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Nutrition Past and Future

31 Second-Guessing the First Farmers 

During Robb Wolf’s imaginary encounter with anthropologists and nutrition scientists, he chose an odd sort of evidence to convince us that the Paleo diet is best. He says there were two populations long ago, one called Hardin Village and the other called Indian Knoll. The former were farmers and the latter were hunter gatherers. He tells us that the hunter gatherers were much healthier than the farmers based on examinations of their remains.

For example, he tells us that the hunter gatherers had lower mortality rates among their children. This is a really strange way to argue for a diet, especially for someone who claims to be teaching us about evolution. The most obvious fault here is that his explanation is entirely speculative. Was diet the only factor? How can a guy who doesn’t like the China Study point to this as good epidemiology?

Wolf apparently relies upon old research by an author named Cassidy for these claims.

Wolf apparently doesn’t know that Cassidy’s analysis has been disputed. Here, you can see that a more accurate accounting of child deaths in both places might cause this apparent difference in mortality to disappear. These authors disputed the age-at-death distributions assumed by Cassidy back in 1997.

In 2002, the old reconstructions of the ages at Indian Knoll used by Cassidy were once again rejected due to their use of biased methods.

But let’s grant for now that the Indian Knoll and Hardin Village populations had substantially different child mortality patterns, as Wolf says. Might then we ask how and why there would have been different child mortality rates? If the hunter gatherers had healthier kids, why didn’t their population grow and expand? Why aren’t we all hunter gatherers today? Did the hunter gatherers have Planned Parenthood clinics? Did they wear condoms? Did they limit their family size because college was so expensive? How and why did they control their population if they were thriving so well?

I’ve made one video about this subject already and once again I will avoid any repetition of my material. However, I want to share additional thoughts with you on this subject.

You’ve seen this graphic already and you know what it means. Populations cannot grow indefinitely. At some point populations reach the limits of the carrying capacity of their location. Unlike bacteria, our populations don’t often suddenly run out of nutrients and enter a death phase, of course. But the point is, the good times don’t last forever in population dynamics, and the end of that growth phase is usually quite ugly.

If Wolf were more interested in studying evolution than lining his wallet selling a fad diet, he would be aware that Darwin himself explained the self-limiting sizes of populations and he understood the struggle for survival would cause this.

He understood that humans would compete against humans for resources, and this would create both winners and losers. I recommend you read this whole slide to see how clear he was about this. The last quote is not Darwin’s.

Darwin was familiar with the ideas of Thomas Malthus, who predicted that reproduction and food supply would ultimately clash with tragic consequences.

Malthus created a simple formula to represent the exponential growth that a population might be expected to experience in the absence of any constraint on their reproduction.

Models were later devised to predict population sizes that are inhibited in their growth rate in some way. It’s at the point that the rate of increase slows that the harshness of nature would be expected to produce misery in the population. There is no separate formula for populations eating beans or grains. This misery has nothing to do with diet if we assume that a large population was supported on that diet in the first place.

John Calhoun performed famous experiments using rats that demonstrated the breakdown of normal behaviors under conditions of extreme overcrowding. The first consequence of the stress created by high population density was a higher rate of death among the youngest. Humans would be expected to have their highest mortality among the young at the limits of carrying capacity as well, and this would be reflected in child mortality rates.

Even today we can see examples of the expansion and contraction of populations in response to their resources. The current recession has caused a decline in fertility in hard-struck nations.

Europe has seen their fertility rates fall in tandem with the European debt crisis.

On the other hand, in a poor area, something as simple as the installation of water pumps has led to an increase in fertility as women did not have to work so hard to provide their families with water. Population sizes are inevitably affected by environmental factors.

The fact that hunter gatherer populations maintained stable population levels over the eons is a clear indication of their failure to thrive. They would have had episodic population increases and crashes as the carrying capacity of their locations changed due to drought and other natural disasters. The last sentence here relates an instance in which a whole Eskimo community was wiped out due to a particularly harsh winter. As awful as that sounds, there are people making a lot of money today trying to make us believe that hunter gatherers had it better than us.

Periodic population booms and crashes are what we would expect to see among wild animals with no mastery of their environment, and the humans before agriculture would have experienced population curves closer to those experienced by wild animals because they had not mastered their environments. This graph of a reindeer population in Alaska is a vivid example of a population boom and crash typical of the effects of changes in an ecology’s carrying capacity.

Even once humans migrated to Europe, their populations remained essentially stagnant. This is also true of the Neanderthals, who probably mostly consumed meat. They were probably low carbers and they failed as a population.

They had extremely limited technologies so they did not master their environments. Everywhere that farming was adopted, populations dramatically increased.

