This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
Today I saw the headline: Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?
Which is appallingly stupid considering that quinoa is trendy among many segments of the health-conscious crowd. Like many articles of this genre, it also wants believe consumers have more power than they do. What would happen in Western health nuts stopped eating quinoa? Would this benefit the people there somehow? I guess it's more fun to blame trendy dieters than to face larger issues of water scarcity (and water pricing and allocation) and middlemen. It's the same faulty line of logic that many vegans use when talking about meat.
It is a bit amusing to consider how consumption of far away foods lets us turn a blind eye to their production (it's far), which is why I tend to advocate food systems that bring people closer to their food production- and its consequences.
The article also details failed attempts to grow quinoa elsewhere. Interestingly enough, I was researching yesterday traditional foods of the Midwest, and I'm not talking about Chicago Hot Dogs, but about what people were eating and growing here in the 1600s and before. Turns out the form of agriculture indigenous to this region utilized a relative of quinoa - Chenopodium berlandieri. As a cultivated crop, only remnants remain and from what I can gather, nothing of the kind grown for seeds the way quinoa is grown now. A leaf-heavy version is eaten in Mexico as a vegetable.
But echoes remain. All those lamb's quarters growing out of your patio are ghosts of The Eastern Agricultural Complex- possibly feral ancestors of domesticated crops, which explains some of their tenacity as weeds. I would think it would be possible to re-domesticate through selective breeding. It already makes a fine salad. Wild food enthusiast Euell Gibbons found the grains even of the modern weed somewhat easy to harvest:
“In rich soil,” he said, “lamb’s quarters will grow four or five feet high if not disturbed, becoming much branched. It bears a heavy crop of tiny seeds in panicles at the end of every branch. In early winter, when the panicles are dry, it is quite easy to gather these seeds in considerable quantity. Just hold a pail under the branches and strip them off. Rub the husks between the hands to separate the seed and chaff, then winnow out the trash. I have collected several quarts of seed in an hour, using this method.
“The seeds are quite fine, being smaller than mustard seeds, and a dull blackish-brown color....I find it pretty good food for humans.”
I think this also brings me to question certain studies that have tried to estimate the amount of wild grains foragers could have harvested- the ones we encounter now might be feralized crops, not true wild seeds or grains. That might also be why many are less toxic than truly wild seeds/grains. It's probably worth soaking and rinsing though since like quinoa, it may contain high levels of saponins.
Another former crop, Sumpweed, Jared Diamond says was abandoned because it was allergenic and smelled bad, but that didn't stop modern farmers from reshaping rapeseed, a crop that seems quite far from edible with its high levels of nasty erucic acid, into canola, which is now a novel and strangely unquestioned ubiquitous part of our food supply. Plenty of other foods that foragers and agriculturalists eat are toxic when harvested- that is often a feature, not a bug, as it keeps other competing pests away. Humans are smart enough to detoxify through soaking, rinsing, fermentation, and other technologies.
It's interesting how so many Americans look to afar for interesting foods while ignoring the ones in our backyards.
There is also a legend that quinoa is "cursed" which is why North American production has been so difficult, but I find it more logical to think that the Chenopodium that is Quinoa is adapted to a specific environment that we can't offer. There is also some evidence that ancient northern Europeans cultivated a type of Chenopodium as well, remnants of that perhaps are seen in England's Pigweed.
A problem with reconstructing diets from the past is that people often forget to fathom the amount of information and cultural diversity that has been lost. Lost to cultural change, to habitat change, or simply to nature's rising oceans or lava flows.
Often you only have pale glimpses of what was lost in the form of archeological remains or the writings of passing travelers who probably did not realize that they were witnessing things that few can even imagine today.
When most people today think of the arctic or an ice age, they think of people clad in skins subsisting on wooly mammoth. But the truth is that arctic peoples of the past and of today rely on a huge variety of plants as well. I have written about the excellent book called Plants That We Eat, which describes the amazing and diverse plant foods of the Inuit. Most of their plant foods were leaves and berries, but they also collect tiny roots from the stores of mice, which provide a small amount of starch.
Turns out that further-south Arctic cultures in the past probably exploited starches more extensively. In Siberia they called the starchy bulbs of flower "sarana", but as this interesting paper shows, the word probably applies to several types of flower bulbs, mainly in the Lilly (Liliaceae) family.
Like John D. Speth's excellent book, the paper relies extensively on sources written in German, many of which have not yet been translated to English. I was already aware of the use of lily bulbs among the Native Americans of North America, but was not aware that Siberians ate them as well.
Apparently, sarana was eaten by many Siberian tribes: Shor, Tofalar, Tuva, Altai, Buryat, Selkup, Itelmen, Aleut, Evenki, Ket, and Khanti are mentioned in the paper. Of course, all these different peoples had very different lifestyles. Some like the Buryat and Evenki are nomadic pastoralists and others like the Itelmen and Aleut are closer to hunter-gatherers. Use of sarana varied in different regions. It was a staple in some and more of a treat in others.
