September 13, 2004
Two Ancestral Lines
When considering traditional ancestral diets as a model from which we can draw to improve our own food choices for better health, we must understand that these diets vary considerably according to a host of factors, including soil conditions, cultural habits, changing weather, availability of resources, and more. Despite these smaller variations, we can place traditional diets broadly into one of two categories depending on whether the people who practiced them were hunter-gatherers or agriculturalists.
Conventional historians assert that the earliest traditional human diets were those of the hunter-gatherers; however, this established theory is now being questioned by a host of alternative historians. Explorers, anthropologists, and other scientists have offered compelling evidence of long-lost agriculturalist civilizations that had reached levels of development equal to or more advanced than our own.
The theory for advanced agricultural civilizations in prehistory parallels challenges to the mainstream theory of cultural evolution, which proclaims a slow evolutionary process from primates to primitive humans who used stone tools and fire, culminating in the first civilizations between 5,500 BC and 3,500 BC. While this “cultural evolution” orthodoxy has its supporting evidence, its theory is limited by the hypothesis that civilization began about this time and that all prehistoric humans lived as hunter-gathers until about 10,000 years ago, when they began to discover agriculture. The alternative point of view suggests that both agricultural and non-agricultural peoples may have coexisted for thousands or even tens of thousands of years—long before the accepted (and more conservative) estimated timeline for the advent of agriculture.
As one explores publications with conventional and alternative perspectives on ancient history, a profound realization begins to emerge: We modern humans have been around for a long time and have experienced numerous cycles of catastrophic destruction. Through sheer tenacity and the will to survive, we have repeatedly emerged from the ashes of destruction to rebuild civilization.
Today, many historians blame our agricultural ancestors for the downfall of several civilizations, when the true causes were more likely drought, floods, fire, or any other number of natural phenomena. Civilized Homo sapiens have lived through ice age conditions and numerous other periods of setbacks, surviving it all along with primitive humans and a variety of other primates.
Many of the primitive humans of Paleolithic times did not participate in cultural advancement beyond their basic living needs and have survived outside the boundaries of civilization for countless generations. Estranged from urban living, some of these groups of prehistoric hunter-gatherers learned to make and use stone tools and have continued to do so for hundreds of thousands of years. Sometimes their slow-paced development came to an abrupt halt when they were conquered by other hunter-gatherers or by agricultural peoples.
Today, in some parts of the world, indigenous tribes of hunter-gatherers continue to exist in much the same way as those of antiquity; at the same time, colonizers from powerful nations continue to seek new lands and peoples to conquer. Things haven’t changed that much for the hunter-gatherers, and the “stone age” of the past, in some ways, is alive and well today.
Apart from our two categories of traditional peoples, past and present, we can define a third category of humans: one that is growing at a phenomenal pace and may be destined to replace the other two traditional groups altogether. This third category represents an extreme departure from our two natural ancestral dietary traditions, moving to one based on artificial foods. The people in this group use an “imitation diet,” which we shall touch upon near the end of our discussion. For now, let’s get back to our two ancestral groups and their diets.
Clues from the Past
It is important to keep in mind that anthropological and archeological conclusions are very often based on hypotheses and conjectures derived only from evidence that conforms to, or is made to conform to, preexisting paradigms. It is through this exclusive evidence that history is then reconstructed and often presented to the public as though it were fact. By re-examining this evidence and combining it with other reliable sources, we are able to create alternate theories and arrive at different conclusions from those we have been given. Let’s consider the primary means of obtaining supportive evidence, see how it is used to formulate commonly accepted beliefs about Paleolithic dietary history, and realize how these conclusions are not the only interpretations possible.
There are four basic means of obtaining evidence when trying to understand our ancestors’ traditional diets; other methods are usually extensions or variations of these four.
A. The analyses of stone tools, animal bones, and charred seeds found in prehistoric sites, mostly in or around lake settlements, hearths, fire pits, and caves.
B. Examinations of a few prehistoric human and other primate specimens, mostly incomplete fragments of skulls and skeletons.
C. Examinations of the world’s prehistoric cave and rock art, depicting hunting scenes. This method also includes other art forms, such as pottery and textiles.
D. Cultural comparisons between ancient hunter-gatherers and modern hunter-gatherers. These also include comparative analyses of bones, teeth, and genetics of pre-agricultural and agricultural peoples to speculate and generalize about their health characteristics as compared to one another.
Each of these examples of evidence, regardless of the context in which they are found, is conveniently placed in the context of a single established theory: the cultural evolution theory. However, all four data collection methods have resulted in additional, anomalous evidence that does not fit the accepted paradigms; such anomalous evidence is often simply discarded.
For example, anthropologists have found human bones and stone tools in North America dating thousands of years before what they considered the earliest human occupation of this region. Also, many examples of very ancient stone tools have been found throughout the world that show craftsmanship superior to more recent examples. This suggests that stone tool making did not always evolve gradually or consistently, as is usually suggested. Agricultural tools, too, have been found in early strata, dating well before the accepted timeline for agricultural origins.
Historical dating is based on the assumption of uniformity, a gradual and consistent depositing of strata over millions of years. This idea of uniformitarianism does not fully consider the evidence for the many global catastrophes that have occurred throughout history, sometimes with effects so devastating that virtually all remnants of civilizations were obliterated. Human relics, dinosaur fossils, and any number of other remains have been found mixed in strata dating back millions of years, when each theoretically should have been found in its own particular stratum, far removed from all others. This sort of evidence appears all over the world and clearly proves that nature does not always behave in a consistent, regulated manner.
Nevertheless, for convenience and consistency’s sake, I will use the standard dating sequences of human remains and other historical artifacts for purposes of discussion throughout this article.
Lack of plant evidence in strata at some Paleolithic sites seems to indicate that hunter-gathers consumed mostly meat, with few fruits or vegetables, because animal bones were often found in abundance around prehistoric hearths, while plant remains rarely show up in very early strata. However, plants have a much higher decomposition rate than bones or stone tools, and this is the reason we find little evidence for plant consumption in ancient strata. Pollen samples are often used to obtain scientific data on prehistoric plant matter, but results can vary considerably.
While animal bones and carbonized wild grass seeds found in prehistoric lake settlements seem to indicate that meat and wild seeds were part of the hunter-gatherers’ diet, we should not assume that no or few plant foods were consumed just because few flora samples show up in prehistoric strata. Some obvious exceptions to diets including plant consumption would be ice age sites, where people similar to modern-day Inuit lived and whose environment lacked a climate suitable for plant growth. But while evidence from ice age settlements is plentiful, these sites do not represent the only lifestyle of early humans, who had to endure changing global conditions over hundreds of thousands of years. Even the regular inclusion of wild and domestic cereal grains by prehistoric hunter-gatherers, is now suggested by some historians.
For example, we find evidence today of early agricultural tools in several areas of the Near East where groups of robust peoples we call the Natufians once lived.
Of particular interest is the presence of sickle blades, sickle handles and even some intact sickles. The blades often have a sheen or gloss, which is taken to indicate that they had been used to harvest cereals, either wild or tame. Grinding and pounding equipment, both stationary and moveable, was also abundant. All the equipment for cultivating cereal grains is present in the Natufians’ industries, but there is no indication that either plants or animals were domesticated. The Natufian people lived in an area in which wild wheat and barley are abundant today and presumably were abundant at that time.2
The Natufians are a good example of grain consumers whose skeletal remains reveal robust health. In fact, there are many indigenous hunter-gatherers living today who include a large quantity of plants in their diets. The assumption that agriculture and the domestication of cereal grains began for the first time in the Neolithic period is tenuous.
While we can no longer deny the regular use of wild grasses by some early hunter-gatherers, we must also understand these early peoples may have had uses for wild grasses other than as food. Examples of charred wild grasses have been found in Paleolithic sites and are often interpreted (in attempts to support the evolution of cultivated plants theory) as primitive examples of pre-agricultural food sources from which later evolved cultivated cereals. While in some cases this is possible, as a few Paleo feces have revealed the remains of grass seeds, it is more likely that this evidence represents the early use of grasses for fuel, baskets, bedding, or any of a range of other purposes commonly found today among the world’s non-agricultural indigenous peoples.
Ancient Structures and Primitive Art
The first evidences of civilization around the world are megalithic stone forms so old that archeologists have trouble assigning dates because of the difficulty in dating stone with radiocarbon dating technology. Even if it could be dated, the dated age of such an artifact would not necessarily tell us when the megalith was cut and placed. Therefore, most of the dates assigned to these structures are based on pottery, bones, and other artifacts found near or on the sites. This, too, can be misleading: many of these artifacts are often remnants of cultures that followed the megaliths by thousands of years. In other words, many of these structures could be thousands of years older than suspected; some even show signs of vitrification.
These ancient stone structures obviously were not the work of early hunter-gatherers, who would have had neither any reason to build such edifices nor the technology to do so. The world’s many examples of monumental architecture were obviously constructed by technologically advanced agricultural peoples living in prehistoric times. And while we often think of the builders as primitives using the crudest of stone and metal tools, some of these megaliths could be produced today only with the most advanced equipment available—and some could not be reproduced at all, even with modern technology.
