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.