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On Paleo Reenactment

On Paleo Reenactment
Angelo Coppola

It was back in the mid 1990s — when I was young and overweight — that I first discovered the Paleo Diet. Back then, it was called Neanderthin. At least it was for me. That was the title of Ray Audette’s book, which I read with much enthusiasm.

I also read Boyd Eaton’s Paleolithic Prescription as well as the Drs. Eades’ Protein Power.

All three are excellent books, but Audette’s Neanderthin resonated with me the most. I lost my original copy of the book somewhere along the years, so I was delighted to discover that the Kindle edition is available for just 7 bucks.

Now, I’m looking forward to reading it again.

neanderthin

Audette tells the story of man’s transformation from hunter-gatherer to agriculturalist to industrialist —  a journey from natural to technological. Along the way, he does a convincing job of blaming that transformation for modern ill-health and obesity.

In fact, two things from his book stand out in my mind to this day, and they both illustrate this point.

The first was his interpretation of the original Genesis commandment. The one that goes, “You must not eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.”

According to Audette, a more accurate translation is:

You must not eat from the tree of technology [knowledge] that makes edible [good] the inedible [evil].

It’s odd to see Biblical stories discussed in books about evolutionary approaches to health. But, this little tweak — injecting technology into the creation story of the Garden of Eden — shifts it into an ancient story about moving from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle (paradise) to the technological one (toil).

I can imagine a long line of men and women stretching all the way back to the Paleolithic era cautioning against this transition.

The second thing Audette wrote that remains with me today is his definition of nature as the absence of technology. Thus, eating naturally means to:

…eat only those foods that would be available to me if I were naked of all technology save that of a convenient sharp stick or stone.

Paleo Reenactment

So essentially the foundation of Audette’s thesis was built on the idea of following the example of our Paleolithic ancestors. The full title of the book is, NeanderThin: A Caveman’s Guide to Nutrition. In later editions, the subtitle morphed into Eat Like a Caveman to Achieve a Lean, Strong, Healthy Body. 

Reenactment is baked into the idea of eating like a caveman, but not to the extent that one’s goal is to become a caveman or to play the role of a caveman.

cave-table

There are biochemical and physiological reasons for following Audette’s recommendations to avoid or eliminate foods like dairy, grains, legumes, and alcohol. However, the science wasn’t settled when Audette wrote his book, nor is it settled today. Some scientists explain the reasons away with other reasons. In fact, the great majority of the scientific community agrees that including legumes in the diet along with occasional alcohol is beneficial.

So, while there are several hypotheses as to why we should avoid these foods, they rely most of all on what is believed to be the evolutionary example.

This is why I stopped eating like a caveman when I finished reading Neanderthin all those years ago. I guess, I was opposed to reenactment before it was called reenactment. I came to the conclusion that while eating like a caveman may have made a lot of sense, it was essentially built on a (merely) logical argument, cherry-picked data, and that it lacked sufficient scientific support.

Boy, was that a mistake.

Technology-free Foods

I was being way too hard on reenactment.

Had I simply followed Audette’s basic principle of eating technology-free foods, I would have become healthy much sooner. Instead, I spent most of the next decade-and-a-half out of shape, gaining and losing weight. Like most people, my psychological well-being is closely related to my physical well-being, too, so getting healthier sooner, would have also meant more happiness in my life.

I could have ignored the thousands of diet studies that I’ve looked at over the years, and I would have had the same basic understanding of eating a proper human diet that I have today.

Ironically, now I am much more comfortable with the idea of reenactment, biomimicry, nature mimicry, or whatever you’d like to call it.

The Virtues of Biomimicry

The term biomimicry entered the English language in 1982. Later, Janine Benyus would write Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.  She defines biomimicry as a:

“…new science that studies nature’s models and then imitates or takes inspiration from these designs and processes to solve human problems.”

Grassland Restoration

One of the potentially most spectacular applications of biomimicry is The Savory Institutes proposal to breathe life back into desertified grasslands around the world.

In the 1950s, Savory recommended and participated in killing over 40,000 elephants. At the time, the latest science and technology demanded it, in order to save the land.

They were wrong.

It turns out nature knows a thing or two about sustainable ecosystems and elephants don’t destroy land. Instead, they are part of a process that keeps soil healthy and alive.

In fact, holistically managed grazing that mimics natural massive herd migrations could be the most impactful environmental improvement currently on the table. It is the same harmonious and sustainable holistic management that informs Joel Salatin’s approach as a steward of farmland and animals.

Here is Allan Savory’s 2013 TED Talk. Watch it now, if you haven’t already. It’s more important than anything I have to say.

Architecture

The East Gate Centre in Zimbabwe is a business office complex that mimics the thermal properties of termite mounds allowing it to be cooled and heated by entirely natural means. It is a departure from the traditional giant glass block that requires expensive climate control equipment, energy, and maintenance.

