Ancestral health, obesity and smurfs

During the Ancestral Health Symposium there was, not surprisingly, a lot of talk about the health of our ancestors.

Some of what was said seems likely, for example that our ancestors were probably very fit compared to any modern couch potato. But let’s be careful. It is very easy to find flimsy support for what we want to believe.

Our ancestors were lean?

The slides above is from the lecture by Boyd Eaton, the first of the AHS. Do cave paintings prove that our ancestors were lean? Let’s be careful before making premature conclusions. This is uncertain territory, where we can find support for just about anything.

A year ago I went to the International Congress of Obesity. There I listened to George Bray, one of the leading obesity researchers during the last decades. He was convinced that obesity is purely a matter of more calories in than calories out. How then to explain the fact that obesity is a new problem? Easy, you deny it.

According to Bray, obesity has always been a problem. This he knew, because our ancestors used to make statues of obese women more than 30 000 years ago.

Our ancestors were fat?

This is the famous statue Venus of Willendorf. Carving similar “Venus figurines” was a tradition in Europe spanning the time period 35 000 – 10 000 years ago. This could mean there really was an obesity problem back then.

But that is not all.

Our ancestors were tall?

This made me think of my travels in eastern Africa in the nineties. Why? Because they used to make wooden statues of very tall and slim people.

I did not see any people looking like that on the streets. But perhaps there used to exist such people a long time ago, and people are still making similar statues.

Our ancestors were short and blue?

On the other hand we need to consider the Smurfs. I do not think any such small blue people have existed.

According to my research on the subject, the Smurfs are instead based on the imagination of the Belgian cartoonist Pierry Culliford.

Behaviorally modern humans

The question is: When did humans develop an imagination? When did they start to draw things that they had only seen inside their heads?

Humans looking like us has existed for 200 000 years. But humans behaving like us started appearing around 50 000 years ago. That’s when we began producing complicated artifacts, paint and live in rapidly evolving societies. The spark may have been that our brains and vocal chords became capable of forming modern language. We could share our thoughts, and learn from each other.

Humans have probably used their powerful imagination at least since that time.

Art is not reality

This means that we can not think of human art as pictures of reality. Art is not like a photograph. Not now, and not 30 000 years ago.

Art is imagination. This means that paintings or carvings of lean, or fat, or tall, or short people do not prove anything.

Modern hunter gatherers

So what do we know about our ancestors? We know what happened to hunter gatherers (eating no agricultural or industrial foods) living into modern times. They were uniformly lean and almost free from western diseases like diabetes, heart disease and even cancer.

Imagine combining modern society with our ancestral health.

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33 Comments

  1. Phyllis Mueller
    Bravo! Thank you for this succinct and timely discourse on the distinction between life (facts) and art.
  2. Michael Cohen
    Smurfs, little blue people, certainly do exist, I saw plenty of them in 1969 at Woodstock, when I took the bad acid.
  3. Interesting post!

    The Venus of Willendorf has been discussed a lot on Don Matesz blog Primal Wisdom. I fully accept the argument that the artists accurate anathomical depicting of a fat woman makes it very unlikely that it was just a product of artistic imagination (like the smurfs).

    But then the argument goes on about since almost identical figurines has been found all over Europa an in parts of Russia - obeisity must have been common among hunter gatherers. I don´t buy that. The Venus of Willendorf proves only that one obese woman existed once upon a time. For some reason this figurine became so popular that it was replicated over and over agian.

    I think that future archeologist that do excavations in the earth layers of the early 21:st century will find replicas all over the world of a figurine with a skinny man put on a cross. They will conclude that people in the 21:st century were not obese and that the people living in USA were probebly the skinniest population in the word, because this artifact is particularly abduant there. :-)

  4. Per,

    The Venus of Willendorf has been discussed a lot on Don Matesz blog Primal Wisdom. I fully accept the argument that the artists accurate anathomical depicting of a fat woman makes it very unlikely that it was just a product of artistic imagination (like the smurfs).

    Really? The Venus of Willendorf also has a very exaggerated vulva. Does this mean that this fat woman that is proven to have existed also had a massive vulva?