The accounts of travelers in the area mention that sarana was:
It was mainly gathered by women, who made special tools to dig it out. When it was too cold to dig it out, they could also find large high-quality stores in vole (or other rodent) nests, making sure to leave something in return so that the voles would survive the winter and be able to harvest again next year. Georg Wilhelm Steller, who witnessed this in the 1700s, noted that it resembled a form of trade.
Sarana bulbs could also be steamed and served with berries. According to Krasheninnikov this was the best and foremost dish in Kamchatka. In his view, it was “both sweet and sour at the same time” and it filled the stomach well. “It can be consumed every day, which makes one almost forget the lack of bread”,
says Krasheninnikov (1819: II: 314)... The taste of cooked sarana has been compared to sweet or baked chestnut. Adolph Erman found the taste of sarana delicious. He describes sarana bulbs as excellent food (Erman 1848: III: 161). According to Karl von Ditmar, who calls it “pagan food”, the taste is similar to potato… Bread did not belong to the traditional diet of northern Eurasia. Ditmar correctly observed that the local people did not even miss bread. Bread was (and still is) in comparison extremely important in the European diets and was only partly replaced by potatoes in the 19th century. The lack of bread, potatoes and other familiar food seems to have bothered many of the travellers in Siberia. They were not capable of enjoying the local diet except for some dishes. The boiled bulbs of sarana and other plants were seen as more or less exotic, “pagan”, disgusting, strange or, in rare cases, surprisingly tasty. In general the travellers held a distanced attitude towards local food, which made them unable to correctly estimate the significance of sarana for the Kamchatkan diet.
In many areas of Siberia, game is pretty low in fat. If you've ever tried to eat mainly fish and lean game, it's very much understandable why sarana was so worth the trouble.
It's also understandable why such traditions have died out, as there are many flower bulbs that are quite poisonous and gathering them was probably a skill passed down through the generations.
Unfortunately, many traditions like these died out before people could really study them, which is a real shame. I've met arctic people who believe that wheat bread is a "traditional" food. But the remnants cast skepticism on the idea that arctic or ice age diets were just a bunch of big game.
All societies are sick, but some are sicker than others…. There are some customs and social institutions in all societies that compromise human wellbeing…. For a number of reasons …many anthropologists have chosen not to write about the darker side of life in folk societies, or at least not to write very much about it... The message of this book is not that traditional beliefs and practices are never adaptive and that they never contribute to a population’s well-being; and I am not claiming that people never think rationally enough to make effective decisions about meeting the challenges posed by their environments. To do so would be absurd…what I am calling for is a moratorium on the uncritical assumption that the traditional beliefs and practices of folk populations are adaptive while those of modern societies are not and a commitment to examining the relative adaptiveness of the beliefs and practices of all societies. The goal is a better understanding of human adaptation not just in particular societies but over the course of human history.
That's from Sick Societies, by Robert B. Edgerton, which is a very interesting book. The subtitle "the myth of primitive harmony" is misleading. Not all societies in the book are stereotypically "primitive." He includes both jungle foragers and Appalachians living in hollers. Harmful maladaptations include physical mutilation, cannibalism, food and sex taboos, initiation ceremonies that make the worst Frat hazing look tame, and belief in witchcraft and divination (yes, some foraging societies persecute and sometimes kill people that they believe are witches).
The Netsilik Inuit believed that when a pregnant woman first felt labor pains, she had to be confined to a small snow house if it was winter or a tent during the summer. The woman herself was considered to be unclean, and a newborn child was thought to give off a particularly dangerous vapor at birth. Because the entire community was thought to be in great danger, no one was permitted to assist the woman in giving birth. If the birth proved to be difficult, a shaman might be summoned to drive away evil spirits, but no one was allowed to touch the woman.87 This taboo might have served as a population control measure because it probably increased infant mortality, but it also endangered the mother, and there is no evidence that the Netsilik had any desire to reduce the number of fertile and sexually attractive women in their society.
The Gebusi of Papua New Guinea are one of many small-scale societies whose fear of witches has been maladaptive. A very small society of about 450 people in a lowland rain forest area of southcentral New Guinea, the Gebusi were still beyond the influence of missions or government officials when Bruce Knauft studied them between 1980 and 1982.34 They were a remarkably noncompetitive, self-effacing, mutually deferential people who actively encouraged nonviolence. Yet they believed that all illness was caused by witchcraft, and their resulting attacks against presumed witches were so violent that their homicide rate was one of the highest ever recorded. Nearly one-third of all deaths among them were homicides, and almost all of the victims were suspected witches. Keith Otterbein has suggested that their practice of executing people thought to be witches was an adaptive “group survival” strategy because it controlled the malevolence of witches; but Knauft points out that their killing can hardly be considered adaptive because the population, small to begin with, was “dying out at an exceedingly rapid rate,” and their extremely high homicide rate continues to be an important cause of their population decline.35
For me, it is quite fascinating. Having grown up around very traditionalist people I derive a certain level of comfort from traditionalism. But at some point it's clear that I'll always be an outsider, as my parents were. When it comes to committing heart and soul to ancient traditions whether social, dietary, or religious…I baulk. In the end traditionalism fails for me because in every tradition there is maladaptive beliefs and behaviors bundled together with ancient wisdom. Members of these traditions who have grown up with them from birth are often unable to see this.
