WBUR

Living Prehistorically In A Modern Age

A recent "Paleo Potluck" at the Somerville apartment of Michal Naisteter and Nate Rosenberg. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

BOSTON — The word “Paleolithic” might evoke images from the 1980s film “Quest for Fire” — or, more recently, the scruffy cavemen in those Geico commercials. But Nate Rosenberg says going back in time to eat like a Neanderthal doesn’t make him one.

“It’s obviously not a reenactment of Paleolithic life,” Rosenberg says.

The 27-year-old foraged through his contemporary kitchen in the cute Somerville apartment he shares with his Paleo partner Michal Naisteter.

“We eat modern foods,” he says. “In the Paleolithic era they did not have ground beef or, you know, dried oregano from Whole Foods and stuff life that, which we benefit from. But we try keep in mind our evolutionary history.”

Added Naisteter: “I eat fish, I eat eggs, I eat vegetables and I eat berries and nuts.”

Naisteter and Rosenberg are part of an international fitness and nutrition movement known as “ancestral health.” The theory is that while the food humans eat has evolved and gone “high-tech” through the ages, our bodies have not. Primal eating is pre-agricultural. “Going Paleo” means no processed foods, no sugar, no whole grains, legumes or dairy. But they eat lots of meat. Naisteter gave me a tour of their fridge.

The Paleo "Meatza" (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

“I would say we have about six pounds of ground beef right now,” she says.

There was some buffalo, and even a vacuum-sealed boneless free-range turtle.

“What is this big thing?” she continues. “A fresh pork ham. Don’t tell my mother, we’re Jewish.” Naisteter says her mother thinks her lifestyle is really weird, but she’s also trying to convince her mother to try it. “He’s already convinced his parents to do it,” Naisteter says.

Because, they say, eating Paleo has drastically improved their health. No more eczema, allergies, acne or stomach issues. Even so, dietitian and Boston University Professor Joan Salge-Blake is a Paleo skeptic — saying that was then, this is now.

“We should all be going back,” he says. “I don’t think we have to go all the way back. Let’s go back to grandma, and how grandma cooked, and she made dinner and she had fruits and vegetables and she had more grains and there was less sweets and treats.”

Salge-Blake also points out that the life expectancy for Paleolithic people was only 30-years-old. Of course Neanderthals lived in a much more threatening environment than modern-day Somerville. No sabertooth tigers here. Regardless, the life-span issue doesn’t deter Rosenberg and Naisteter from embracing their diet — or a clan of other like-minded eaters who showed up for a recent Paleo potluck. They’re all members of a Paleo group Naisteter and Rosenberg formed a few months ago.

On the menu: “Meatza” — a pizza-like pie with a ground beef crust topped with crispy bacon and veggies.

Evan Ferrell's very Paleo shoes -- Vibram Five Fingers (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

At the party, 32-year-old Evan Ferrell — outfitted in curious-looking flexible shoes called Vibram Five Fingers — brought coconut chard. He explained how going Paleo has changed his life.

“I’ve been suffering from this auto-immune disease, Ankylosing Spondylitis, for almost 10 years now,” he says, “so to be able to go off my medication, which I did about a few months ago, has been outstanding.”

The Paleo lifestyle isn’t only about food; it’s also about fostering physical prowess. Paleolithic man had to be strong and quick to pursue his prey — or run away from it. Modern hardcore Paleo athletes (and gurus of the lifestyle) scramble around on all fours and toss boulders for exercise. At CrossFit in Natick, it’s not quite as extreme, but there was a Paleo Challenge underway, where athletes lift and drop huge barbells.

Paleo fitness emphasizes heavy-duty strength and agility training, rather than cardio. No machines. Just leaping, crouching, sprinting and endless dead-lifts.

Vicky Hadden, a slight but taut 46-year-old mother of three, lifted a mammoth amount of weight over her head.

“This is 135 pounds, which is more than you!” she says.

Vikki Hadden, a 46-year-old mother, takes a break from her Paleo fitness routine. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Everyone at the gym says eating like a hunter-gatherer has increased their athletic performance. They’re stronger, faster, fitter. And they tend to eat lean cuts of meat.

