Agriculture changed the course of human civilization. Without it, we likely would not have big cities, automobiles, air flight, computers, etc., as agriculture made hierarchical society possible, allowing people to specialize: soldiers, teachers, metalsmiths, etc. as well as farmers. But agriculture also dramatically shifted the landscape of human disease. Let’s explore that idea.
For the preceding 2.5 million years before agriculture, humans lived as hunters and gatherers, killing animals, catching fish, collecting shellfish, digging for roots and tubers, gathering seasonal fruit. Having to live our lives out in the open and following the availability of food, we nonetheless lived quite successfully. Despite injury, infection, and infestations that were responsible for human illness, populations grew and the human population spread across the continents.
Several crucial evolutionary changes allowed humans to become eminently successful group hunters. Despite our ancient pre-Homo ancestors being largely herbivorous and only opportunistic scavengers of animal remains, humans became adept at crafting tools and weapons such as knives, spears, axes, atlatls (a device for added leverage in launching spears at high speed), and, more recently, bows and arrows. We became so successful that anthropologists speculate that the massive extinction of large mammals that began around 130,000 years ago was because of intensive human hunting.
Humans consuming animal organs and meat grew larger brains that contained a forebrain with capacity for planning, such as stalking, driving a herd onto a cliff or into a pit, or ambushing animals. We developed a speech center in the frontal lobe of the brain along with the vocal apparatus for speech (vocal cords permitting a range of sounds, fine control of the lips, tongue, and breath control) that allowed the emergence of language. We lost most body hair to allow rapid skin cooling during the day to allow humans to run and hunt for extended periods. (Unlike many other hunting creatures that hunt at night, humans favored the daylight.) As we consumed less plant matter and more animal matter, our colons shortened, since the lengthy digestive process necessary to digest plentiful fibrous plant matter became less necessary (thus the lack of a potbelly like many apes have). Reduction of intestinal size also allowed more energy to be diverted to the energy-intensive human brain. Communication and the capacity for planning also became the basis for social organization.
Humans tamed fire and learned how to cook, a huge step in creating digestive efficiency, especially of animal organs and meats. We used animal skins for clothing, organs like the stomach to use for carrying food, dried fecal matter to burn as fuel. No other species has done likewise.
Interestingly, tooth decay, abscess formation, and tooth misalignment was uncommon despite the lack of oral hygiene—no toothbrushes, dental floss, fluoridated toothpaste, dentists, or orthodontists. People lived to their 50s, 60s, and 70s (the idea of short, brutish lives is largely a fiction, though lifespan averages were skewed by excessive infant and early childhood deaths) with a full mouth of intact, straight teeth. Similar experiences have been observed in primitive hunter-gatherer populations surviving to the recent past: full mouths of undiseased, straight teeth, even into advanced age.
Prior to exposure to Western ways, primitive hunter-gatherers surviving to the present or recent past are also curiously free or nearly free of heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, non-infectious skin rashes, autoimmune disease, colon cancer, hemorrhoids, acne, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, schizophrenia, depression and many other conditions that plague modern humans. Instead, their health issues involved infectious diseases like malaria and Dengue fever, infestations from nematodes and other parasites, and injuries. But there’s almost no sign of the health conditions that plague modern humans, even those at present epidemic levels.
This is how humans lived for 99.6% of our time on earth, with regional variation in choices among animals and plants for food, but following the dietary script that is written into the human genetic code, much as a lion hunts gazelle and wildebeest and a horse consumes grass and forage . . . until humans disengaged from their dietary script and adopted two new practices:
- Agriculture that led to the harvesting of wild grasses, or grains, for their seed, following by cultivation of the seed, a practice that began during a period of starvation or calorie deprivation
- The domestication of animals such as aurochs (cows), ibex (goats), and sheep
This all happened more or less simultaneously around the world around 10,000 years ago: einkorn wheat in the Fertile Crescent, millet in sub-Saharan Africa, teosinte and maize in Central America, rice in the swamplands of Asia, along with domestication of herbivorous creatures (with the exception of carnivorous dogs and cats as companions, less as food). It caused humans to gradually leave the nomadic lifestyle of the hunter-gatherer and create permanent settlements to plant crops, keep domesticated livestock, and develop social organization, specialization, and hierarchy.
What happened to human populations that cultivated grains and used animals to obtain products of their mammary glands, slaughter for meat and organs, and used them as beasts of burden for farming? Anthropologists and paleopathologists have know this for decades, while scientists who have studied the remaining modern hunter-gatherer populations on earth first exposed to modern life and food have made virtually identical observations. They tell us that when humans first consumed grains and domesticated animals or when modern hunter-gatherers adopted Western foods:
- 16-49% of all teeth recovered showed decay or abscess formation, and misalignment increased substantially. Tooth abscess is among the top causes of suicide in such populations.
- Knee arthritis and other bone diseases doubled
- Evidence for iron deficiency (“porotic hyperostosis” and “cribra orbitalis,” evidence of hyperplastic bone marrow) appeared in many people
- Humans contracted over 250 new infectious diseases, or “zoonoses,” from domesticated animals, including smallpox, measles, tuberculosis, anthrax, brucellosis and influenza. Every time that primitive hunter-gatherers that have not domesticated animals have had contact with modern people, they succumb in huge numbers—not so much to guns and knives, but to zoonotic infection.
- The transition from small (e.g., 20-30) clans of humans to villages and cities introduced a new collection of public health issues, such as those from close contact (e.g., bubonic plague) and improper sewage (e.g., cholera).
In other words, while civilization that began with agriculture led to many wonderful advances in science, technology, and other areas, it also completely transformed human health and disease for the worse. Ironically, modern medicine is best at managing the diseases of ancient humans such as injury and infestation, but has done a generally miserable job of addressing all the diseases of modern humans—or at least has managed to figure out that modern chronic diseases like “high cholesterol,” acid reflux, heart disease, cancer and autoimmune diseases are the key to recurring, long-term flows of revenue.
Don’t worry: I am not proposing that you start hunting for your dinner nor moving your bowels in the forest. I am proposing that, while enjoying the fruits of modern civilization, recognize that, by mimicking some of the experiences of primitive humans, you too can be freed of chronic modern diseases. We no longer live in close quarters with our domesticated livestock to continue to contract zoonoses, but we do continue to consume the seeds of grasses—grains—that are now celebrated as the preferred source of human calories by all agencies purporting to provide dietary advice, while Big Pharma and the healthcare industry reap the revenue benefits.
The Undoctored program takes these lessons further: Not only do we engage in a lifestyle free of all seeds of grasses, but we also address other aspects of health disrupted by modern life. The end-result: magnificent health without the doctor, without the healthcare system, without reliance on the medications and procedures that largely treat our dietary mistakes.