Evidence shows the advent of agriculture was bad news for our health

Yesterday I had a email from a friend alerting me to an interesting piece in the Sunday Times. I went out especially to buy a copy. The piece, entitled ‘Farmers, you’ve shrunk mankind’, is based around a presentation given at the Royal Society in London, last week. The lecture was delivered by Dr Marta Lahr of the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies at Cambridge University, UK. It seems that the fossil record shows our ancestors 200,000 years ago to be about 10 per cent bigger and taller than we are now. And 20,000-30,000 years ago, our ancestors had brains about 10 per cent bigger than ours are now too.

A shrinking in the size of our bodies and brains happened about 10,000 years ago. What was it that caused this? The answer is our transition from hunter-gathering to a more farming-based existence.

The Sunday Times piece also relates research from Amanda Mummert, an anthropologist from Emory University in Altanta, US. Mummert has recently co-authored a paper [1] which provides evidence supporting the idea that our move to agriculture was bad news for our height and our health. One of the reasons that would explain this, according to Mummert, is an over-reliance on a grain-based diet deficient in key nutrients. Sound familiar anyone?

To my mind, the nutritional inadequacy of grains is compounded by the fact that they tend to be rich in phytates that impair the absorption of nutrients, and minerals in particular. Some of the anti-nutrients in grain have been shown to impair vitamin D metabolism – not good news bearing in mind vitamin D plays a key role in the functioning of calcium in the body. Grain also contain substances that impair digestion, and these won’t help matters either.

What might explain the reduction in brain size though?

The brain is a fatty organ, and two forms of fat that play an integral part in its development are arachidonic acid and docosahexaenoic acid. Arachidonic acid is found in, among other things, meat. Docosahexaenoic acid is also found in fish, seafood and meat, as well as bone marrow and, perhaps not surprisingly, brain (there is good evidence that our early ancestors used stone tools to break open skulls and bones to gain access to brains and bone marrow respectively).

In some respects, therefore, the diet we ate as hunter-gatherers, rich in animal foods as it was, provided an abundance of brain food.

Of course our move to grains as a staple food would have seen a fall in our intake of crucial brain-building fats.

The Sunday Times piece posits the idea that we humans may have passed our physical peak, and that “agriculture is the likely cause.” The advent of agriculture saw us turn our backs on the diet that sustained us for the vast majority of our time on this planet. Should we be too surprised that this didn’t turn out too well, and that we’re continuing to pay the price today?

References:

1. Mummert A, et al. Stature and robusticity during the agricultural transition: Evidence from the bioarchaeological record. Econ Hum Biol. 2011;9(3):284-301.

14 Responses to Evidence shows the advent of agriculture was bad news for our health

  1. Chris 13 June 2011 at 10:03 pm #

    It sounds like Dr Marta lahrs’ presentation would have been an interesting one. There are aspects to the growing efforts and body of knowledge connected with the human origins program and evolutionary anthropology that gives the impression of it being a deep seam that could be mined for insight into aspects of modern concerns and challenges.
    On a different topic, but in a similar vein and not entirely unconnected with striking human impacts in the transition from the palaeolithic to an agrarian age Erle C Ellis, associate professor in the department of geography and environmental systems at the University of Mary land, USA, contributes an opinion feature in New Scientist (No 2816, 11/6/2011 p26).
    Ellis registers the point that human activities, including agriculture, have transformed Earth beyond recovery. He goes on to argue that we should reclassify our present epoch; the Holocene has ended by virtue of the extent of human influence and according to Ellis we should acknowledge we have firmly entered the Anthropocene. Human influence is so extensive upon the terrestrial biosphere that the future geological record is going to differ substantially and unambiguously from that of any prior epoch.
    However, rather than look back in despair humanity should look ahead to what it can achieve, directs Ellis.
    My great concern is that future politically imposed strategies intended to limit agricultural impacts might be advised and implemented without satisfactory nutritional insight, and thus diets of the future may become less satisfactory nutritionally than they are now. This concern has been a strong incentive for me to try to grasp the influences guiding selection and lending a particularly distinguished trajectory to human evolution as compared to our closest relatives in the animal kingdom. There are several, but the energetics and nutrigenics of the evolving diet and evolving abilities to provision and process components within it seem striking and compelling.
    Lahr and Mummert offer objective counter argument to aspects of an ill-conceived mainstream consensus upon aspects of nutrition and it is no bad thing that The Sunday Times has picked up this particular torch. Some of humanities biggest challenges, including some health issues, are man made. It would be a shame that if in attempts to address them we actually compounded them.