But like any diet that rejects whole food groups, it’s always best to proceed with caution — and consult a doctor. There are a number of books and blogs on “ancestral health” espousing moderate-to-extreme tactics for living Paleo. Some people fast intermittently (the “feast-or-famine” approach) — or grow facial hair. Others donate pints of blood since early man likely lost a fair bit of it “on the hunt.” Most Paleos sleep for extended periods of time and get as much sunlight as they can. Then there’s the self-proclaimed New York “caveman” who likes to run — barefoot — across the Brooklyn Bridge.

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  • http://paleodiet.com/ Don Wiss

    The bit about them having a life expectancy of only 30 years is a made up number, not only with no evidence, but with no logic whatsoever. If paleo people only lived to 30 we wouldn’t be here. It took 15-16 years to reach sexual maturity. Then nine months to produce a baby. If the parents died at age 30 they would be dead before they raised their first kid! Based on menopause being nature’s way to keep from wasting effort on raising a kid and dying before they were independent, one can assume that they had a life expectancy of about 70 years.

  • Bill M.

    The bambuti pygmies(The Forest People by Turnbull) are hunter-gatherers and they are not any healthier in general than other people. One of the functions of the tribe ‘shaman’ is curing illnesses.

  • http://crossfitcentral.com Diego

    The article claims “Paleo fitness emphasizes heavy-duty strength and agility training, rather than cardio. No machines here. Just leaping, crouching, sprinting and endless dead-lifts.” when in fact metabolic conditioning is one of the things we work the most. Unlike traditional strength training, we add time elements to our workouts to ensure we hit all 3 metabolic pathways.

  • http://primaltoad.com Primal Toad

    Outside of the life expectancy issue… I REALLY enjoyed this article. Everytime I here that living a primal/paleo lifestyle I get a sense of joy. We are moving in the right direction… let’s keep it up primal/paleo enthusiasts!

  • http://paleotron.blogspot.com Paleotron

    Another thing to consider with regards to the life expectancy is that the number 30 is an average. I’m sure that a lot of babies died because of lack of shelter, unstable food sources, and emergency care. However, if an infant was able to live to adulthood, there is a good chance that adult would live a full, long life barring any traumatic injury. If a man lives to be 70 and an infant dies at age 2 and another man (or woman) dies at age 48 from an injury or infection, the average of their lifespans would be 30. It’s something to consider when looking at numbers like these.

  • http://readgrice.wordpress.com Scott

    I’m glad to see the way getting public exposure, but hate to see it become cliche. it’s like it isn’t a paleo/primal piece without the Geico or VFF stuff. At any rate good read.

  • http://paleotron.blogspot.com Paleotron

    Correction to my previous comment – average lifespans of 40, not 30. typo

  • http://www.cvp1.com Ken Burg

    Sounds to me like they are gluten sensitive.

    “Because, they say, eating Paleo has drastically improved their health. No more eczema, allergies, acne or stomach issues.” All of these are symptoms of gluten sensitivity. Eliminating grains from their diet would improve all of these symptoms. A lot of people with similar problems can do a simple test of going gluten free for 6 months and see how they respond – it may be worth the effort!

  • andrea

    “Vacuum sealed, free-range, Turtle?” LMAO. Awesome story. Hilarious, interesting and educational (the benefits and the diet anyway!)

  • Mary G

    I find it quite interesting that people seem to believe that our hunter gatherer ancestors actually ate the amount of meat recommended in this paleo diet. I agree with Ken in that most of these people probably have a gluten intolerance and that is why they are experiencing such an increased surge of good health. High levels of meat intake lead to heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Check out the chinastudy.com . Ancient man existed on whole foods with some meat, but it is unlikely that he ate this much meat!

  • http://www.amandawildnotes.blogspot.com Amanda Wild

    We forget that most fruits and vegetables available today are domesticated varieties. I like the idea of avoiding those processed objects we call ‘food’, but because of domestication even a diet we would call ‘natural’ is still to a large extent ‘artificial’. There is a body of research out there investigating paleolithic nutrition. Some things to consider are manner of consumption and preparation– cooking and processing, for instance, or how different nutrients interact within our physiology.