    I think it's at least as likely that these figurines are just exaggerations of the female form/ideal. Big breasts, big hips, big vulvas. A fertility goddess perhaps?

    Does it mean that the artist must have seen an actual obese woman? Hardly. I don't think this form is very hard for an artist to imagine. In fact, I think most adolescent males manage to do so.

    Sure, obese persons may have existed in the paleolithic. It's possible of course. But these figurines hardly proves it. Saying that the Venus figurines prove that obesity used to be common is silly. It's like looking at all the historical phallic figures and concluding that it used to be common for people to have twenty inch penises.

  5. mezzo
    And what conclusions will anthropologists draw a thousand years hence when they discover Picasso's or Salvador Dali's paintings I wonder?
  6. Andreas,

    To me it seems very unlikely to be able to make such an accurate image of a fat woman, without ever having seen one, even taking into account the vivid imagination of adolecent males. The artist might very well have expressed his/hers artistic freedom and exaggerated some features, but must have had some idea where fat accumulates in a female body.

    But then again it only proves that single induviduals with overweight existed. Venus might very well be one in a million with some rare genetical disorder in insulin or leptin signalling.

  7. Bernardo
    Have you guys seen Quest for Fire. I love that movie. In this movie (cavemen movie) there was a tribe where a fat lady was used for reproduction, and at a certain moment the hero of the story is put to " mate" with her. Taubes talks about some traditional methods of fattening people (using mostly carbs). Maybe they'd overfeed someone in the village for that purpose, or maybe for religious purposes (the priestess of the fertility goddess whateverish). An then of course this would be exaggerated in the little statuettes.
  8. Funderaren
    Maybe Venus of Willendorf was a timetraveler from the future? ;)
  9. Al
    I like your blog, and agree with what I've read so far. The grammar and other errors in your writing are so bad, however, that many will ignore or discount your advice.

    For example:

    "...there was, not surprisingly, a lot of talk about the health of our ancestors. Some of it seems likely,..."

    Some of the talk seems likely? The health seems likely? I think you meant "...many speakers concluded that our ancestors were healthy. That conclusion seems likely..."

    or

    "I do not think any such small blue people has existed."

    "People" is plural, so it should be "have existed."

    I wouldn't say anything, but you have an astounding number of errors like this. People will think -- "If this guy can't even write, or doesn't proofread, how can I believe what he says?"

  10. Funderaren
    Al, while im sure Andreas is greatful for spelling corrections, do you know that english isnt his native language?
  11. jim
    maybe you should have posted your comment in swedish and we can see how well it reads (you are missing the forest for the trees)
  12. Margaretrc
    I have no problem understanding what Doctor Eenfeldt means and I take what he says very seriously. The majority of people (all?) who read this blog know that his native language is not English. We are just grateful that he takes the time to blog in English anyway and don't give a crap about whatever errors he makes. He has invited us to provide corrections, but in my view, it's not necessary. The errors are grammatical, not scientific, so who cares?
  13. Sanddog
    Al, you might want to check your own grammar before you criticize a blog written by a Doctor whose primary language is not English.
  14. Stacie
    I think the good doctor's English is pretty good considering it is his second language.
    Most of us who read this blog appreciate and value what he has to say, and are not bothered by some grammatical errors. I think we are also fairly intelligent to understand what he is saying. Al might want to visit Fat Head and critique some of the vegetrollians' comments; they really need help with their grammar.
  15. Al #9,
    Thanks for the corrections. I'm not yet used to writing in English, but I plan to improve with time. Feedback helps a lot, so please keep it coming.
  16. Ekonomen
    I posted this over at Stephan´s blog, but as Doc has also been involved in this discussion, I thought I´d double-post it over here as well:

    Stephan has been writing a lot about the causes of obesity recently, so I thought that I would chip in with my five cents, going a bit beyond the comments I dropped last round.

    A lot of the discussion has been focusing on the hyperinsulinemia-based hypothesis of obesity (not to be confused with the old-school-Taubesian carbohydrate hypothesis) versus other possible explanations, such as the role of food reward in overeating and obesity.

