Human Performance vs Survival: Unraveling the Paleo man


In the first of an open series, I plan to explore the popular diets, lifestyle, running technique and overall relationship we share with the enigmatic and omnipresent Paleo man (or woman); described here and throughout as Paleo. Did Paleo know the secrets of diet and health, or was Paleo just moving with times? Of course we know the answer to that one; Paleo was simply trying to survive! So the idea of copying what Paleo did is somewhat nonsensical considering much of what he purportedly was or did is actually pure fiction or gross extrapolation. In this first article, I will touch on who Paleo was and I’ll discuss a little of how he compared to our “cousin” Neander the Neanderthal.

Now, I am going to take a bit of scientifo-poetic license by describing Paleo as one stage of development, when in fact was actually an evolution over at least a million years. I am not a paleo or anthropologist, just an enthusiast, who will attempt to cite actual known data and relate it to modern exercise science. If you’re a literal creationist I’m not certain why you would read this, but you will disagree with me, sorry. If, however, you know the evolutionary science better than me, by all means, leave me a comment and a reference!

Born Athletes

Spoiler alert, you’re an athlete! So is the bus driver, the portly baker at the local shop, and your 70 year old grandmother. Humans are likely the most adaptable species ever evolved, and it is this ability that is believe to partly explain our survival beyond Neander, who was supremely adapted to a single environment. We were both supreme athletes, but as pointed out by researchers, we had specific abilities, including fast running and throwing. Why do we believe this? Bone and joint structure is a key.

Neander was shorter, stockier, possibly more powerful and better at maintaining body temperature in cold climates. They were also less efficient running, and likely required more energy than any other hominid species; not surprisingly, they were carnivores which would have delivered more energy. Paleo was probably lankier and similar to us, not surprisingly, and better equipped to lose body heat. This last one was important as the climate was warming and resources were up for grabs. Further, the better running efficiency and throwing capabilities would be very useful for hunting. Either way, though, we are all genetically built to be athletes, and we should remember this!

Common thread is activity, not diet

So this is the first thing to note, when unraveling Paleo; Paleo lived to compete in the ultimate competition, life itself! Survival depended on brawn and speed, as well as a lot of brain. But we often misconstrue this as a singular lifestyle, which it was not. It was a worldwide survival of the fittest in multiple environments with innumerable and dissimilar diets. This is important for two reasons:

  1. It supports the idea that humans are omnivores capable of surviving and thriving off nearly any type of food or food groups. For example, the average Ethiopian diet consists of 15% protein, 20% fat, and 65% carbs, while the typical Kenyan will take in more than 70-80% carbs and an even breakdown of protein and fat.
  2. The aformentioned diversity does not support one diet or macronutrient, nor does it refute the potential benefits of one. For instance, carbohydrates are becoming increasingly maligned, and Paleo is often cited as an example of why low carb is best. But low carb was often a necessity, as primitive grains and fruit were likely more scarce and less calorically dense; not to mention perishable. We’ll explore this more in a later article.

A second important thing to remember is that neither Paleo nor Neander faired well when it came to quality of life. Early humans typically only lived to about 40 years of age, and lived very hard lives. Physical activity was a part of daily life, which involved hunting large and small game, as well as gathering plant foods. Medical care was non-existent, and injuries rarely healed properly; if we sprain our ankles, we can still make it to work, but Paleo often continued to work. Most important, though, is that nutrition was variable, and heavily impacted our health and development. Case in point, when Paleo left Africa 40,000 or so years ago he was about 6 ft tall and probably as healthy as he would be for thousands of years. By 10,000 years ago, he had shrunk about 6 in and was suffering from a range of diseases brought on by scarce resources and exposure to livestock.

To summarize, the idea that Paleo was somehow healthier because of diet is not born out by the facts. This is not to say that the underpinnings of the “Paleo Diet” are not reasonable or healthy, but its historical support is lacking. Both Paleo and Neander lived in a dynamic world where survival demanded daily arduous activity, occasional starvation and a whole lot of diversity. If anything is a common thread between these two groups and completely different from us, it is lack of activity, not diet. In other words, if you want to be more like Paleo you need to at least use your legs or arms to for transportation instead of your car, AND exercise!

