Published February 04, 2012
The great mystery of the human species is how we got here —how we came out of the trees, stood on two feet, and ended up on the trading floor of Lehman Brothers –how we became so smart…and so dumb.
I believe the answer is that we abandoned the Great Forage -- the real dance between predator and prey that fostered our intelligence.
There is debate as to when in history we became true omnivores, but it is likely we began by scavenging dead animals. It allowed us to take in more calories than we spent to find the food.
Our ability to climb grew as a way to steal kills stashed in trees, as did our ability to run fast.
We had to know when our prey—and our competitors—slept, grazed, watered, changed locations, mated, and bore young. It all required analysis, observation, and cunning as we learned to imitate and outwit other species.
And ultimately, we had to fight other meat eaters.
This required us to develop tools, weapons and plans to defend ourselves. Even today, the very act of being alive requires us, by definition, to also know how to survive or perish. But hunting and gathering taught us more than survival—it taught us that bringing food back to the tribe and feeding the community, particularly the women who were then more fertile, elevated our position in the world. Hunting and gathering not only taught us how to stay alive, it was an act that made us more human.
The pendulum began to swing in the opposite direction with the arrival of an agricultural revolution in which farming gradually replaced hunting.
This was more efficient but it also led us to a more settled life.
By cultivating crops that were most productive, we simplified our diet into a few basic commodities—mostly grains. We domesticated animals and transformed them—altering them to fit our purposes, and in the process altered our lifestyle further.
Today we idealize our domesticity and our agrarian achievements as a sign that we have evolved, when the truth is that it has put us fundamentally out of touch with more basic forces of nature. The consequences of that shift are far reaching.
As omnivores, humans are able to consume a great variety of foods.
We once ate a wider range of seeds, fruits and nuts along with animal and vegetable protein. After the adoption of an agrarian, settled life, there was less time for hunting and gathering those things.
Today, corn, corn-fed meat and corn based processed foods, coupled with our sedentary lives has led to countless diseases specific to developed nations. It has become so dramatic that anthropologists and authors Marjorie Shostak and Melvin Konner suggest the key to solving our health problems is looking at the differences between our diet and that of our ancestors who instinctively pursued the food best suited to our genes.
The return to hunting and gathering more of our food offers the opportunity for a more diverse and natural diet. Wild meat is simply healthier. The fat in industrial beef and pigs is notorious because the intramuscular saturated fat—‘marbling’—characteristic of grain fed cattle, is an artificial product of domestication that does not exist in nature. Long-chain fatty acids, found in greater abundance in wild meat, are necessary for brain development. These come from structural rather than adipose fat. Most domestic cattle often lack access to an adequate variety of seeds and leaves to make an optimum proportion of structural fats.
And what about our intelligence today? All I have to do is look at the difference between me and my grandmother, or me and my father.
I have been blessed with a top-shelf education, yet I am still less knowledgeable and self-sufficient in the natural world than they are.
I have grown up in a world that increasingly views land as a commodity that belongs to us, rather than to our environment.
Our level of ‘civility’ is determined by how well we tame our land.
What is civility to my generation? It has become the information highway, social networks, addiction to entertainment, and ‘virtual’ reality—all sedentary pastimes. The values of a more ‘in touch’ humanity that existed in my grandmother’s day is considered eccentric to today’s population.
Modern life has masked our need for diverse, wild communities, but it does not end it.
Today’s artificial, corn-fed landscapes give us less potential and progress has a way of doing away with things whose value we don’t see until they are scarce and gone forever. But just because culture is running ahead of us doesn’t mean we need to join the race.