How did we get paleo-suckered?


Are you a paleo-sucker?

Paleo-suckers believe in the central conceit of modern alternative health that human beings reached the acme of our existence during the Paleolithic Era. According to advocates of “natural living,” our bodies were designed for the demands of life in the Paleolithic and technology, whether modern diets, modern medicine or modern parenting, is making us sick; and returning to the Paleolithic lifestyle will make us healthy.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Paleo-suckers are longing for a past that literally never existed anywhere except in their dreams.[/pullquote]

Nothing could be further from the truth. The dirty little secret about our Paleolithic ancestors is that they were relatively poorly designed from an evolutionary perspective. Indeed, we came very close to extinction during that era and our closest hominid relatives, the Neanderthals, did become extinct. The fact that we are still here has nothing to do with our biology and everything to do with technology.

So where did some people get the idea that life in nature was wonderful?

William Buckner explains in Romanticizing the Hunter-Gatherer:

In 1966, at the ‘Man the Hunter’ symposium held at the University of Chicago, anthropologist Richard B. Lee presented a paper that would radically rewrite how academics and the public at large interpret life in hunter-gatherer societies. Questioning the notion that the hunter-gatherer way of life is a “precarious and arduous struggle for existence,” Lee instead described a society of relative comfort and abundance. Lee studied the !Kung of the Dobe area in the Kalahari Desert (also known variously as Bushmen, the San people, or the Ju/’hoansi) and noted that they required only 12 to 19 hours a week to collect all the food they needed. Lee further criticized the notion that hunter-gatherers have a low life expectancy, arguing that the proportion of individuals older than 60 among the !Kung, “compares favorably to the percentage of elderly in industrialized populations.” On the basis of Lee’s work, and other material presented at the symposium, anthropologist Marshall Sahlins coined the phrase “original affluent society” to describe the hunter-gatherer way of life.

It is difficult to overestimate the impact of this idea.

It’s not often that you see a 50-year-old paper repeatedly referenced in mainstream publications, but you can find mentions of Lee’s work pretty much everywhere today. In the Guardian, the New York Times, the London Review of Books, the Financial Times, and Salon, among others. Much of this attention has to do with two recently published books, Against the Grain by James C. Scott and Affluence without Abundance by James Suzman, both of which are informed by Lee and Sahlins’s conception of hunter-gatherer affluence. An article in the September 18 [2017] issue of the New Yorker by John Lanchester heavily cites each of these books in order to make “The Case Against Civilization.”

There is just one problem. The claims in the paper were not true.

As Lee himself would later mention in his 1984 book on the Dobe !Kung, his original estimate of 12-19 hours worked per week did not include food processing, tool making, or general housework, and when such activities were included he estimated that the !Kung worked about 40-44 hours per week.

That still sounds pretty good in exchange for a life of abundance.


[I]t is important to note that this does not take into account the difficulty or danger involved in the types of tasks undertaken by hunter-gatherers. It is when you look into the data on mortality rates, and dig through diverse ethnographic accounts, that you realize how badly mistaken claims about an “original affluent society” really are.

Though hunter-gathers purportedly “work” less time to get their food, they are much more likely to die doing so.

Moreover, Lee’s claims are belied by actual mortality data:

In his later work, Lee would acknowledge that, “Historically, the Ju/’hoansi have had a high infant mortality rate…” In a study on the life histories of the !Kung Nancy Howell found that the number of infants who died before the age of 1 was roughly 20 percent. (As high as this number is, it compares favorably with estimates from some other hunter-gatherer societies, such as among the Casiguran Agta of the Phillipines, where the rate is 34 percent.)

In other words, the death rate from natural mothering — the holy grail for contemporary advocates of “normal” birth and breastfeeding — was astronomical.

And although there may be individuals over 60 in these populations:

Life expectancy for the !Kung is 36 years of age. Again, while this number is only about half the average life expectancy found among contemporary nation states, this number still compares favorably with several other hunter-gatherer populations, such as the Hiwi (27 years) and the Agta (21 years)…

Who would want to emulate that?

