Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

Whatever Happened to Hunters-Gatherers?

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When I grew up and began to discover the agony of dieting (which I have practiced my whole life), the foods considered “fattening” were spaghetti (now known as pasta), bread, and potatoes.  I believe that some people can eat carbohydrate foods with no problems and others put on 5 pounds by looking at a plate of pasta. We hear that celiac disease (an intolerance to wheat gluten) is on the rise and a large majority of the people of the world is lactose intolerant.  We have an epidemic of diabetes type 2.  All these maladies involve some kind of problem eating some types or so many carbohydrates.

Why do carbohydrates cause problems with some people?  Perhaps some clues can be found by going back to the days of hunter gathering and the later advent of the Agricultural Revolution. 

When I began to teach a course in Food and Culture, I ran across an interesting comparison of two cultures in our own country in southern Kentucky.  One was a hunter-gatherer population (HG)  called Indian Knolls (5000 years ago) and the other was a later culture of farmers (agriculturists) named Hardin Village (1500 AD to 1675 AD.)  Then I got interested in nutritional anthropology after reading articles on the Paleolithic Diet, and Jared Diamond’s “The Worst Mistake in the History of the World”.  Perhaps our carbohydrate problems emerged when we changed to farmers from hunter-gatherers.

The skeletal remains of the hunter-gatherers show the nutritional anthropologist a lot of how the health of these people differs.  In other words, when these two populations were compared, the HG’s turned out to be a lot healthier than the agriculturists.  According to Eades in his book, Protein Power, the HGs “had better bones, no signs of iron-deficiency, no signs of infection, few (if any) dental cavities, fewer signs of arthritis and in general were larger and more robust”.  These two groups probably shared some genetic characteristics; both were sedentary; lived in the same general area with the only differences between them being when they lived and their diet.

What did both of these groups eat?  The Hardin Village inhabitants were mainly dependent on corn, beans, and squash, mostly starchy vegetables. There is little evidence of much meat eating except for small animals.  Few deer remains were found in this area. They began to drink milk from domesticated goats and cattle.

The Indian Knolls group ate river mussels and snails.  They hunted more animals such as deer, wild turkey, turtle, and fish.  The bottom line was that they consumed more protein foods while the HGs ate more carbohydrate foods.  They had little to no dairy except from breast milk.

In Hardin Village the researchers found 296 skeletons and in Indian Knolls site yielded 285.  From these skeletons, it was discovered that life expectancy was higher and infant mortality was lower in Indian Knolls as well as the generally more healthy characteristics stated above.

So changing the carbohydrate content of the diet, mainly to starchy foods from the more fiber-rich foods of the HG, we may have done ourselves a great disservice.  It changed not only civilization but it may have changed our health.

Three good articles to read about this topic would be “Our National Eating Disorder” or “Unhappy Meals” by Michael Pollan and “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” by Jared Diamond.


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