Eating to Rewild: Ancestral Nutrition for the Modern Hunter-Gatherer

Indian custom of eating one meal a day

Nutrition is a topic filled with fads, junk science, multi-level marketing schemes, government propaganda, and corporate marketing. We’re told for decades that fat is bad, but now fat is good. Sugars bad, then artificial sweeteners are worse, then their okay again.  Breakfast is the most important meal, but wait, no we should be fasting! Butter or margarine? White meat or dark meat? Organic or GMO? BLAH BLAH BLAH!

Disclaimer: I am not a nutritionist, and I am not making health recommendations in this blog. Nor would I want to. I find most nutritionist with their institutional, one-dimensional thinking to be a part of the problem. These people go to university where they are told what to think, then they get into the professional life and parrot whatever the government and corporations are saying is good nutrition at the moment. There are a few good ones out there, and I am not deriding the whole profession as junk-science. Just like any other career field in our society, the really talented ones will not find success within the institutions of their profession. Most of the good nutritionists are going to be found running small consultancy businesses instead of holding down a job at the hospital.

So here is what works for me when it comes to nutrition. I look at the evidence from existing hunter-gatherer tribes, and what we know about the diets of our ancestors. You can research Primal, Paleo, Weston Price, or any of the other marketing buzzwords used to sell ancestral diets. I personally got my feet wet in this subject by reading Mark’s Daily Apple. The idea is simple. We have evolved over thousands of years to eat a certain balance of macronutrients. Diets varied based on location and culture, but a few things remain the same in all tribal societies:

  1. Food was not always available, leading to intermittent fasting
  2. Meat and vegetables were primary sources of food
  3. Grains and legumes were fermented
  4. Salt is used liberally to ferment everything.
  5. Fats and organ meats are prized

About four years ago I tried the Primal diet. I spent the first few weeks consuming less than 50 grams of carbs each day. I worked back up to 100 grams. After six weeks, I had lost 45 lbs! Then the problem began. My initial surge of willpower was over, the weight was off, and I was constantly surrounded by a culture that revolved around cheap, unhealthy grains. I gained most of the weight back. The two biggest challenges are time and willpower. If you can find the time to prepare foods and overcome the cultural fixation on carbs, you can experience the hunter-gatherer diet.

If I can make it work, Primal is the best diet I have found for my own personal health. Eating a diet rich in meat and vegetables with little grain seems to work best for my personal genetics. I believe our ancestors went through periods of ketosis in the winter time which regulated their weight and prevented metabolic syndrome. In temperate climates, there is very little vegetative growth between December and February. It only stands to reason that stored foods eventually ran out for Balok‘s tribe, and they were forced to subsist primarily on meat until the spring. For millennia we evolved while eating different macronutrient profiles based on the time of the year. It was only after the introduction of factory foods and modern distribution systems that fruits and sugars became available in the deep winter. As a species, we have not had time to adapt to this new reality.

So, how do we limit the damage of agricultural foods, and eat more traditionally? How do we eat the best foods without burning ourselves out with a purist mentality? It’s often tempting to sacrifice the good for the perfect, which eventually leads us to fall back into poor eating habits. Find balance and understand that you will never eat a diet that is 100% healthy for you. Make small changes and incrementally alter your habits.

  • Remove or ferment all grains and legumes in your pantry
  • Remove packaged snack foods based on sugars or grains.
  • Plan and freeze healthy meals on the weekend
  • Ferment foods you can eat as a snack or garnish
  • Keep healthy snacks in the house, car, and office
  • Make compromises or you will fail
  • Learn foods you can eat at restaurants that are less bad
  • Make social settings your cheat days
  • Shop at local farmers markets and CSA’s
  • Produce some of your own food. It will be the healthiest part of your diet

As always, I am a proponent of moderation when it comes to rewilding. Find ways to make your diet better. Never seek perfection, or you will always fail.

Pack or Herd: Are we apex predators or cattle?

Community. We hear the word often enough: “Gated community with homes starting in the $400’s”. But does the word even have any meaning anymore? We wake up early to drive our metal coffins to work, so we can pretend to be someone we are not, in front of people we really don’t like. Then we shuffle out as soon as we can to rush our coffins back to a home we will never pay off. All so we can quickly figure out dinner and chores. We go to bed exhausted, knowing we will wake up and do it all again tomorrow. Wash, rinse, repeat. We never really have time to interact with people, with the exception of boring pleasantries or meaningless conversation about sports and politics. Our coworkers, the people we spend the most time with, are equally bored and just trying to get by without making waves. We toil away to make others rich, never working with those around us to enrich our own lives.

