Ever Meet a Hunter-Gatherer?

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

August 2007

Would you know a hunter-gatherer if you met one at the mall? There are thousands of them scattered over the globe. It would only take a Western hair style and clothing from Sears to allow them to pass among us unnoticed. With their well-developed muscles, little body fat and abundance of energy they would look like surfer dudes if they wandered along the beach in a swimsuit.

Hunter-gatherers are the present-day equivalent of Stone Age humans. They don't grow crops, raise animals or store much of what they gather and hunt. Neither they nor we look any different from real Stone Age people that lived 50,000 or 100,000 years ago. All those years have produced virtually no change in our gene patterns.

Whether they live in South America, Australia or Africa, hunter-gatherers are almost entirely free from the 5 diseases that kill most Americans: heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic lung disease and type 2 diabetes. Many die from accidental or intentional injury and nearly as many from infections. Few die from malnutrition, even though they are living under rather marginal conditions in areas that stronger societies have pushed them into. Hunter-gatherers rarely starve. Under the most adverse conditions they can always find some plants and animals to provide adequate nutrition.

The argument that they don't live long enough to get Western-type diseases doesn't hold up. About 20 percent of present-day hunter-gatherers live beyond the age of 60 years and remain strong and vigorous — and lean!

The plants and animals on which they subsist vary widely from one continent to another. They are largely vegetarian. Some obtain high-quality protein from insects, others from small game. Eskimos are the exception, not the rule.

Without mechanization, electricity or even the most primitive labor-saving devices, hunter-gatherers expend lots of calories in everyday activities. Having to haul food and occasional running to chase prey or avoid danger condition the heart and lungs in the way that nature intended.

Lifting, carrying, pushing and pulling are natural activities that stimulate growth of muscles, which in turn strengthens the bones to which they are attached. That explains why the oldest among them don't experience hip fractures or the collapsed vertebrae that cripple milk-drinking, calcium-supplementing Americans. Hunter-gatherers have no source of dairy products. Their calcium comes from plant sources. They spend most of their lives outdoors wearing little clothing so they don't need artificially fortified dairy products in order to get an adequate supply of vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin.

Living day-to-day, unable to store much food, exposed to the elements and to predators seems like a stressful existence but their stress is not like ours. Most of them live in temperate climates, their food is always fresh and free of pesticides and pollutants and their periods of stress are short. No wonder they've survived for thousands of years. Are we likely to do as well?

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.