Traditional solutions and long-standing beliefs and practices tend to persist not because they are optimally beneficial but because they generally work just well enough that changes in them are not selfevidently needed. Given all that we know about the sometimes astoundingly bad judgment of “rational” planners in modern nations, it seems unlikely that people in smaller and simpler societies that lack our scientific and technological sophistication would always make optimally adaptive decisions even should they try to do so...Psychologist Donald Campbell has suggested that this may be so because people have evolved to be conservative, to respect established ways and responsible leaders; for Campbell, conservatism is a survival mechanism.43 Similarly, sociologist Joseph Lopreato was so impressed by the human predilection for conforming to rules and forcing others to do likewise that he posited a genetic need for conformity….ith the partial exception of subsistence activities, for every man or woman in a folk society who has been able to explain why something believed or done is beneficial, there have been thousands (in some societies this includes everyone) who provide no more by way of explanation than “it is our custom” or “we’ve always done it this way.”
This has happened even when I've tried to climb up the family tree into our own past. A problem here is there are lots of trees to climb. I've climbed a lot of them so far and have been pretty disappointed, so I take what I like and leave. Unfortunately this is in itself somewhat maladaptive itself as it leaves me without the community and sense of belonging that usually accompanies such traditionalism.
postpartum depression are thought to include the stress of the event for the mother and family (including fears of being an inadequate mother), individual psychological characteristics of the woman, and changes in levels of estrogen and progesterone. Yet despite the frequency and seriousness of postpartum depression in the United States, the phenomenon appears to be quite rare in non-Western societies.112 For example, when Sara Harkness asked Kipsigis women in Kenya about their emotions following child birth, they unanimously denied that they felt sad or cried during the early weeks after giving birth. In fact, they declared that such things never occurred.113 For these Kipsigis women, despite hormonal changes, postpartum depression did not exist; giving birth was a happy event, one looked forward to by women who received positive social support throughout their pregnancies and after the birth of the child. The reasons why American culture (and the cultures of Western European countries) has made giving birth a depressing event presumably have to do with psychosocial stress. The Kipsigis and other societies have not made giving birth a stressful occurrence.
I've often thought that Jewish people are lucky because they have a strong secularized diaspora. I have some Jewish blood myself, but found that even that community still seems to be based on ties of kinship that render me an outsider. Is there an equivalent for Southerners out there somewhere? Maybe in Austin or Atlanta? I'm not a big fan of hot weather unfortunately.
When watching the show about the men of Vanuatu, I became curious about the state of women on Tanna. In the show, there are no interviews of any Tannan women. In fact, the women aren't mentioned much at all, except when the Tannans are commenting on the housework practices of the Western families. The Tannan men say that in their culture, such housework (cooking, cleaning) is something only women do.
So I started reading more about the women of Vanuatu. The situation is complex because, as usual, most of the earliest accounts are written by Westerners, but luckily we have the accounts of both missionaries AND anti-missionary tradespeople. They are remarkably consistent in some ways, so it seems that the people once practiced widow strangulation after the husband's death, something similar to the Indian Sati widow immolation. Colonialist efforts to stop the practice were mostly successful, though it persisted in some areas for a long time. There are also accounts of women being beaten by their husbands.
Vanuatu now seems to be in a situation where some of the tribes were Christianized by missionaries and others are part of a traditionialist reactionary movement called "Kastom." Based on the practices portrayed on the show and their religion, it seems that these men are part of "Kastom" tribes. There is good evidence that Kastom has had some harmful effects on women as people have become more strict about taboos. A huge burden of the taboo system lies on women since many taboos are about childbirth and menstruation. If a woman does something improperly, like gardening during menstruation (they are supposed to seclude themselves in menstrual huts), she may be blamed for misfortunes that befall the village, particularly if she does not sacrifice pigs to repair the violation.
Vanuatu is not completely isolated and their are women's movements in islands across the Pacific (which I'm aware is a very diverse place). This interesting article gives a voice to some of their concerns.
I am not a bra-burning person; I never wore a bra, so, I do not know why bra-burning is so important to the feminist. —Participant in “Women, Development and Empowerment” workshop, Naboutini, Fiji, 1987
It's clear that many women in these places feel that Western feminism is concerned with very trivial things. I would confess that I agree, having most recently been in an argument with a feminist tech writer over whether or not the face that we give little girls "gendered" toys leads them to not chose careers in tech and science (I don't agree.)
