As the feast months of this holiday season are in full swing, let’s thank our farming and herding ancestors for helping make our civilization possible. And let’s thank our current farmers and ranchers for helping keep it so.
Yes, 10,000-odd years ago in the Fertile Crescent, our forebears began seriously tending plants, taming animals, and storing surplus food, and concentrating so many calories in one place they could feed 10 to 100 times more people per acre than hunter-gatherers could. When Hebrews appeared about 6,500 years later, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca and Leah were born into a planet that supported about 40 million people, and dined on grass-fed, pasture-raised meats, fish, vegetables, fruit, roots and nuts, and few grains, legumes, dairy products or salt, and no refined sugar or processed oils. Today, we call this “The Caveman Diet.”
Combining farming and herding with hunting and gathering, humans multiplied, congregated in villages, towns and cities, supported artisans, commerce, bureaucracies and standing armies, and built empires — all without fossil-fuel inputs and industrialized methods. In Israelite times, Egypt was the western world’s greatest power, and among their fertility and abundance deities, Egyptians worshipped Anuket, goddess of the Nile, whose dependable floods irrigated the crops and livestock that fed the empire. The Hebrews worshipped their mono-deity in the same way, saying if we fear God and follow God’s commands, God may keep us alive and give rain in its season, so we may gather grain, wine, and oil, grow grass for cattle, eat and be satisfied. If we don’t, God will shut up the heavens, and we’ll perish. (Deuteronomy 6:24 and 11:13-17). You may have heard this in the Shema, created around 100 CE.
In Psalms 128:2, Mishnah scholar Simeon ben Zoma asked, “Who is rich?” and answered, “He who is satisfied with his lot, as it is said: ‘When you eat the toil of your hands you are fortunate and it is good for you.’”
Today, most of us are far removed from eating the toil of our hands, and that’s bad for us. Less than 3 percent of our population provides the abundant food for all 460 million of us North Americans. The other 90-odd percent of us work sedentary or low-activity jobs, and move from place to place in conveyances like cars, elevators and escalators. Most of us don’t even do simple daily exercise.
And our food-rich blessings come with an overeating curse. Two million years as hunter-gatherers embedded scarcity in our bones, and even 10,000 years of cultivator-herder abundance can’t change that. So when we humans see food, we eat it, because genetically, we’re never sure of where we’ll get our next meal. So in abundant America we’re suffering explosive increases in binge eating, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, food allergies and antibiotic resistance. Whole industries have grown up to help us resist and mitigate our urges to overeat — therapy groups, psychologists, meal plans, weight loss clubs. But I see overeating as a symptom of the bigger problem: Our modern lives are characterized by great wants, limited means, and industrial productivity that seeks to narrow the gap, but always falls short, which results in perennially dissatisfied societies.
Contrast that with hunter-gatherers (including ancient Hebrews). Research anthropologists and ethnographers found these societies consumed less energy per capita than any other human group. And they achieved “affluence without abundance”: by desiring little (surpluses and possessions hinder their nomadic lives), they met their needs and wants with what was available from their environments.
It makes sense that our journey toward societal satisfaction should begin with food. Repeated studies have found that organically grown varieties of produce are more nutritious than conventionally grown ones, which are also less nutritious today than they were 50 years ago. In addition, most processed foods cater to our natural cravings for sugars, salts and fats. It’s a recipe for dissatisfied living.
That healthier menu is in the “Caveman Diet” — what humans presumably ate before, and for a few millennia after agriculture developed. It’s also what the whole foods and farm-to-table movements are all about. If we eat nutrient-rich and psychologically satisfying foods, we’ll enjoy more quality, and desire less quantity. Added bonuses: We build stronger immune systems, and decrease our risks of disease.
So first, let’s replace our diets’ processed foods with more nutritious whole ones. Next, let’s replace less nutritious conventionally raised foods with more nutritious organic ones. Finally, let’s appreciate those ancient cultivator-herders who got the ball rolling, and the modern ones who keep it going. It’s thanks to them we’ve achieved what we have today.