Hunter-gatherers and traditional people

hadzaUp until approximately 11.000 years ago, all humans lived as hunter-gatherers. The Agricultural Revolution initiated profound changes to human living conditions – changes that have accelerated in pace and force over the last couple of centuries. All of this has resulted in a greater spectrum of diet and lifestyle habits among humans. On the one end you have those remote areas of the world where people have remained true to their hunter-gatherer way of life, while on the other end you have those parts of the world that have undergone urbanization, industrialization, and westernization. Close to the hunter-gatherer end of the spectrum you also have traditional, non-westernized societies that have left some elements of a forager lifestyle behind, but still stick with a lifestyle that is relatively similar to that of Paleolithic humans.

The number of hunter-gatherer societies and isolated, traditional populations worldwide has declined dramatically over the last several centuries, and there are today few – if any – “true” such societies left. This is sad for a number of reasons, one of which being that these cultures provide a window into our evolutionary past. On a positive note, the legacy of these cultures is not completely gone, as researchers, anthropologists, and travellers have documented the health, culture, and lifestyle of many indigenous societies over the last several centuries.

Many contemporary hunter-gatherer communities have incorporated certain elements of modern culture into their lifestyle, and they therefore don’t represent a perfect picture of our Paleolithic ancestors. Other non-westernized peoples who have largely abandoned a hunter-gatherer subsistence mode, but still stick to “a traditional way of life”, are even more so an imperfect picture of our Paleolithic self.

Regardless, we can learn a lot from hunter-gatherers and traditional people, largely because their lifestyles retain many elements of the lifestyle of our preagricultural ancestors.

Health, fitness, and longevity among hunter-gatherers and traditional people

Paleolithic humans

  • Paleolithic humans were generally lean and strong (1, 2, 3).
  • Although it’s difficult to draw firm conclusions about the health condition of our ancient ancestors, it’s safe to safe that many of the chronic, degenerative diseases that are highly prevalent in the modern world were rare or nonexistent among Paleolithic foragers (1, 2, 4).
  • “The theory holds that during the Paleolithic, the impact of infectious diseases was rather minimal” (5).

Modern times: Hunter-gatherers and traditional people

  • Studies consistently show that hunter-gatherers, horticulturists, and other non-westernized people minimally affected by modern habits exhibit superior health markers when compared with industrialized populations (6, 7). They also have a very low incidence of type-2 diabetes, acne vulgaris, obesity, heart disease, cancer, and many other chronic diseases and disorders that are common in the rest of the world (6, 7).
  • General physical characteristics of hunter-gatherers and non-modernized, isolated people include: Broad, wide faces, broad nostrils, high cheekbones, straight teeth, beautiful skin, well-developed facial structures, and normal body fat levels.
  • Individuals who transition from a traditional lifestyle to a more westernized lifestyle experience a rapid decline in health (7, 8).
  • The environments we evolved in as foragers in the Paleolithic era could be classified as the Environments of Evolutionary Adaptedness for humans. The reason foragers and traditional peoples are largely free from modern degenerative diseases is that they live in environments that resemble those we evolved in for millions of years. In other words, their phenotypic expression is much closer to our ancestral norm.
  • Average life expectancy in hunter-gatherer societies is lower than in most affluent nations today, which largely stems from higher rates of infant mortality and a lack of medical assistance. However, it’s important to note that when we look at the life expectancy of an adult hunter-gatherer, the stereotypical image of nasty, brutish, and short lives among Stone Agers doesn’t reflect reality. A compilation of data on hunter-gatherer societies suggest that modal age of adult death is about seven decades (adaptive life span of 68-78 years), and contrary to most westerners, these people tend to be healthy all the way up to old age (9).

Not an utopian existence

  • Although we can learn a lot about health, fitness, and living in general by studying Paleolithic humans, contemporary foragers, and traditional populations, we should be cautious about glorifying the living conditions of these people. A lack of technology and modern comforts, occasional food shortages, and little access to medical assistance are just some of the many parts of a simple, non-modernized lifestyle that can seem unappealing to most people.

5 non-westernized populations

– The Kitavans

  • Studied in: 1989 by Staffan Lindeberg et al.
  • Who: One of the last populations on Earth with dietary habits matching that of our Paleolithic ancestors.
  • Where: The island of Kitava, one of the Trobriand Islands in Papua New Guinea’s archipelago.
  • Health: Superb health markers. No indications of stroke, acne vulgaris, overweight, diabetes, dementia, or congestive heart failure. Relatively high child mortality from malaria and other infections.
  • Primary subsistence mode: Horticulture.
  • Traditional diet: High-carbohydrate ancestral diet (69% carbohydrate, 21% fat, and 10% protein) made up of root vegetables (yam, sweet potato, taro, tapioca), fruit (banana, papaya, pineapple, mango, guava, water melon, pumpkin), vegetables, fish, and coconuts.
  • Lifestyle: Moderate amounts of physical activity, regular sun exposure, some smoking, and little access to modern hygiene and pharmaceuticals.
  • Sources: 10, 11, 12, 13.

