A core tenet of the Vital Origin philosophy is going ‘Back to Our Roots’ which is rooted (pun intended!) in Ancestral Health. Some of you who have made it to our page may already know what ancestral health is but those of you who don’t, this should provide a good starting point for understanding what ancestral health is and how we can utilise its principles to treat disease and optimise our health. We will have to learn a bit of anthropology and biology along the way, but these are fundamental to understanding our bodies and how we can thrive in the modern day.
- Homo sapiens (humans) have been around for about 300,000 years
- Humans have been predominantly hunter-gatherers for most of our evolutionary history
- The shift to the Neolithic period affected our health negatively
- Modern lifestyles are ruining our health
- To regain our health we can utilise ancestral health principles to thrive in the modern day
Paleolithic Period: How it all started
Homo sapiens (aka humans) have been around nearly 300,000 years and our likely earliest ancestor, Homo heidelbergensis, was around 550-750,000 years ago. Before that, our lineage of hominins (early ancestors of humans, not to be confused with hominids, the great apes) have been evolving into modern Homo sapiens for about 6-7 million years. The earliest to date being Sahelanthropus tchadensis from Chad  and Orrorin tugenensis from Kenya . During these periods, both our ancestors and modern Homo sapiens were hunter-gatherers ; meaning that we hunted animals and foraged plants for food. In fact, there is good evidence to suggest that we may have predominantly consumed animals during key parts of our evolution, as is suggested by the expensive tissue hypothesis  (as only 1 example among many) – but that will be a future blog all in its own. This period in our evolution is generally known as the paleolithic period, or the stone age, and makes up the vast majority of how our species and its ancestors evolved and lived.
Neolithic Period: Shift from meat, what happened?
After the paleolithic period was the Neolithic period, a time when we see advancement in tools and how we manage and grow food – the dawn of agriculture and the beginning of modern society . This period is generally considered to have become widespread for our species between 10-15,000 years ago. During this period, we see a stark shift in the way we live and what we eat. Thanks to the domestication of animals and plants, we are able to produce more food (but more nutrient poor) and allow populations to grow within larger and larger groups, eventually leading to metropolises. However, what we will argue here is that this shift away from hunting and gathering, away from fresh animals and plants to crops such as wheat, corn, rye and other mass agriculture species, was detrimental to our health. Jared Diamon in his book ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’  very clearly outlines how he believes the shift to the Neolithic period was one of the worst things to ever happen to humans!
“Nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution”Theodosius Dobzhansky
There is very clear evidence that during our shift to the Neolithic period we saw a dramatic drop in various metrics of health in the population of humans. For example, we see poor oral health, a general reduction in size and bone health and a rise in diseases such as Beriberi and Pellagra (to name a few) due to poor nutrient density and nutrient deficiencies of the Neolithic grain/crop based diet . As we move closer to the modern day, say within the last few hundred years, or even just the last 50 years, what we see with the modern lifestyle and modern diet is even more shocking. Sky-rocketing rates of diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, neurodegenerative disease, diabetes, autoimmune disease, depression and much more! These chronic diseases are often called diseases of affluence  or modernity because we see them rise predominantly in modern “civilised” societies. On the contrary, when we look at cultures that were, or even still are, hunter-gatherers, we do not see the presence of these diseases or at least not nearly to the same extend. This is well documented in many sources which are outside the scope of this post to cover. A good starting point would be to read ‘Nutrition and Physical Degeneration’ by Weston. A. Price  who catalogued hunter-gatherer cultures around the globe. There are many accounts of early European explores writing about the phenomenal health of the locals who still lived a traditional hunter-gatherer or pastoral lifestyle, even into old age. Even today we have evidence from the last few remaining hunter-gatherers such as the Hadza, !Kung, Inuit and many others (although many of them have been marginalised and restricted in where and what they can hunt today). And this is where the premise of Ancestral Health takes hold – it suggests that living closer to our evolutionary past, as hunter-gatherers, will provide us with better health then the current modern lifestyle.
The Rise in Chronic Diseases Today
To understand this principle, we need to understand biology and how evolution works. Many people today, including doctors, think that much of the chronic disease we see in the modern day is due to genetics. And although the discovery of genetics and the mapping of the entire human genome was an amazing success of science and for the human species, it cannot, by the very mechanism of evolution, account for the rise in these diseases within 1 or 2 generations. For example, obesity is predominantly driver by environmental and lifestyle factors compared to genetics .Evolution occurs over generations across a population, not at the individual level. So, for evolution to be the cause of the modern epidemic of chronic disease, we would have to see these effects occurring many generations ago. This is in stark contrast to what we have just outlined with the rise in these diseases within just 1 or 2 generations in the population at large. A much more parsimonious view of the current disease epidemic is what is called an evolutionary mismatch . This theory states that,
when there is discordance from a species current environment to its evolutionary past environmental the species physiology becomes maladapted and leads to dysfunction and disease. The environment is what drives evolutionary changes and thus the phenotype of a species.