As food supplies became more stable and as humans stopped being nomads, populations would have increased as a result. This would have had the effect of increasing fertility rates.

Children would have been more of an asset in an agricultural setting as they would have been put to work sooner and made to be more productive. Even if we accept that their diets were poorer, this very fact would have caused a selective pressure toward greater fertility under the conditions of the Neolithic.

Just like for the women who had lower fertility rates because they had to work so hard to obtain water, hunter gatherer women would have been under stresses that lowered their fertility.

We can observe the consequences of the hunter gatherer way of life in their birth spacing. Among the !Kung in 1974, women did not have babies until they reached nearly 20 years old on average. They then spaced their children apart by about four years. For those !Kung women who lacked softened grains to feed to their children, they breast fed until the age of three or four, and this made them less fertile.

Pastoralists generally have lower fertility than agriculturalists, too.

There is no question that from a population dynamics perspective, the adoption of farming practices was a net benefit. Farmers could extract nutrition from places that could not feed them otherwise. The very fact that hunter gatherers have been pushed into marginal lands is evidence of the adaptive nature of farming. Evolution has spoken on this. Agriculture works. Hunting and gathering can't compete.

If we remember that nature is not kind and that populations cannot expand forever, then we should realize that any apparent poor health that might be observed in past populations would have been caused by a combination of factors, of which nutrition may have been only a minor player.

One way to think of it is that humans in effect traded violence for infection as a means of population control. There is much evidence of the violent, warlike nature of our ancient ancestors, as we will see in the last video in this series. As civilization developed around farming, governments formed and the need for cooperation increased. Success would have been found through the specialization of labor rather than through violence. Population densities would have increased, and along with that, the spread of infectious disease would have increased as well. Of course, nothing was ever so simple, as this paper explains, but this would have been the overall trend.

Hunter gatherers, on the other hand, had the advantage of being spread out. This would have insulated them from potential plagues. A great example of how this works is the way we must keep our distance from the last uncontacted tribes in the world as they lack immunity to infectious diseases. Interacting with them might in effect cause us to kill them.

Perhaps a Paleo dieter will think I am overplaying the importance of infectious disease in order to excuse the poor diets of the first farmers. But think about this: It was not until quite recently that we even understood that germs cause disease.

Only 165 years ago doctors in Vienna were going straight from the morgue to the delivery room without washing their hands. I don’t think we can imagine how poor sanitation must have been back then. People literally knew nothing about this for most of our history. There are still kooky people even today who would argue with the germ theory of disease.

I don’t know his latest thinking, but Jared Diamond is an example of an intellectual who became infatuated with the idea that life was better for our Paleolithic ancestors. I’ll return to him and his delusional thoughts in my last video of this set but for the moment, I just want to focus on his claim that humans became shorter after agriculture began. This is a common claim among the Paleo promoters.

This is another contention that the Paleoveganology blog has addressed well. This blogger points out that a reduction in stature preceded the adoption of agriculture in many places, weakening any claims that people got shorter because of beans.

In a minority of studied locations there was no perceivable decline in health with the beginnings of farming. These exceptions should cause the Paleo gurus to rethink their claims. It should, but it won’t.

Moreover, look at old papers where Western researchers visited hunter gatherers and you will see that with the exception of the pastoralist tribes of Africa, the hunter gatherers were not often taller than they.

I’m guessing that even if the information in this video was new to you, you never really thought you could become healthier by hunting and gathering.

Even during the worst of the recession, I haven’t heard of many people leaving civilization in favor of a primitive existence. In an insight of P.T. Barnum-like marketing genius, the Paleo promoters figured out that some ignorant men out there were feeling vaguely overly dependent or domesticated or weak. The opportunists brought them a fantasy that told them that deep down, they are primal and dangerous and self-reliant. Only a small number of people are silly enough to fall for this, but there are enough of them to make being a Paleo leader richly rewarding. The faddists are far removed from the cruelty of the natural world. They drive their air-conditioned cars to beautiful supermarkets and pay for meat from an animal killed by someone else, an animal that was never wild and never stood a chance. They pay with their credit cards with money they earned by performing highly specialized work within a global economy made possible by agriculture, and they bring their food back to refrigerators inside structures that can maintain them in comfort even if the weather outside is severe. They are no more hunter gatherers than hunter gatherers are accountants. A Pygmy isn’t trying to be someone he is not. He doesn’t have that luxury.

Circumpolar populations are one of the favored examples of historic low-carbers. In my Primitive Nutrition Series, I made a couple videos about the Eskimos, or more properly, the Inuit. I’ve looked into their historical health a bit more and I’d like to share with you what I found in the next video.