Hunter-gatherers and traditional people

hadzaUp until approximately 11.000 years ago, all humans lived as hunter-gatherers. The Agricultural Revolution was accompanied by profound changes in 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 remaining isolated, traditional societies 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 foragers and other non-modernized people provide us with a window into our evolutionary past. On a more positive note, the legacy of the past is still with us, in the sense that various researchers, anthropologists, and travelers have documented the health, culture, and lifestyle of many traditional, non-industrialized people over the most recent centuries.

Many contemporary hunter-gatherers have incorporated certain elements of modern culture into their lives; hence, they aren’t a perfect replica 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 replica of our Paleolithic self.

Nevertheless, we can learn a lot from hunter-gatherers and traditional people, in large part 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).
  • Many of the chronic diseases that are highly prevalent in modern societies were rare or nonexistent among Paleolithic foragers (1, 2, 4).
  • Our preagericultural ancestors were regularly exposed to a variety of microorganisms, including some pathogens; however, the infectious disease burden was probably quite low (5).

Modern times: Hunter-gatherers and traditional people

  • Studies consistently show that hunter-gatherers, horticulturists, and other non-westernized people minimally affected by modern lifestyle habits exhibit superior health markers when compared with industrialized people (6, 7). The 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 is also low among traditional people (6, 7).
  • Hunter-gatherers and non-modernized, isolated people generally have broad, wide faces, broad nostrils, high cheekbones, straight teeth, beautiful skin, well-developed facial structures, and normal body fat levels.
  • Adverse health outcomes always accompany the transition from a traditional lifestyle to a more westernized lifestyle (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 people are largely free from modern degenerative diseases is that they live in environments that resemble those we evolved in for millions of years.
  • 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 recent studies that have looked into the life expectancy of adult hunter-gatherers refute the idea that our Stone Age ancestors lived nasty, brutish, and short lives. 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) (9). Moreover, foragers, unlike most westerners, tend to be healthy all the way up to old age (9).

Not an utopian existence

  • We can learn a lot about health, fitness, and living in general by examining how Paleolithic humans, contemporary foragers, and traditional populations lived/live their lives. With that said, we should be cautious not to glorify 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: Pictures taken by Staffan Lindeberg (Ph.D) during his visit to the Island of Kitava. 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. The Maasai are no different from other Africans who don’t have access to modern health care in that they 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.

Pictures: 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 the incidence of many modern diseases is low among traditionally living Bushmen. 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. Macronutrient intake fluctuates with the seasons.
  • Lifestyle: Plenty of sun exposure, moderate levels of physical activity, and lots of microbial exposure.
  • Sources: 17, 18.

Pictures: 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: The incidence of the diseases of civilization is very low among traditionally living Hadza people. Studies dating back a couple of decades show that the prevalence of infectious disease among the Hadza is relatively low when compared with the prevalence among 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. Macronutrient intake fluctuates with the seasons. Men eat more meat and honey than women, who rely more on plant foods for nourishment.
  • Lifestyle: Plenty of sun exposure, moderate levels of physical activity, and lots of microbial exposure.
  • Sources: 19, 20, 21.

Pictures: 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: The incidence of chronic degenerative diseases is very low among traditionally living Inuits. 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; however, 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: 22, 23, 24, 25.

Pictures: 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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