Between Our Health & Our Food
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Nutritional Anthropology's Bible:
In this book, I talk about confronting prejudices. I know what that means because I have had to confront my own. I was brought up as a vegetarian. My family conditioned me to believe that it was the “natural” state of affairs and they taught me it was “unnatural” (as well as unkind) to kill and eat animals. Nevertheless, I was sufficiently skeptical to want proof, not just assertions
I wanted something that set out, in a rational way, just what and how we should be feeding the human organism. We thought we knew, back then in the late 1950s, that our closest cousins, the chimpanzees and other apes, were vegetarians.
If nature designed their bodies for a vegetarian diet, then it seemed reasonable it so designed ours too. It would just require a little investigation to put the ideas on a scientific footing, fill in a few gaps, and identify the feeding pattern that was right for humans.
In our family, it was an article of faith that butter, honey, and whole-wheat bread were “good” (because they were “natural”); margarine, sugar and white bread were artificial and inferior. That does not sound uncontroversial, yet I had to abandon every one of these articles of faith, as well as many more. We were still confused in 1960 about the location of the human birthplace.
Although chimpanzees had been kept in zoos for over 100 years, nobody had studied them in the wild. However, for me, these were mere details, ones that were not of fundamental significance. How wrong I was! I imagined that many of the answers would lie in studying the traditional feeding patterns of indigenous, tribal peoples.
Where does one find tribal peoples? Africa seemed to be the most auspicious place to start looking, and so I spent my first post-graduate decade in the late 1960s living with a variety of indigenes: the Fulani cattle herders of Sokoto, the Hausa farmers of Kaduna, the fierce Touareg warriors of the Sahara Desert, the Berbers of Morocco and Algeria. They certainly practiced a wide variety of feeding patterns. Mostly they ate what was available and, of course, what was available was what they had traditionally grown or raised. There was no pattern to it at all. It was not as though they were particularly healthy either: they lived hard lives, often had toothless gums, and succumbed to nasty tropical diseases.
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Perhaps my most disconcerting discovery was their universal yearning for meat. Animal flesh was scarce, highly prized, and much fought over. Yet, even though broccoli was scarce, no one fought over that! Moreover, I was taken aback by the sheer blood-thirsty nature of killing animals. They slit sheep’s throats and twisted off chicken’s heads with excitement and anticipation, not with distaste. The children took part and danced around in glee while the butchery took place. I was in denial that this might be a normal human activity. Influenced by Blank Slate theories, I assumed that these practices were culturally determined.
Science was moving on. Louis Leakey’s work seemed to locate the origins of the human race in east Africa. Mildly interesting, but apparently so long ago—at least a million years—as not to be significant for my purposes. But Leakey also encouraged Jane Goodall to live with the chimpanzee and Dian Fossey to live with the gorilla. Both women spent decades in the bush, carefully recording everything they could about their creature’s behavior.
Fossey confirmed that gorillas are indeed vegetarian and are shy,
mostly gentle creatures. However, another species of great ape, the
human ape, was not so gentle. Fossey fought against poachers who were
decimating her gorilla families. Tragically, she lost her life, murdered
in her Rwandan campsite, probably by the same poachers. Fortunately, she
left behind a remarkable book, Gorillas in the Mist, and a crusading foundation dedicated to preserving
the few gorillas left in the wild.
It was Jane Goodall’s work with chimpanzees in Gombe, Tanzania,
that produced an earthquake in received ideas. One day in October 1960,
she saw chimps strip leaves off twigs to fashion tools for fishing
termites from a nest.
Scientists thought humans were the only species to make tools,
but here was evidence to the contrary. Jane later observed male chimps
go on murderous hunting expeditions, where they caught small monkeys and
bushpigs. The chimps did not simply catch the creatures—the victims
were ripped limb from limb in sadistic ecstasy and consumed with gusto.
The raw meat, dripping with blood, was more than a meal, it was a prize.
The successful meat owner tore bits off and rewarded his friends and
allies. Encouraged by these bribes, females frantically offered their
bodies for mating. Here was inescapable evidence that chimpanzees were
efficient hunters and enthusiastic meat-eaters. Our nearest cousin was not a gentle vegetarian as I had so fondly
Until that time, we still assumed that humans, while close to the
great apes, belonged nevertheless to a separate family. Then, in 1984,
Charles Sibley and Jon Ahlquist studied the DNA of apes and humans. The
first shock was that humans are not a separate family, rather they fit
squarely within the great ape family. Secondly, humans and chimps are on
a descent of their own: they had a common ancestor only 5 million years
ago. In other words, humans are on the killer-and-meat-eater branch of
the ape family.
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The final breakthrough came with the studies by geneticists like
L. Luca Cavalli-Sforza. By the early 1990s, they made it clear that
humans burst out of Africa not millions of years ago but just 60,000
years ago. In other words, our bodies were just the same as they were
back then and designed by nature for life on the savannas of east
Africa. The importance of this insight cannot be underestimated. The
question was now very simple: what was life like for our ancestors back
then and in that place? For it was there that nature forged our bodies
It dawned on me that I had been looking in the wrong place for
the answers to human lifestyle and nutrition. We needed to go back to
the savannas and to study peoples who still lived the way of our ancient
ancestors. In 1956, Laurens van der Post aired a television series
called “The Lost World of the Kalahari,” a documentary featuring the
San Bushmen. It was probably the last time when African Pleistocene life
could still be studied largely uncontaminated by contact with modern
civilization. The San were clearly hunters as well as gatherers. As each
piece of evidence thudded into place, it was obvious that “animal
matter” had played an important role in our naturally adapted diet. I
had to confront my last illusion and acknowledge that humans were not
naturally either peaceful or vegetarian.
That is the story of how I had to come to terms with a new
reality. Anyone who wishes to fully understand what it means to be human
in lifestyle terms will experience a similar process. This book has been
a journey assembling the pieces of the puzzle—rediscovering the lost
Owner’s Manual for the human species.
It is still possible to navigate your way through the challenges
of modern life—to align the way you live with the way nature intended.
However, the modern world is not structured in an ideal fashion. You are
under pressure to contort yourself to fit the structure that is offered
today. The problem is that science, technology, commerce, and economics
are a runaway train rushing us headlong into a future that, if it
conforms to human nature, does so only in parts and by accident.
Marketing techniques are all-pervasive, and they manipulate us to
behave in ways that serve the interests of the marketplace rather than
our own best interests as human beings. The plains of the Midwest
produce huge quantities of grain; someone must consume it. Similar
observations go for beef, sugar, potato, tobacco, soybean, milk,
sunflower oil, and many more. What is on offer, people must be persuaded
to want it and buy it. And the best way to persuade them? Make them feel
good about it and make them “love their servitude.” But it is an
illusion—in reality, it makes them sick, obese, neurotic, and, in the
longer term, dissatisfied and unhappy.
However, this is ultimately an optimistic book. The main message is this: you can take control of your life and lead it in ways that are in harmony with
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your savanna-bred nature. We have shown you the way and given you the roadmap. But you must do it for yourself, no one will do it for you. This book has been a quest to discover our humanity. Now go out—confident and proud—and just do it!