Sunday, August 14, 2011

I'm so bored with the Paleo's - Part One

OK, not really, not all of it Just Yet. After all, this is only part one. But I stole refer to the title of Dr. Kurt Harris' blog post:
I had planned and started this blogpost much earlier before Dr. Harris did Paleo 2.0 and changed the name of his website, but I have had trouble finishing it.  Seems like I'm not the only ones bored with the Paleo's.  Now that all hell has broken loose after the Ancestral Health Symposium, I felt a need to finish this post so that I could jump right into part 2.

Its just that the Paleo scene kind of reminds me of the macrobiotic scene.  A bunch of passionate people who are mostly getting healthier while being on the diet, but every time they want to eat something, they have to run it up the flagpole and get a report by the expert.  And then its based on this pseudo-scientific "metric", whose validity cannot be argued.

My first reaction to Loren Cordain's popular diet book is that it seemed kind of trendy, with little data.  Now it may be true that he actually has lots of data somewhere else, and I probably would have preferred to delve into the more "scholarly" stuff first instead of the popular book.  But it seems like some people are being overly dogmatic about something that we really don't know about for sure.  When I read his book, I thought I was being talked down to.

Just look at the state of the current nutritional research.  We have gotten it so wrong using epidemiological data from a generation ago.  Now we are piecing together this clue and that clue from so far ago and we are to expect it to be any better?  And maybe it is, but I think we have enough trouble sorting out what is helpful or hurtful with our current diets.  Basing our arguments on what might have been the case thousands of years ago doesn't make it clearer, I think it just baits the detractors.

I have never studied ancient history much, only when it pertains to what I am currently interested in.  But, I have found here and there in my travels, reasons why I continue to not be much interested:

First, I find much of the older literature to be amazingly sexist.  Studies are written through the lens of university-trained European males.  I find many of them laughable.  They focus on men's activities, men's economic systems, and then might add a side paragraph about women, but usually only as it relates to child care.  And the ancient data seems to pertain mostly to what they were eating over there in ancient Europe, wherever ancient Europe actually was thousands of years ago.

Over on Mark's Daily Apple, there is much use of that mostly-naked barefoot male hunter logo with spear.  I was wanting to see women with nets and burden baskets, or yes, even a spear.  Or, how about men with burden baskets?  I sure see lots of the modern kind at the local Frye's.  Why are the Paleo's not called gatherer-hunters?  It is just starting to have a similar look and feel as the American Heart Association's Go Red for Women campaign, with their various women archetypes that I am somehow supposed to identify with, but don't.

Second, I am really into baskets, and once I picked up a huge scholarly text on Native American basketry.  They had everything in there.  Baskets from every tribe, all different styles, sizes and shapes, all the wrapping and coiling techniques.  Baskets for cooking, baskets for babies, baskets for gathering, baskets for trapping (yes, baskets that women used for um, you know, hunting.)  It was arranged by geographical area.  So, I went to the geographical area of my youth, and found written there that these Native Americans didn't make baskets because they found no evidence.  And I am thinking to myself, "What a crock!"  I remembered the woods where I played as a child, with the large vines crawling up to the tops of the trees.  We would loosen them and swing from tree to tree, just like Tarzan.  I was always sure that the Native Americans in this area would have seen the twined trees and figured out how to make baskets, just as I had done by looking at them.  And now, just because a University-trained peer-reviewed basket researcher hadn't seen one, they didn't exist?

Happily, several decades later, I came across this great find, an account of a twined slipper found in a cave nearby, dated over 8000 years old.  Yes!  Of course they knew how to make baskets.  Baskets for walking.

Now lets swing over to a more present time for a third reason.  I now live in an area formerly populated by a Native American tribe known for their basketry.  This culture is relatively unique in that they were "gatherer-hunters" till around the early 1900's, so they could be interviewed by modern researchers, and quite a few artifacts of their culture are still around.  I have been able to talk with their direct descendants and also experts in the culture, and come away with a very different type of "gatherer-hunter" culture than what is re-enacted in Paleo-land.  The Chumash diet included lots of fish and seafood, as many expect, but also quite a bit of carby acorns.  Nuts and carbs at every meal.

When I first moved here, I went for a long hike up Mishe Mokwa.  Along the way, I met a young man who seemed to have quite a bit of knowledge about the area, and he introduced me to yucca flowers.  They were quite sweet and tasty (especially after I had run out of water), and before that I had never known they were edible.   Now it turns out that the Chumash spent a good chunk of time each year travelling to places where yucca grew, and they made a kind of sweet yucca cake that was suitable for trade.  So this idea that gatherer-hunters didn't have sweet things just isn't true everywhere.  They were eating things we wouldn't even think to try.  The Native Americans in California also ate roots and tubers, and we know little about them today because the habitat has been destroyed and much of the knowledge lost.

Day-to-day activities involved getting shellfish, grinding and leaching tannin out of acorns, and cooking acorns in baskets.  During certain times of the year, they went inland to get the acorns, chia and yucca.  These don't sound like tasks that require lots of running and spears.  If you don't believe me, go ahead and try to catch some chia seed with a spear.  Them little buggers are hard to nail down!  There were few large animals either, maybe an occasional deer or bear.

It seems like in Paleo-land, there are plenty of armchair researchers who seem to know all about what grows in this area, and what time of the year all the carby fruits ripened, what time of they year they danced around and ate all these carbs and got fat for the winter.  But I say, if the diet is a good sound diet, all this stuff way in the past shouldn't really matter.


  1. There are two types of people: Those who divide people into two types, and those, wait a minute.

    There are those who can't or won't think for themselves. As a result, they spend their entire lives bouncing like a pinball from one guru to the next, a perpetual follower in search of a leader who will tell them The Way It Is and What To Do About It.

    Then there are those who recognize that life is (or should be) a never-ending learning process, and that just because perfection can never be achieved, that's no excuse not to strive for it.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Frogfarm. (I still eat meat and veggies!)