I guess “cavepersons” would be more politically correct…

Paul Raven @ 11-01-2010

… but then if you’re trying to revive diets and lifestyles last lived by human beings in the Paleolithic era, you’re probably not too worried about political correctness, AMIRITE?

I kid you not; the latest lifestyle fad to sweep the hipster set in New York (if two handfuls of people can be fairly described as “sweeping”) is the caveman – chasing bodily vitality by eating and working out like hunter-gatherer protohumans would have done before the invention of agriculture [via MetaFilter; image by cote]:

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. Vegetables and fruit are fine, but he avoids foods like bread that were unavailable before the invention of agriculture. Mr. Durant believes the human body evolved for a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and his goal is to wean himself off what he sees as many millenniums of bad habits.

These urban cavemen also choose exercise routines focused on sprinting and jumping, to replicate how a prehistoric person might have fled from a mastodon.

One notable New Yorican paleo is Nassim “Black Swan” Taleb, but I suspect even such odd-ball celebrity endorsements are unlikely to popularise a lifestyle that involves eating raw meat, or fasting for 36-hour periods that end in a strenuous workout before your next meal. That said, all it might take to smear it all over the gossip mags is getting some vapid Ashton Kutcher-a-like to try it for a week. Move over, Atkins…

What the paleos seem to be overlooking is that we’ve evolved considerably since the Paleolithic – pre-agricultural man’s body was (if my understanding of anthropology is correct) very different to our more modern meat, albeit in small ways. To truly live like a Paleolithic man, you’d probably need to have your body modified extensively so you could cope with hardships that we’d consider beyond the pale… I wonder how many of the paleos sleep through the New York winter without the benefit of central heating in their loft space, for example?

I’m put in mind of one of my favourite series of sf novels, namely David Zindell’s Requiem for Homo Sapiens, wherein a team of researchers have their bodies retrofitted for the Paleolithic lifestyle in order to seek out ancient spiritual knowledge which may or may not have been hard-coded into humanity by some higher power or another*. By comparison, the paleos in that article are just flirting with the idea… but perhaps, as body modification technology moves beyond simple aesthetic hacks and into the realm of proper re-engineering, people will start revisiting the body-plans and lifestyles of our ancestors more completely, whether for fashion or survival.

[ * That’s a massive oversimplification of one narrative thread of the series, by the way, which drastically short-sells a set of books that I’d recommend without hesitation to anyone who loves a bit of brain-bending high-concept science fiction with added Big Maths and Illuminati references. ]

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2 Responses to “I guess “cavepersons” would be more politically correct…”

  1. Robert Koslover says:

    Since the average life expectancy of a “caveperson” was so very short, why should anyone seek to copy their diets, lifestyles, politics, or much of anything else? Very, very few prehistoric humans died of what we call “old age.” Can I have a show of hands from those volunteering for caveman-era dental care? The natural world is dangerous. Our knowledge, technologies, and economic systems are responsible for our modern high-average longevities.

  2. Philip Brewer says:

    I think you’re mistaken about the degree of evolutionary change since paleolithic times–it’s going to be so small as to be barely perceptible. Any random person from then or now would fall entirely within the normal range of either time period.

    For some very specific thing where there has been substantial evolutionary pressure, certain genes may have become much more common in certain populations (such genes that let adults digest milk and genes that let people more quickly break down the harmful byproducts of alcohol metabolization, both of which are now common in people of northern European descent). But neither of those is some new capability that didn’t exist before. Rather, there used to be a lot more diversity and–after circumstances changed such that one option was clearly better than others–most of the diversity was pinched off.