But aren’t hunter-gathers better protected against infectious diseases that occur when large numbers of people live close together?

Much is made of the increased risk of infectious disease in large, concentrated, sedentary populations, but comparatively little attention has been given to the risk of ‘traveler’s diarrhea’ common among hunter-gatherers. For mobile groups, infants, the elderly, and other vulnerable individuals have little opportunity to develop resistance to local pathogens. This may help explain why infant and child mortality among hunter-gatherers tends to be so high. Across hunter-gatherer societies, only about 57% of children born survive to the age of 15. Sedentary populations of forager-horticulturalists, and acculturated hunter-gatherers, have a greater number of children surviving into adulthood, with 64% and 67%, respectively, surviving to the age of 15.

Why have people clung to the original claim about the “abundance” of hunter-gatherer society despite the fact that they have been debunked again and again? Why do people allow themselves to become paleo-suckered?

In wealthy, industrialized populations oriented around consumerism and occupational status, the idea that there are people out there living free of greed, in natural equality and harmony, provides an attractive alternative way of life. To quote anthropologist David Kaplan, “The original affluent society thesis then may be as much a commentary on our own society as it is a depiction of the life of hunter-gatherers. And that may be its powerful draw and lasting appeal.”

Paleo-suckers from Gwyneth Paltrow to the Food Babe Army, from anti-vaxxers to lactivists and natural childbirth advocates are longing for a past that literally never existed anywhere except in their dreams.

There would be nothing wrong with that if the only thing injured as a result were people’s wallets. Sadly, attempting to recapitulate a natural Eden that never existed injures people, keeps them from getting appropriate healthcare and can even lead to death.

55 Responses to “How did we get paleo-suckered?”

  1. MaineJen
    April 19, 2018 at 1:23 pm #

    OT, but not really because we’re talking about people getting suckered: a homeopath treats a 4 year old child with rabid dog saliva. Yes, you heard me right, and yes! According to the College of Naturopathic Physicians of British Columbia, this is a legitimate homeopathic treatment.

    Faith in humanity: ZERO

    • Roadstergal
      April 19, 2018 at 2:28 pm #

      “controversial homeopathic remedy”

      No, there should be utterly no controversy. That is something you do NOT GIVE A CHILD.

      • EmbraceYourInnerCrone
        April 19, 2018 at 2:49 pm #

        Why anyone want to do this?
        There’s been maybe one person in the history of ever, that survived rabies. Apparently the parents are willing to maybe kill their kid to “cure” their behavior problems.

        • MaineJen
          April 19, 2018 at 2:51 pm #

          But it’s homeopathic. So even if it DID originally contain dog saliva, it’s been diluted to the point of irrelevance. And if it DOES still contain rabid dog saliva…you’re committing murder, basically. But the homeopathic “doctor” they quote swears it’s a proven treatment.

          Some of the comments…

          • EmbraceYourInnerCrone
            April 19, 2018 at 4:01 pm #

            My brain keeps going down weird rabbits holes: Who collects the saliva from the rabid dogs(always providing it’s not just fake) ? Does the homeopath follow proper lab procedure to handle it?

          • The Vitaphone Queen
            April 20, 2018 at 3:37 am #

            How do they even FIND rabid dogs?
            Oh, wait, they probably leave their pet dogs unvaccinated.

          • Who?
            April 20, 2018 at 4:15 am #

            I suspect you are giving this way too much thought.

            Surely it has to be a giant fake.

          • MaineJen
            April 20, 2018 at 8:56 am #

            Yeah, I have to think the entire thing is fake. There’s no way some naturopathic doctor is out there risking his/her life collecting rabid dog saliva to bring this miracle cure to the masses.

            It’s tapwater.