The Eastgate building is modeled on the self-cooling mounds of Macrotermes michaelseni, termites that maintain the temperature inside their nest to within one degree of 31 °C, day and night, – while the external temperature varies between 3 °C and 42 °C. Eastgate uses only 10 percent of the energy of a conventional building its size, saved 3.5 million in air conditioning costs in the first five years, and has rents that are 20% lower than a newer building next door. — Biomimicry Institute

eastgate-center

Here is Michael Pawlyn’s fascinating TED talk, Using Nature’s Genius in Architecture. He says:

“You could look at nature like being a catalog of products. And all of those have benefited from a 3.8 billion year research and development period.”

The Art of Movement

Eastern martial arts and fitness have been heavily influenced by animal mimicry. This can be seen from the animal poses of Yoga to the five animal styles of Kung Fu.

 

And today, there is also much interest in natural human movement along the lines of that which is taught by Erwan Le Corre’s MovNat school.

10_movnat_principles

But that’s not what people mean by reenactment!

They mean we need to stop pretending we can eat Paleolithic foods that don’t exist anymore. We need to eradicate the  sloppy thinking that says if cavemen did it we should do it. And vice-versa: if cavemen didn’t do it, then we shouldn’t do it. And besides, Paleolithic people were so diverse, reenactment is meaningless.

This is true to a certain degree.

Yet, the Standard American Diet that is recommended by the medical community, the Vegetarian Diet, the Mediterranean Diet, the Paleo Diet, and many other diets — all claim to be based on the science.

The Paleo approach’s distinct advantage is its investment in the evolutionary clues, and this sometimes means following some prescriptions by mimicry, without the science.

Nature mimicry, or reenactment, should not be cause for embarrassment. If the media want to make fun of it…so what? Creating a mocking-proof diet isn’t one of my goals. What do I care if someone thinks cavemen are funny or that mimicking certain aspects of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle is backwards? Especially, if said heckler is laughing between sips of Diet Mountain Dew.

Fat is Bad For You

I guess the media, and everyone else, would have a field day if more Paleo informed eaters were to completely shed any aversions to reenactment, and just for fun learn the ancient skills of:

  • distinguishing wild edible and medicinal plants
  • tracking animals
  • creating fire without matches and lighters
  • walking, running, and hiking barefoot
  • building shelters
  • dancing often
  • creating social circles of people who we play with and rely on

I think most of us have plenty of Neolithic Enactment in our lives. We can all pretty much agree that we are doing plenty of sitting, consuming, and being passively entertained. Maybe a little Paleo Reenactment wouldn’t be so bad, even in the out-of-diet realm.

Conclusion

From my perspective, the Paleo community is over-sensitive about reenactment. To most of us, mainstream acceptance doesn’t really matter, and we waste too much effort worrying what other people will think. Not only is effort wasted, but we may also be holding ourselves back from exploring interesting new areas of evolutionary health, because of this concern.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but we can still send our kids to school with packed lunches, grow gardens, raise backyard chickens, shop at farmer’s markets, hike, do deadlifts, and do whatever else we want without total mainstream acceptance of the whole caveman deal.

It might be a little inconvenient, but for goodness’ sake, humans have endured far more than a few caveman jokes and schools that hand out butterscotch candies with high fructose corn syrup.

The Paleo approach will sink or swim based on the long-term success of its practitioners. If more and more of us get healthy and stay healthy, we will have the impact that we seek. Silly rules banning butter will go away. If more of us vote Paleo with our dollars, the products we want will become more available.

That doesn’t happen by convincing anyone of anything with words. It happens by getting strong and by matter-of-factly telling people how you did it, when they ask.

Humans Are Not Broken

What are your thoughts on reenactment? What aspects of hunter-gatherer life, or supposed Paleolithic life do you think people should or shouldn’t reenact today? Do you have any other cool examples of biomimicry that you can share…I’d love to learn about them. Don’t forget, you can get new articles in your email inbox, by signing up here.

  • I try to eat like a caveman for the majority of the foods that I eat. However, I will sprinkle in an occasional technology food as a condiment to the bulk of my caveman. For example, I will happily eat a nice salad full of green leafy vegetables. And if there is fruit that is out of season on top of it, or if there are croutons mixed with my Caesar’s salad, I don’t worry about it too much. It’s a far cry from eating a stack of pancakes for breakfast fooling myself that it’s a normal thing to eat. (Might as well eat a stack of doughnuts for breakfast.)

    As long as most of my food is within the framework of the ancestral diet, I’m good with it.

    • Makes a lot of sense, Lloyd. One think that has helped me stay sane about food is to think about my diet over the course of time, say a week or a month, instead of at the daily or single-bite level…which gets pretty neurotic.

      • Gingerzingi

        Word.

