Not long ago, the concept of “ancestral health” was met with complete skepticism. The general response was that our ancestors’ short life expectancy “proved” that they lived in poor health. But a renewed interest in studying the health of modern hunter–gatherer tribes is signaling a change in conventional thinking.
When I published Your Personal Paleo Code in 2013 (now retitled The Paleo Cure), the central idea of the book—that the mismatch between our genes and the modern environment is the primary driver of chronic disease—encountered both skepticism and criticism in the popular media.
Both the mainstream press and the conventional medical establishment seemed even more dubious of the premise that we might be able to learn something useful by studying the diet and lifestyle of our hunter–gatherer ancestors or of contemporary groups that have maintained their traditional ways. Remember the articles ridiculing the “caveman diet”? You don’t have to go back too far; in fact, they’re still out there.
The tide is finally turning.
Studies on the Tsimané hunter–gatherers underscore the concept of ancestral health
Recently, two articles were published in the New York Times examining the absence of chronic disease in the Tsimané, a subsistence farming and hunter–gatherer population in Bolivia.
The first article, “Learning from Our Parents’ Heart Health Mistakes,” reported on a study showing that the Tsimané have a prevalence of atherosclerosis 80 percent lower than ours in the United States and that nine in 10 Tsimané adults aged 40 to 94 had completely clean arteries and no risk of heart disease.
The second article, “An Ancient Cure for Alzheimer’s?”, speculated that ApoE4, a genotype that confers a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease in the industrialized world, appears to have the opposite effect in the Tsimané—perhaps because it protects their brains from the parasites they are commonly infected by.
What struck me most about these articles, however, was not their content, but their context: the acceptance of the “mismatch” hypothesis as a fundamental tenet of the field of evolutionary medicine, rather than a crackpot theory advanced by fringe Paleo bloggers. From the Alzheimer’s article:
Scientists often refer to these places as “Weird”—Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic—and point out that our bodies are still designed for the not-Weird environment in which our species evolved. Yet we know almost nothing about how dementia affected humans during the 50,000 years before developments like antibiotics and mechanized farming. Studying the Tsimane, Dr. Trumble believes, could shed light on this modern plague.
Imagine that! Instead of ridiculing the idea that we might have something to learn from hunter–gatherers, these articles are affirming it. They even put to rest the old canard that hunter–gatherers don’t have “diseases of civilization” like diabetes and cardiovascular disease because they don’t live long enough to develop them:
The Tsimane suffer from high infant-mortality rates, but those who reach adulthood live about as long as most other people, making it possible to measure their health outcomes up to age 90 and beyond.
Wow! What universe are we living in? Just goes to show that change is indeed possible—even when it seems unlikely.
Next thing you know, the American Heart Association will admit that saturated fat isn’t the boogeyman they’ve made it out to be, and the American Diabetes Association will stop recommending high-carb, low-fat diets for diabetics.
You never know, stranger things have happened …