          • kilda
            April 19, 2018 at 5:26 pm #

            yes, the homeopathic practice of diluting the remedy out until there’s no active ingredient left is the only thing that save this from being outright murder. As it is, it’s basically just water that at some point was somewhere near rabid dog saliva. Supposedly. Probably the “rabies saliva” started out as saliva from a mildly annoyed poodle or something.

            as a doctor, I get so, so tired of patients coming in with these self-diagnosed quack conditions they found on the internet. They bring in lists of symptoms that includes super-nonspecific things like “fatigue” or “behavior problems” and say “see! It’s like they’re describing his exact symptoms!” They diagnose themselves or their kid with crap like chronic Lyme, vaccine injury, gadolinium toxicity, or multiple chemical sensitivities, or, apparently now some kind of low grade rabies?

            it’s so tiring, because every time I have to be patient, and diplomatic, and try to explain why it isn’t that, when I really just want to say “No, just stop, that’s stupid.”

    • StephanieJR
      April 19, 2018 at 3:05 pm #

      …the fuck did I just read?

  2. mabelcruet
    April 19, 2018 at 4:07 am #

    Personally, I tend to shop local and try and shop seasonal-I’m in quite a rural area and we have a lot of farm shops nearby. But even locally grown food is still ‘processed’ and ‘artificial’. Most of the food processing and food preserving techniques that we still use come from the paleolithic era-cooking, drying, smoking, brining. None of these are ‘natural’. Neolithic farmers actively genetically manipulated crops by cross-breeding and selection to improve yield. Ancient man seemed to prefer domesticated farming and raising edible animals to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. And as for the raw food diet, or the fruitarian diet, how unnatural are those?

    • rosewater1
      April 19, 2018 at 8:57 am #

      That’s a good point regarding preservation techniques. And, also in terms of the rigid “diets” that are so in vogue right now.

    • Empress of the Iguana People
      April 19, 2018 at 10:34 am #

      In other words, grizzlies and pandas are both bears, but if you feed a grizzlie nothing but bamboo and the panda nothing but salmon, you are quickly going to have two very sick bears. Humans cook and have for a very long time. It’s not really important if other homo species did or not. Didn’t Neanderthals cook, though?

      • mabelcruet
        April 19, 2018 at 2:45 pm #

        I think the evidence suggests that Neanderthals stewed their food and made a sort of porridge. On the whole, cooking of any sort is fairly universal. Even animals ‘prepare’ their food-Japanese Macques season their food by washing it in salt water.

      • ɹǝdɯoʇs ɥʇʎɯ
        April 27, 2018 at 9:57 am #

        “Didn’t Neanderthals cook, though?”

        No, I heard that they just ordered out.

    • Roadstergal
      April 19, 2018 at 2:31 pm #

      Fruitarian! Is there anything more unnatural and manipulated than modern-day fruit?

      • Who?
        April 19, 2018 at 6:10 pm #

        Organic fruitarian, obviously.

        Often comprising fruit flown in on the ancient jet, since it grows nowhere near where it is consumed.

        I am going to stop now lest I start ranting.

      • seenthelight
        April 19, 2018 at 11:07 pm #

        Doesn’t it murder the liver, too?

  3. DelphiniumFalcon
    April 18, 2018 at 9:27 pm #

    I’m an adult of Northern European descent that can safely digest lactose. Evolution and selection laugh at the claims we haven’t evolved to eat a modern diet.

    • Merrie
      April 19, 2018 at 4:39 pm #

      Also, limiting your diet to exclude certain foods is the opposite of what our ancestors would have done. They ate anything they could get their hands on! Look at rhubarb… every part of the plant is poisonous except the one part we eat, and even that part has to be treated with a ton of sugar to make it palatable. And they cultivated it anyway.

  4. AnnaPDE
    April 18, 2018 at 7:34 pm #

    I think the popular image of how a hunter gatherer survives is like this one client I work with. He lives in subtropical Queensland and cooks a lot of his food with fruit and veg collected from his large garden, and meat that he hunts or fish that he catches himself. Usually he cooks this stuff outdoors on a barcecue, too. Very paleo romantic.
    Of course, those plants wouldn’t be there for him to gather from had he not carefully selected and planted them (he spent ages researching and talking to experts on how to set up a low maintenance garden with produce year round), he has rifles and a high tech bow for hunting, a good boat for fishing, and a camera equipped drone to help him find fish and game quickly. The big gas barbecue sure beats having to light a fire without matches in humid conditions. And even with all the modern kit it all hinges on living in a year-round balmy/hot climate at the seaside, with good fishing grounds on the wet side and lots of (mostly non native) game on the other.
    And of course he also shops at the supermarket for everything else. But of course that’s the normal part and makes for less fun conversation.

