Could our ancient ancestors have given today’s champion athletes a run for their money?

Anyone familiar with my health ‘philosophy’ will know that I am a big believer in using our ancient past to inform our modern-day dietary and lifestyle habits. Logic dictates that, say, the foods we’ve eaten for longest in terms of our time on this planet are the foods that we’re generally going to be the best adapted to, and are therefore the best foods for us. But this is not just theory, because there is abundant scientific evidence, I think, which demonstrates that ‘primal foods’ such as meat, fish, eggs, fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds are genuinely the healthiest foodstuffs on offer. Relative nutritional newcomers (such as refined sugar and vegetables oils, grain and milk), are not.

One question that often comes up from this concept concerns longevity. If our ancient ancestors ate so well back then, how come the average life expectancy was a fraction of what it is now? The explanation probably relates to the fact that life was a precarious business for our early ancestors, with weather conditions, predatory animals, accidents and infectious diseases being much more likely causes of death then than they tend to be now.

One could argue that a better judge of the health effects of our early diet is its apparent impact on health. We know, for example, that dental disease was rare until we morphed from hunter-gatherers to growers of crops and herders of animals about 10,000 years ago. It was at this time that our ancestors also experienced a sudden drop in height (of about 4-6 inches/10-15 cm).

What other clues do we have, though, regarding the health of primitive hunter-gatherers?

Earlier this week I came across a newspaper piece here about a book written by Australian anthropologist Peter McAllister. This book ” entitled Manthropology – makes the claim that our ancient ancestors were stronger, faster and altogether healthier than we are now. For example, Cro-Magnon man from 30,000-40,000 years ago was, apparently, bigger physically and bigger-brained too compared to modern-day man.

Peter McAllister also draws our attention to the presence of 20,000 year-old footprints in the Australian outback, analysis of which reveals that ancient Aboriginals were capable of running at 23 miles an hour ” a speed close to the World’s most accomplished sprinters. This feat, bear in mind, was achieved in bare feet (not spikes), on soft ground (not a running track), and with (we assume) no formal sprint training. The suggestion here is that our ancient ancestors were blessed with physical attributes that meant they would not only give Usain Bolt (Olympic champion and World record holder over 100 and 200 metres) a run for his money, but might even beat him at a canter.

It seems that McAllister attributes the relative frailty of modern-day man, at least in part, to the industrial revolution, and the fact that this led to a general reduction in the need for strenuous physical work and activity. Of more interest to me, however, is McAllister’s assertion that a more ancient turning point in the physical fortunes of our species came when we invented farming ” an event he describes as the worst mistake in the history of the human race. I’m inclined to agree with McAllister: what may appear at first sight to have been a leap forward in terms of the development of human civilisation, may well have been a huge retrograde step in terms of our health and wellbeing.

5 Responses to Could our ancient ancestors have given today’s champion athletes a run for their money?

  1. John Duggan 23 October 2009 at 6:36 pm #

    One point I have worried about in Dr Briffa’s argument about diet is: how long would it take for our genetic makeup to adapt to the changed diet? Breeding experiments seem to produce quite noticeable changes in a relatively small number of generations. Also, habitat changes produce noticeable changes in population profile, in a short period of time. Is it not reasonable to assume that our bodies could have adapted to the new diet, over the 10,000 years or so since farming was first developed?


  2. DennisW 23 October 2009 at 11:34 pm #

    “The worst mistake in the history of the human race” was originally from the title of a Jared Diamond article in a 1987 article in “Discover.”

    — Dennis

  3. Jamie 24 October 2009 at 1:09 am #

    I couldn’t agree more John. I try to follow Paleo eating as much as possible & on that plan, you can well see how additional health would have been an advantage – and all without many of the deleterious effects of consuming vast amounts of grains (for which there seems to be mounting evidence against their indiscriminate use).

    What I find fascinating, is when the book ‘Manthropology’ was reported on here in New Zealand, are how the comments pages in the online papers filled up with people suggesting that what we now lack in physical prowess, we now make up for in intellect – that modern man is vastly superior to our ancestors in brain power.

    I don’t believe this for an instant. People can cite inventions such as cars, computers, etc, as if they invented those things individually. As a society, we probably tend to bask in the intellect of a relatively small number of individuals.