We refer to these nameless ancient experts of masonry simply as the “megalith builders.” The enigmatic walled fortress of Sacsayuaman sitting high on the hilltop above the charming city of Cuzco, Peru, is one example of their work. Technologically perfect, these stones easily pre-date the Western timeline of the earliest Incas; the techniques used for cutting and finishing these gigantic stones are no longer practiced. Indeed, later Incan and modern Peruvian stone works pale in comparison. The Incas themselves never took credit for these megalithic structures, attributing them instead to ancient giant culture-bearers. Throughout Peru one can find numerous examples of ancient Peruvian stone works piled in rubble upon gigantic blocks of precision-cut, magnificently crafted stone, built perhaps by some long-forgotten ancestors of the Incas. Though expert stone masons in their own right, modern-day Incas cannot reproduce these works. Who these builders were remains a mystery as we regrettably concede that these great methods in engineering and technology have been lost.
On the other side of the world at Ba’albek lies the undated and massive Trilithon, a gigantic stone platform consisting of three massive stones that were expanded upon with later Greek and Roman architecture. No one from known Western civilization could have originally built the Trilithon, though, because no one during that time period had the technology necessary to move three gigantic, 870-ton stone blocks over rough, uneven terrain, then raise them ten meters onto a platform and set them so precisely. It is highly questionable whether we could accomplish this feat even today. There has yet to be an orthodox explanation for these Herculean feats from our prehistoric past that can be demonstrated and proven.
Many ancient megalithic structures also remain as underground tunnel works that extend for hundreds of miles into the subterranean world. Someone was using a very sophisticated technology many thousands of years ago to design these megalithic structures, few of which have ever been equaled by anyone later in history. If we are to believe the current paradigm that proposes that these and numerous other superhuman feats were accomplished by humans, we have little choice but to accept the existence of advanced civilizations in prehistory.
Ancient Cave Art
Prehistoric cave paintings in Lascaux, France date between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago. These and other cave paintings throughout the world reveal an extraordinary sophistication, not only in the artwork itself but also in the subtle messages portrayed. The Lascaux art, for example, uses the natural contours of the rocks to give three-dimensional appearances to many of its figures, which almost seem to come alive when viewed at different angles.
Many of the world’s cave paintings are so unusual and modern in scope that few could possibly believe primitive cave men could have made them. Still others are so completely mind-boggling and difficult to interpret according to accepted theory that they are intentionally left out of history books. An historian might suggest that the cave paintings portraying hunting scenes of mammoths and other animals are the only examples depicting actual daily life during prehistoric times. However, within this context we are left with little choice but to write other paintings off as representing the influence of mere superstition, or perhaps drug-induced hallucinations—yet these explanations do not account for the amazing skill level and exceptional attention to detail these works display.
Although there are many available caves throughout the world, cave dwellers today are few and far between, which suggests that people choosing to live in caves during prehistoric times probably would have done so only for extreme reasons. Cave dwellers may have resorted to this lifestyle to protect themselves from an inhospitable climate, for example. Exposure to predators was another concern for these early humans; the saber-toothed tiger and giant bear were two likely man-eaters that early cave dwellers would have needed to avoid. Troglodytic existence is quite rare among indigenous peoples today.
So, who were these ancient cave artists? A few experts suggest that Cro-Magnon men were the artists responsible for some of these paintings. Perhaps, but basing this on the assumption that primitive Cro-Magnon or other hunter-gatherers were the only available artists at the time doesn’t make this conclusion true. What about other cave paintings with high levels of sophistication that we find around the world? Hunter-gatherers today don’t even paint in caves. There are cave paintings dating back 11,000 years in Australia, and modern native aborigines assure us that the paintings were made long before their arrival.
What are we to make of a scene that details ten stars of the night sky, the seven stars of the Pleiades and three other constellations—four of which we need telescopes to see? Astronomers say these four stars were not visible in prehistoric times. Could a human with exceptional eyesight have seen them and later documented them in a painting? Could the artist have experienced astronomical awareness while astral traveling under the influence of a psychotropic drug? While either of these two unlikely explanations is possible, explanations that are more plausible might be: 1) that the artist learned astronomy from someone with that knowledge, or 2) that the artist was himself an astronomer who had survived a cataclysmic event. Such an event might have forced him or her to revert to a primitive lifestyle staying in the cave, either temporarily or long-term. Perhaps the cave art was a message intended to assure future generations that survivors from a sophisticated civilization had been there.
There are many examples of extremely ancient art that appear more advanced in technique than more recent ones. Cave art can be likened to modern graffiti in that the artists create it as a message on a wall. Sometimes the message is misunderstood or misinterpreted by people analyzing the work, while in other cases the message is perfectly clear. Just as there are variances in the sophistication of modern graffiti, ancient cave art also has its levels of expression, ranging from crude to artistically intelligent and precise. We have examples of “mixed messages,” with a scene in simple stick figures hunting game, other depictions of similar scenes in exacting detail, and still others depicting entire complex panoramic scenes. What is remarkable is that traces of vibrant colors in some of these more sophisticated cave paintings are evident even after many thousands of years. Color retention in paint is a demanding craft that has evolved in modern times only gradually and which paint makers still strive for in the art industry today.
In response to the question of how exquisite ancient artworks were created in the dark recesses of caves, we are told that these prehistoric artists used torches or, in some later examples, oil lamps in order to see what they were painting. This answer seems reasonable until we consider some contraindicating details some alternative historians have revealed. For example, some of these sites lacked the ventilation necessary to support the prolonged burning of fuel. For whatever duration the torch or lamp could burn, the artist would probably have had to endure breathing the heavy, toxic smoke resulting from an inefficient fuel source. The lack of ceiling soot in some of the caves also suggests that no fire whatsoever was used.
This is also the case with some of the Egyptian subterranean artworks. Some Egyptologists answer this apparent mystery by explaining that the early Egyptians used mirrors of highly polished silver or copper. However, we have to question the practicality of this explanation: many of the long, narrow underground passageways leading to this artwork have sharp turns that would have made mirror placement extremely difficult if not impossible. Prehistoric cave art has also been found in high, dark, and almost inaccessible parts of caves where the artist would first have to have built some form of scaffolding (unless they were extremely tall) to access the rock “canvas.”
The question of what could possibly have been the light source for some of this art is still a mystery. Perhaps some of these examples were created with salvaged technological remnants of a collapsed civilization.
Wall paintings have not been the only kind of prehistoric art found in caves. Recently, figures carved from mammoth tusks dating from 30,000 years ago were found in a cave in southwestern Germany. The figures are realistic depictions of a water bird, an anthropomorphic lion-man, and a horse’s head. They are said to rival the quality of work from the high civilizations of 3,000 to 4,000 BC. These figures call into question the theory that human’s artistic skills have evolved gradually in a single continuum. Several sources document news of the discovery.
The researchers said they believed the figurines were created by early anatomically modern humans… Radio carbon dating used to date the carvings is inexact, but the objects were almost certainly made between 28,000 and 35,000 years ago….3
Another article focuses on the primitive shaman theory, since the bird is a common shaman motif. Many tribal groups today practice some form of shamanism; however, this is only one explanation for the carvings’ subject matter because the quality of these carvings are of very high quality. Yet another source challenges the theory that there was a gradual evolution of artistic skills by stating:
The carvings…are considered to be the same vintage as 20 similar ivory artifacts, including ornaments and musical instruments, found in nearby Swabian digs. They join a clutch of other archeological surprises, including the intricate French cave drawings in the Grotte Chauvet and the discovery of a sophisticated use of textiles and clay in what is now the Czech Republic. They all debunk the notion that art developed over eons at about the pace that Homo sapiens moved out of the cave. I guess the bottom line is we’re dealing with people who are at a cultural level very similar to ourselves.4
Also relevant is this article’s mention of the discovery of cooking pottery found in a cave in China:
The cave yielded the country’s most primitive potsherds, estimated to be 12,000 years old. Like any technological innovation, the creation of pottery is believed to have been embedded in some cultural context.5
The Tassili frescos of the Sahara Desert are another example of highly sophisticated art. This inaccessible area is rarely frequented by anyone other than the indigenous Tuaregs. Like many other indigenous peoples throughout the world, they have no idea who the artists were who created the ancient art in their environs. Along with scenes of hunting are scenes of otherworldly, round-headed humanoids, bird headed people, and both dark- and light-skinned women, dressed as though they just stepped out of the latest fashion magazine. The paintings and carvings are prolific and could date from between 2,000-10,000 BC.6 Were the artist-hunter-gatherers exercising their creative skills under some potent herbal drug that gave them visions of the future? Or were they survivors from a lost civilization leaving records for future generations to interpret?
First Farmers, Later Hunter-Gatherers
In the dense Brazilian rainforest archeologists are shocked to find a 1000-year-old, 15-square-mile network of towns and villages that were connected by a system of broad, parallel highways. The reason researchers were shocked is because it has long been thought that the pre-Columbian rain forest had always been a wild ecosystem unaltered by humans and occupied by various hunter-gatherer tribes. The indigenous Xinguano and Kuikuro tribes now living there were unaware of the accomplishments of their ancestors until this discovery. Following are some highlights from news articles:
Ancestors of the Kuikuro people in the Amazon basin had a “complex and sophisticated” civilization with a population of many thousands during the period before 1492. These people were not the small mobile bands or simple dispersed populations that some earlier studies had suggested…the people demonstrated sophisticated levels of engineering, planning…in carving out of the tropical rainforest a system of interconnected towns making up a widespread culture based on farming…. The people also altered the natural forest, planting and maintaining orchards and agricultural fields…7
In reference to the ancient settlement that included raised causeways, canals, and other structures, the article states, “They are organized in ways that suggests a sophisticated knowledge of mathematics, astronomy and other sciences….”8
While 1000 years may not seem such a long time, it certainly was long enough for the people living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to develop amnesia and forget completely where they came from. Current aerial photographs indicate that the entire Amazon forest may have been engineered with settlement mounds, irrigation canals, agriculture and roads at some time in the distant past. These new findings are literally shattering the “pristine myth” that the Americas, before being discovered by Columbus, were an untouched Eden occupied by primitive hunter-gatherers.