  5. Banrion
    April 18, 2018 at 1:13 pm #

    What I want to know is why stop at a ridiculous diet? Why not also build a leanto out of nothing but mud, sticks and leaves? Surely if one is to see the benefits of this lifestyle one must commit more than just to food. Shivering all night will burn more calories than a half hour at planet fitness, and I hear hypothermia (cryotherapy) is all the rage these days too.

    • Sue
      April 18, 2018 at 9:39 pm #

      Then, instead of blogging about your lifestyle, you could just brag about it around the campfire, while others yawn.

  6. StephanieJR
    April 18, 2018 at 1:04 pm #

    Not even my rabbit eats paleo; she’d shank me if I tried to replace her highly processed but nutritionally balanced pellets, that I’m pretty sure she loves more than me, with grass. It’s enough of a challenge to get her to eat hay.

    • Gæst
      April 18, 2018 at 5:26 pm #

      And my cockatiel likes scientifically-formulated pellets dyed artificial colors, even when unprocessed seeds (including sunflower seeds) are equally available.

    • mabelcruet
      April 19, 2018 at 2:17 am #

      My cats turn their noses up at raw food. They prefer their steak done rare, their lamb pink and chicken well done. And of course, it all has to be hand carved into neat little pieces, if I give them a large lump they paw it for a bit, then look at me as if to say ‘What is this, slave?’

      • Tigger_the_Wing
        April 26, 2018 at 5:14 am #

        Our cats (apart from my own, disabled, indoor cat) live the usual rural life of farm cats everywhere, hunting mice and rats, and the occasional bird*. They still turn up twice a day for their processed meals (and nag if we’re late putting the bowls out!) and I am reliably informed that they sometimes beg treats from the neighbours, too. This winter was so wet that the grass has barely started to grow. Our sheep and the neighbours’ cattle are thriving on supplementary ‘artificial’ feed. It’s fun to watch the heifers run across the field when they see the farmer coming with the sacks of feed – and then run in circles around him until he opens them.

        *The birds they catch are usually old or sick. Birds are usually far too much effort for a cat to bother with, when there are plenty of mice to catch. The biggest cause of the collapse of avian populations is human-caused destruction of habitat – not just of the birds themselves, but of their main food sources. Fewer hedgerows and increased pesticide use means fewer insects and fewer seeds. Yet we blame the cats. One of our cats did proudly leave a young magpie on our doorstep, but it was obviously a road casualty before he got to it.

        • mabelcruet
          April 30, 2018 at 4:10 pm #

          My kittens did that when they were still tiny kittens. I came downstairs and found an enormous and very dead rat on the kitchen floor. I live next to woodland and my next door neighbour had put out rat poison, so they’d obviously dragged home a poisoned rat and pretended they’d done it. Heaven knows how they got it through the cat flap, it was the same size as them.

          At the moment I have seagulls coming to the garden. They are huge birds-the cats ostentatiously ignore them and act all nonchalant and laid back, like they just couldn’t be bothered with such riff raff. I think they are too scared to go anywhere near them…

  7. April 18, 2018 at 12:42 pm #

    I read a monograph on the Hadza group’s food gathering and the amount of time it consumed. The author and his graduate students wanted to make sure that rewards that the Hadza received for participating in the food gathering studies didn’t affect the food gathering so they offered a variety of items including jewelry making items and clothing.

    The author never made the connection that the influx of store-bought clothing and to a lesser extent jewelry by definition increased the amount of time available for the Hadza to gather food by decreasing the insane amount of time making cloth/clothing from raw material takes.

    I think that type of oversight happens a lot when people start trying to draw ambitious conclusions from research.

