Paleo everything: why you should care about what the cavemen did

Much has been made of the paleo diet, and for good reason.  It’s a compelling idea: our ancestors evolved for 10s of thousands of years under some pretty strict environmental constraints, and as a species we adapted based on those constraints.  If we want to figure out the optimal fuel for our bodies, the reasoning goes, we need look no further than the foods that our ancestors consumed.

There is a fair amount of controversy around how far its reasonable to take this logic, and the purpose of this post is not to join in that conversation.

But even paleo diet naysayers tend to agree on a couple of important points: the evidence suggests that we did evolve with exposure to a fairly limited variety of foods, and those constraints undoubtedly did shape the way that our bodies (and in particular GI systems, teeth, etc) evolved.

This got me thinking — the savannah and the lifestyle our ancestors developed based on the constraints of that environment led to very specific biological and cultural adaptations.  If we don’t feel good today, and look to our ancestors’ diet as one place to start feeling better, what else can we learn from the caveman?

What I found in digging a little was that there is almost no “personal betterment” practice around that doesn’t intuitively seem to have its roots in life on the savannah.  I should be careful to put the usual disclaimer here about correlation vs. causation, and to admit that I’m making a logical leap by saying “because life on the savannah was such-and-such a way, we will have good results if we duplicate those conditions today.”  But the connections between all of the pop-health trends and life on the savannah are striking nonetheless. To whit:

  • Sleep. Relatively closer to the equator, the savannah has little variation in daylight vs. nighttime hours throughout the year, as compared to the extreme northern and southern latitudes.  Most of the year, darkness hovers around 12 hours and when its dark, its really dark.  So it makes intuitive sense that going to bed at the same time every night someplace that’s very dark, and staying down for 8 hours is healthy — it’s what we were programmed for.
  • Socialization.  We evolved in fairly small, tight-knit social groups that didn’t vary much over a lifetime.  And indeed, studies have shown that strong social ties — and the persistence of a strong social support network over time — have positive impact on longevity.  On a day-to-day basis, these groups tended to form-up evenings, around the fire, for story-telling and recounting the day.  Should we perhaps have more story time before bed?
  • Exercise.  Whether hunting or gathering, our ancestors spent very little time sedentary.  In fact, most of the “work time” was spent working physically as well as mentally.  Upright, treadmill desks anyone?  Also notable — we likely spent most of the day lightly to moderately active, with only short bursts of high activity.
  • Meditation.  This one surprised me when it occurred to me — but its hard to imagine anything more meditative than waiting quietly in the bush near a water hole to ambush an animal coming to drink, or walking through the grasslands identifying and collecting the right plants.  Or perhaps the best example: who hasn’t gotten lost in thought staring into the embers of a fading campfire?  These are all forms of meditation, and its easy to see how having an ability to be mindful might have led to better results on the game trails or in the fields.

The bottom line is that we may have benefited, from an evolutionary perspective, by doing these things, and so it would make sense that doing them well today will feel good — by aligning our behavior with our genetic programming (or at least by aligning it with the behavior of our ancestors), it makes sense that we would get a lift in mood and maybe in longevity too.

As an entrepreneur and a technologist, I think the implications of this kind of thinking are significant.  In particular, I wonder how many of our products are built with our paleo-heritage in mind?  My guess (for a later post) is that products that are most aligned with our paleo-heritage do better in the marketplace.

So maybe the next time you’re working on a new product you should ask yourself — how would a caveman use this?

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