    Also worth considering are socioeconomic issues in our diets. Not everybody has the luxury of storing vacuum-sealed boneless free-range turtle in their refrigerators.

  • Josee

    People seem to think our ancestors ate all this meat. Really? A cave full of meat? And prime cuts, too? Try this: Go out in the woods and grab yourself a rabbit. Or turkey. Or anything without using modern weapons. Our ancestors ate very little meat because it was very difficult to catch let alone kill. And hunting expended a lot of energy… far more than tossing weights around in a gym for an hour or two. They ate what they could get their hands on. Meat every day? That’s a naive and silly notion.

  • Hillary

    In response to the first commenter — reaching sexual maturity at 15 or 16 is late even for modern people. Neanderthal girls/women likely reached puberty at age 9 or 10 — plenty of time to raise a child or two before dying in their 30s. Men, of course, are not held to the same schedule — they were likely older when they became fathers, and younger when they died.

  • Brian

    Just curious how a Paleo diet is supposed to help with Ankylosing Spondylitis.

  • Nate

    Mary G,

    A debate on the health effects of meat consumption between T. Colin Campbell, the author of the China Study, and Loren Cordain, the author of the Paleo Diet, can be found here: http://www.cathletics.com/articles/index.php?show=shorty&shortyID=50. The science clearly supports Dr. Cordain, IMHO.

  • Nate

    Josee,

    Animal food is the primary source of energy for modern hunter gatherers (see the link below). There is also reason to believe that pre-neolithic hunter gatherers, who weren’t confined to marginal lands like the Kalahari Desert, ate even more meat than extant groups.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11965522

  • Nate

    “We forget that most fruits and vegetables available today are domesticated varieties. I like the idea of avoiding those processed objects we call ‘food’, but because of domestication even a diet we would call ‘natural’ is still to a large extent ‘artificial’.”

    Agreed. To paraphrase Dr. Harris of PaNu, eating paleo is about duplicating your evolutionary metabolic milieu, not about duplicating paleolithic meals.

  • Bronwen Murphy

    a “taught” mother of three? eating like a “hunger-gatherer”? Do you have a proofreader on staff?

  • Dave Rogers

    Great introduction to paleo. Paleo is not about eating as much meat as you can. It is thinking about the things that you eat: Understanding how your body reacts to certain foods and then eating in a way that feeds your body, not just fills your stomach.

    As for the other stuff (Vibrams, Crossfit, etc.) seems to be an extension of the philosophy of paleo: finding what supports your body the way that it was designed.

  • jeff

    Great, but hunter gathers did not live in apartments.
    They also lived to about 40, 50 was akin to being 80 today.
    Don you forgot that it was common for young girls to give birth at 13 and 14 in these societies, not 15 to 16 as you are saying. Most girls have their first period at about 13 or 14.

    People died for a lot of reasons in these periods, large predators, infections and so on. Cut your finger badly enough and you had a good chance of dieing from the infection.

  • jeff

    Ground beef? Dried oregano from Whole Foods?
    Man what a bunch of phonies. I use to live in Vermont and knew knew a few bow hunters who lived off of the deer they hunted for the year. They also had gardens and heat their homes with wood they chopped themselves. I would say these people are closer to being “Paleo” than someone who lives in a “cute Somerville apartment”.

    Nothing wrong with eating a healthy diet but why this period and not say how the native tribes of Massachusetts lived before Europeans arrived.

  • Tom Goddu

    And they’ve even taking to watching Paleo TV – Fox News.

  • Katniss Evergreenable

    @ Mary G–The China Study is a joke. Read the review on WestonAPrice.org. It is so flawed I can’t believe anyone even takes it seriously anymore. But on a brighter note, how in the world do we know the true life expectancy of primitive man? 25-40 years seems ridiculously low. Human remains are rare and there are obviously no written records. I’m calling B.S. on that estimate. I met an African man who told of women who live to be 100 years old in his village. They are as strong at 100 as they are at 20. They eat what the land provides, including wild game. They die peacefully in their sleep when their time is over. That’s what I’m chasing.