It is not known when this massive engineering project took place, but it could have occurred numerous times over thousands of years, each time ending with the lush forest completely engulfing the long-abandoned areas of development. Excavations at many neighboring South and Central American pyramids reveal a repeating history of building and rebuilding by subsequent settlers.
These discoveries also question the origins of what appear to be wild food plants in the Amazon forest. Perhaps many medicinal herbs and food plants gathered by resident tribes today are but free-running examples of what were once cultivated crops of ancient agriculturists. Dates for other recently discovered agricultural sites in Peru and Bolivia are being pushed back nearly 5,000 years as long-standing theories are being challenged.
In the desert of the Supe Valley, near the coast of Peru, lie the remains of Caral, a city that flourished nearly 5,000 years ago. Findings reveal a peaceful city of pyramids and homes founded on farming and trade. Spanning 35 square miles, Caral all but destroys the popular theory that civilization was the result of warfare. While discussing ancient agriculture in South America in his book The Living Fields, Jack R. Harlan refers to other researchers: “Levi-Strauss (1950) and Lathrap (1968), among others, have suggested that most, if not all, hunter-gatherers in South America are ‘drop-outs’ from farming.”9
In Graham Hancock’s seminal work Fingerprints of the Gods we find another example of “lost agriculture” in Egypt. On pages 412–413, he refers to Hoffman’s Egypt Before the Pharaohs and Wendorff’s and Schild’s Prehistory of the Nile when discussing mysteries of “Paleolithic agricultural revolution.” Grinding stones and sickle blades used in the preparation of plant foods were found in the Nile valley and dated to around 13,000 BC. While this may not be so unusual, what makes it interesting is that fishing declined in the area at this time and barley suddenly appeared—just before the first settlements were established. Moreover, hunter-gatherers replaced grinding stones and sickles with stone tools about 2,500 years later. Based on the evidence, Hancock suggests that agricultural practices were established around 13,000 BC in Egypt, but the great Nile floods of 11,000 BC led to the abandonment of agriculture and caused a prolonged relapse to a more primitive lifestyle.10
How many other ancient civilizations lost their agrarian-based cultures to an adaptive hunter-gatherer lifestyle? Such may have been the case with the ancient pre-civilizations of Egypt, China, Mexico, Indus Valley, Sumeria and others that later re-emerged as what now appear to be our “earliest examples” of civilizations.
Sites of large urban developments from antiquity have been found in various areas of inland and coastal regions. Ancient urban peoples clearly used their resources and knowledge of agriculture in harmony with nature to effectively support their growing populations. Some of these cities were comparable with modern cities in size and population, complete with sophisticated waste management systems, drainage, running water, and irrigation canals. The Giza plateau in Egypt contains an elaborate maze of underground tunnels carved out of solid limestone bedrock with precise right-angle turns that stretch for miles. Modern research in this area suggests that these tunnels represent an elaborate irrigation system used to transport water from local rivers to what were once neighboring cities and their agricultural centers. Other records available from these civilizations reveal lifestyles embedded in the advanced sciences of agriculture, astronomy, architecture, and engineering.
These qualities do not appear to have been an evolutionary process; in most cases throughout the world, they rather appear to have been a legacy left by previous civilizations. These and other findings help to prove the capabilities of ancient humans, dispel the “all pre-agricultural peoples were primitives” theory, and strongly support the notion of culturally advanced people with sophisticated abilities living in prehistory.
Time and again, when discoveries do not support an orthodox theory because that theory would crumble if the controversial evidence were made known, those discoveries have been kept from public awareness. The fact of such a state of “withheld evidence” is undisputable.
Why has so much evidence not supporting accepted theories of human history been dismissed? Raising this question would of course be unnecessary if all the puzzle pieces of history already fit nicely into place, but they don’t. Ideally, the world’s recognized anthropologists, archeologists, and historians would assemble, discuss all the evidence available, decide how the information pertains to all possible theories, and present their findings to the public. Until that day, dissatisfied newcomers will need to investigate sites, dredge through archives, run tests, publish their own findings, and speak out to gain credibility for an alternative theory.
When we start to include all the rejected pieces of this extraordinary puzzle, it becomes crystal clear that there is a great deal more to human history than conventional theory would have us believe. These rejected pieces are the very information that could help solve one of life’s greatest mysteries. Until all the cards relative to the traditional lifestyles of ancient peoples are placed on the table, we are left with no choice but to seriously entertain the idea of planet-wide coexistence between hunter-gatherers and agricultural peoples in prehistoric times.
Stature and Health Among Traditional Peoples
Some anthropologists claim our hunter-gatherer ancestors were taller than the agricultural types—and therefore healthier. The idea of greater height as a barometer of better health is typical of the Eurocentric point of view stemming from early anthropological research; just as typically, when examined in a global context, both presently and in the fossil record, it is both misleading and incorrect. I have personally witnessed robust health between both types of traditional peoples from different parts of the world of varying heights and builds.
Oxygen, carbon dioxide, and radiation levels, among other environmental conditions, vary immensely throughout our past, all likely affecting the conditions of flora and fauna, including hominids. Fossil evidence from Paleolithic times generally shows most flora and fauna to be quite large. Using the “man is an evolved animal” theory, is it so unusual to find larger hominid fossils during Paleolithic times as well? Paleolithic flora specimens appear gigantic as compared to their counterparts, even in the Neolithic period. Fauna specimens of the Pleistocene period, including those of the wooly mammoth, giant sloth, saber-toothed tiger, and giant bear, are much larger than the mammals that followed.
Today, many free-ranging, domesticated ruminants are smaller than their wild counterparts, yet they are not less healthy simply because they are smaller and domesticated. Can we unequivocally say that prehistoric mega-fauna and -flora of a particular era were healthier simply because they were larger than the specimens of a later age? Not really. What we can surmise is that many plants, animals, hominids, and humans from a particular time in pre-history differed from many of those that followed, and that each adapted as much as possible and were suitable to the environment of their day.
Just because the cranial capacities of Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal were larger than that of today’s human being doesn’t mean they were smarter than we are. To assume this would be the equivalent of saying, “All generally tall Germanic peoples are smarter than generally shorter Japanese people.” Many tall traditional peoples have robust health, but so do many short traditional peoples, some averaging less than five feet in height. The agricultural highland Peruvians, for example, are short in stature and healthy, according to the studies and research of Weston A. Price.11, Early western explorers of South America and Mexico were often carried over treacherous mountain terrain for miles on the backs of sub-five-foot-tall Peruvians and Mexicans. These same tiny agricultural people of the Peruvian highlands could run for 30 miles or more, starting at 9,000 feet above sea level, where the air is extremely thin, to coastal regions, and then return the same day with fish they had caught or traded for their ruler’s dinner—hardly examples of weak, unhealthy people.
To accurately study the history of stature and health in our ancestors, we would have to include the giant skeletons from the many fossils found throughout the world. In the mid-1800s and up through the early 1900s, many human skeletons ranging in height from seven to 18 feet were found in North America and around the world. These fossils were excavated from mounds, caves, and many different levels of strata. Some dated back to the Jurassic period, over 185 million years ago. Newspaper reports, along with many reputable witnesses, attest to the truth of the discoveries, yet none of these numerous unusual fossils have ever been entered into the fossil record. Some of these skeletons were found with axes and stone tools. Some specimens had even gone through the process of mummification. Were these giants healthier Homo sapiens than average-sized Homo sapiens, or were they a different species altogether!
Generalizations on health and stature between ancient agricultural peoples and hunter-gatherers based on fossil evidence can be misleading, as it is not clear how many ancient agriculturists had reverted to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle in prehistoric times, nor do we know how many cycles of agriculture and civilization there may have been in our complex history as Homo sapiens. The possibility of such a reversion process, demonstrated by the modern examples of the Amazonian tribes mentioned earlier—whom scientists once thought had a long history as hunter-gatherers, only to find that their ancestors were agriculturists who developed sophisticated city states—could very well be one of many examples. The Amazon discoveries may be the first examples of what could be a worldwide phenomenon. These findings, in addition to the myths and legends told by many ancient hunter-gatherers and agriculturists, could help to explain the sudden emergence of agriculture in some parts of the world. They would also help to explain the discoveries of domesticated cereals and other crops found in archeological sites with no wild progenitors and no signs of previous agricultural experimentation.
Does diet play a role in physical stature? Certainly. People who consume dairy products, for example, tend to be taller than nondairy eaters. However, this does not mean that dairy consumers are healthier than those who consume little to no dairy products. Today, people in Western countries are becoming taller but generally eat inferior foods, compared to those of traditional people. Increased stature today is often caused by foods laden with growth hormones and other hormonal stimulants, the result actually being a decline in health correlating with increased height! While diet may affect stature, peoples’ heights and hat sizes have little to do with robust health, high intelligence, and longevity.
Defining Traditional Diets
If the theories of human and cultural evolution are reasonably valid, we can accept the idea that our diet should consist of foods our ancestors gathered, hunted, and fished. But what do we really know about these ancestral diets, and how do we know what we know?