    Now, I believe that there is plenty to indicate that there is room for several overlapping causes of obesity, and that there is plenty of research that indicates that there exists several modes of obesity, and that people hence respond differently to different interventions.

    More specifically, it seems as if the (significant share of) obese and overweight people who have impaired insulin sensitivity do derive significant benefit (in terms of weight loss) from:

    1) Reducing carbohydrate consumption (compared to other dietary interventions) (Citations: Gardner et al (2007), Ebbeling et al (2007), Cornier et al (2001), Pittas et al (2005) )

    Note that these studies isolate insulin-resistant subjects from insulin-sensitive subjects and compare the efficacy of carbohydrate restriction between the groups. Insulin-resistant subjects are shown to benefit (much) more than insulin-sensitive subjects from carbohydrate restriction.

    or

    2) Being treated with insulin-suppressing drugs (Octreotide), with there being a smooth insulin-reduction-weight-reduction response curve. (Lustig et al, 1999 )

    This also seems to indicate to me that hyperinsulenemia plays an important role in causing obesity in a significant share of cases, and especially in the most serious ones (fatter people seem to be more insulin resistant). This is not an ironclad conclusion, but compared to the usual standards employed in obesity research for establishing causality, I´d say the hypothesis looks pretty strong, especially if the hyperinsulenemia-leptin resistance link holds up.

    The flip side of this is that there is another significant portion of the overweight and obese that do not appear to have an insulin resistance problem. Hence, an explanation for their obesity is needed, and I see no reason why (for instance) Stephan´s Reward-based theory of obesity cannot fit the bill for them (no citations as this very blog is full of ‘em). Of course, both mechanisms might overlap in some individuals.

    Well, those were my cents for today. Thanks for a great blog!

    Makro (A.k.a. Ekonomen, that Blogger handle was taken :( )

  17. Ekonomen
    Och referenserna:

    Sources:

    Gardner et al (2007), JAMA, “Comparison of the Atkins, Zone, Ornish, and LEARN diets for change in weight and related risk factors among overweight premenopausal women: the A TO Z Weight Loss Study: a randomized trial.”

    Ebbeling et al (2007), JAMA, “Effects of a Low–Glycemic Load vs Low-Fat Diet in Obese Young Adults”

    Cornier et al (2001), Obesity research, “Insulin sensitivity determines the effectiveness of macronutrient composition of the diet on weight loss.”

    Pittas et al (2005), Diabetes care, “A Low-Glycemic Load Diet Facilitates Greater Weight Loss in Overweight Adults With High Insulin Secretion but Not in Overweight Adults With Low Insulin Secretion in the CALERIE Trial.”

    Lustig et al (1999), The Journal of Pediatrics, “Hypothalamic obesity caused by cranial insult in children: Altered glucose and insulin dynamics and reversal by a somatostatin agonist.”

  18. Al #9
    Sorry, Al...but if you want to learn anything about how to create a popular, grass root low carb community over there, just like we have done here in Sweden...you´ll have to endure some swenglish with grammatical errors and misspellings.
  19. Meatsallad
    That venus woman probably supersized every meal and drank a lot of soda.
  20. With five seconds of careful research, I found that there are skinny Venus figurines too: the Venus of Bouret, and the Dolní Věstonice Venus. Scroll down to see their pictures:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venus_figurines

    It's easy to cherry-pick evidence and tell a story based on it.

    JS - gnolls.org

  21. Milton
    I believe that the good Doctor (as evidenced in post #15) welcomes grammar and spelling corrections. I think he has asked for this in the past. As long as it is not being done to try and mock him, I think that it will be beneficial in the long run.
  22. Sanddog
    To be honest, the only thing that sets Doc's writing apart from the average native English speaker is the lack of contractions and idioms. His blog is not rife with grammatical errors but it may seem a little "off" to people who are unused to a more formal version of English.
  23. Margaretrc
    For me, it wasn't the corrections themselves--I know the doctor welcomes them, though I personally prefer not to get bogged down in grammar discussions on what is essentially a science blog--but the mocking tone of them that elicited a reaction.
  24. Ah, English grammar -- a subject within the realm of my professional expertise! (I'm a college writing teacher with a graduate degree in English Language studies.) The irony is, I have nothing to add to the discussion.
  25. Jake
  26. Justin B
    Jake,
    I don't know if you believe what is presented in that link or what Andreas said, but I'll comment anyway. It seems like these arguments could go back and forth with critical dissections of studies, word usage, straw men, etc. I'm not sure that any of this is helping or just confusing a larger group of people. It seems like Evelyn at Carbsanity is taking Andreas' comments out of context in order to attempt to disprove them. Who does that help?

