When John Durant of Hunter-Gatherer.com appeared on the Colbert Report the other night to promote the Cave Man Diet (Paleo Diet), it seemed easy to dismiss him as a total kook hooked on machismo. He sat on stage talking about climbing trees for exercise, looking for a lady with lactose-intolerance and celiac disease (that he could bash over the head and drag back to his New York apartment?), and complaining about the inherent health problems associated with industrial food production – especially grains and refined sugars, which most vegetarian chicks are hooked on, apparently. When asked what he eats for breakfast, he responded “eggs and bacon.”
“Huh?” I thought. I may not be an anthropologist, but I wondered if he snatched those eggs from a pigeon’s nest in Central Park (illegal) like his ancestors may have done in their local niche? His breakfast, unless it was wild boar bacon and local wild goose eggs is in contradiction to his own argument. But he did not clarify, so it may have been!
It turns out he’s not a total kook. The unfortunate part of this testosterone spectacle is that there is a lot of legitimacy to what John Durant might have to say about the way pre-civilized people lived, aside from what he thought they ate. For people like John and a gastroenterologist named Walter L. Voegtlin – who popularized the fad diet in the 70s, it’s just about diet and nutrition. Like Atkins, the focus on meat is neither nutritionally or historically accurate. The idea of hunting equaling manhood and simulated running-from-mammoths as a form of exercise belongs in the 1970’s along with the outdated and prejudice ideas anthropologists had about primitive peoples during that time. The true tragedy is that the social and political implications of dispelling myths about primitive peoples are not only left by the wayside, but stereotypes are embraced and exploited. In the same way that Durant might argue for the healthfulness of eating the entire orange as opposed to just drinking the juice, the fiber of the argument is left out in favor of something refined and out of context: the sweet juice of masculine vanity .
In a NYT Article in January, Durant’s three-foot-tall refrigerated meat locker is referenced, yet would never have been found in any cave. “The caveman lifestyle, in Mr. Durant’s interpretation, involves eating large quantities of meat and then fasting between meals to approximate the lean times that his distant ancestors faced between hunts. Then he says, “I didn’t want to do some faddish diet that my sister would do.”
Ironically, the Cave Man Diet has been qualified as a fad diet by the National Health Service of England and American Dietetic Association, yet well-planned vegetarian and vegan diets that his sister, and many of the women he complains about in his Colbert interview may partake in, are considered “healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases… [and are] suitable for all stages of the life-cycle,” according to the ADA. Colbert was clearly onto something in asking if this were some glorified form of the Atkins diet.
The biggest problem with John Durant’s beliefs about food lie in anthropological inaccuracy. Even today there is far too much variability among gatherer-hunter cultures to be able to illustrate “typical” behavior. But Recent discoveries like Ardi require us to re-write our evolutionary history, and more recent anthropological findings make a strong case that pre-civilized planet earth was, in most favorable climates, a bounty of gatherable foods, and evidence suggests that women provided 60-80% of the diet in gathered plant foods, much like the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert in southwestern Africa and the Mbuti of the central African rain forest [source].
Also left out of this popular fad diet is the evolutionary importance of the introduction of new plant foods, such as tubers, into the human diet when our ancestors transitioned from the forests into savannas [source]. If Durant were following a more accurate gatherer-hunter diet, and not one based on movies and out-dated anthropology, it would consist mostly of seeds, berries, roots, shoots, fruits, nuts, leaves, larvae, honey, shellfish, crustaceans and occasional additions of the organs and high-fat body parts of animals. Let’s consider that hunting required a lot more energy, time, and tool-making than gathering plant-based foods. Hunting game is preferred in areas where gathering was not the obvious and efficient choice, like the arctic circle. It seems that if you threw a few grubs into a raw foodists salad once in a while- they and fruitarians are more evolutionarily accurate than John Durant’s diet, which is based on European Ice Age and traditional Eskimo diets. In the majority of cases, the term hunter-gatherer should be flipped with the “gatherer” as being primary.
We can agree with these modern cave-men that incredible prejudice exists against pre-civilized peoples. Theorists, anthropologists and writers who have become more mainstream, like John Zerzan and Derrick Jensen and Daniel Quinn, deal with these issues and make the argument that, in fact, many pre-civilized peoples lead very leisurely and healthy lives full of play, sex, rest, and minimal “work”. Primitivism, and the study of pre-industrial and pre-civilized peoples often contradicts the idea that life was a perpetual struggle ending in early death. The idea that it was all struggle and pain is a modern rationalization as to why we chose to head towards civilization – we must have abandoned that lifestyle for good reason, no? But many anthropologists now ask whether it was a choice or was there a draconian drama that unfolded?
You’d think that someone who bases their ideal diet on the way things were thousands of years ago, would have some concern for the environment, since the earth was in quite a different state back then. Currently, raising animals for food is the greatest single cause of global warming and rainforest destruction. There are 300 million indigenous and non-indigenous people who live in forests and whose livelihoods and very homes are threatened by modern meat production. It’s ironic that the peoples whose lives are modeled in this diet are threatened because of the very foods it suggests we focus on. Unless of course, Durand makes the silly suggestion that there is enough wild game and grass-fed beef to feed the world a meat-centered diet. A plant-based diet easily resolves this problem.
Durant complains about all the vegetarian girls he meets being addicted to sugar. However, far from being a rare delicacy, honey contributed a substantial portion of the calories in many primitive diets. The Hazda of Tanzania, the Mbuti pygmies of the Congo, the Veddas or Wild Men of Sri Lanka, the Guayaka Indians of Paraguay, the Bushmen of South Africa and the Aborigines of Australia, all put a high value on honey and consumed it in large amounts. It appears that salty and sweet taste-buds are not, in fact, superfluous. Furthermore, many American Indians consumed Maple Syrup and used it in preparing other foods.
John Durant’s fascination and promotion of the Cave Man Fad Diet seems due to the romanticized manliness associated with hunters and his personal desire to identify as a “real” man. However, what he has to say about the dangers of sedentary lifestyles, the benefits of play and exercise, the health hazards of industrialized food systems, dairy products and refined grains and sugars do offer serious legitimacy and are all things we should get on board with. Even attempting to re-learn what is edible in our local bioregions could be crucial to our survival as a species. But the preference for meat is riddled with prejudice, historical inaccuracy, ecological devastation, and outdated definitions of manhood.