With little evidence from our prehistoric ancestors, except for some telltale signs from bones and stone tools, much of the information about traditional diets has been gleaned from studies of various present-day indigenous peoples, who continue to live primarily as their ancestors lived. However, some of today’s indigenous peoples, through the influence of other cultures over time, have added new food sources to their diets, creating a modified version of what their ancestors ate. The introduction of new culinary tastes and experiences by outside cultural influences has been a common practice throughout history and likely prehistory as well. Sometimes new foods have improved the health of the people. At other times, the change has contributed to their demise. Traditional peoples who have incorporated large quantities of modern refined flour, sugar, and processed foods into their diets have experienced a sharp decline in health during the last two centuries.
There are many different opinions on what constituted a pre-agricultural diet; most of them can easily find scientific evidence to back their theories. It has been said that our Paleolithic ancestors did not consume dairy products. According to evolutionary theory, it is assumed that dairy products are not incorporated until the onset of agriculture and animal husbandry during the Neolithic period. However, we are not certain that this is the case. A UPI Science News report challenges one such widely accepted notion about the onset of dairy consumption:
…traces of milk some 6,000 years old in Britain, the earliest direct evidence known of human dairy activities… “first direct evidence milk was consumed by humans in the early Neolithic, or Stone Age.”13
Although still fitting the accepted timeline for animal domestication, this report places the use of milk at a far earlier date than previously thought for Britain. People began herding animals earlier than 6,000 years ago in the Near East, but the idea of primitive herders being the only humans who had connections with animals—other than hunted prey and the domesticated dog—is an assumption based on a lack of evidence from anything earlier than about 12,000 years ago. Perhaps the use of animal’s milk, like grain domestication, extends much further back into prehistory than the incomplete facts and assumed theory suggest.
With more evidence supporting the existence of Paleolithic agriculture, it is reasonable to assume that animal domestication occurred at an earlier time as well. Could the extensive harvesting of wild grasses by some Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, as noted by researchers and scientists, have been feeding their domesticated livestock? This is highly plausible in that our fossil record for early animal domestication in the Near East includes bones from both wild and domestic sheep and goats. The morphological similarity of modern and ancient sheep and goat bones is so close that even under close examination they are often indistinguishable from each other. Like the hypothetical “Agricultural Revolution,” and the origin of grain domestication, perhaps it is also unwise and far too early in the game to confine animal domestication to an imaginary time period.
Ancestral Nutritional Problems
Due to at least 100,000 years of extreme climatic fluctuation from the late Pleistocene up through the Holocene, about 12,000 years ago, it is difficult to accurately compare the health of hunter-gatherers and agriculturists in antiquity. Both groups throughout history have experienced periods of abundance, scarcity, and famine, depending on the prevailing climate, geography, and resources. For example, the early Egyptians, like other past civilizations, faced times of war, famine, drought and other environmental problems throughout many generations since prehistory. For thousands of years, these people enjoyed a wholesome, varied diet abundant in both plant and animal products. Because of these facts, we cannot simply state, as some have done, that some human fossils revealing signs of ill health resulted from a diet high in grain and low in protein and fat. The analyses of a few, or even 100, mummies or other fossils of ancient peoples from around the world at various times of history is hardly enough to conclude—again, as some have claimed—that all ancient Egyptians or other agriculturists suffered from ill health for the last 10,000 years or more, as compared to Paleolithic hunter-gatherers.
Some historians suggest that because hunter-gatherers were mobile and thought to consist of groups smaller than 100, they were less susceptible to the diseases and health problems faced by agricultural civilizations. Small, moving groups tend not to pollute their water supply or attract rodents and insects, all strong contributors of disease in civilization. While this may be true to some degree, it is also known that hunter-gatherers at times endure famine and an insufficient supply of animal protein. When this “meat hunger” occurs, what little amount of meat is available typically becomes rationed. The males who hunt down the food are given priority, while women and children have to subside on whatever amount remains uneaten, if any remains at all. This lack of protein has been known to last anywhere from several days to weeks for those less fortunate tribe members. Some hunter-gatherers today show signs of malnutrition from protein deficiency.
The notion that “small and mobile is better” is placed into a more realistic perspective when we consider the knowledge of early agriculturalists. Like those of hunter-gatherers, sophisticated civilizations of early agriculturists also had natural medicines to help combat disease. Both groups had a working knowledge of the medicinal qualities of the plants and animals in their environment, knowledge that was passed down from generation to generation. Herbology, traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicines, and numerous other highly effective healing systems are contemporary examples of such wisdom that have been passed down through many generations.
Archeological records also suggest use of the natural antiviral, antibacterial qualities of herbs and spices by early agriculturists. The domestication of cats in 9,500 BP may have been an effort to control rodents in settled communities. Evidence is presently accumulating that pertains to severe health problems among some groups of ancient hunter-gatherers during various periods throughout history, not to mention the taboo subject of cannibalism. These new discoveries are challenging previously held beliefs, making it unreasonable to assume that hunter-gatherers possessed superior health over agricultural peoples.
In the present day, the health of some modern agriculturists practicing traditional farming methods far exceeds that of some modern hunter-gatherers; in other cases, the opposite is true. There is no reason the same would not hold true with our ancestors as well. Other studies show that some ancient agricultural peoples had remarkable bone densities and extraordinary life spans. In other words, civilization is not necessarily a disease-infested way of living. Our ancient agricultural ancestors developed ways of handling the many negatives of a largely populated, lesser-mobile lifestyle, just as nomadic hunter-gatherers have found ways to cope with their cyclical changes.
It is quite easy to gather scientific evidence for either the hunter-gatherers or agriculturalists in order to fit a particular dietary agenda, such as a low-carbohydrate or low-fat perspective. If we wanted to downplay the diets of the hunter-gatherers, we could emphasize the long history of cannibalism practiced routinely among some groups until only recently, as documented by anthropologist Marvin Harris14 and others.
Many hunter-gatherers have suffered (and still do today) from long-standing parasitic infections. Hunter-gatherers often feed in an area until it is depleted. Their lives can be marked by internal strife, short life expectancy, population control by infanticide, incest, rape, and violence from tribe to tribe. On the other hand, the lifestyle of some agricultural peoples has had its shortcomings as well, with dental caries, arthritis, the practice of genocide, epidemics, and numerous other problems. In fact, the two groups share so many characteristics that if we were to swap problems between the two groups, we would probably find that eventually they would both end up with the same problems they had before, albeit with slight variations.
Based on the evidence, what we can safely conclude is that physical and mental health problems occur in both groups of people when nutritional balance is adversely affected by external influences. Comparing the modern diets of both groups is impractical and misleading, because many hunter-gatherers today still maintain a natural diet largely similar to their ancestors’ diets, whereas most modern agricultural people maintain a diet based on artificial foods. And while it is helpful to understand the functions and behaviors of isolated nutrients in foods, the approach of modern nutritional science is severely lacking in the nutritional commonsense and wisdom of our ancestors—both of them.
In essence, researchers have not found a specific meat- or plant-based Paleolithic diet that represents an overall example that we could reasonably call “our ancestral diet.” Food choices vary considerably within both groups. Staples of insects and monkey brains, for examples, are daily fare for the hunting and gathering Mentawai tribe of Sumatra, while the agricultural Incan descendants living in the highlands of Peru find their sources of nutrition in cuy (a domesticated guinea pig) and cultivated quinoa.
Dr. Weston A. Price has a very balanced perspective on traditional peoples and their diets, pointing out the numerous health benefits of living a natural lifestyle through his studies of traditional peoples throughout the world. Although the diets of the groups of people he studied vary considerably due to climate, environment, and geographic location, Dr. Price is able to show how natural, unrefined foods contribute to robust health. He concludes that it is not a matter of whether or not a people practice agriculture; rather, it is what essential foods constitute a healthy diet. Among people with ample amounts of nutrient-dense foods, he finds better overall health, as contrasted with those lacking in sufficient amounts of these foods.15
In the past, as today, people throughout the world lived in widely varying conditions and circumstances. Today some people live in poverty and suffer from numerous nutritional deficiencies while others live affluent lives and still suffer from nutritional deficiencies. The most important difference between agricultural people of the past and people of the present is that the overwhelming majority of people of the present suffer from “environmental amnesia” and have lost their intimate connection with their natural surroundings, while many people of the past, whether rich or poor, maintained harmony with nature through their food and agricultural practices.
From the evolutionary perspective, man’s earliest primate ancestors ate a diet of fruits, nuts, leaves, roots and a small percentage of meat, not unlike modern-day chimpanzees and apes. These primate “ancestors” were said to have evolved to the point of being able to use stone tools about 2.5 million years ago. Stone tool usage represented the beginning of technology and led to an increase of meat and fat consumption in the form of small, easy-to-pursue animals.
This period of increased meat consumption coincided with an increase in brain size and is considered an important side effect of consuming nutrient-dense food in the form of animal fat and protein. However, the increase in brain size could also have been caused by the need to utilize the brain more in order to hunt prey. Increased brain size gave hominids a new branch among the primates on the ancestral tree 1.8 million to 500,000 years ago. Then, the hominid Homo erectus appeared with a fully functional brain that gave him the capacity to hunt big game. Large quantities of animal bones found at some archeological sites along with stone tools from this period confirmed regular consumption of prehistoric game animals.