Many women's writers in the Pacific, such as Tongan writer Konai Helu Thaman, in fact reject the feminist label. This phenomenon is not just Pacific, a growing number of young women in the West, even those that hold classical feminist ideas, also reject this label.
Interviewing 82 people in Guam in order to gauge their thoughts on feminism, Laura made the same mistake that I had made in my interview with Thaman.14 We had both used the term feminism without first defining it. Laura recalls asking “Are you a feminist?” “What do you think of feminism?” “Without exception,” she states, “they said: Please don’t call me a feminist”
Like many Western women who are further quizzed on their rejection of feminism, Thaman later qualifies her statement “when people ask, are you a feminist, if feminism is about equality, equal worth, then, yes, I am a feminist”
I think it's quite interesting that Western social conservatives often lament the decline of the nuclear family, often pointing out that children that grow up without a father are worse off. Many Western feminists spend a large amount of time critiquing the nuclear family as being oppressive to women. But the nuclear family is a modern invention. As Folese, a Samoan writer, says:
The origins of western feminism arose out of suburbia [sic] depression and the need women felt to “get out of the house,” leave the kids behind, burn bras, overcome depression and addiction to things like valium etceteras. In life in a Samoan village, the extended family acts as a support system for mothers. The trap of the nuclear family simply doesn’t exist in the village situation.12
To me, the Western nuclear family has many parallels to Western agro-monocultures, in that it represents a less robust and rich caricature of the natural human family structure. Furthermore, the Western nuclear structure often is packaged with a belief that it is bad for women to work outside the home. Pacific women have always worked, tending their crops and animals.
In the Pacific, feminism is perceived as being hostile to the communal and family values. As a women in the Guam workshop put it:
… “feminists” do not want babies and yet women’s lives are defined in terms of their children. Some respondents did not want to have anything to do with women who wanted to live only with other women, or who rejected the family. In their view, the base of women’s lives was the family. (Griffen with Yee, 1989, p. 8)
Furthermore, traditions that the women do not view as oppressive, which involve separate complementary spheres for men and women, are often labeled as oppressive by Western feminists. As Tupu, a Western Samoan women says: “We don’t seek a social structure of total “equality”—we don’t want to do the same things as men. We have a social structure that has reciprocal power relations in different forms."
The women often do not want to do away with traditions like menstrual seclusion (something not alien to the West certainly. Less than a mile away from me in Williamsburg there are Hasidic Jewish women who do the same thing). Among Maori feminists, there is currently an argument about whether or not the traditional Maori culture was oppressive to women. Some Maori women believe that women were powerful in their own way in the traditional culture and their goal is to reclaim this from Westernization. It seems that in some ways traditional cultures were better, such as in Tonga where women had access to land which was prohibited by colonial governments. In other ways they seem worse, such as the widow strangulation in Vanuatu.
Having grown up in the South with some of my family being very traditionalist, the skepticism of the Pacific women towards feminism is very familiar to me. However, I find that such skeptical traditionalist women in America are often belittled, whereas feminists are willing to listen to non-Western women, though their voices are often conspiciously absent, perhaps because they do not toe the party line.
That's what the men of Vanuatu proclaim in this really interesting series called Meet The Natives. I don't usually enjoy reality TV, but I couldn't believe how much I enjoyed this show, which is posted on Youtube. The premise of the show is that five men from Tanna, a village in Vanuatu go to Britain and live among what they refer to as "three tribes": the working class, the middle class, and the upper class. I often find that shows about tribal people can be dehumanizing and prevent people from seeing the tribal people as individuals, but this show does not suffer from this. Chief Yapa, Joel, Posen, Albi and Jimmy Joseph are all very interesting and wise people. Jimmy is the narrator, as he speaks very good English, but the voices and personalities of the other men are very distinct as well. Interestingly, Jimmy also seems to be the uploader on Youtube and has some comments on the show there.
I actually learned about Vanuatu from The Paleo Guy's blog. The people of Vanuatu are not hunter-gatherers, but foraging horticulturalists who grow roots and raise pigs. It's clear from the documentary that the people are very healthy, with lean muscular bodies, clear skin, and strikingly white straight teeth. As I have written before here, horticultural and foraging cultures are very diverse. I can understand why the people of Tanna were chosen because their tribe seems very happy and healthy.
It becomes obvious that the five men aren't going to Britain just to experience the culture, but because they dream of meeting Prince Philip, who they believe is the son of their God. The rest of this post contains spoilers for the show, so if you want to be excited about finding out if they achieve their dream, watch the show first and then come back here.
