My original caveman story

This story originally appeared in the National Post in 2010:

Men belonging to the hunter-gatherer Hadza people of Tanzania prize organ meat so highly that they make a macho ritual of eating it, gathering away from the women to gorge on the kidney, heart, testicles and tongue of a slain prey animal such as an antelope or warthog.

This was the explanation I offered my then-fiancee, a vegetarian, for stinking up the kitchen on a Saturday afternoon last year in order to prepare a meal of pork kidneys sauteed in lard with diced apple and green onions. I was in the middle of conducting a 30-day experiment trying to mirror the diet of pre-agricultural humans, a trend often referred to as eating “primal” or “paleolithic” — or, more amusingly, as living a “caveman lifestyle.”

A January 2010 New York Times article (soon followed by a Maclean’s piece) brought attention to a clan of mostly young urbanites rejecting a well-being paradigm revolving around granola, yoga and vegetarianism, turning instead to humanity’s primal past for answers on how to live in the 21st century.

One urban caveman, a then-26-year-old in advertising named John Durant, showed the Times his locker of venison and organ meat. He was invited on to TV’s The Colbert Report. He now has a website dedicated to the “hunter-gatherer” lifestyle, and a book deal.

Taken to extremes, the cave-person life involves fasting to simulate scarcity, running without shoes, donating blood on a regular basis to simulate wounds from grappling with animals and eating raw meat (despite evidence humans have cooked with fire for hundreds of thousands of years).

However, most primals merely follow a dietary program, the basics of which you scratch on a cave wall. Simply put, one avoids foods that appeared in the human diet from the introduction of agriculture during the neolithic era onwards.

“What it excludes are typically the three most problematic and allergenic foods to everybody — grains, dairy and legumes,” explains Toronto gym owner Dhani Oks, who has been following a primal lifestyle for two years.

His Academy of Lions CrossFit gym acts as a fire circle and feeding ground for Toronto-area cave-people (they like barbecues).

“The foods that we’ve eaten the longest, from our hunter-gatherer days, are the ones we’re best adapted to consuming,” he says. Mr. Oks, a former vegetarian, also sells paleofriendly foods such as all-natural beef jerky at his gym.

Naturally, the paleolithic community debates the finer points of the eating regime, which in some respects mirrors low-carbohydrate diets such as Atkins and the South Beach Diet. The major difference lies in the avoidance of processed foods.

Curious to see what the fuss was about and eager to share the experience with readers of the Post’s Appetizer food and drinks blog, I submitted myself to it for 30 days last spring.

The experience was positive overall, despite some culinary monotony including a ban on alcohol. My appetite all but vanished, as Loren Cordain’s book, The Paleo Diet, promised it would. I endured a 34-hour fast without feeling too oppressed by hunger. I lost 10 pounds in the course of a month. Online foragers can search Google for my name and “caveman” to read more.

I was lucky to have a palate that prefers savoury over sweet. Others are built differently (even Mr. Oks indulges in the odd piece of dark chocolate). Despite our species having had little to eat besides animal proteins and plant foods for countless aeons, I suspect a primal, salivating sugar junkie has been under our skin all along — ushering us toward the high-calorie, sweetened world in which we now live.

For a 2009 paper, Florida State University anthropologists asked members of Tanzania’s Hadza people to rank foods in their typiical diet in order of preference. By a significant margin, both men and women chose honey — the sweetest, most calorie-dense item in their diet — as their favourite.

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