While other hominid species appeared throughout these long periods, it was not until about 200,000 years ago that modern humans made their appearance. This period also coincided with the first evidence of cooking. By cooking their food, modern humans increased the available energy content of plant foods, especially complex carbohydrates (wild grasses, tubers, and roots), which, in combination with big game animals, supposedly contributed to another leap in the evolution of brain function.
After about 190,000 years of continuous hunting, fishing, gathering, scavenging, and cooking, modern humans began to farm. Hunter-gatherers presumably had hunted the mega fauna to extinction in some parts of the world. Lack of available prey then led to the need to farm the land.
Many hominid species in the evolutionary tree are not mentioned, and some of the dates vary among historians; what we have then is a basic outline of a widely accepted—though unproven—theory of diet evolution.
Although evolutionists do not believe humans evolved from chimpanzees or apes, they do believe that humans and chimps have a common ancestry. Characteristics associated with being human include loss of thick body hair, bipedal movement, tool- and weapon-making, use of fire, creation of clothing, and language development. Each is thought to have evolved along with our ancestors. Evolution, rather than representing a ladder leading upward in a straight line, is better understood as a tree with many hominid branches that include Homo erectus and Homo sapiens. All hominids, relatively, are “cousins” that somehow eventually culminated into modern humans through millions of years of mutations.
However, DNA analysis of Russian Neanderthal remains dating back 29,000 years reveals “that modern humans are not related to Neanderthals,”16 disproving conventional scientific opinion. Instead, Neanderthals represent a completely different species of hominid. Additional tests on Neanderthal remains found in a cave in Germany show the same results. Both studies imply that Neanderthals “…don’t have the diversity to encompass a modern human gene pool.”17
Another theory suggests that Neanderthals didn’t have the technological means to survive the increasingly harsh winters of the ice age. One has to wonder about this theory, when evidence for Neanderthal intelligence has been well documented. They buried their dead in specific astronomical directions, showed signs of artistic creativity, knew how to make fires, lived in caves and ate a diet consisting exclusively of meat. The same theory suggests that modern hairless Homo sapiens had what it took to survive because they could make throwing spears, fishing nets and fur clothing. It is difficult to believe that Neanderthals, with their developed brains, could not have figured out these basic survival skills as well. Still, however, the experts continue to debate the role of Neanderthals in their social and genetic relations to modern humans.
Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?
What really caused the demise of the Neanderthals, wiping them from the fossil record around 30,000 years ago? Human bones found at some Neanderthal sites strongly indicate the regular practice of cannibalism. This should not surprise us, since our human history, right up into recent times includes numerous examples of cannibalism. Anthropologist Marvin Harris writes about the history of cannibalism. In Good To Eat Harris states: “When first contacted by Europeans, the peoples of New Guinea, northern Australia, and most of the islands of Melanesia such as the Solomon Islands, the New Hebrides, and New Caledonia practiced some degree of warfare cannibalism.”18 Later on, while discussing other issues related to diet and lifestyle; Harris makes a point to say that not all Polynesian islanders practiced cannibalism. “All three of the Polynesian groups that practiced warfare cannibalism also lacked the highly productive agriculture and fisheries which characterized the politically centralized Polynesian Islands.” A few agricultural peoples also practiced cannibalism, but cannibalism tended to predominate among peoples lacking centralized governments and the accompanying agricultural systems.
It is interesting to note that in the tribal lore of modern tribes who practiced cannibalism, there is a common belief that consuming another person, be it conquered warrior, relative, or other, endows the consumer with the powers or energies of the person consumed. The consumption of a powerful opponent, then, means more power and energy for the consumer. While this may sound barbaric or disgusting to our sensibilities, many primitive and civilized peoples perceived nature and food of any kind as energy.
There are a few recorded examples of cannibalism among agricultural peoples as well. One of these describes the Aztecs, who first sacrificed their victims to the gods before consuming them, with only the upper classes and priests allowed to partake of the ghastly feast.
While the reasons for consuming human flesh may differ between meat-hungry tribes and civilized cannibals, the basic shared belief of obtaining the strength and power of a competing rival may very well be the reason for the demise of the Neanderthals and other “robust and powerful” hominids in the past. With the onset of the ice age and competition for food between “modern humans” (hunter-gatherers) and Neanderthals, including the history of cannibalism among both, perhaps desperate times led to desperate acts. Perhaps humans outnumbered Neanderthals, or maybe early hunter-gatherers considered a powerful Neanderthal a prize meal, when they could capture one.
In light of new discoveries in anthropology and archeology, it is increasingly difficult to define the character of early human and other hominid species. Some evidence confirms the barbaric and primitive qualities that previously defined prehistoric cave men. Other evidence reveals a fully conscious and intelligent species, not unlike modern humans at their best.
A basic problem with the orthodox view of ancestral Paleolithic diets is that it is based on a series of assumed progressions from nonhuman primates that eventually culminate with modern humans, yet an actual link between these primates and humans cannot be shown to exist. This is also the case with Homo erectus and Neanderthal: there is no actual genetic link that proves modern humans actually evolved from any hominid species. Without such a link, diets of other species need not be a basis for human dietary practices, modern or ancient.
Even though some of these hominids used fire, stone tools, and competed with modern humans in hunting, the simple truth is that ancient humans (hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists) are the only true ancestral examples we have with which to accurately assess human dietary history. It is difficult to say if diet had any influence in making us human; however, it definitely played a major role in the establishment of civilization and human development. And diet may very well be the most distinguishing factor between our hunter-gatherer and agricultural ancestors.
Some historians think that prehistoric humans were parasites of the land because they would diminish both plant and animal resources before moving on to their next habitat. However, new discoveries are being made almost daily that shed further light on the lives of prehistoric peoples, including Neanderthals, revealing extraordinary abilities as exhibited in their astronomy, art, pottery, and textiles. Evidence of mummification indicates knowledge of preservation and elaborate burial rituals. Up until recently, we have associated all these activities with civilization, not with primitive hunter-gatherers. Is it possible to have all these earmarks of civilization and no agriculture? Why did these prehistoric hunter-gatherers take so long to cultivate plants and domesticate animals? Some experts of cultural evolution now say that hunter-gatherers have, to some extent, been using agricultural techniques all along.
If what these new findings suggest is true, then we have numerous examples of prehistoric hunter-gatherers that were advanced in some areas that most modern hunter-gatherers have yet to reach. For modern hunter-gatherers, little has changed and their lifestyle appears much the same as that of their ancient ancestors. It seems as though evolution has ceased for them, and that their culture remains confined to the simple tools and materials necessary to survive the elements.
The fact that examples still exist in parts of the world is remarkable, considering the extremely long time spans attributed to the evolutionary process and the intrusions into their territories by civilizations throughout history. How much longer hunter-gatherers will be able to continue living as they do remains to be seen. Will they disappear, like Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon? Both of these prehistoric peoples were supposedly more robust than agricultural peoples and they both had hunter-gatherer lifestyles and diets. How did the comparatively frail human with little body hair, survivors of an ice age and the crowning achievement of hominid evolution, come to outlive the other Homo specimens? The answer we have been taught to accept is based on the limited view that human culture developed in a mechanical way through the use of stone tools and other material basics. Moreover, adherents of the cultural evolution theory inaccurately assume that current hunter-gatherers represent the only living examples of what humans were like before 10,000 years ago!
The hunter-gatherers have never lost their original primal instincts for survival. Today there are people from this group who know of agriculture but prefer to maintain their nomadic lifestyles. Tens of thousands of years of hunting would naturally hone one’s skills, especially when confronted with predators competing for food. Without the speed or agility of the lion, for example, but knowing what, when, and where a lion hunts is something these ancestors would learn at an early age. Having a close tie to the environment also allows the hunter-gatherer to observe animals’ relationships to plants and develop various uses for those plants through continuous sampling. This, in turn, leads to the development of natural medicines. Knowledge of plants and animals is a commonly recognized skill of hunter-gatherers and it is this close relationship with nature that modern-day hunter-gatherers share with their ancient ancestors. Nature has been and remains their teacher.
The Paleolithic Diet Riddle
The following statements are some of the most commonly expressed opinions on traditional pre-agricultural diets by experts in the fields of paleontology and anthropology:
A. Early Paleolithic man had a diet much like other forest dwelling primates. This would be similar to what chimpanzees eat today and includes mostly fruits, some other plants, and small amounts of insects and rodents.
B. The diet of the early hunter-gatherers consisted of about 80 percent gathered foods, including shellfish, eggs, plants, and about 20 percent meat.
C. Man was a gatherer-scavenger; his diet consisted of mostly wild roots and other plants, occasionally supplemented by small amounts of scavenged animal flesh left by predatory animals or taken from them when possible.
D. Early man’s original diet was based on fish, seafood, and other marine life until he was forced inland from coastal regions by rising sea levels, where he learned how to hunt game.
E. The diet of early man was mostly meat, up to 80 percent or more, derived from hunting game.
If we were to create a multiple-choice question asking which of the above was the diet of our Paleolithic ancestors, the answer would have to be “all of the above.” The reason for such diversity in opinions on early ancestral diets is because evidence has been found to support them all. Naturally, as more evidence is accumulated, the theories get revised and updated, but current evidence shows there are a variety of regional diets for the early and modern hunter-gatherers. Based on this evidence, some of these early diets were healthy and supplied more than adequate nutrition for people, while other diets did not. Obviously, lush, tropical, coastal environs could provide a healthy diet of abundant plant foods with moderate amounts of animal products, whereas arctic dwellers would derive most of their nutrition from mammals and seafood and with less plant foods.
