Could our ancient ancestors have given today’s champion athletes a run for their money?

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Anyone familiar with my health ‘philosophy’ will know that I am a big believer in using our ancient past to inform our modern-day dietary and lifestyle habits. Logic dictates that, say, the foods we’ve eaten for longest in terms of our time on this planet are the foods that we’re generally going to be the best adapted to, and are therefore the best foods for us. But this is not just theory, because there is abundant scientific evidence, I think, which demonstrates that ‘primal foods’ such as meat, fish, eggs, fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds are genuinely the healthiest foodstuffs on offer. Relative nutritional newcomers (such as refined sugar and vegetables oils, grain and milk), are not.

One question that often comes up from this concept concerns longevity. If our ancient ancestors ate so well back then, how come the average life expectancy was a fraction of what it is now? The explanation probably relates to the fact that life was a precarious business for our early ancestors, with weather conditions, predatory animals, accidents and infectious diseases being much more likely causes of death then than they tend to be now.

One could argue that a better judge of the health effects of our early diet is its apparent impact on health. We know, for example, that dental disease was rare until we morphed from hunter-gatherers to growers of crops and herders of animals about 10,000 years ago. It was at this time that our ancestors also experienced a sudden drop in height (of about 4-6 inches/10-15 cm).

What other clues do we have, though, regarding the health of primitive hunter-gatherers?

Earlier this week I came across a newspaper piece here about a book written by Australian anthropologist Peter McAllister. This book ” entitled Manthropology – makes the claim that our ancient ancestors were stronger, faster and altogether healthier than we are now. For example, Cro-Magnon man from 30,000-40,000 years ago was, apparently, bigger physically and bigger-brained too compared to modern-day man.

Peter McAllister also draws our attention to the presence of 20,000 year-old footprints in the Australian outback, analysis of which reveals that ancient Aboriginals were capable of running at 23 miles an hour ” a speed close to the World’s most accomplished sprinters. This feat, bear in mind, was achieved in bare feet (not spikes), on soft ground (not a running track), and with (we assume) no formal sprint training. The suggestion here is that our ancient ancestors were blessed with physical attributes that meant they would not only give Usain Bolt (Olympic champion and World record holder over 100 and 200 metres) a run for his money, but might even beat him at a canter.

It seems that McAllister attributes the relative frailty of modern-day man, at least in part, to the industrial revolution, and the fact that this led to a general reduction in the need for strenuous physical work and activity. Of more interest to me, however, is McAllister’s assertion that a more ancient turning point in the physical fortunes of our species came when we invented farming ” an event he describes as the worst mistake in the history of the human race. I’m inclined to agree with McAllister: what may appear at first sight to have been a leap forward in terms of the development of human civilisation, may well have been a huge retrograde step in terms of our health and wellbeing.

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