On Paleo Reenactment
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.