Those who toe the party line of cultural evolution persist in the belief that hunter-gatherers and agricultural civilizations did not exist side by side in prehistory. They also often glamorize hunter-gatherers as being taller and with superior health as a result of their nomadic diet, as compared to the much “later” agricultural peoples.
Aside from the fact that some of the evidence used to compare these two categories of peoples is from the remains of nonhuman primates, there is still no consensus on a particular diet for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, nor is there likely to be one. Not only that, it is simply untrue that health declined with the introduction of agriculture. Agriculture and animal domestication alone had nothing to do with the decline of health in humans. There are numerous examples where agriculture improved the health of people by introducing a wider variety of nutritional resources and reliable sources of protein foods.
How long humans have been in a state of declining health cannot be accurately determined through the study of fossil evidence alone. Many as yet unknown factors continue to haunt our past. What can be determined are the observable results of the last 200 years of environmental destruction from chemical agriculture and processed foods on the health of humanity. It is true that some anthropologists have supported the claims of “pre-agriculture health superiority,” but it is just as true that not all anthropologists and experts in the field agree with each other. Harvard anthropologist Ofer Bar-Yosef writes: “Natufian skeletons of the Levant represent robust and healthy individuals.”19 From this same source, we have:
A number of seminar participants (Keeley and Bar-Yosef, among others) did suggest that the most extreme forms of population pressure leading to skeletal pathologies would be unlikely to be related to domestication….20
Several diet gurus have suggested that grain domestication was the deciding factor in the decline of health after hunter-gatherers “transitioned” to agriculture, and therefore, that grains (carbohydrates) are best reduced or eliminated for optimum health. It has even been suggested that the “decline in health” trend from grain eating 10,000 years ago has only, in the last 100 years, began to reverse toward improved health. This is an interesting concept, one that implies that all the chemical agriculture and processed foods we have been eating for the last 100 years has actually helped to improve the declining health of the human species, a decline caused by grain eating. This is not only absurd it is irrational.
This idea is further rationalized by claims that our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not eat grain and were healthier because of it. This is also untrue: it is now well known among anthropologists and archeologists that many early pre-agricultural peoples harvested large stands of wild grains, and it is believed that these grasses were a regular staple in prehistoric hunter-gatherer diets. Today we know that these wild grains are suitable only for grazing animals; the domesticated versions are the ones with high nutritional content and when properly prepared, are an important source of human nutrition. Nevertheless, it is still believed that these large stands of harvested wild grains played a substantial part in many Paleolithic diets, particularly those of the Near East.
It has also been proven that when sustainable agriculture is practiced, including biodiversity along with other ecologically sound methods of animal husbandry, the people thrive. These were the original methods of agriculture, some of which are still practiced today by the Queche Maya and the Incan descendents in the highlands of Peru and elsewhere among modern-day, natural agriculturists. Biodiversity in agriculture and animal husbandry can provide additional varieties of nutritious foods that improve health.
The understanding of cosmic cycles was a common theme among many ancient peoples, as were biodiversity and other methods of sustainable agriculture. Because of this, the food produced and consumed by these people living in harmony with nature would have been of a much higher quality (and thus nutritionally superior) to the highly processed food of mono-agriculture systems today.
Our urban populations are nourished mainly on imitation foods devoid of health-promoting properties. We call this “progress” and rationalize it by the needs of a rapidly expanding population, yet the “progressive” methods used in chemical agribusiness to improve on nature are shortsighted and have led to severe degradation of the planet’s natural resources. Civilizations of antiquity used everything that was natural, in stark contrast to today’s world, where we create toxic plastics, sheet rock, and synthetic clothing materials, thereby creating disharmony in our environment and ourselves.
The great civilizations of antiquity were agricultural and pastoral. Most of these civilizations used a wide variety of foods for daily consumption when environmental conditions were stable. The most common dietary links to all of the great civilizations of the world were found in their basic choices of foods and how they were used. All grew an abundance of plant foods and raised various animals with which to prepare their meals.
Archeological evidence suggests that ancient peoples knew the importance of biodiversity and the nutritional balance of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Ethnobotanist Edgar Anderson explained that there are ample instances from South and Central America that show that both ancient and modern agricultural peoples had individual gardens, which included vegetables, herbs, a bee yard, a fruit orchard, a dump heap, a compost heap, and a few domestic animals for food. Plants were isolated from each other by intervening vegetation so that pests and diseases could not spread from plant to plant and everything was conserved. Even mature plants were buried between the rows when their usefulness was over.21
Evidence for worldwide trade of foods and other goods among ancient civilizations is also increasing. These trade routes increased the varieties of foods and affected more than only agricultural peoples: many newly introduced foods adapted to semi-wild states in forests and jungles and are now regularly consumed by modern-day hunter-gatherers. One striking example may be the many varieties of medicinal plants, fruits and other foods found in the Amazon jungle. Current evidence strongly suggests that this vast jungle was once engineered and occupied by agriculturists. One wonders how many of the useful plants and animals currently found there were introduced thousands of years ago by early agriculturists.
The Mayan peasants in the Chiapas region of Mexico are often considered “unproductive” by large agricultural companies because they produce only around two tons of corn per acre, but the other foods produced through natural farming methods on that same acre can amount to as much as 20 tons. It has also been calculated that their farm incomes would be reduced by a factor of three if they didn’t use biodiverse methods of farming. In Thailand, a home garden can contain up to 230 species of plants. African home gardens often include 50 species of trees with edible leaves, and while Nigerian home gardens comprise only two percent of total Nigerian farmland, not too long ago these individual home gardens produced almost half of the agricultural output of Nigeria by using the same natural methods as the Thai and other traditional cultures.
Many ancient agriculturalists not only concerned themselves with ecology, they also developed brilliant uses of what today would be considered useless land for farming. China, Peru, and Mexico made use of steep, rocky hillsides through a method of farming called terraced agriculture. Mountain streams were diverted to irrigate layer upon layer of terraces, sometimes extending thousands of feet above sea level. These terraces produced (and still do today) large quantities and varieties of grains, beans, and vegetables. The Aztecs of Mexico created floating gardens in the swampy areas of Lake Texcoco by piling rich earth from the lake bottom onto rafts made of weeds. These raft gardens would eventually be anchored to the lake bottom by the roots of the plants and trees planted on them. Large quantities of food were produced on these island gardens, all without chemicals or harm to the environment.
While the ecological crises of today are caused primarily by the environmentally devastating use of monoculture and other unsound farming methods from industrial agribusiness, many of the ecological problems of the past were caused largely by environmental factors. Granted, there is ample evidence for agricultural devastation in ancient history. One example is the slash-and-burn method practiced by some agriculturists and hunter-gatherers. Environmental destruction caused by human need for sustenance was not uncommon with both groups of people in varying degrees. However, these methods were not the only ones used by these groups in the past or the present. Using our modern, environmentally destructive agricultural methods as a basis for comparison to all ancient hunter-gatherers or agriculturists is extremely inaccurate and does not take into account the sustainable methods of growing food practiced by many of our ancient agricultural ancestors, who were able to nourish large urban populations of hundreds of thousands of people with natural, whole foods.
The fact that the ancients cooperated successfully with nature while possessing advanced technology is cause for deep reflection. Defining life through the science of nature in large urban civilizations, an accomplishment unknown to 21st-century Homo sapiens, does not mean conflict will not arise from external influences or even internal strife. But think how today, with less effective methods, we live with the problems of hazardous wastes, poor food distribution for current population needs, and the threat of global warming.
Many traditional peoples throughout the world still practice the old ways of agriculture and their land has long been producing and thriving. Unlike the denaturing processes that we use on our food, ancient food technology included natural processing methods of pressing, grinding, fermenting, salting, smoking, and other storage methods still used today in many parts of the world by traditional peoples. The ancients chose, grew, and harvested their foods according to nature’s cycles. They adapted to tastes through natural preparation methods. They wisely planned their waste management, drainage canals, and food production—right down to what ended up on the table. Food was a very important part of their daily lives. It played an important role in all scientific and religious beliefs and was treated with reverence and respect. For our own health and that of future generations, it is imperative that we integrate similar methods of cultivation on a global scale.
Who Do We Think We Are?
Historians to describe our ancient Homo sapien ancestors who appeared on the evolutionary scene around 200,000 years ago often use the term “modern humans”. This is a generally accepted timeframe for when humans resembling those of today began their long, gradual path toward civilization. However, it is often suggested that primitive hominids were well on their evolutionary path to becoming modern humans as long ago as 500,000 years ago. The theory that nonhuman hominids evolved through mutations into Homo sapiens is based on scanty fossil records and is steeped in controversy; what is indisputable, however, is that nonhuman hominids did coexist with the earliest humans and their alleged relatives, Homo erectus, Neanderthal, and Cro-Magnon.
As mentioned in the introduction, two cultural groups of modern humans are recognized as having existed within the last 200,000 years. The first group, who according to most anthropologists are the first and only cultural examples of Paleolithic humans, are hunter-gatherers. The second group represents agricultural and pastoral peoples who supplement their cultivated foods with hunted and gathered foods from the wild. These two groups of people represent the only non-ape, non-monkey specimens of hominids alive today, with the exception of the elusive giant hominids, about which we know little, who live in the deep forests of the Pacific Northwest, inaccessible mountain regions, and a few other remote parts of the world.