The first family they visit is a middle class pig-farming family. I thought it was interesting that they chose a free-range pig farmer, since most pig farms these days are not free range. I would imagine that the men would have had a very difficult experience if they visited a typical pig farm.The people of Tanna also farm pigs, but there were amazed by the size and fatness of the pigs in Britain. However, the fact that the farmer artificially inseminated the pigs bothered them. The chief said that "animals and human beings are the same thing, mating should be done in private." Posen, the pig farmer, says that pigs are possessions and they must treat them with respect. They then cut to a video of Posen feeding his pigs some coconut. The pigs in Tanna are even more free ranging than the British pigs, wandering about the village. I suppose they stick around because the people feed them.
However, while animals and human beings are the same thing to the Tannans, the chief also says that "animals are made to be killed, but not human beings." The Tannan views on animals are among the most interesting parts of the show. While eating dinner with the middle class family, it comes up that the Tannans eat dogs. The middle class mother asks if they eat their pets. They say that they do not, but some dogs are pets, others are not.
Dogs come up again later in the show when they are staying with the working class family. While out shopping with them, the Tannans see homeless people for the first time. They cannot understand how people can be homeless. Jimmy says that in their village anyone can build a hut and everyone will help them and share food with them. Later in the show the Tannans say that sharing is the source of their happiness. The sad fact is that if a homeless person tried to build their own house on unused land in the US they would be evicted. It is even illegal to share food with the homeless in some cities.
After they learn about the homeless the Tannans are brought to a place where women spent all day "treating dogs like humans." It's a dog grooming parlor. After seeing this the chief says that "English people care a lot for their animals but they don't care about people's lives."
The Tannans meet a kindred spirit when they meet a professional rabbit hunter. They are impressed with his skills and philosophy on life, which is that he wants to do what he loves and not be part of the rat race. They say he is like a brother to him. When they are skinning the rabbit, they learn that people no longer want to wear fur. Jimmy is mystified, he says it makes sense to wear the fur since the rabbits are living in England and it's cold in England and the fur is warm. The hunter says this mystifies him too, but that he is so happy to spent time with the Tannans since they understand him and many people in England do not understand hunting anymore. Later when they are visiting the upper class people, the Tannans see a fox hunt. Because of animal rights activists, real fox hunts are banned in England and they carry on the tradition by having fake fox hunts. The Tannans think this is a crazy waste of time.
Another interesting this is that when they see the homeless people they ask "does this mean they have no fathers or mothers?" Later they learn about the fact that many families in Britain are broken. Their working class host, Ray, tells them he has a son from a previous relationship who he never sees. Now he is off to war in Afghanistan. This makes the Tannans very said. They explain that the bond between fathers and sons is very important.
Another thing I really liked about the show is that it also wasn't exploitative of the people of Britain. I've seen a fair number of British reality shows that portray British people, particularly the working class, as being very uncivilized, but while it's clear the working class family on this show had problems, they were shown as very nice and welcoming people. The Tannans form very close bonds with the working class family and are actually happy that they have to share a room because they like sleeping near each other so they can talk.
Unfortunately when they visit the working class family they have their first tastes of truly processed foods from boxes and KFC. I think some people have the idea that taste is more culturally relative than it actually is. The truth is that all humans are vulnerable to hyperpalatable foods, though increasing exposure seems to lead to increasing divorce between craving and needs. The Tannans say that KFC is very good, even better than home cooked foods. I was heartened to see that during a meal with the middle class family, the chief asks to be passed the butter and he eats all of it up with a spoon.
I was very happy that they do get to meet Prince Phillip, though they want him to come back to the island with them to fulfill their prophecy and he doesn't. It's funny because they say that they understand that son of their God chose to live among the upper class tribe because the upper class tribe follows the ancient rules of the ancestors. In the end Joel says "I think the English should return to a more traditional life. I think they used to be a lot like us, living with love and respect and unity. But if they carry on the way they are, they won't be able to find that life anymore."
Interestingly, the people there credit some Westerners with having taught them important things. According to legend, a US serviceman during WWII named "John Navy" taught them to end tribal warfare.
I think it's amazing that we are at the point that we can listen to the wisdom of people from places like Vanuatu, but underneath there is a tension. In the show it's clear that on their island there are gender roles that most Westerners would be uncomfortable with. Some jobs are lady's jobs, some are men's jobs. When they visit a gay club the Tannans are very uncomfortable. I learned later that parts of Tanna are part of a movement known as Kastom, which is a traditionalist movement. They resist things like public schools, believing them to be a threat to their customs (correct, IMHO). The commenters on Youtube praised the Tannan's ability to "live in harmony with nature" but were clearly put off by these attitudes as well as the attitudes towards animals.
Either way, I learned a lot from the show and I'm looking forward to watching the next one, which is about their trip to the US.