Pictures by Staffan Lindeberg, Ph. D., from the epic Kitava Study. Used after permission was granted.

– The Maasai

  • Who: A Nilotic ethnic group of semi-nomadic people.
  • Where: Southern Kenya and Northern Tanzania.
  • Health: Low incidence of diseases of civilization as long as they stick with their traditional lifestyle. As with other communities in Africa without health care, the Maasai people are not spared from infectious diseases.
  • Primary subsistence mode: Pastoralism.
  • Traditional diet: Primarily milk, meat, and blood.
  • Lifestyle: Moderate-high amounts of physical activity, regular sun exposure, and little access to modern hygiene and pharmaceuticals.
  • Sources: 14, 15, 16.

Creative Commons License. Some rights reserved. Picture 1 (by Ferdinand Reus), 2 (by Ninaras), 3 (by roger smith), 4 (by William Warby), 5 (by Dmitri Markine), 6 (by William Warby), 7 (by Steve Pastor), 8 (by Bjørn Christian Tørrisen), 9 (by Dmitri markine).

– The San People

  • Who: The San People (Bushmen) are members of various indigenous hunter-gatherer people of Southern Africa.
  • Where: Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa.
  • Health: Limited data available. Most reports suggest that Bushmen have low incidence of many “modern” diseases as long as they stick with their traditional lifestyle. Blood pressures remain low throughout life in male and female Kung Bushmen. Infectious diseases are a problem, especially following increased acculturation.
  • Primary subsistence mode: Hunting, scavenging, and gathering.
  • Traditional diet: Varying amounts of wild plants and animals. Seasonal availability determines macronutrient intake.
  • Lifestyle: Plenty of sun exposure, moderate levels of physical activity, and plenty of microbial exposure (e.g., from dirt).
  • Sources: 17, 18.

Creative Commons License. Some rights reserved. Picture: 1 (by DragonWoman), 2 (by DragonWoman), 3 (by Dietmar Temps), 4 (by Dietmar Temps), 5 (by Dietmar Temps), 6 (by Dietmar Temps), 7 (by Charles Roffey), 8 (by DragonWoman), 9 (by Ian Beatty).

– The Hadza

  • Who: A group of people who live in an area of the world where our species most likely originated. The lifestyle of Hadza hunter-gatherers is thought to resemble that of early humans.
  • Where: Tanzania.
  • Health: Low incidence of many “modern” diseases as long as they stick with their traditional lifestyle. Studies dating back a couple of decades show that the Hadza have relatively low rates of infectious disease in comparison with other settled groups in the northern Tanzania and southeastern Uganda region.
  • Primary subsistence mode: Hunting, scavenging, and gathering.
  • Traditional diet: Meat, honey, baobab, berries, and tubers. Seasonal availability determines macronutrient intake. Men eat more meat and honey, and women eat more plant foods.
  • Lifestyle: Plenty of sun exposure, moderate levels of physical activity, and plenty of microbial exposure (e.g., from dirt).
  • Sources: 19, 20, 21, 22.

Creative Commons License. Some rights reserved. Picture 1 (by Idobi), 2 (by idobi), 3 (by Thiery), 4 (by Thiery), 5 (by kiwiexplorer), 6 (by Thiery), 7 (by A_Peach), 8 (by Thiery), 9 (by A_Peach).

– The Inuit

  • Who: A group of culturally similar indigenous peoples.
  • Where: The Arctic regions of Greenland, Canada, and the United States
  • Health: Very low incidence of chronic degenerative diseases as long as they stick with their hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The health of modern Inuit has quickly deteriorated as they’ve become increasingly westernized.
  • Primary subsistence mode: Fishing and hunting.
  • Traditional diet: The traditional diet of the Inuit consists primarily of seafood, land mammals, and birds. There’s some controversy regarding the composition of the Inuit diet, but it’s generally accepted that the traditional diet is high in fat (up to 75%) and low in carbohydrate. The fact that the Inuit stay so healthy on this type of “extreme” diet is sometimes referred to as the Inuit Paradox.
  • More information: 23, 24, 25, 26.

Creative Commons License. No known copyright restrictions. Picture 1 (by Edward S. Curtis), 2 (by Dobbs, B.B.), 3 (by Nowell, Frank H), 4 (by Warner, Arthur Churchill), 5 (by Dobbs, B.B.), 6 (by unknown).


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