The homes we live in are increasingly larger, yet packed closer and closer together than ever before. Proximity does not equate to togetherness. I challenge you to tell me three details about your neighbor’s week! Did they get a raise at work? Did their kid make the honor roll at school? Do you even know more about them than their name and where they live? You’d think that with ever increasing population densities and the return to urban life, we would be closer to each other than ever before. It seems the opposite is holding true. We are more interconnected with technology and geographically closer in proximity, yet we are all strangers to each other.

If we had to compare this behavior of modern humans to an animal, what species would we choose? In contrast, what could we best compare our hunter-gatherer ancestors to? Why have we allowed our very behavior as a species to be altered this radically?

Today we:

  • Wander without direction on autopilot
  • Stay busy
  • Never work with others unless required to, or if threatened
  • Are confined into small areas in unnatural densities
  • Consume food that was pre-packaged

Our hunter-gatherer kin:

  • Communicated and traveled with a purpose, often seeking prey
  • Spent hours relaxing after basic needs were met
  • Worked as a cohesive unit with the goal of bringing down large prey, building a shelter, or harvesting/planting food
  • Spread out and managed vast territories
  • Ate a wide variety of foods, few of which were grain-based

Today our behavior mostly resembles that of cattle. We are herded from place to place. We are constantly focused on tasks that distract us from long-range planning. We only collaborate because the job requires it. Often, we don’t really enjoy the company of others, but we simply have no choice in the matter. Voluntary association is an unaffordable luxury when you have to put glyphosate-laced bread on the table! We’re confined in dense urban zones, which could only be described as people-CAFO lots. We’re miserable cohabitants of a crowded prison. Our food is deleterious to our health and well-being. We are all but human cattle residing on a feedlot.

By contrast, our ancestors were the masters of their own lives, choosing which direction to take. After a large kill, they could spend days relaxing and enjoying the company of friends and companions. They worked together by choice for common goals. Spreading out and managing vast territories allowed them to eat nutrient dense meats, fats, and vegetables. We were apex predators. We were wolves.

If we ever want to escape the farm and embrace our heritage as keystone species, we must rebuild our sense of community. We must give up the herd mentality, quit going along to get along, and embrace the cohesive togetherness of the wolf pack. It’s often said that, “many hands make light work”. If we could simply learn to work together in voluntary communities, the goal of rewilding would be within our grasp. So, take back your time, find a few like-minded individuals, and get busy! With many hands, you could:

  • Build a Permaculture food forest
  • Preserve large batches of fermented foods or alcohol
  • Build sustainable, low-cost housing
  • Share tools and resources most individuals couldn’t afford to purchase alone
  • Get in on group buys of basic survival goods and primitive tools
  • Install a composting toilet
  • Build alternative energy systems
  • Help those less fortunate by teaching skills and providing basic necessities

Returning to a sense of community and togetherness, is an important step in the right direction. Create your modern tribe and rewild your local community one project at a time. Feel free to share your results in the comments section!

The slavery of agriculture

Something changed about 25,000 years ago.  A once proud and free people were dominated. Their descendants were shorter and weaker with each passing generation. Their children contracted illnesses with increasing frequency. As they grew older, they developed chronic conditions unknown to their parents.  Lives spent enjoying the company of others and creating art were traded for endless toil under a burning sun. Wild humanity was domesticated by the slavery of agriculture.

It wasn’t a choice or a great leap forward as we have been led to believe. Agriculture was adopted for one reason alone, control. Non-perishable foods were a rare commodity in the ancient world. In many cases they were used as a form of currency. Obtaining large quantities of these goods could result in great wealth for the individual capable of producing it. Therein lies the problem. No one person is capable of the work necessary to produce vast reserves of grain crops without automation. It was necessary to employ people in backbreaking work for long hours to achieve this goal of commodity control.  The challenges our budding feudal lords faced was a population of wild humans who were fiercely independent and mostly capable of caring for their own needs. Without a way to voluntarily encourage participation in this new enterprise known as agriculture, slavery was adopted.

The anthropological record seems to indicate a time of peace and prosperity for humankind leading up to a dark time beginning around 25,000 years ago when agriculture was adopted on a large scale.  We fell from grace, and we can see what we lost by examining the lives of modern tribal cultures. An article in Discover Magazine takes a look at modern hunter-gatherer tribes who are surprisingly peaceful people living a life of leisure and abundance:

“Scattered throughout the world, several dozen groups of so-called primitive people, like the Kalahari bushmen, continue to support themselves that way. It turns out that these people have plenty of leisure time, sleep a good deal, and work less hard than their farming neighbors. For instance, the average time devoted each week to obtaining food is only 12 to 19 hours for one group of Bushmen, 14 hours or less for the Hadza nomads of Tanzania. One Bushman, when asked why he hadn’t emulated neighboring tribes by adopting agriculture, replied, “Why should we, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?”