Jimmy home with his baby
This is one of the better articles I've read lately. It addresses serious errors common to works that cite the Paleolithic and foraging societies at being an apex of human welfare. Some of these errors include
For example Lee wrote that the San "worked" only 20 hours a week. Unfortunately, his definition of work was a little questionable. Turns out they work as much as I do:
investigation revealed that what he defined as subsistence activities occupied adult !Kung for about 2.4 days per week on the average, or for about 20 hours. This rather leisurely work schedule, it is claimed, managed to yield an abundant and nutritionally well-balanced diet. These findings were somewhat puzzling to some anthropologists who have conducted similar investigations in similar societies. Hawkes and O'Connell (1981) observed that the Bushmen figures were one-half to one-fifth of the time required by the Alyawarra, a central Australian foraging group. They expressed some surprise because the !Kung and Alyawarra are very similar in habitat as well as technology. The difference, it turned out, was explainable by Hawkes and O'Connell's definition of work: in their calculations of work, they included time spent in processing food as well as hunting and gathering it...."In addition there are the important tasks of manufacturing and maintaining their tool kit and, of course, housework-for the !Kung this involves food preparation, butchery, drawing water and gathering firewood, washing utensils, and cleaning the living space. These tasks take many hours a week" (Lee 1984:51-52).6 When these tasks are added to "subsistence work," the estimate per week is 44.5 hours for men and 40.1 hours for women. Lee is quick to add that these figures are well below the 40 or so hours per week that people in our own society spend above their wage-paid job doing housework, shopping, and other household chores. What seems to be at issue here is what we mean by terms such as "work" and "leisure" in the context of hunting-gathering societies---or, indeed, in the context of any society.
What about all that time spent lounging about?
And then there are the G/wi Bushmen, who reside in the central Kalahari. According to Silberbauer (1981:274- 78), they spend a good part of the day (from about 10 A.M. to about 4 P.M.) resting in the shade, not because they have "chosen" leisure over work or have limited wants, but because to venture out in the blistering sun for any time would expose them to dehydration and heatstroke. Throughout much of the year, there is little cloud cover to provide some relief from the withering heat; unshaded temperatures can reach 60'C (140'F), and sand temperatures as high as 720C (161 F) have been recorded. During the early summer months, all the G/wi lose weight and complain of persistent hunger and thirst (Silberbauer 1981:274). Hardly a "picnic outing on the Thames."
Also sheds further doubt on how well humans are actually adapated to the savanna.
What about using the !Kung diet to make inferences about what a healthy Paleolithic diet was?
Truswell and Hansen (1976:189-90) cite a string of biomedical researchers who have raised doubts about the nutritional adequacy of the !Kung diet, one going so far as to characterize one Bushmen group as being a "clear case of semi- starvation." Truswell and Hansen (1976:190-91) themselves have concluded that the data suggest "chronic or seasonal calorie insufficiency may be a major reason why San do not reach the same adult stature as most other people."... although he softened his opposition somewhat by conceding that the smallness of the !Kung might have something to do with undernutrition during childhood and adolescence, and he went on to note that !Kung raised on cattle posts on a Bantu diet of milk and grain grow significantly taller (Lee 1979:291).
This paper also mentions the fact that the vast majority of the !Kung consider mongongo nuts an undesirable fallback food. People who want to exploit the !Kung to talk about the Paleolithic tend to believe that they have been foraging since the Paleolithic and the nearly agropastoral people have had little effect on their lifestyle. I will address more of this myth in later posts, but needless to say, the evidence points to the fact that the !Kung have had trading relationships with agropastoralists and their current state is much more precarious nutritionally than it was in the past.
What is mainly missing from their foraging diet these days is fat:
We hear so much these days about the overconsumption of fat in the modern industrial diet that we sometimes forget how important some level of fat consumption is to normal human growth and the maintenance of healthy bodily functions. Animal fat, says Reader (1998:124) is "the proper measure of affluence.".... Hayden's (1981:421) observation is especially relevant here: "I was astounded the first time I saw Western Desert Aborigines ... kill a kangaroo, examine the intestines for fat, and abandon the carcass where it lay because it was too lean. Upon making a kill, Aborigine hunters always open the intestinal cavity and check the fat content. Virtually every ethnographer with whom I have discussed this observation confirms it, yet such details are seldom reported in the literature."
But at least they all love to share with each other...right?
Here, we were told, in the more marginal areas of the world were societies that were depicted as just the opposite of the industrial West, societies characterized by egalitarianism, widespread sharing of resources, an indifference to material possessions, societies whose members seemed to live in harmony with nature and one another and whose wants were modest and easily satisfied....sharing that goes on seems to be as much motivated by jealousy and envy as it is by any value of generosity or a "liberal custom of sharing." In his survey of foraging societies, Kelly (1995:164-65) notes that "Sharing... strains relations between people. Consequently, many foragers try to find ways to avoid its demands .... Students new to anthropology..,. are often disappointed to learn that these acts of sharing come no more naturally to hunter- gatherers than to members of industrial societies."...(1982:55) recounts the incident of an elder Bushman who asked him for a blanket. When Lee responded that he would just give it away, the elderly Bushman replied, "All my life I've been giving, giving; today I am old and want something for myself." Lee adds that the sentiments expressed by this elder were not unique. Perhaps "human nature" is not as different from society to society as we have been led to believe.
