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?