Diets and vagrancy: our changing relationships with food

Vagrant

Burcad jerked with surprise when the local shaman cut out the still-beating heart of a snow-covered monstrosity. “You gonna try’n tell me that’s a delicacy and I should be honored?”

“No, it’s the toughest cut, for sure." The old shaman grinned and stretched his wings. "But vagrants don’t get to be choosy, and it’ll fill your belly fine.”

AFTERWORD

I wrote this story after my research about Scurvy, when the dietary benefits of various bits of offal was top of mind for me. But when it comes to diet advice, I generally find arguments about paleolithic habits frustrating. It's interesting that our ancestors used to grind the grain from essentially random grasses to make flour for bread. It's fascinating that this pre-dates sedentism and statehood. But if the discussion is focused on what modern humans should eat, it's important to remember that we do not, most of us, have the same genetic makeup as our ancestors did.

I find it more useful when articles go into detail about how our ancestors might not have had a particular health problem. For example, some folks argue that ancient human populations didn't have obesity because their diet was so high in fiber and non-nutritive things that every calorie mattered. That's useful to know. It helps explain why high fiber diets can be lead to weight loss.

The more I learn about the history of domestication, the more I come to understand stuff about modern life. Yet, from a "what should I do?" perspective, it's frustrating when articles stop at "our ancestors did a thing!" Knowing that our ancestors were "evolved" for a particular ecological niche is interesting from a worldbuilding perspective but doesn't feel actionable on a personal level.

Evolution is not static. We didn't spring fully formed from the head of Gaia 5,000 years ago or even 500,000 years ago. The reality is that, much like dog breeds that wound up with extra chromosomes (which allow them to produce bunches of enzymes to help with digesting corn and grains) different subsets of humans have evolved different advantages. Many of my ancestors weren't able to tolerate the lactose in milk. Many modern populations can't, either. That doesn't mean I should avoid an excellent source of calcium and potassium.

Grain tolerance is more or less common in different parts of the world, depending on the kinds of nutritional practices were necessary in those environments. Evolutionary is not a static process, it's ongoing. One of the neatest things I've seen come out of modern science is the idea that you can have a genetic profile taken, then told what kinds of diet will work best for you. It's not perfect, or cheap — or something I'd feel totally safe doing in the modern surveillance state — but it's interesting. I like the idea of getting away from broad statistical analyses of enormous populations when determining which foods are "healthy" or "good for you."

Besides all this, I think focusing on the ancient diet — especially in the context of weight loss in and of itself — is a bit pointless.  Active lifestyles and manageable stress levels are increasingly difficult to achieve for most people technologically capable of reading this email. Infrastructure-level interventions like better walking & bike paths, fewer working hours, and social support would be a lot more effective than just trying to eat like an obligate carnivore.

If we really want to talk about how our ancestors lived, in the context of "we should emulate this," we should look at things like slavery and child mortality rates. We should be mindful that we all have different ancestors. Maybe some of our ancestors were seafarers, maybe a sedentary lifestyle is pretty new from a genetic perspective. Our bloodlines all hearken back to hunters, and gatherers, and probably slash-and-burn wandering farmers, but it's an open question how far back the evolutionary tree that was for each individual. We are all human, and cross-compatible from a cold-eyed breeding perspective, but we are incredibly diverse as a species. Diversity is wonderful — but it also means that we need to be careful about broad generalizations, oversimplifications, and leaning too hard on history.

If I never read another breathless article about how hunter-gatherers co-sleep with their children, completely decontextualized from the other sleep and work habits of those populations, it will be too soon.

Meanwhile, I recently started adding turkey liver to my holiday stuffing and eating bone marrow, which are both delicious. There's definitely stuff from write-ups about the ancient world that is applicable to daily life — I just think it's important to be mindful that humans have mostly gotten by as broad-spectrum omnivores. Like the old shaman pointed out in Vagrant, we can eat most anything, and it'll fill our bellies fine.

Further Reading

  • I just finished Against the Grain by James C. Scott and went into a ton of detail about ancient lifestyles. I'll try to get a review up next month, but I highly recommend it. Did you know that iron-deficiency anemia is super common in mature women who eat a grain-based diet? That mobile populations are generally affected by entirely different diseases than sedentary populations?

Comments

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