  • Will

    This is a very thought-provoking blog post, I like it. 🙂

    Here’s the way I would fit biomimicry in the big picture. When we apply some ancestral clue (call it X) to try and solve human health problems, modern science either already has something to say about X or it doesn’t. If science agrees with X (like eating fruits and vegetables), then all is good. If science disagrees with X (e.g. bloodletting), then we should go with the science, not what our ancestors did. And finally, if the science is insufficient or unclear about X, then it’s an interesting area to explore (this seems to be how barefoot running got off the ground) or a good fallback default (think of the fiasco with butter vs trans-fat containing margarines).

    Ancestral clues are useful for hypothesis generation and for safe defaults. But in the end, I would prefer science to be the ultimate arbiter.

    On another note, it seems Allan Savory’s TED talk has been criticized by others for painting an overly optimistic picture about his approach to land management. Links below for more detail:

    http://www.kcet.org/updaily/socal_focus/commentary/east-ca/learn-how-to-hate-the-desert-with-ted.html

    http://www.inexactchange.org/blog/2013/03/11/cows-against-climate-change/

    • Using biomimicry as a hypothesis generating engine is the main takeaway, I hope people get from this article. Reenactment, or trying something because our best guess is that our ancestors did it, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

      Like you said, biomimicry a great starting point where the science is unclear. There are actually very few areas where the science is clear, though, unless we are talking hard science based mostly on observation and measurement, like physics.

      Very interesting regarding the controversy around Savory — thanks for those links! My own interpretation of his talks didn’t lead me to believe he had a hatred for all deserts, and I was under the impression that he was looking to use his methods to restore recently lost grasslands.

      Here, in the Arizona desert where I live, no amount of animal grazing is going to make it rain. Nor would I want to replace the beautiful, alive, and incredible Sonoran landscape with grass. 🙂

  • Gingerzingi

    This is a tricky concept for me. On the one hand, I’m NOT living a paleolithic life, none of us are. I question some of the tenets of paleo diet for that reason (for instance, a high fat diet might be less healthful when you’re living in a heated/cooled environment; for people who live “outdoors” a huge amount of energy goes toward just keeping the body warm and they need all the fat they can get. Me? Probably not so much). Added to that, I appreciate modern conveniences, medicine, and sanitation — It seems to me that a paleolithic lifestyle is more healthy for **those who survive**, and a modern lifestyle allows **more people to survive**. How can I judge which of those is the “right” way to live? Is one of them more moral? And what informs that morality, pure evolution or a belief in a higher purpose? These are questions I can’t answer.

    That said, every time I HAVE adopted a paleo principle, whether diet or things like sleeping on the ground, going barefoot, or squatting on the toilet (sorry TMI) I’ve seen appreciable benefit in how I feel. Your motto of “humans aren’t broken” has been extremely illuminating to me, and has led me question many of the things I just automatically do without thinking. So far, the more I reenact, the better I seem to feel. We all just have to try things out and see how it works for us; there are probably things I’m not going to do no matter how “healthy” or “natural” they might be 🙂 and if something works for me, I don’t feel I need to justify it either with science or ancestral wisdom. If it works, it works!

    (However, like Will, I admit to a preference for science as the tie-breaker. I can’t always tell whether something is actually good for me, or just **feels** good. We’ll have to wait for the autopsy, I suppose.)

    • (wait for the autopsy — lol!)

      I agree that it is tricky. And that’s probably so, because we know that the ultimate, final answers can’t be found by siding with the latest science 100% of the time, nor by dedicating oneself to reenactment.

      Oh well…that’s what makes it fun.

      My 17-year old daughter is starting to feel the cultural pressures that go along with thinking about college, careers, the future, etc. She said she wished her whole life could just be laid out in a book, so she could follow the directions. I laughed and said, “OK, I’ll tell you what to do.” She changed her mind. 🙂

  • By the way…sometimes we need poets over reenactors and scientists. Hat tip, Carl Sagan: http://youtu.be/3deNVM3EWIc

  • gaby_mora

    Funny that you got turned off by the Neanderthin book, I probably would have found it very appealing. The evolutionary argument is what got me interested in the Paleo diet when I first learned about it, many years before actually adopting it. I think as long as it motivates people to get started, the idea of historical reenactment can be useful. Also, awesome Savory TED talk. Isn’t it funny that we’re *just* realising that to fix our problems we have to revert back to the old “useless” ways of doing things?

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  • Cecil Nixxon

    My adherence to and success with the Paleo diet and major lifestyle changes has been aided by my love of the wilderness and respect for indigenous ways. The “reenactment” concept was crucial to my success and helped me re-align my lifestyle and purpose. For example, I actively forage throughout the year. This doesn’t always result in finding food but it gives me a cross-purpose to doing strenuous and focused exercise. My camping is also becoming minimalist, and my equipment requirements quite small.

    So for me, finding ways to behave like our ancestors did supports my change in lifestyle and diet. I am sure if I did not incorporate paleo thinking and acting along with eating, this would have been yet another flash-in-the-pan diet. The results are solid: A1C dropped 6 full points in less than a year, sustained weight loss, dramatic drop in blood pressure, more energy than I had 20 years ago.