But I Thought Hunter Gatherers Died Young…

Very old woman of the San Bushman tribe

Alright, time to tackle one of the biggest arguments to eating Paleo: “Why would I want to eat like a caveperson if they only lived to be like 30 years old?”

I’m sure you’ve heard this argument or thought it yourself. So what’s the retort? It’s simple. We live in a fortuitous time when we have the best of both worlds – modern medicine AND high quality, organic Paleo foods at our fingertips.

Hunter gatherers throughout time and geography weren’t (and aren’t) dying of heart attacks and complications of diabetes and obesity like we are in the Western world now. Their lives ended because of things like malaria, tuberculosis, falls from trees, starvation, and childbirth. They killed each other brutally with hand-made weapons or were eaten by predators that we don’t even have to think about in our cozy houses anymore. Or if they were lucky, they lived to be really old and died peacefully and quickly when their bodies finally gave out.

They weren’t living out their formative years in hospitals and nursing homes being force-fed medicine to keep them “alive”. They weren’t in wheelchairs because they were so obese their joints gave out. And they weren’t having open heart surgery because their arteries were so inflamed that blood no longer flowed through them. They were dying of actually natural causes – not diseases of diet – which is how I’d prefer to go out any day.

Let’s take a look at the Kitavans, since there’s so much data on them. A healthy, seemingly happy, peaceful culture in the Trobriand Islands in Papua New Guinea eating a Paleo diet. At the time they were studied in the late 1980’s, they ate tubers, fruit, fish, and occasionally pig, and they didn’t suffer from heart disease, obesity, or other common ailments of Westerners.

In fact, none of the 213 adults surveyed had any memory of anyone having chest pain or spontaneously dying (as from a heart attack). Oh, and they smoked like chimneys. Anyway, yes, their average lifespan was lower than ours, but it doesn’t mean that people didn’t live to be very old, even into their 100’s. Here’s the breakdown:

According to this study, their average lifespan was 45 years, which doesn’t seem that old, but it averaged out to that because a lot of children died of malaria. Once they reached adulthood, their chances of reaching old age were possibly about the same as Westerners.  6% of the population was 65 or older (compared to 12% in the U.S.). Their activity level was high, but not outrageously high. And none of the elderly seemed to suffer from dementia or poor memory. When the Kitavans were very old and it was their time to go, they would just stop working one day and go into their houses and die within days. For more on the Kitavans, you can read this blog post I did about them here.

60 year-old Kitavan chief

We can only assume that the Kitavans were living similarly to other hunter-gatherer people. Actually, according to this article by Loren Cordain, Boyd Eaton, and Staffan Lindeberg (the same man who studied the Kitavans), 40 years was about the average lifespan of recently studied hunter gatherer people. They also make the point in the article (which you should definitely peruse) that the lifespan argument against eating Paleo is bunk in another way. From the time of the agricultural revolution about 10,000 years ago up until the late 1700’s, “expectation of life in ‘civilized’ nations seldom or never exceeded 25 years”. In fact, even in 1800 in the United States, life expectancy was only 36 years. So if you still want to argue that our modern, agricultural diet brings forth longer life than the Paleo diet, tell that to your great-great-great-great grandfather.

And now that our children are obese, diabetic, and on the same cholesterol medications their parents are on, do you think they’re headed for a long, healthy life? No, they’re not. In fact, according to this study, one quarter of girls born today in the United States will live shorter lives than their mothers. And that’s not because of tuberculosis or malaria, and they certainly aren’t falling out of trees or being mauled to death by saber tooth tigers at a young age. According to the researchers, the decreasing lifespan in the U.S. is due to our nation’s poor diet and the low quality foods that parents are forcing on their children.

So remember that you have a choice to take advantage of the state of the world we live in. You have a roof over your head to protect you from the elements and predators. You have antibiotics and other medications to ward off communicable diseases. You have doctors who can restart your heart in case of an accident and mend your bones like magicians. Would you lay that all to waste by feeding yourself garbage when you can eat like our ancestors did and live the longest, healthiest life possible?







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  1. Graham Lutz

    I love that they smoke like chimneys! I’ve always had a hypothesis that carcinogens are only carcinogenic in the presence of an enabling diet.

  2. Phalakone Mysay

    Wouahhh, this is such a great article that explains with scientific proof why our hunter-gatherer died young.

    Great job for the research and putting into 1 post.

  3. Mallie Hart

    Wonderful. Thanks for nipping this silly idea in the bud.

  4. Lisa

    So in other words, if we follow the paleo diet, we should also follow the paleo excercise plan!

  5. Chad

    So why is it that the longest living community in North America are the Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Lima, with a HUGE percentage of them being vegetarians? Look it up, it’s been proven that not eating dead animals is completely healthy. I would know, because I live in Loma Linda and only eat an organic, zero dead animal diet!

  6. Randy

    @Chad – The Paleo diet is more about not eating processed foods (sugar carbs) than it is about eating meat. You can eat a Paleo vegan diet by getting your protein and fats from nuts and avocados and coconut and the like…
    It’s about staying away from grains that the body isn’t meant to process, and the processed foods and like you, if you’re a real vegan – dairy.

