Lessons From Nutritional Anthropology

The next logical pair of questions are: how healthy could good

nutrition make people be, and, how much deviation from ideal

nutrition could we allow ourselves before serious disease appears?

Luckily, earlier in this century we could observe living answers to

those questions (before the evidence disappeared). The answers are:

we could be amazingly healthy, and, if we wish to enjoy excellent

health we can afford to cut ourselves surprisingly little slack.

Prior to the Second World War there were several dozen sizable

groups of extraordinarily healthy humans remaining on Earth. Today,

their descendants are still in the same remote places, are speaking

the same languages and possess more or less the same cultures. Only

today they're watching satellite TV. wearing jeans, drinking

colas--and their superior health has evaporated.

During the early part of this century, at the same era vitamins and

other basic aspects of nutrition were being discovered, a few

farsighted medical explorers sought out these hard-to-reach places

with their legendarily healthy peoples to see what caused the

legendary well-being they'd heard of. Enough evidence was collected

and analyzed to derive some very valid principles.

First lets dismiss some apparently logical but incorrect

explanations for the unusually good health of these isolated

peoples. It wasn't racial, genetic superiority. There were

extraordinarily healthy blacks, browns, Orientals, Amerinds,

Caucasians. It wasn't living at high altitude; some lived at sea

level. It wasn't temperate climates, some lived in the tropics, some

in the tropics at sea level, a type of location generally thought to

be quite unhealthful. It wasn't a small collection of genetically

superior individuals, because when these peoples left their isolated

locale and moved to the city, they rapidly began to lose their

health. And it wasn't genetics because when a young couple from the

isolated healthy village moved to town, their children born in town

were as unhealthy as all the other kids.

And what do I mean by genuinely healthy? Well, imagine a remote

village or a mountain valley or a far island settlement very

difficult to get to, where there lived a thousand or perhaps ten

thousand people. Rarely fewer, rarely more. Among that small

population there were no medical doctors and no dentists, no drugs,

no vaccinations, no antibiotics. Usually the isolation carried with

it illiteracy and precluded contact with or awareness of modern

science, so there was little or no notion of public hygiene. And

this was before the era of antibiotics. Yet these unprotected,

undoctored, unvaccinated peoples did not suffer and die from

bacterial infections; and the women did not have to give birth to 13

children to get 2.4 to survive to breeding age--almost all the

children made it through the gauntlet of childhood diseases. There

was also virtually no degenerative disease like heart attacks,

hardening of the arteries, senility, cancer, arthritis. There were

few if any birth defects. In fact, there probably weren't any

aspirin in the entire place. Oh, and there was very little mortality

during childbirth, as little or less than we have today with all our

hospitals. And the people uniformly had virtually perfect teeth and

kept them all till death, but did not have toothbrushes nor any

notion of dental hygiene. Nor did they have dentists or physicians.

(Price, 1970)

And in those fortunate places the most common causes of death were

accident (trauma) and old age. The typical life span was long into

the 70s and in some places quite a bit longer. One fabled place,

Hunza, was renowned for having an extraordinarily high percentage of

vigorous and active people over 100 years old.

I hope I've made you curious. "How could this be?" you're asking.

Well, here's why. First, everyone of those groups lived in places so

entirely remote, so inaccessible that they were of necessity,

virtually self-sufficient. They hardly traded at all with the

outside world, and certainly they did not trade for bulky,

hard-to-transport bulk foodstuffs. Virtually everything they ate was

produced by themselves. If they were an agricultural people,

naturally, everything they ate was natural: organic, whole,

unsprayed and fertilized with what ever local materials seemed to

produce enhanced plant growth. And, if they were agricultural, they

lived on a soil body that possessed highly superior natural

fertility. If not an agricultural people they lived by the sea and

made a large portion of their diets sea foods. If their soil had not

been extraordinarily fertile, these groups would not have enjoyed

superior health and would have conformed to the currently

widely-believed notion that before the modern era, people's lives

were brutish, unhealthful, and short.

What is common between meat-eating Eskimos, isolated highland Swiss

living on rye bread, milk and cheese; isolated Scottish island Celts

with a dietary of oat porridge, kale and sea foods; highland central

Africans (Malawi) eating sorghum, millet tropical root crops and all

sorts of garden vegetables, plus a little meat and dairy; Fijians

living on small islands in the humid tropics at sea level eating sea

foods and garden vegetables. What they had in common was that their

foods were all were at the extreme positive end of the Health =

Nutrition / Calories scale. The agriculturists were on very fertile

soil that grew extraordinarily nutrient-rich food, the sea food

gatherers were obtaining their tucker from the place where all the

fertility that ever was in the soil had washed out of the land had

been transported--sea foods are also extraordinarily nutrient rich.

The group with the very best soil and consequently, the best health

of all were, by lucky accident, the Hunza. I say "lucky" and

"accident" because the Hunza and their resource base unknowingly

developed an agricultural system that produced the most nutritious

food that is possible to grow. The Hunza lived on what has been

called super food. There are a lot of interesting books about the

Hunza, some deserving of careful study. (Wrench, 1938; Rodale, 1949)

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