UPDATE: GSU study again supports the idea that there was no “Paleo diet”.

Written by

4 Comments to “Human Performance vs Survival: Unraveling the Paleo man”

  1. Matt says:

    While in the past humans may have eaten “innumerable and dissimilar diets,” none of their diets are remotely close to the way most of us in the developed world eat today. The diets may have been dissimilar in some ways, but they were all similar in that they did not contain significant quantities of grains, legumes, dairy, or sugar. Today most Americans get most of their calories from these 4 groups. Depending on whose idea of “paleo” that you may or may not find prescribed macronutrient ratios, but the real focus of paleo is eating real foods, avoiding processed foods, and eliminating or minimizing the aforementioned grains, legumes, dairy, and sugar. Inuits and Kitavans when following their historical diets have flip-flopped ratios of fats and carbs, but both exhibit superior health compared to those eating a standard American diet. Food quality and the elimination of foods to which we were never designed to eat is the key to optimal health; prescribing macronutrient ratios is not.

    • Tradewind says:

      Hi Matt,

      You raise some very interesting points. However,
      we cannot say that any of these paleo people had optimal health. Was there dietary blueprint better than the contemporary diet most Americans eat? Probably. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it led to optimal health or overcame any specific disease. Further, if we look at the fossil record and current day hunter-gathers, we actually see that humans were in fact not specifically evolved to eat meat, but rather we’re designed to be omnivores with the capacity to consume animal milk. We could argue endlessly about the ills of the high carb diet (which I hate), but this should not be misconstrued with the ills of grain; native american tribes have relied on corn for thousands of years, while europeans relied on wheat and rye, I believe. Most data also indicate that the paleo existence was energy intensive, and not conducive to population growth (we could argue whether that’s good or bad too). At our current pace, however, mass consumption of animal based protein is unsustainable.

      The biggest problem with this whole healthy paleo debate is the omission of the one COMMON THREAD in all paleo tribes, physical activity; a level of activity we simply cannot and probably would not achieve. Survival was hard and life was dangerous, but it was highly active, and there in lies the gaping hole paleo diets cannot fill.

      • Matt says:

        Thanks for the thought-provoking comments. It sounds like we both agree on a lot of the basics.
        Regarding your comment about “optimal health”- I’d say this is somewhat difficult to describe. It is telling though that “diseases of Western civilization” (cancer, CVD, and diabetes) rise in step with a “Western lifestyle.” I’d recommend you take a look at Weston Price’s “Nutrition and Physical Degeneration.” He found many societies around the world demonstrating more optimal health than what we see in America today- and following the same basic Paleo principles of avoiding modern processed foods.
        Regarding the fact that humans are omnivores, I don’t think you’ll find any Paleo folks who would argue this. Paleo isn’t about eating meat exclusively by any means. It’s about focusing on healthy meats, fish, nuts, seeds, veggies, fruit, organ meats, etc…not necessarily in that order. I eat far more veg than most vegetarians I’ve met.
        Regarding sustainability, I agree that our current methods of obtaining meet (CAFOs) are unsustainable. We need to return to a pasture-based system, eat the whole animal, and improve our efficiency so that 40% or more of the food produced does not end up going to waste. We’ll also need to explore options like eating insects as a source of protein.
        Finally, I agree that physical activity among hunter-gatherers and the like is much higher than in our current society. Again, most of the “big thinkers” in the Paleo community emphasize activity as well as diet. But they also emphasize sleep, stress regulation, and a sense of community- all things that are important to optimal health. If we look at “the Paleo diet” as the answer to all our society’s health problems, we’re barking up the wrong tree. It is, however, a component to a much healthier lifestyle than what we currently see in America.

  2. Toby says:

    Thanks for every other fantastic article. Where else may just anybody get that type of information in such an ideal means of writing?
    I have a presentation next week, and I am on the search for such info.

    My blog: the advantage (Toby)