Paleo Nutrition: Anthropological evidence? [30 day paleo challenge]

22 Feb

What does anthropological/archeological evidence tell us of the effect of nutrition on a wide variety of health factors?

Dr Michael Eades, author of ‘Protein Power‘, has long believed in the power of food to affect a wide range of health factors. He is also a great believer in the ‘paleo’ approach to nutrition, using this as a basis for a number of his publications. He holds strong to the view that the modern diet of refined sugars and grains is at least partially responsible for  a sharp downturn in health and  wellbeing in modern humans.

The anthropological record of early man clearly shows health took a nosedive when populations made the switch from hunting and gathering to agriculture. It takes a physical anthropologist about two seconds to look at a skeleton unearthed from an archeological site to tell if the owner of that skeleton was a hunter-gatherer or an agriculturist.

Dr Mike Eades has an interesting review on on his website of a paper written by Dr Claire Cassidy in 1980, comparing two populations living in the same region at quite different times. One was a hunter-gather tribe (‘Indian Knoll’), eating a typical ‘palaeolithic’ diet of meat, vegetables, some fruit, nuts and seeds. The other was a more modern agriculturalist group (‘Hardin Village’), who derived more of their nutrition from grains and other farmed crops.

A summary of Dr Cassidy’s analysis of skeletal remains, read as follows:

Here is the summary of the findings of this analysis of skeletal data as tabulated by the author:
  1. Life expectancies for both sexes at all ages were lower at Hardin Village than at Indian Knoll.
  2. Infant mortality was higher at Hardin Village.
  3. Iron-deficiency anemia of sufficient duration to cause bone changes was absent at Indian Knoll, but present at Hardin Village, where 50 percent of cases occurred in children under age five.
  4. Growth arrest episodes at Indian Knoll were periodic and more often of short duration and were possibly due to food shortage in late winter; those at Hardin Village occurred randomly and were more often of long duration, probably indicative of disease as a causative agent.
  5. More children suffered infections at Hardin Village than at Indian Knoll.
  6. The syndrome of periosteal inflammation was more common at Hardin Village than at Indian Knoll.
  7. Tooth decay was rampant at Hardin Village and led to early abscessing and tooth loss; decay was unusual at Indian Knoll and abscessing occurred later in life because of severe wear to the teeth.  The differences in tooth wear and caries rate are very likely attributable to dietary differences between the two groups.
Her analysis based on this data:
Overall, the agricultural Hardin Villagers were clearly less healthy than the Indian Knollers, who lived by hunting and gathering.

Overall Dr Eades’ reading of the data is very interesting, and the study itself is well worth digging out. It provides fairly compelling data in support of nutrition being a significant determining factor in disease resistance and general health and wellbeing.

Nutrition and health in agriculturalists and hunter-gatherers | The Blog of Michael R. Eades, M.D.

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