You’ve probably read things like
Until the last century, people were at more risk from malnutrition or starvation than they were from obesity. This lopsided pressure may have shaped humans to be more prone to store fat than to lose it. The ability to store extra calories as fat during times of plenty could help someone stay healthy and fertile when food was scarce.
I’m no anthropologist, but I’ve concluded the reasoning must be wrong, for several reasons. If any seem wrong, I’m happy to change my view back. So far, the mainstream view I believed for a long time seems wrong.
First, if our ancestors lived like hunter-gatherers today, they ate more predictably and healthily than we do, not less. The Hadza and San bushmen we observe today eat healthier and more predictably than nearly any humans since agriculture, which happened only ten thousand years ago. Humans hunted and gathered for hundreds of thousands of years, primates for millions. Farmers ate unhealthily, but that line of humans hasn’t lived long enough to evolve storing fat. And hunter-gatherers who adopt our lifestyles and diet get overfat too.
Second, look at how long they hunted and gathered: hundreds of thousands of years. Millions if we include near humans. Could they have survived on the verge of starvation for thousands times longer than since our population explosion following the Industrial Revolution? What long-lived species to we call perpetually on the verge of starvation? Sharks? Insects? What’s so special about us to believe we may have been nearly starving.
Third, we make other species overfat. Americans today are making dogs and cats overfat, but they didn’t descend from our ancestors. I can imagine common ancestors to all mammals storing fat for survival, but then the pattern isn’t unique to humans. Then we can’t conclude much about us as humans different than other mammals.
Fourth, we suffer food scarcity and food insecurity today in the midst of plenty, suggesting the lack of access to healthy food results more from how we distribute our food more than how much there is, which is a social, economic issue, not availability. Our ancestors who didn’t live in hoarding societies with private property and didn’t accumulate wealth, therefore not depriving others of food, wouldn’t have had these scarcity problems.
Nothing I said implies I see hunters and gatherers as noble savages or any other cliche.
I conclude that we mistakenly believed that because farmers suffered food insecurity, we project that people before must have lived worse. If that projection is off, as the evidence suggests, to me at least, it suggests the model we based it on is off. I believe people believe we’ve been making progress, creating better lives since the first humans, or at least since we started developing technology like fire and the wheel.
The evidence suggests to me that this view is likely wrong. We believe stories that make us feel good but that doesn’t mean they correspond to what happened.
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