  • http://www.zeroinginonhealth.com Zafu

    Check out the websites
    http://www.zeroinginonhealth.com
    and
    http://www.dirtycarnivore.com
    for information about the REAL paleo diet: an ALL-MEAT diet, not the herbs/fruit/coconut/vegetable/berries/nuts nonsense concoctions described here.

  • Kirk Patrick

    First the say no grains, then they say your grandmother had more grains. Plus, for most grandma was born in the 1940′s, 40 years into processed foods. Also, what is this metro man-love in the opening line? I didn’t know there were gay cavemen couples (besides Geico).

  • Ricki Bobbi

    Eating healthier is fine, as is exercise, but these people are just taking what they want from our ancestors and conveniently pasting over what is not in line with their ideas. Humans probably had a meat diet of about 5-10% of total, although specific population groups varied. Anthopologists have not found skeletons past 50 years in age for pre-neolithic people. And who said that the only animals that grow decrepitedly old are humans and their pets. Further, hunter gatherers probably didn’t spend a lot of time getting standard food stuffs, and were perfectly designed for their environment having evolved into it. So, no matter their life expectancy, they were probably much more intact as a people. All such info comes both from archeological records as well as studies on present day hunter gatherers. Its the best we got. Paul Shepard has romantically written about hunter gatherers, while Jared Diamond has written much more coherently about them and famously said that agricultural people (us) are bred for herd immunity while hunter gatherers, such as in New Guinea, are bred for intelligence, quite sobering.

  • jeo

    I’ve actually taken courses to learn stone-age hunting and gathering. Grasses and seeds are a major food source, and there is plenty of low-intensity cardio. If you’re out there on your own, you set a lot of primitive traps and walk ten off-trail miles checking them every day, gathering edible plants as you go. Anthropologists these days are saying that early humans hunted larger game with a lot of endurance running, which humans are better at than any other mammal. Just chase and follow tracks until the game is exhausted.

    And no legumes? I doubt there’s any edible plant that humans didn’t eat. Domestication of fire goes back a million years, and I seriously doubt that they didn’t use it for cooking. That’s plenty of time for evolution. And meat…most game meat is pretty lean, and the fat has a lot more Omega-3s than grain-fed beef and pork.

    If these guys want to be paleo, they should quit piling on the bacon and actually learn something about what primitive hunting and gathering is really like.

  • lah

    Interesting book out there titled, “Oak, The Frame of Civilization” which suggests that the ancients moved from Asia to NW Europe by following the thread of Oak trees. The author suggests that acorns were one of the major foods of early man. In Britain they have excavated Oak dwellings dating back from the late Neolithic Age to the Bronze Age between 2500 and 2000 B.C. Acorns were portable and they could be stored a long time. Much like the early Indian tribes survived mostly on acorns – supplemented by berries, fish, game, etc. I wouldn’t think that lots of meat was available on a daily basis. Still, I like this paleo movement. Any movement that turns away from processed foods is good.

  • A good laugh

    “Life expectancy” is an average, a per capita, and 30 years was about it for Paleolithic people. So this means that something like half the children and 85% of the adults would be dead by age 25, the lucky survivors are what perpetuated the species. And whatever diet they had could hardly be deemed optimal, they probably starved half the time, I am sure they ate whatever they could get their hands on. A better model diet to follow would be that of other primates who are similar to us. They evolved to thrive on available resources, chimpanzees comes to mind, who eat mostly vegetation, nuts, fruits, with an occasional piece of animal protein (termites, spiders must be delicious). The best diet to follow however is the one that we’ve used our tools and brains to figure out in the intervening 12,000 years. Duh. Probably the Mediterranean diet and with generous portions of exercise.

