, highways or people with guns. But it’s not at all clear that such land still exists anywhere on the globe. Even our most remote wilderness areas are besieged by people, some of them intent on controlling territory. Small patches of wild land still exist, but they are disappearing fast.
In addition to wild land, you’d also need a tribe to live with. There’s really no such thing as “solo Paleo.” We can be fairly sure that most primitive peoples stayed with one tribe or another for most days of their lives; it was simply too dangerous to go it alone. So the question presents itself: Can you find a band of men, women and children who’ll join you on your Paleo quest? I don’t know how it is in your circle, but I sometimes find it hard to get people to go along on an easy day hike on a nature trail, much less a full-time wilderness immersion.
Along with tribe, you’ll need an intimate knowledge of your habitat and an oral tradition that goes with it. You can’t simply parachute into the wilderness with a knife and a loincloth. Finding food requires deep knowledge of the subtle features of land, plants and animals, and this knowledge resides in the minds and stories of your tribe, especially the elders. Knowledge of habitat is something that is built up over many generations. We simply can’t access this knowledge overnight, no matter how noble our intentions.
So, if true Paleo is gone forever, what’s left for us to do? Modernity as it exists is largely unacceptable; the demands on body and spirit are rapidly becoming intolerable. But if true Paleo is not an option, what are we to do?
The only real alternative is to craft some sort of hybrid that integrates the old with the new, the ancient with the modern. In other words, a neo-Paleo lifestyle.
What would this neo-Paleo lifestyle look like? It’s impossible to say for certain. Every person has a unique situation in the modern world and every neo-Paleo life will be a personal creation. In any case, there must be some common themes.
First, there must be a strong emphasis on land and habitat, even if it’s just the local park. Yes, we’d prefer a thousand square miles of virgin wilderness, but we’ll have to work with what we’ve got. No matter where you are, get your senses tuned to habitat. Observe the lay of the land and the waxing and waning of vegetation and animals. Walk barefoot whenever possible; use your skin to tell you the characteristics of the earth. You probably won’t be able to hunt, but at least you can track. Look for the passage of animals over the land, even domestic dogs and squirrels. Track every living thing in your neighborhood, not just the wild exotics. All life is worthy of your attention and investigation.
Second, start thinking bioregionally. See political boundaries for what they truly are: arbitrary, absurd divisions of land that have nothing to do with biological reality. Focus on the weather, land, plants and animals of your region. Build human relationships that connect with the features of your bioregion.
Next, focus on authentic food. Forget the reductionist’s nutrient-by-nutrient breakdown of the modern diet. Instead, look for real food that’s minimally processed. Is it recognizable as food? Did it come from a factory or from the land? Would your Paleolithic ancestors recognize it as food? If not, avoid it. If so, consume at will.
If you can’t find a tribe of Paleo-savvy people to be with, start building your own. Gather up your active friends and start getting outside. Tell more stories, old and new, play and celebrate together. Create culture.
Whenever possible, go without technological crutches. Choose hand tools over machine tools. Choose land-based navigation over GPS. Choose face-to-face communication over phones and electronics.
Next, focus on frequent, vigorous movement, especially locomotion. Get your body moving. Avoid sports and other movement specializations. Instead, concentrate on the most basic human movement: walking over natural terrain. If that’s not enough intensity for you, run like the wind, but do it in harmony with habitat.
As much as possible, get your body in rhythm with natural cycles of light and darkness. Whenever possible, avoid getting up too early or staying up too late. Rely on natural light as much as you can and avoid light supplementation.
Anthropologists have written about “the Paleolithic rhythm,” the rough alternation between active hunting excursions and easy days in camp. Many believe that this cyclic activity is fundamentally healthy for the human body. Probably so, but the challenge before us now is to create a neo-Paleolithic rhythm. The ideal beat and timing of this rhythm remains to be seen, but, successful creators will probably develop an alternation between the sedentary digital work that is forced upon all of us and some sort of outdoor movement experience. The details are up to each of us.
the paradox: avoid the seduction
This neo-Paleo challenge is fundamentally paradoxical. On the one hand, we have to recognize and keep conscious the fact that the modern world is constantly trying to seduce us into disordered attention, distraction, physical apathy and ill health. The consumer marketplace is desperately trying to sell us products and services that will pull us into a life of chronic, unhealthy comfort and disconnection with the natural world. To put it bluntly, the modern world is a seduction machine, a porno gallery cleverly designed to appeal to our every desire.
To maintain any kind of Paleo orientation or health in this modern world, we need to develop a powerful inhibition, a neurological counterbalance to the forces of seduction. This calls for a considerable measure of disciplined self-control, powered by the prefrontal cortex of the brain, developed through training. To survive with our health intact, we need to develop the ability to say “No.”
At the same time, there’s got to be a sensible neo-Paleo balance. Once we’ve achieved a functional level of inhibition and self-control, there’s no reason that we can’t appreciate what modernity has to offer our bodies, our health and our happiness. Once we reach a certain level of seduction-resistance, we can enjoy the benefits of modernity.
Yes, the modern world is a distraction machine that will wreck our bodies and torture our spirits, if we allow it. It is also true that the modern world provides wonderful opportunities that can bring us comfort, knowledge and excitement. So expose yourself to the elements, then relish the hot shower, a great meal and a warm bed.
That’s the neo-Paleo.