    I challenge anyone who thinks are ancient ancestors weren’t as bright as modern man, to do away with all your modern conveniences & go & try to catch a wild pig/goat/deer, using only what is available in the environment & see how quickly you get outsmarted!


  4. Everett 24 October 2009 at 1:25 am #

    Does the book Manthropology differentiate between husbandry farms and plantstuff farms? Certainly we can never return fully to a hnter/gatherer lifestyle, so I feel this leaves us a choice amongst the various manners in which we work a “domesticated” plot of land.

  5. Chris 24 October 2009 at 11:43 pm #

    Interesting! I am going to request this from my local library service or hope that Santa deposits one in my stocking.

    Assuming that it will be possible to get a letter out for posting to Santa what other books would you or perhaps other visitors suggest as being worthy of being on a Christmas wish list?

    Mondays’ Daily Mail featured a full page article by Christopher Lloyd bringing attention to his book ‘WHAT ON EARTH EVOLVED? 100 Species That Changed the World’. (Bloomsbury £25) My library service had a pristine copy in service and ready for loan. I never quite ‘got’ biology in my school days but in my fiftieth year I am beginning to appreciate biology for being the noblest of the sciences. Part way in with this I feel this is a landmark publication and reading it is an epiphany for me. It would be number one on my list of recommendations. Bruce Liptons ‘Biology of Belief’ would be second.

    ‘Biology of Belief’ is an informed introduction to the discipline of Epigenetics. Post Darwin, seemingly illustrated in some of the comments beneath the article you link to certain of those of a religious persuasion see evolutionary theories and genetics as a threat to their beliefs. I can see their point. In the light of the increasing complexification of knowledge accepting a consensus and direction stemming from Creation has a simple appeal. Personally, I see religion and science not at odds but rather components of an ever growing and evolving body of knowledge – an ever growing ‘economy of knowledge’ in fact.

    Lipton provokes the thought in me that perhaps Epigentics hints at a way to bring the alternate science and religious camps together. There is merit in the simple and there is merit in FAITH. Providing that simple faith or understanding directs behavior that is not at odds with natures laws of biology then we can live happily and healthily. Having created so much knowledge, much of which will be revised or refined as we learn more over time, the human responsibility must be to keep all the components, be they religious or scientific, in context and under constant review.

    If economists and our leaders adopted some lessons from biology we would not have to chase our tail so much as we do. Seemingly economists have not noticed that humans lost their tail in the course of Evolution.

  6. CJ 25 October 2009 at 8:26 pm #

    I recall seeing a ‘Horizon’ broadcast or such a few years back which focused upon the plural nature of gene expression and upon the capaicity of genes to be toggled on/or off within a lifetime. I would love to revisit that material. Apparently genetic change in relation to the introduction of lactose from milk is a good illustration of the process in action. After 2000 years lactose intolerance remains extensive but diminishing.
    But else-wise I run with the idea that evolution is a cruel process. For one, and despite mind boggling diversity, 99.9% of species that ever lived are now extinct. For two, mistakenly or otherwise, the biggest force in adaptation would seem to stem from the distinction between individuals who get to successfully parent offspring and those who do not. With the greatest of respect to Darwin I wonder if the term natural de-selection would better convey that sense.
    The move to agrarianism, when successfully practiced, improves yield for effort and contributes to the security of food supply. Accordingly, birth rate increased and populations began to rise. Increasing population density proved an agreeable habitat for infectious disease.

    21st C. health challenges stemming from chronic disease are different. Individuals think all is well and only question after degeneration becomes apparent later in life. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, Alzheimers and cancers generally happen later in life after those who choose have elected to reproduce.

    John (Duggan), adaptation by natural selection would appear to rely significantly upon casualties not attaining reproduction, which in itself is not a charitable thought, or could result from gene switching or expression as a response to stresses which also result in a reduction in the quality of life. I am diabetic. I would rather I wasn’t.
    Genetics is a vast and complicated field in its’ infancy. I doubt a geneticist could answer your question definitively. For me as a layman it is apparent that the pace of change in the evolution of the human diet (western developed) has been exponential in recent years. Mine is a cursory understanding of the processes of evolution but I would be sceptical that adaptation by mutation and natural selection in a higher order species with a long life-cycle could possibly keep pace.


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