While farmers concentrate on high-carbohydrate crops like rice and potatoes, the mix of wild plants and animals in the diets of surviving hunter-gatherers provides more protein and a better balance of other nutrients. In one study, the Bushmen’s average daily food intake (during a month when food was plentiful) was 2,140 calories and 93 grams of protein, considerably greater than the recommended daily allowance for people of their size. It’s almost inconceivable that Bushmen, who eat 75 or so wild plants, could die of starvation the way hundreds of thousands of Irish farmers and their families did during the potato famine of the 1840s.”

So, contrary to popular belief, resource security is much easier to achieve in a hunter-gatherer society. Additionally, a study by (Ember and Ember, 1997) found less incidences of internal and external violence on foraging societies. According to this Yale article hunter-gatherers societies also had less social stratification and lacked an exploitative political system:

“Based on the ethnographic data and cross-cultural comparisons, it is widely accepted that recent hunter-gatherer societies

  • are fully or semi-nomadic.
  • live in small communities.
  • have low population densities.
  • do not have specialized political officials.
  • have little wealth differentiation.
  • are economically specialized only by age and gender .
  • usually divide labor by gender, with women gathering wild plants and men fishing and almost always doing the hunting.

Some cross-cultural findings are less widely discussed:

  • Compared to food producers, hunter-gatherers are less likely to stress obedience and responsibility in child training. On the other hand, hunter-gatherer cultures that emphasize hunting are more likely to stress achievement in children. (Barry, Child, and Bacon, 1959; Hendrix, 1985)
  • Compared to food producers, hunter-gatherers show more warmth and affection toward their children. (Rohner, 1975, pp. 97-105)
  • The songs of hunter-gatherers are less wordy and characterized by more nonwords, repetition, and relaxed enunciation (Lomax 1968, pp. 117-28)
  • In contrast to food producers, hunter-gatherers are less prone to resource unpredictability, famines, and food shortages. (Textor 1967; Ember and Ember, 1997:10)”

Sounds like an okay life, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t you prefer to work about 4 hours a day and spend the rest of your time enjoying life?  Wouldn’t it be great to eat a large variety of foods and enjoy excellent health well into old age? That’s what we gave up when we adopted the master-slave paradigm of agriculture. Specialization dulled our minds and overuse of a single food source weakened our bodies. Over time, we were easier to control as we lost the skills of self reliance, hunting, and foraging. Far from a revolution or a great leap forward, agriculture brought about slavery and dominance.

25,000 years later and the systems of control are still in place. We still toil away for the benefit of others, but automation and the interconnected nature of modern communications are loosening the shackles. Unfortunately, the practice of agriculture has devolved into an exploitative nightmare that treats the soil as a resource to be strip mined. In fact the #1 export by raw tonnage out of the US is…wait for it…TOP SOIL! It’s not like we are loading up our farmland on barges and shipping it to China. No, thanks to the techniques of modern industrial agriculture, our farms are literally blowing into the Atlantic Ocean with prevailing winds. It takes nature around 1,000 years to create an inch of topsoil. At this rate, it won’t be long before the industrialization of agriculture completely fails. We will be left scrambling to feed a population incapable of independently thinking and acting on the problem. I don’t think this will happen overnight, and you shouldn’t panic or take rash measures. What you should do is work to build your own resiliency by learning skills and producing some of your own food. There are steps we can all begin taking today to avert this disaster. We all need to start small, and rewild ourselves over time:

  1. Grow your own food. Even if it’s a conventional vegetable garden, you are producing healthier food than anything in the store and reconnecting with natural systems
  2. Learn to hunt and forage
  3. Identify edible and medicinal plants in your region
  4. Learn everything you can about Permaculture and Regenerative Agriculture. We will have to rebuild soil if we want to survive
  5. Learn a broad variety of skills. Specialization is great from an economics standpoint, but we are about to turn those tasks over to the robots. Humans create! We were never made to do the same thing over and over like insects.

If we reconnect with natural systems and learn to produce a variety of food, we can take the first steps towards breaking our bondage to the agricultural model.  Start small and don’t be afraid to make mistakes.



Ember & Ember, 1997