So, if we look at the percent of our history living as hunter-gatherers vs the period of neolithic, we can see very clearly that vast majority of our entire species history has been as a hunter-gatherers consuming a diet of hunted animals and foraged plants. To be precise, if we take our earliest Homo sapien ancestor at 300,000 years ago, the Neolithic would be 5% of our entire history. From, H. heidelbergensis, that would be 2% of our history. If we go a step further and consider our earlier ancestors from just 2 million years ago, that would be 0.75% of our history! So clearly for the vast majority of our entire species lives we thrived as hunter-gatherers. During these periods our species evolved rapidly and spread across the globe around 70,000 years ago, living in every imaginable climate possible and consuming whatever fauna and flora were available in those regions. All without modern technology, or even old technology such as boats and wheeled vehicles. A feat I dare say most modern humans would not be able to survive. Our physiology has not drastically changed since these times, we are essentially stone agers living in the space age.
Learn from the Past: Environment and Nutrition
Of course, this does not mean that we should practice some form of ancestral health asceticism and live in caves without electricity and modern conveniences. What this does mean is that to combat the current derailment in the health of our species, we may be able to glean some insights into what is optimal for human health from our ancestral and genetic past – to use this knowledge in conjunction with our modern science, medicine and technology not only to combat this epidemic but learn how to thrive in the modern day. There are a few key factors we can look at from the ancestral way of life that we can easily implement into the modern day without giving up our current way of life. If we compare how our ancestors lived to how we live today, there are clear differences in the key pillars of health; environment, sleep, stress, food, movement and community, that are likely driving this evolutionary mismatch. We will dive into each of these core pillars of health in later blogs but for now let us look at a few simple examples, particularly environment and nutrition.
If we look at the environment, it is profoundly clear how different our modern life is to that of our hunter gatherer ancestors. They lived outside as one with nature, constantly exposed to the earth, sunlight, fresh air and an abundance of flora and fauna. This had profound effects on things like our circadian rhythm and microbiome. Let’s compare this to modern life where we spend almost all of our time indoors with artificial air, toxins in furniture, artificial light and overly sanitised environments. These are but a few simple comparisons.
Now let us consider the difference in food, the key pillar that Vital Origin seeks to help people improve. Our ancestors hunted animals as a primary source of energy and calories  – of which may have played a role in the evolution of our brain as mentioned in the expensive tissue hypothesis above. As we did not have agriculture, fridges and food preservatives at the time, food was much more scarce so everything was consumed. When hunters have a kill, nothing of the animal that was edible went to waste; they ate nose-to-tail. Many of the most nutrient dense parts of the animal were prized such as the liver, heart, kidneys and more. These parts of animals are some of the richest sources of nutrients, many of which we will cover in a follow up blog. Furthermore, all the food that was eaten during these times was fresh and unprocessed – there were no manufacturing facilities for food like we have today. Nothing came in boxes or bags laden with processed seed oils, sugar and artificial flavours and colours. These modern foods are one of the top contributing factors to the modern disease epidemic.
Low Life Expectancy Myth
Now, you might be thinking or have heard people say, “sure, but our ancestors had a terribly low life expectancy!”, and you would be correct but somewhat misinformed in making this statement. Let’s keep in mind that life expectancy takes the average in a population. Now imagine living in a time with no medicine or modern technology where infant mortility rates are extraordinarily high, dying of an infection from a small cut or from diarrhea due to contaminated water is common place. These deaths occur at a higher frequency within non-affluent groups and is the key factor that drives down the average life expectancy. But, what you would miss from this misrepresentation would be that those who tend to live past their 20’s tend to live with extraordinarily good health well into old age and free from modern disease . This is again well recorded across various pieces of literature as mentioned above. So when we consider the context in which average life expectancy is calculated, we can clearly see that this is not a fair representation of the health of our ancestors.
Vital Origin: Back to Our Roots
The theory and science behind ancestral health is still relatively new and we continue to learn more and more about our physiology and evolutionary past, but it is abundantly clear that how we are living now is not conducive to good health, and if we can utilise some ancestral knowledge in the modern day it may go a long way to improving our health. Vital Origin instils these philosophies into our brand and focuses on providing organ meats in an easy to consume form for people to incorporate ancestral health nutrition practices in their daily lives. Here’s to getting Back to Our Roots!
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