  7. JackRabid

    lol isn’t meant to process?

    One of the strongest critiques of the Paleo Diet was presented by Karl Fenst, a bioarchaeologist with the Ardipithecus Institute, in a keynote address entitled “Papayas Ain’t Paleo, and Neither Are You.” Rather than focus on relative merits of one diet over another, Dr. Fenst instead attacked the premise that agricultural products are somehow “‘unnatural,” with wheat being specifically singled out. What people seem to ignore, he said, was that the fresh fruits and vegetables forming the basis of the Paleo Diet were created by the same agricultural process that produced cereal grains.

    “Nearly every food item you currently eat today has been modified from its ancestral form, typically in a drastic way, ” he began. “The notion that we have not yet adapted to eat wheat, yet we have had sufficient time to adapt to kale or lentils is ridiculous. In fact, for most practitioners of the Paleo Diet, who are typically westerners, the majority of the food they consume has been available to their gene pool for less than five centuries. Tomatoes, peppers, squash, potatoes, avocados, pecans, cashews, and blueberries are all New World crops, and have only been on the dinner table of African and Eurasian populations for probably 10 generations of their evolutionary history. Europeans have been eating grain for the last 10,000 years; we’ve been eating sweet potatoes for less than 500. Yet the human body has seemingly adapted perfectly well to yams, let alone pineapple and sunflower seeds.”

    • Sally

      Hi JackRabid. Thanks for you comment. The Paleo diet seeks to mimic not only the diet of our paleolthic ancestors but lifestyle factors as well such as decreasing chronic stress, getting enough sun and exercise and increasing the quantity and quality of sleep all in search of optimal health. In regards to diet, although absolutely no food available today is the same as it was 10,000 years ago or more, foods belonging to groups that were eaten for millions of years by stone age humans such as meat, vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds are still better tolerated today by many people than newer, post agricultural foods such as dairy, legumes and grains and even newer highly refined, high glycemic products. All of the foods mentioned in your quote except wheat, belong to food groups available in the past: fruits, nuts and vegetables, and thus humans today are particularly suited to tolerating them even though they are not genetically the same as the foods of the past. Furthermore, the Paleo diet is a framework from which individuals implement diet and lifestyle factors that meet individual health concerns, goals and tolerances. For instance, people who have inherited the gene for lactase persistence, and do not have any other sensitivities to diary may choose to include dairy within their framework. Wheat is particularly hard for people to digest whether it be do to new genetic strains that we haven’t yet adapted to, gluten or FODMAP intolerance or all of the above. In the future, more people may develop the ability to tolerate wheat. Until that time, when we evolve to meet the physiologic demands of modern foods and lifestyle realities, we can take care of ourselves by adopting an ancestral approach to eating and living.

  8. Marvin

    This article doesn’t prove anything and is really mere speculation at best.

    These paleo diet fan guys can’t handle the truth that there is no life expectancy benefit from paleo diets. The paleo diet may reduce life expectancy (no one knows yet, no clear experimental data).

    When we look at the populations that live the longest in the world in modern times (based on things that we absolutely REALLY know to be true), many of them consume beans, dairy, grains, are vegetarian, and other things that the paleo diet is STRICTLY against!

    Like for instance Sardinia, Italy, they have one of the highest life expectancies in the world, but they consume lots of milk, grains, cheese (which the paleo diet is against).

    Loma Linda, California – one of the highest life expectancies in the world, they are mostly vegetarian with little to no meat.

    Nicoya, Costa Rica – One of the highest life expectancies in the world, they consume LOTS of corn, rice, beans, and other things shunned by paleo diet fans

    There is no benefit of the paleo diet, many things it encourages reduces life expectancy (too much meat, avoiding legumes, starch, or grains that may help you).

    This is based on life expectancy data that we really KNOW to be true, not speculations.

    • Sally Barden Johnson

      Hi Marvin,

      This article is more a rebuttal to criticisms that the Paleo diet is based on short-lived people than it is a testament to the Paleo diet and life extension. The author makes the point that hunter-gatherers who lived past childhood actually lived long lives.

      What we know about longevity is that telomeres, the “protective caps” on the ends of chromosomes, play a central role in the cellular aging process, http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2014/07/05/aging-too-much-telomerase-can-be-as-bad-as-too-little/. Telomere length is a strong predictor of longevity with longer telomeres correlating with longer life. What affects the length of telomeres? Both genes and the environment play a role. Envornmental stressors that shorten telomeres include stress hormones, oxidative stress, and inflammatory stress and the Paleo diet and lifestyle is specifically designed to reduce such stressors by mitigating or eliminating the very things that cause them such as high-processed food diets, high-refined oil intake, high omega-6 intake, insufficient omega-3 intake, poor gut health, insufficient sleep, insufiicient sun, insufficient movement, chromic stress, and so on and so on, http://www.marksdailyapple.com/what-is-inflammation/#axzz3OI9PPXtP.

      The people of the Blue Zones you mentioned eat nutrient dense diets, maintain social attachments and minimize stressors just like the Paleo community does. Perhaps the Paleo community will be the next Blue Zone!


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