    • MaineJen
      April 19, 2018 at 11:54 am #

      Might I hazard a guess, also, that the original researchers and his students were all male, and as such, might have been quite dismissive of female labor such as cooking, housekeeping, food processing and storage, etc? All that factored into their calculations were the actual hunting and gathering, not all of the work that followed.

      • April 19, 2018 at 12:57 pm #

        They did have at least one female graduate student who I suspect was somewhat helpful in getting some information about women’s lives. From what I read, his work in food gathering/cooking/storage was pretty solid.

        My thought on the oversight involving clothing/fabric making is that both of those skills are fairly far removed from most Westerners lives today. Few women or men have made a piece of clothing from purchased cloth today; far fewer have been involved in spinning or weaving a piece of cloth; and even fewer have grown and prepared fibers to be spun. Throughout history, making cloth/coverings has been a full-time job for women but mechanization has pretty much removed that labor entirely .

        Kind of related: last year, my husband and I went to a Ojibwe/Ottawa/Huron history museum that detailed the steps in making buckskin into clothing. Imagine the fun of sewing in the absence of hardenable metal needles. Women had to punch holes in both pieces using awls then lace the thread through using bone needles.

        • Tigger_the_Wing
          April 26, 2018 at 5:00 am #

          I’ve stitched leather and, yes, it involves a block of wood, a hammer, and an awl – even if you’re lucky enough to have steel needles. And it is tiring work even with steel tools. It must be exhausting if all you have are bone tools and a rock for a hammer.

  8. The Kids Aren't AltRight
    April 18, 2018 at 12:41 pm #

    I think the fantasy goes deeper than that. A lot of religions tell of a magical time before it all went to shit (like Eve and the Apple, Pandora’s Box, etc.) Imagining an idealized past seems to be fill some psychological need for our species.

    • MaineJen
      April 19, 2018 at 11:55 am #

      So “Back in my day…get off my lawn!” is as old as the bible.

      • The Kids Aren't AltRight
        April 19, 2018 at 12:22 pm #

        At least!

  9. rosewater1
    April 18, 2018 at 12:35 pm #

    I eat (mostly) organic. I don’t eat a lot of processed or frozen foods.

    I take vitamins. I supplement with herbs on occasion.

    I exercise.

    However,,,,I also have a bottle of Ativan in my purse. Don’t use it very much, but I like knowing it’s there. I take antibiotics. I’m fully vaccinated (thank you Mom and Dad).

    I’m snacking on a bag of Nestle chocolate chips right now.

    I work in health care (yes, I work for Big Pharma and its minions. Don’t look directly at this post or you’ll turn to stone.)

    I keep coming back to an article I read where one doctor said that we are all a laboratory of one. Find what diet, etc works best for you and follow it as best as you can. Don’t try to shoehorn yourself into a philosophy that makes no practical sense for you.

    And you may be a laboratory of one, but you are NOT an island. Consult an expert if you need to. Preferably one that has MD and not .com after their name for their education.

  10. April 18, 2018 at 12:29 pm #

    Can I call my fresh, tasty chocolate chip cookies Paleo cookies? I mean, you can’t prove that hunter-gatherers DIDN’T make and eat them; it’s not as if anyone today was around to verify their diet.

    (Insert responses pointing out absurdity of above statement here.)

    Oh? That’s nonsense? Perhaps so, but my cookies are just as authentically Paleo as your mushroom-on-ancient grains dish with mustard greens and reduction–and much tastier.

    • rosewater1
      April 18, 2018 at 1:41 pm #

      Damn right you can!

    • Daleth
      April 19, 2018 at 10:19 am #

      Hell yes. I know if I were stuck in Paleo conditions, I would figure out how to make cookies. Heating a large rock in a fire and then removing it (or dousing the fire) and putting cookies on it to cook while it cooled should do the trick. And if I were in a chocolate-growing part of the world, there would be chocolate involved.

      It sounds awfully healthy, if only because of the number of calories you’d need to expend to make a batch of cookies in such conditions.