Perhaps there was a golden age, where fatty game was more abundant and sharing came easily. But the Bushman don't tell us much about that and overall it remainds a speculation.
SG: The Pima were first contacted in 1539 by the Spanish, who apparently found them to be lean and healthy. At the time, they were eating a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet based on corn, beans, starchy squash, and a modest amount of gathered animal and plant foods from the forest and rivers in the area. In 1869, the Gila river went dry for the first time, and 1886 was the last year water flowed onto their land, due to upstream river diversion by settlers. They suffered famine, and were rescued by government rations consisting of white flour, sugar, lard, canned meats, salt and other canned and processed goods. They subsequently became obese. Their diet consisted mostly of bread cooked in lard, sweetened beverages and canned goods, and they also suddenly had salt. I don't see why that's incompatible with the food reward hypothesis. It is, however, difficult to reconcile with the carbohydrate hypothesis.
I've known about the Pima story for a long time, mainly through the work of Gary Nabhan, who wrote Why Some Like it Hot and several other excellent books. Why Some Like it Hot is particularly relevant here because it posits that certain cultures are uniquely adapted to the foods of their own locality and history. That's a far stretch from the typical paleo proposition that we are all adapted to the same foods we ate 40,000 years ago.
It is interesting to note that at around the same time that flour was making the Pima overweight and diabetic, processed foods were harming other populations in other ways. Nutrition and Physical Degeneration has plenty of pictures of toothless children suffering from TB, but almost none of them are fat. Obesity came to places like Scotland only after the advent of processed foods 2.0, the hyperpalatable junk food engineered in laboratories. Why did the Pima get fat so quickly and before these foods were in the marketplace?
The tragedy of the Pima has been a boon for research into the genetics of diabetes and obesity since they tend towards genetic homogeneity. Through this research, several genes have been identified that are linked to their conditions. These include variants in interleukin 6, uncoupling protein, mannose binding lectin, and the leptin receptor gene, to name but a very few of the promising candidates.
So do these genes doom the Pima? Obviously not. There are a few prominent bloggers who say that whether or not you have diabetes is genetically determined and you cannot eat yourself diabetic. This is nonsense.
The Mexican Pima still live as traditional farmers and ranchers, so they are much more active. They are not skinny, but they are not obese either. What is their diet like? Beans, wheat flour (OMG), corn tortillas, and potatoes are the main staple. They eat much less fat than the US Pima. It was only recently that roads came to their area, so needless to say, they don't eat fast food (at least at the time that paper was written).
I have little doubt that their diet was probably much healthier in the past. Pictures of the Pima in the past show them as being svelte. Staples of this older diet included more unusual desert foods such as tepary beans, mesquite pods, acorns, and heritage varieties of corn. One main point of Nabhan's book is that not all plants of the same species or type are made alike. Different beans have different nutritional properties and phytochemicals. The ancient Pima ate both wild and domesticated legumes. Their diet was around 70% carbohydrates.
Even those Indians who still rely heavily on beans and corn are today consuming varieties that have little or none of the nutritive advantages found in the staples of their historic diet. For example, the sweet corn familiar to Americans contains rapidly digested starches and sugars, which raise sugar levels in the blood, while the hominy-type corn of the traditional Indian diet has little sugar and mostly starch that is slowly digested.
Similarly, the pinto beans that the Federal Government now gives to the Indians (along with lard, refined wheat flour, sugar, coffee and processed cereals) are far more rapidly digested than the tepary beans the Tohono O'odham once depended upon. Indeed, their former tribal name is a distorted version of the Indian word meaning "the Bean People."
When Earl Ray, a Pima Indian who lives near Phoenix, switched to a more traditional native diet of mesquite meal, tepary beans, cholla buds and chaparral tea, he dropped from 239 pounds to less than 150 and brought his severe diabetes under control without medication. In a federally financed study of 11 Indian volunteers predisposed to diabetes, a diet of native food rich in fiber and complex carbohydrates kept blood sugar levels on an even keel and increased the effectiveness of insulin. When he switched back to a low-fiber "convenience-market diet" containing the same number of calories, the volunteers' blood sensitivity to insulin declined.
An overlooked aspect here might be social effects. Obesity in the Pima has been tied to the use of formula. It has been also seen that "non-working" Pima women are more likely to consume traditional foods and feed them to their family than "working" Pima women. I put working in quotation marks because I am referring to work in the extractive capitalist sense. It's clear that Pima women have always worked as gatherers and farmers, I'm talking about work that provides only money to the home, rather than providing income of a more holistic sort.
What is fascinating to me is that the Pima have a lower than expected incidence of heart disease. It's clear to me that the Pima are a genetically distinct population with unique adaptations to their ancient diet and lifestyle. They don't show that carbohydrates per-se cause obesity. They do provide an example of the synergistic effects of genes, diet, and lifestyle. If I were Pima, I would be inclined to eating a low-fat high-fiber diet rich in these traditional foods.