Hunter-gatherers and agriculturists while anatomically alike, differ in their cultures and dietary traditions. Agriculturists are thought to have evolved from hunter-gatherers about 10,000 years ago when the domestication of plants and animals are thought to have first begun. Recent discoveries suggest that this “guesstimated” evolutionary timeline is way off the mark and that agricultural peoples have existed along with hunter-gatherers for a much longer period than the 10,000 years allotted. A print of a shoe sole has been found in Triassic rock in Nevada dating from 213 to 248 million years ago. Another example reveals human footprints—not those of an ape or missing link—preserved alongside those of a dinosaur.22 These examples have yet to be challenged effectively by any Paleo-scientist or anthropologist.
What are we to make of this unusual evidence? Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that these particular anomalies were isolated occurrences made by a time traveler from the future? Could these tracks be from highly evolved humans who coexisted with cave men and dinosaurs? What if the methods used to date these tracks are highly inaccurate, and the tracks are actually from a more recent period, say, 10,000 to 15,000 years ago? If so, then dinosaurs may not be as old as we thought they were. The possibilities for explanation are endless, yet there are too many examples like these to ignore them, and addressing these anomalies by denial or by discrediting the individuals who bring them to our attention does little to further our understanding. For numerous examples of evidence pertaining to traces of human existence in prehistory, I strongly suggest reading Forbidden Archeology by Cremo and Thompson.23
Did a few small bands of hunter-gatherers from different parts of the world evolve beyond all other hominids and convert to farming a mere 10,000 years ago? A hypothesis held by the orthodox view is that agriculture was established by small bands of hunter-gathers who had depleted their regional food supplies. These people then introduced it to others, and it spread. Meanwhile, in about seven other parts of the world, similar situations occurred.
Many historians hold to the “small bands of hunter-gatherers” part of this theory but also believe there would have been ample supplies of game and other resources in the regions where agriculture began when it did, and therefore suggest that there would not necessarily have been a need for agriculture. Why, with all those resources available, would they have then turned to farming?
A theory based on evidence from Scandinavia suggests that there was colonization by other people. It is suggested that these colonists were other bands of hunter-gatherers who might have been advanced in their own proto-agricultural experience and experiments. These groups could have practiced some seed planting or basic harvesting techniques. Another assumption is that the spread of agriculture occurred with an increase in the populations of the original agricultural groups. Once agriculture was established, we learn, it led to increased fertility, which in turn created an increase in population and greater dependency on agriculture.
Were the majority of Paleolithic peoples so well supplied with edible flora and fauna that they didn’t need to convert to agriculture 10,000 years ago? Or is it possible that the road to agriculture was not a slow, gradual evolutionary process instigated by a few groups of imaginative hunter-gatherers after all? The genesis of agriculture is still highly disputed by many historians.
Education as a Factor of Civilization
As an animal, man is the most plastic, the most adaptable and the most educable of all living creatures. Indeed, the single trait that alone is sufficient to distinguish man from all other creatures is the quality of educability—it is the species character of Homo sapiens, according to British-American anthropologist Ashley Montague. The differences between human and other primate intelligence are that humans possess discernment, vision, and determination when faced with life’s challenges. These qualities enable us to creatively work out problems by using our brains beyond the basic level of primate instinct. Using fire and creating clothing are two basic examples of human ingenuity that apes and chimpanzees have not achieved.
Based on current research, the earliest humans and Neanderthals shared these fully developed brain qualities, as did Cro-Magnon, though until recently they were considered illiterate primitives with still much to learn. For some unknown reason, Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon would not survive long enough to utilize their brain capacity to the extent of modern humans.
We are told that Homo sapiens evolved “because they had reasons to evolve.” These reasons are generally presented as a series of accidents, happenstance, mutations, and various other ways of describing how we developed from primitive to civilized people. Were language, writing, agriculture, metallurgy, and all the other earmarks of civilization really accidental discoveries or sudden brainstorms by evolving and insightful cave men and women?
For that matter, if the world was populated with primitive cave people with fully developed brains, why is it that only a small percentage of them evolved to the point of agricultural awareness in only a few places in the world? Why didn’t the rest of the world’s populations evolve as well? Many groups of hunter-gatherers never evolved at all beyond their original states, and this was not due to being isolated from those who had so evolved. One would think that after a good 500,000 years (or at least 200,000 years) of hunting, gathering and scavenging, all modern humans would have finally evolved from simple stone tool usage to a more settled agricultural lifestyle, especially if we are to believe that nutrition played a role in this development and that agricultural awareness and civilization in general was a process of evolution.
Research has shown that both apes and chimpanzees can learn how to paint pictures and communicate with sign language; these are two things they wouldn’t do in their natural habitat, yet clearly they do have the necessary intelligence to learn these things. If prehistoric hunter-gatherers had all the necessary intelligence to evolve to the point of modern civilization, why did it take almost 500,000 years for them to do so?
There are several theories that suggest answers to this question. One is that there was no reason to evolve from a leisurely life of hunting and gathering with abundant available resources. Another reason is that early humans evolved in stages and developed only what was necessary for daily living. For example, stone tools were essential for hunting and butchering animals; eventually pottery was needed to hold and transport water, so someone somehow came up with the idea of pottery and the use of ceramics…and so forth, right up through the invention of smelting copper and iron.
Let’s go back to the apes and chimps for a moment. If they had the intellectual capacity to learn how to paint pictures and communicate with sign language for millions of years, why didn’t they eventually evolve to do it naturally? The answer “no need to” would certainly make sense, because they have no need to do so now, either. Nevertheless, let’s see where this reasoning leads. Given that humans have had the intellectual capacity to evolve at a rapid rate, create civilizations, and practice agriculture for half a million years yet didn’t, can we use the same reasoning to say that we had no need to create civilizations while we still existed in small, communal bands of hunter-gatherers? And if this is true, then why did a few select groups of people throughout the world “evolve” to create agriculture and civilizations, while most did not evolve at all, relatively speaking?
Nutritional differences, hunting practices, reproduction and population pressures, settlements, the use of stone tools, environmental changes, social pressures… some historians say these are responsible for the advancement of civilization. These factors are doubtless critical aspects that are associated with and contribute to civilization—but what actually motivated certain humans to literally leap forward while others remained as they were? We have already discussed the issue of ample wild food resources in areas where agriculture began, so there doesn’t seem to be a need to learn how to domesticate crops and domesticate animals or develop civilizations. In the development of civilization, however, education is intertwined within the social fabric of human relationships.
Illiteracy is a common problem in our modern world. We are faced with the unfortunate situation where some children do not have educational resources. Other children and adults are often faced with educational challenges for different reasons. And while proper nutrition plays a major role in brain and nervous system health, many uneducated children and adults simply lack the guidance from qualified teachers to lift them from their ignorance to a point where they can read and write. It is likely that most humans, were they raised without teachers and education, would remain illiterate their whole lives. There are many unfortunate examples of people living this way throughout the world.
In other words, humans from an early age need teachers, experienced educators who often become role models, leaders, and guides in order for civilization to progress. Some people are easy to teach, while others represent more of a challenge and require extra time and patience. Our traditional sources (oral, written, and legendary) of history and prehistory suggest that many of our primitive ancestors were taught the basics of agriculture and civilization by experienced teachers. Perhaps this was an experiment, similar to modern educators teaching chimpanzees how to paint and communicate today.
Even though many prehistoric hunter-gatherers did not advance to the point of civilization, it doesn’t mean they didn’t continue to learn from each other and whomever and whatever they encountered in life. For them, much of their education and learning experience came from the absorption and assimilation of the natural world through the direction of a shaman, medicine man, or other spiritual teacher. This form of leadership is common among modern bands of hunter-gatherers and may have been part of many Paleolithic groups as well. However, sophisticated agricultural practices and other earmarks of civilization are not a part of their education. This would tend to validate the evidence of our traditional sources, which suggest that civilization and agriculture were handed down from qualified teachers to selected peoples.
On the other hand, paleoanthropologists and archeologists are persistent in hanging onto the human and cultural evolutionary model when explaining the beginnings of pre-agricultural peoples. Orthodox scientists disregard the oral traditions of many modern hunter-gatherers that claim origins from ancient, agriculturally based civilizations destroyed by cataclysmic events.
Similar stories of this type of ancient heritage can be found around the world today among all types of traditional peoples. Gradually more kernels of truth are emerging from these legendary stories as new discoveries are being made, corroborating the idea that the great civilizations of the past were fully formed and show little signs of an evolutionary process from the onset.
We know that many of our ancient ancestors left either oral or written traditions that describe their lives. We don’t know how ancient civilizations originated, and so we blindly accept the conventional theories as answers. The decomposition of natural materials, used by our agricultural ancestors may be part of the reason why we find so few traces of their legacy before 10,000 years ago. Furthermore, if conventional scientific paradigms fail to acknowledge the evidence for the advanced civilizations that existed in prehistory, how can scientists claim to know what occurred millions of years ago in Precambrian and Cambrian times? The truth is that we really do not know with any certainty, as available evidence can only take us back a few thousand years.
Unlike with hunter-gatherers, who are mainly content with a lifestyle similar to that of their ancestors, the agricultural lifestyle and diet have changed considerably within the last few hundred years. Most urban and rural humans are now so far removed from the precepts of their ancestral heritage; it appears the stage has been set for an ultimate showdown between man and nature. Greed, arrogance, and strife have become the distinguishing characteristics of 21st-century Homo sapiens. Refined foods with their artificial additives contribute to unprecedented health problems, and forced growing methods have adversely affected agricultural conditions and ecological balance throughout the planet.