  2. aidanpp 14 June 2011 at 1:58 pm #

    Hi John, I have just finished reading your book ‘the true you diet’. Although it was a very informative and interesting read I have been left rather confused because some of the advice regarding grain consumption in the book seems to contravene with the advice given in your blogs. In the book you suggest that many people (gatherers and hunter-gatherers) can do well on grains, and you recommend eating ‘muesli’ for breakfast,’eggs with salmon and rye bread’, ‘winter crumble( made with oats)’, ‘chicken, prawn or egg sandwiches’, ‘stir-fried veg with brown rice’. However, in your blogs (such as this one) you are consistently critical of grain consumption and seem to suggest they should rarely feature in anyone’s diet because, for example, they ‘impair the absorption of nutrients’.
    Many thanks

  3. Will 17 June 2011 at 12:07 pm #

    A very interesting point of view in the lecture and good points made in terms of the mechanisms involved. I am no expert in evolutionary biology, but I think that many questions remain unanswered. For example: To what extent have we adapted to eat grains? Most people seem to have adapted well to consuming milk in adulthood. Is bigger better? Is a larger brain more intelligent, or just less efficient? What’s the alternative? Intensive agriculture has allowed the population to grow to unsustainable levels as it is. I’m sure that the population we could sustain on a diet high in animal protein would be much smaller than it is now, and what government is going to encourage a shrinking of it’s country’s population when most economies are based on unsustainable growth? Current farming methods used to rear animals for meat are generally thought to be even less efficient and more damaging to the environment than arable farming. The best dietary source of omega 3 fats is fish, and many stocks are already on the brink of collapse. We either need to shrink the population hugely, and quickly, or we have to accept a long term future of a vast, overweight and ill population that eventually crashes.

  4. Tony Kesteven 17 June 2011 at 2:21 pm #

    It’s good to see academics catching up with what is going on around them.

    Barry Groves put an article covering this very point on his Second-opinions website a year ago almost to the date, in an article about vegetarians having smaller brains.

    The best and most natural source of the omega-3 fatty acids needed for brain growth would appear to be, as you said, in the brains of other animals. But since the apparently unfounded BSE scare of the 1990s, we have been unable to get brains in the UK, although they are still available in continental Europe.

    The Food Standards Agency has a lot to answer for. With all the parts of an animal we are not allowed to eat or actively discouraged from eating, there is a criminal amount of very good food wasted. But then, those who advise us are probably those whose brains are most affected!

  5. D. 17 June 2011 at 4:47 pm #

    @aidanpp: this is why EVERYTHING concerning food is so confusing. Eat grain? Don’t eat grain? Yada yada yada.

    Grains should be properly prepared, soaked or sprouted prior to consumption. For more information on that subject, you can read great information on grains here: (type into the search box something like *soaking grains* or *anti-nutrients in grains*) http://www.westonaprice.org

    They also have wonderful information about sustainable farming practices, info about why cholesterol is important to the human body, all about fats in the diet (good fats like butter, lard, coconut oil), info on homemade baby formula for mom’s who can’t breastfeed, info on nutrition for babies and toddlers . . . endless topics. I have trusted my health and well-being to the same principles they advise since I started cooking. I was raised the same way, as well, on grassfed beef (my Dad was a hereford cattle rancher) and pastured eggs, etc.

    Hope that’s helpful to you.

  6. kate 17 June 2011 at 6:06 pm #

    Hmmm. Reminds me of encountering some ‘hunter gatherers’ years back in a resort area. They were deer.

    As the tourists commented on the wonderful bucolic setting, in which the deer were free to roam safely and fearlessly, all I could see was how emaciated they were. Counting ribs through the skin of the deer who boldly approached anyone who might give them food – but could not kill them.

    Lucky the hunter-gatherer who does not starve off or who is not used for fuel by some other animal! Roaming freely! Looking forward to slow, quiet starving-to-death or perhaps quickly succumbing to infection or illness. The ‘herd’ will be smaller then, a great benefit to the survivors.

    Those were the days, when the human race participated in the hunting-foraging game.

  7. Ted 17 June 2011 at 10:48 pm #

    As a lifelong systems analyst, it never ceases to amaze me on how people get confused on the simplest basic principles.

    The body requires a specific set of nutrients for optimal health, which varies by genetics to some degree – mostly in the ability to use less than optimal food.

    Looking at a nature (or God) designed food, namely human mother’s milk, one notices that coconuts are probably closest. Did you know they used coconut milk IV in the second world war in emergencies?