But I'm not.
The Aka pygmies are nomadic horticulturalists that trade with nearby farmers for staple carbohydrates. I've written about the pygmy diet before, but variations exist among the various pygmy tribes in terms of culture. The Aka are considered "the best fathers in the world," at least among studied tribal peoples. While fathers play an important role in every tribal culture, one that liberal cultural anthropologists have tried to play down with disputed anecdotes about some cultures that may not have ideas about paternity, the Aka are still unusual in the importance of fathers. Their culture is distinguished by close bonds between couples, who net-hunt together to provide food for the family. Fathers participate in childcare and hold their children for many hours. The article linked to above is false in that there are still non-interchangeable gender roles, but genders are much less differentiated than in most tribal cultures.
In the book Intimate Fathers they describe how, like the Yequana, the Aka parents are physically indulgent, but not emotionally smothering. Many modern parents are excessively child-focused and protective, yet neglect the basic biological needs of their babies for physical closeness with their biological parents (and other relatives) and breastmilk.
Aka infancy is indulgent: infants are held almost constantly, they have skin-to-skin contact most of the day as Aka seldom wear shirts or blouses, and they are nursed on demand and attended to immediately if they fuss or cry. Aka parents interact with and stimulate their infants throughout the day. They talk to, play with, show affection to, and transit subsistence skills to their infants during the day. I was rather surprised to find parents teaching their eight-to-twelve-month-old infants how to use small pointed digging sticks, throw small spears, use miniature axes with sharp metal blades, and carry small baskets. Most of this direct teaching takes place while resting on the net hunt.
While Aka are very indulgent and intimate with their infants, they are not a child-focused society. Some have suggested that many American parents are child-focused, in that parents will give undivided attention to the child (quality time) and dramatically change their behavior or activities to attend to the desires of the children. American parents allow their children to interrupt their conversations with other adults; they ask their children what they want to eat and try to accommodate other desires of the children. Aka society is adult-centered in that parents seldom stop their activities to pay undivided attention to their children. If an infant fusses or urinates on a parent who is talking to others or playing the drums, the parent continues his activity while gently rocking the infant or wiping the urine off with a nearby leaf. There are times when the infant's desires are not considered and the infant is actually placed in danger by the parents. For instance, on the net hunt, if a woman chases a game animal into the net, she will place the infant on the ground to run after the game and kill it. The infant is left there crying until the mother or someone else comes back.*
*women don't participate in the most dangerous hunts, like the elephant hunt
This paper by the Harts is a fantastic one. The Mbuti are a tribe of rainforest hunter-gatherers. Like all modern hunter-gatherers, they do not represent some sort of paleolithic hunter-gatherer state. The Mbuti have a symbiotic trade relationship with nearby agriculturalists, which seems to have evolved due to desire for starch. This fits quite well with my belief that much of human history has been about the acquisition of starch and fat.
In return for the starch, agriculturalists get desirable forest products like game meat. This is an important trade since the rainforest isn't always as productive as you might think. For five months of the year it is barren of fruits and seeds. Wild game is common, but too low in fat to be a good food source. Many anthropologists have argued that without the starch trade, the Mbuti would not be able to live in such an environment. The main starch staples they trade for are cassava, plantains, yams, and sweet potatoes. Even when game is abundant, when they are out of starch they claim they have "no food." Wild yams exist, but are highly poisonous and require much processing before they can be consumed.
Meat is easily found in the rainforest, so the Mbuti use the surplus to acquire these foods. Interestingly, reports say that they keep mainly the fat-rich animals for themselves.
The Mbuti also have something called "secondary forest" which is a kind of primeval type of agriculture from abandoned gardens. Large amounts of oil palm are acquired from these areas.
Recently I saw a very silly paper that attempted to calculate hunter-gatherer fiber consumption based on the average fiber of all exploited plants, which is foolish. Like all people, the Mbuti prefer some plants over others. Most plants are not heavily exploited save those that are naturally rich in starch or oil. Their favored mango, L. Gabonensis, is 90% fat (mostly in the edible seed)! Fruit that is mainly sugar is not considered a staple food, the Mbuti refer to these fruits as "children's food."
The Mbuti hunt primarily with nets. A main game species is the Duiker, a type of antelope, but that is not the favored species from a culinary perspective as the Mbuti say it is too low in fat and must be cooked with palm oil. Fatty grubs are much preferred, but these are hard to find. Another source of food is honey, which is very much desired, but scarce.
The Mbuti are considered pygmies, but their height is genetic and unlike the San they do not exhibit evidence of stunting.
A people corrupted by fat and starch from agriculturalists or an example of how humans need some of these things to survive? I think the evidence shows that humans can only thrive in environments rich in some combination of oily seeds, starch, fatty grubs, and fatty game.
A thought provoking book about the possibility that human cultures co-evolved with certain foods.