      • mabelcruet
        April 19, 2018 at 10:35 am #

        Cookies are nearly bread, and bread was first made about 8000 BC (ok, so it was unleavened bread, but still bread). So I bet paleolithic folk knew rightly how to make cookies-someone is bound to have had the idea ‘lets throw a handful of preserved fruit in there’-hey presto-sultana cookies!

  11. Cartman36
    April 18, 2018 at 12:02 pm #

    I know that Otzi, the natural mummy found in the alps was NOT from the paleolithic era but I think he is a good example of the general state of health before modern medicine. “The 40-something’s list of
    complaints include worn joints, hardened arteries, gallstones, and a
    nasty growth on his little toe (perhaps caused by frostbite). Furthermore, the Iceman’s gut contained the eggs of parasitic worms, he likely had Lyme disease, and he had alarming levels of arsenic in his system (probably due to working with metal ores and copper extraction). Ötzi was also in need of a dentist—an in-depth dental examination found evidence of advanced gum disease and tooth decay”.

    • PeggySue
      April 18, 2018 at 5:46 pm #

      What?? Hardened arteries? I thought that was a condition completely unknown until we started eating Terrible Modern Food.

      • Merrie
        April 18, 2018 at 11:27 pm #

        They just didn’t know about it. I think about all the cases in the Bible where God “smited” someone, and I’m betting sudden death due to a stroke, aneurysm, heart attack, etc. looked a lot like smiting and that’s how people interpreted it.

        • Roadstergal
          April 19, 2018 at 6:12 pm #

          Oh, I like this hypothesis.

          • kilda
            April 19, 2018 at 11:07 pm #

            I always assumed it’s called a stroke because it’s like God striking you down.

      • Cartman36
        April 19, 2018 at 8:55 am #

        nope, “Mummies from cultures across the globe have one thing in common—plaque in their arteries”.

  12. Cartman36
    April 18, 2018 at 11:58 am #

    I have a cousin that “makes the best paleo chicken” which involves ranch dressing packets. Unless she is getting the chicken from the side of the road and it is starting to turn a little, nothing about the dish is in any way reminiscent of what our paleolithic ancestors ate.

    • Heidi
      April 18, 2018 at 12:10 pm #

      I guess hunting a low body fat bird with tough meat and using wild onions as seasoning cooked over a fire that she somehow has to start without the aid of matches, charcoal or newspapers wasn’t appealing to her?

    • Empress of the Iguana People
      April 18, 2018 at 3:02 pm #

      Oh, I hope that’s said with a wink, because if she’s serious, oh my.

      • Cartman36
        April 19, 2018 at 8:52 am #

        nope, she is as serious as a heart attack. She also is against fluoride being added to drinking water because “fluoride is a poison”. I’m like, you know what else is a poison dummy, chlorine but we add it to drinking water because we know at the levels we use it is a safe and effective at killing bacteria in the water.

        • Roadstergal
          April 19, 2018 at 6:15 pm #

          And not to mention that ‘natural’ water sources in the US often contain higher levels of fluoride than is the standard for municipal water – it’s how we first learned that fluoride is good for teeth!

    • AnnaPDE
      April 18, 2018 at 6:53 pm #

      I love to imagine what a prehistoric hunt for ranch dressing packets must have look loike. I assume they had to be caught in traps and nets, or driven over the edge of a cliff, as shooting them would have spilled the valuable dressing, amd clubbing them makes them burst and is a major mess.

      • Who?
        April 18, 2018 at 7:26 pm #

        Sounds like the synopsis for a future episode of Black Mirror!

    • mabelcruet
      April 20, 2018 at 1:48 am #

      I just googled paleo chicken recipes. What a load of absolute tosh! Hawaiian chicken with bacon and pineapple, Jerk chicken with hot sauce, chicken schnitzel (‘paleo’ because it’s made with tapioca flour and not ordinary flour). I can really see paleo man sitting down to a plate of Hawaiian chicken with cubes of tinned preserved pineapple that somehow floated across the oceans from wherever.

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