    1)When Andreas mentions the "failure of obesity and metabolism researchers", he's referring specifically to those who completely disregard anything other than CICO and the lipid hypothesis, without looking at any of the science. Andreas isn't looking for a "magic pill", he's just pointing out that including yourself among the types of people who led to the 2011 nutritional guidelines doesn't make you one of the elite.

    2) I've watched both Lustig and Taubes, and it seems like they agree that sugar initially causes obesity. As for what keeps it gong afterwards, they may or may not disagree, but that's not what the discussion is about.

    3) She brings up brain cancer treatment-caused obesity as disproving Taubes? Really? So Taubes doesn't explain weight gain caused by direct human/radiation intervention. And?

    4) Why is irreparable damage to your metabolism such a far out concept to Evelyn? For example, there is a new form of permanent birth control, that a woman can use that blocks the system from working properly for a while, and causes the woman to permanently be unable to become pregnant. Of course you can do irreparable damage to your internal systems by doing something it never expected for you to do.

  27. js290
    Dr. Eenfeldt,

    In Sleights of Mind, the neuroscientist authors describe Venus of Willendorf as a superstimulus: "A superstimulus is a supersalient object or event that evokes a stronger neural and behavioral response than the normal stimulus for which the response evolved in the first place... It's the extreme curviness and abnormally large breasts of the prehistoric Venus of Willendorf."

    Also, it sounds like George Bray got lazy. Pointing out something that's always true is not particularly insightful. For a lot of people, experience is nothing more than making the same mistakes over and over again.

  28. DoragonMama
    These figurines of overweight women are usually representative of fertility or abundance. Which to me always says that there were women who had so many children that their thyroid went out and caused massive weight gain.

    This doesn't have anything to do with weight loss or diet, its simply that fertile women can develop thyroid issues from having (too many) children, and hypothyroidism will cause weight gain which leads to these images of fertility.

    These women are not the norm, they are the extreme.

  29. kim
    Thanks for the website/blog and all the information and discussion. Please keep writing (could not care less about the grammar, the content is perfectly clear).
    Congratulations on the beautiful baby girl.
  30. "I think it's at least as likely that these figurines are just exaggerations of the female form/ideal. Big breasts, big hips, big vulvas."

    I don't know about the other figurines, but at least the "Venus of Willendorf" does not look like she has "big hips", but to me she looks like she is obese - that lifebelt is a wheat belly and not "exaggerated hips". And if these were just hips, where is the waist? I don't think this the product of imagination, but a simplified portrait of real persons (or a certain types of real persons).

  31. Laura
    What if...? we don't know much about how our paleo ancestors actually lived Did they live in small/extended family groups? Could it be that some individuals were looked at as 'leaders' and this could apply equally well to males/females? now perhaps female leaders were spared the daily chores and food pehaps the best foods was brought to them so they would put on weight simply because they ejoyed special treatment. It could also be that female leaders were those who in small family group had contributed the most children so you could combine the fertility with god like worship that may result in rare individuals being overweight. Add to that a bit or artistic exaggeration and you get your 35k statuette....didn't Dr Lustig use her to show that obesity is nothing new and is indeed caused by fructose that has been available for as long as plants have decided to store it in their seed bearing organs?? (fruits)
    well I thinki that was misuse of evidence.... and I wish my English was as good as the doc's..some people are picky!
  32. Marty
    Maybe the Venus of Willendorf figurine was that of a pregnant woman? That would explain the swolen breasts, Vulva, and mid-section. Just my 2 cents.
  33. Matt
    You know women have more fat storing cells than men, haven't seen any drawings or sculptures of fat men have you?
    But I believe this epidemic has to do with sugar, trans fat, and processed foods and additives.
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