  • Chris

    At 53, I have been on a diet similar to this for about 10 years. Beef, pork, venison when I can get it, fish and lamb are the bulk of my diet. Fresh vegetables, primarily raw or lightly steamed, nuts and berries make up the rest. Ten years ago, I weighed 290 lbs with near stroke level blood pressure and very high blood glucose levels. Today, at 220 lbs my blood pressure is normally around 130/70 and blood glucose rests at a very healthy 95. I get my exercise keeping my house and woodland property in good condition along with occasional strolls with my wife and weight lifting workouts at home. I never thought of what I was doing as “paleo”, just something I found that worked.I think the most important thing I did was to eliminate grains and sugar in any form. My life expectancy is obviously unknown, but I sure I would not be here now if I had not abandoned the pizza parlor diet I had existed on before.

  • B. Perry

    Paleo people “only lived to 30″ is a red herring. Modern hunter-gatherer peoples are healthier, and more content, than contemporary urbanites, and rarely come down with the “diseases of civilization.” Only when they eschew their H&G lifestyles and move to the cities do they generally come down with heart disease and cancer, for instance.

    Further, the average height of humans dropped by five or six inches after agriculture was introduced about 12,000 years ago, and Paleolithic people were much more muscular and strong compared with their agricultural counterparts. Paleoanthropologists know this from studying the skeletons. Read Jared Diamond’s essay “The Worst Mistake In The History Of The Human Race.”

  • Angelo

    On life expectancy: 35 years beats out modern man right on through to the early 20th century, when modern sanitation and medicine started coming into play. In classical Rome, life expectancy was only 28! See this chart for historical life expectancy numbers: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_expectancy#Lifespan_variation_over_time

  • RICHARD WARNER

    GET RID IF THE LARGE ANIMAL MEAT, INSTEAD, EAT SEEDS AND NUTS, KEEP THE VEGGIES AND FRUITS, YOU WILL BE DOING US ALL A FAVOR. IF THERE IS LESS AND LESS SOIL FERTILITY, HOW DOES THE VITAMIN CONTENT OF THE FOODS YOU EAT STACK UP?

  • Deborah

    I would think eggs and insects and grubs and worms would be much easier for prehistoric folks to come by than meat. Are these people trying to eat insects or grubs or worms in any form?

  • Dino Romano

    Like the young man in the article my own Spondylitis, which I’ve SUFFERED from since 1985, and my Psoriatic Arthritis, which I’ve SUFFERED from since 1979, have been completely resolved since I’ve been on an Ancestral or Paleolithic diet for over two years now. In addition, it has resolved my high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol. THIS IS THE MOST POWERFUL MEDICINE YOU WILL EVER TAKE. A true miracle.

  • Doc James

    Now for those of you who say you have ASD. You say you have come off your meds and your issues are resolved. So to me that means you are cured. Now I suffer from ASD. So what I would like to see is your Doctors results and them saying you are cured. Just because somebody says they are does not mean they are. A lot of people who are having heart attacks claim they are not and do not seek medical attention. Most of them die from the heart attack. Once your spine is fussed it is just that fussed. So this is why I would like to see proof that you are cured. I am not a Doctor. I was a Combat Medic in the Army. My nickname is Doc.

  • http://www.injust10pages.com/blog/gluten_intolerance_blog Gluten Intolerance

    This is great! A Paleo lifestyle might save both my wife and I from gluten intolerance issues since there is no whole grain in the diet. Thanks for sharing these stories here. Really inspiring.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Vassa-Neimark/743670420 Vassa Neimark

    Ase.  Thank you for sharing this great information.  Not being raised by my Greek family…I did find myself “naturally” gravitating to what my Greek ancestors ate as i got older and made my own food choices.  At 56, i feel so healthy and strong and connected to the “Grandmother wisdom and knowledge” that supports and guides my life.  I found through adding a spiritual path called Ifa (earth based philosophy from Nigeria) as a part of my daily life that this too brought a more aligned balance.  Check out more ideas that can add to your creative thinking… you may want to check out this site to learn more about ways to connect with the Ancestors.  Enjoy the journey.  Blessings

  • JGW

    Mark Sisson, author of “The Primal Blueprint” and  http://www.marksdailyapple.com  has several articles on the lifespan of the Paleolithic people:  http://www.marksdailyapple.com/bone-dating-life-span/;  Just How Long Did Grok Live, Really? – Part 2; and hundreds of others. Check it out!

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