Meanwhile, we as a species have become addicted to constant entertainment and other distractions that suppress creativity, spiritual awareness and the ability to think for ourselves. While we may have prevailed through our intelligence as the majority in developing certain technologies, most us have become oblivious to rational thought. How do we reverse this destructive “cultural” trend? Could we adopt a hunter-gatherer diet and lifestyle and live a life devoid of technology and distraction? No, we have come too far for that and it wouldn’t work anyway, as this lifestyle could not support our current population. We would very quickly decimate our food supply. Not only that, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle is not conducive to progress and intellectual advancement, as has been shown by more than 200,000 years of continuous repetition around a stone tool technology.
While agricultural technology has not been properly focused, this is not to say that science and technology haven’t helped us better understand the elemental nutrients in food. Rather, it is that every attempt to improve real, natural food has been unsuccessful. Today’s nutritional science lacks traditional wisdom and fails to acknowledge the importance of food quality; its agenda is geared to support large food corporations that have little interest in health. With profit-only goals, these corporations buy science in order to support the kind of technology that creates artificial and highly processed foods, emptied of the ingredients essential to sustain our species. Homogenization, pasteurization, growth hormones, steroids, synthetic vitamins, preservatives, and genetic modifications are some of the facets of modern technology that have failed to improve the food our agricultural ancestors brought to the table.
In every instance where modern, Western culture-bearers have introduced their food, which indigenous peoples know as “white man’s food,” the people’s health has declined. By contrast, when our ancient ancestor culture bearers introduced new foods and farming methods to other cultures throughout the world, the recipients thrived. To this day, the peoples who use traditional foods and natural agricultural practices do well. It stands to reason that these simple, basic ancestral foods of traditional agriculturists must be the proper nutrition for modern civilized humans as well.
One would think that with all our scientific knowledge, we would have improved on the more than 10,000 years of traditional dietary practices—but we haven’t. Perhaps this is because traditional foods cannot be improved.
Ancient China and India are two examples of traditional cultures with a very sophisticated understanding and long history of food as nourishment and food as medicine. In many ways, their holistic food science is far superior to our modern, left-brain methods of nutrition analysis. Modern nutritional science has done little to solve the problems of malnutrition and obesity, either in the “developed” nations or “third world” populations. What it has done is to contribute greatly to the hundreds of extreme and absurd dietary fads so prevalent today, which in turn have done little more than create greater confusion and ill health.
One can imagine future residents of planet Earth 20,000 or more years from now, uncovering traces of artificial buildings and other examples of today’s civilizations—perhaps an intact package of preservative-laden pastry: What will they think? Will they recognize a connection with this evidence and the demise of civilization?
The Interconnection of Science and Religion
All was not peace and love with the ancients. Indeed, human history as we know it was not exempt from periods of violence and warfare. However, some sort of paradisiacal “golden age” is mentioned in nearly every ancient culture. Architecture of past civilizations reflected nature’s designs and used materials from the surrounding landscapes. Ancient peoples were aware that the frequencies of energy in nature flowed in constant, recurring cycles. Ancient civilization itself synchronized with the natural world to the extent that religion was their science—and science their religion.
Our ancestors equated nature with the divine in all they did and had a deep understanding of the interconnectedness of physical and spiritual worlds. This unique unification between science and religion extended throughout the ancient world and distinguished the great civilizations of the past from those of the present. While ancient beliefs are often confused and misrepresented by orthodox views as “ritualistic cults,” ancient peoples had a working concept of the soul and its purpose in the universe. Some of their ideas, though altered over time to fit the changing religious and political climate, were filtered down to us as days of fasting and other “holy days.”
What conclusions can we say we have reached through research pertaining to our hunter-gatherer and agricultural ancestors and their traditions? Try as they may, researchers cannot define either group as having consistent qualities within their respective cultures. Let’s summarize what we do know about some of their known cultural qualities and see what new ideas we have gained.
1. Ancestral Lineage. Long-accepted beliefs about prehistoric humans are changing as both groups turn out to be more advanced than previously depicted. New discoveries challenge the dating for agricultural origins and show there is little evidence to support the theory of cultural evolution from hunter-gatherers to agriculturists.
2. Art, Religion, and Ritual. The myths and legends of both groups of peoples reveal the great depth and broad scope of understanding of nature that extends well beyond the basic survival concepts of primitive culture. Rituals, once interpreted as primitive rites of passage, idol worship, and religious superstition, are now coming to be regarded as exercises based on profound wisdom. While peaceful, spiritual lifestyles may have predominated at some time, regular instances of cannibalism, incest, and other practices unacceptable to modern civilizations occurred among both hunter-gatherers and agriculturists. Links between different ancient cultures and tribes are being discovered that reveal cross-cultural communication over vast distances. These cross-cultural links are supported by archeological evidence and further confirmed by universal legends of culture bearers and global catastrophes. New discoveries are shedding light on these issues, again causing us to reevaluate past interpretations about cultural evolution.
3. Diet and Health. Neither hunter-gatherers nor agriculturists can be pigeonholed into a specific dietary category. Diets vary among both modern and ancient groups, with a wide range of foods depending on environment and lifestyle. Both groups have experienced examples of reverting to the other as a result of environmental changes: drought, famine, floods, and depletion of resources have resulted in agriculturists reverting to hunter-gatherer lifestyles and vice versa. Both groups include examples where their diets are nutritionally sound and healthy, and other examples where their diets have been inadequate, leading to deficiencies and health problems. Many of the positive health aspects both groups have experienced have been largely due to their close interaction with and exposure to nature. This type of lifestyle, along with high quality foods, enhances endurance, immunity, and overall strength.
Today we have disrespectfully distanced ourselves from the natural world, to our own detriment. We are well aware of the repercussions of living against nature, which include rampant disease, environmental devastation, and a pervasive sense of psychological, emotional and spiritual alienation that lead to a host of societal ills, including profoundly criminal and self-destructive behaviors. Perhaps this is why some few individuals and enclaves of people have chosen lives of celibacy and meditation in isolated environments, where they can reconnect with the knowledge of the ancients, the source of wisdom.
To know that our ancient ancestors were so highly evolved, both scientifically and spiritually, is an inspiration for many of us—and hopefully one that will motivate us to seek our species’ continuance in a more sublime expression than our present path would suggest.
Here we are, against evolutionary odds, living at a fraction of the cultural potential expressed by the wisdom of civilizations past. It would seem that we are treading a delicate balance. If we begin to fill in some of the missing pieces of our heritage with what we know to be true, we can undoubtedly rebuild our planet’s ecosystem, ensure our longevity, and fulfill our cultural destiny.
1. A familiar term used in place of “hunter-gatherer-scavengers,” the more correct term due to a recent scientific update.
2. Harlan, Jack R.; The Living Fields; Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK; 1995, p. 89, [url=http://www.cup.org]www.cup.org[/url]
3. Associated Press; December 18, 2003, [url=http://www.startribune.com]www.startribune.com[/url]
4. “Ancient Artists,” The Boston Globe; December 23, 2003.
5. Guilin Xinhuanet; December 23, 2003.
6. Lhote, Henri; The Search for the Tassili Frescoes: The Story of the Prehistoric Rock-Paintings of the Sahara; Hutchinson Publishers; 1973 ASIN: 0091123801.
7. “Ancient Amazon Settlements Uncovered;” Seattle Times; The Associated Press (Washington); September 18, 2003.
8. “Amazonian Find Stuns Researchers,” ibid, September 20, 2003.
9. Harlan, Jack R.; cf. ante, p. 179.
10. Hancock, Graham; Fingerprints of the Gods; Three Rivers Press, New York, NY; 1995, [url=http://www.randomhouse.com]www.randomhouse.com[/url]
11. [url=http://www.westonaprice.org/nutrition_greats/price.html]www.westonaprice.org/nutrition_greats/price.html[/url] May 24, 2004.
12. Price, Weston A.; Nutrition and Physical Degeneration; The Price-Pottinger Nutrition Foundation Inc., La Mesa, CA; 2000 ISBN 0-87983-816-7.
13. UPI Science News; January 27, 2003.
14. Harris, Marvin; Good to Eat, Waveland Press, Inc., Prospect Heights, IL; 1985.
15. Price, Weston A; cf. ante.
16. Viegas, Jennifer; “Study: Human DNA Neanderthal-Free,” Discovery News; May 12, 2003, [url=http://dc.discovery.com/news/briefs/20030512/neanderthal.html]http://dc.discovery.com/news/briefs/20030512/neanderthal.html[/url]
17. Reuters; March 27, 2000.
18. Harris, Marvin; cf. ante, p. 225.
19. Hayden, Brian; “A New Overview of Domestication,” Last Hunters—First Farmers (Price & Gebauer); School of American Research, Santa Fe, NM; 1995, p. 280.
20. Loc. cit.
21. Anderson, Edgar; Plants, Man, and Life; University of California Press; 1967, ISBN 0-52000-021-8.
22. Mysteries of the Unexplained, pp, 36–38; published by Readers Digest (1982), ISBN 0-89577-146-2.
23. Cremo, Michael A. & Thompson, Richard L.; Forbidden Archeology: The Hidden History of the Human Race; Torchlight Publishing; 1998 ISBN: 0892132949