    The human body requires minerals, and over farmed soils just do not have enough.

    The oceans, which comprise 70% of the planet’s surface area, abound in more food and minerals than the surface of land, though we tend to be picky about what we harvest, leading to imbalances.

    So, what is the true problem? Pollution, and I do not mean the CO2 (carbon dioxide) that plants use for food (most is eaten by ocean plants, which serve as food for fish), but mercury and other toxins that pollute the very water we drink and fish we eat.

    First things first. STOP POLLUTION!

  8. sandra 17 June 2011 at 11:03 pm #

    Whaaat? Where on earth does Dr. Briffa get his information?

    As someone who studied archaeo/anthroplogy in university and has been reading about them since childhood, everything he says about human history and agriculture is upside down and arse backwards. Agriculture was the basis of human society. And any ehtnologist or any simple museum of human history offers myriad physical specimens of our early, simian ancestors, who had big brains, yes, but it’s not only the size of the brain but the cells and neuron quality that forms the intelligene which creates civilised humans.

    Those early ancestors were two steps away from their chimp and organutan cousins.

    Everything he claims is the polar oppoosite to what really created human intelligence and progres from the prognathean beasts humans started as, to the thinking creators we eventually became. Eating protein is most probably the difference between what made humans creative beings who built houses and palaces rather than continue living in caves, composed sympohonies, painted Raffaelo frscos,srote Shakesperean sonnets, devised telephones, television, medical marvels, missiles to the stars
    and all the other marvels that set us apart from other animals.

    What on earth is he talking about?

    In actual fact, primitive humans had fatal vitamin deficiencies, devastating arthritis and the very ver few who even reached the age of 20, were considered very old people.

    These are known facts in chaeo/Anthropo/Ethnology.
    It is astounding how people will say anything to acquire 3 minutes of notoriety.Being different just to be different does not advance human knowledge one whit.

  9. John Briffa 18 June 2011 at 8:36 am #

    Kate

    Deer are not ‘hunter-gatherers’ (they’re herbivores). And do you think their apparent malnourishment might have had something to do with the fact that they were in a ‘resort area’, and likely had had their natural habitat decimated?

    Of course none of what you wrote in any way counters the idea that when our ancestors moved from hunter-gatherer to agrarian living, we took a big step back in terms of our health.

  10. John Briffa 18 June 2011 at 8:45 am #

    Sandra

    As someone who studied archaeo/anthroplogy in university and has been reading about them since childhood,

    Good for you. It seems you learned little or nothing about human nutrition in the process though. Please quote your sources regarding the vitamin deficiencies and ‘crippling arthritis’ in our ancestors prior to the Neolithic age. Also, do you think our lack of longevity back then might have had anything to do with things other than our diet. Think for a bit.

    Your contention is that more protein in the diet is what made us what we are now. Going with this concept for a moment, answer me this: which contains more protein, wheat or meat?

  11. Everett 18 June 2011 at 2:56 pm #

    Dr. Briffa, thank you for keeping this blog goIng.

    I’m a health coach in NYC, and of course see a wide variety of dietary choices and their consequences in my practice. Much of it matches what you propose and support on your blog, and I have since turned my clientele toward your site. Thank you for providing this material.

    That said, I was wondering if you’ve seen studies comparIng shepherding vs grain-farming, or grain-farming vs permaculture-type farming and their respective effects on health. One historical example would be the Mongols of Gengis Kahn compared to the Chinese city/town dwellers. I’ve read some history, but no “analysis.”

    Thanks again for your time and effort.

  12. Kit 19 June 2011 at 8:28 pm #

    Pastoralism was probably the first farming adopted in the ‘Fertile Crescent’ and elsewhere, which would have had a number of effects including presumably the spread of infections caught from herded animals. Also the keeping of animals might have ironically reduced the consumption of meat because of the increased value of the animals. Dependence on dairy products may have been the first impact of the adoption of pastoralism, which co-evolved with lactose tolerance. Of course the reason for the adoption of pastoralism, the spread of which was resisted for millennia across Europe, was the reduction in the herds of wild herbivores in the Mesolithic probably because of human over-hunting. It seems that people at this time didn’t want to adopt farming – they were forced into it as the only way to avoid starvation. Body and brain size reductions were accompanied by reduced life expectancy, dental problems and other health impacts. What increased fast of course was birth rates and therefore population size. We are living with the effects of the ‘Agricultural Revolution’ to this day.

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