A diet which has recently gained popularity on the internet is the carnivore option. Those following its precepts argue that animal parts provide higher levels of protein and other nutrients than the conventional suggestions of a balanced intake incorporating vegetables and some grains. Often their claims come into conflict with the equally vocal vegan or vegetarian coalitions, both pioneers of alternative approaches regarding human health outcomes. Almost as freely as they do battle over what to eat, their predictable alignment with Right or Left politics adds a whole layer of intrigue to the interaction.
I have no intention of trying to debate diet advice or political feelings in this post, however. Said topics better fit the long scrolls of forum comments and YouTube videos already in existence, with many more sure to arrive in future. Instead, let us address a very common method the carnivore dieters use to square their culinary motivations: an appeal to tradition. Hardly anything wrong with that, yet the astute among us have reason to pause, because an element of clarity is missing. To better appreciate the picture, a closer look at their verbal framing is needed. The typical justifying statement goes rather like this:
“My ancestors didn’t eat many vegetables, only meat. That means we are evolved to eat animals and should reject the starvation diets of serfs in favor of the king’s cuisine.”
Laying aside the question of how precisely enough animals could be hunted to supply food for much of the world outside of factory farms, the preceding ratonalization lacks perspective. Yes, cavemen probably did consume animal products in large quantities, unless separated from ample livestock supplies like the Aztecs were. What’s left out of this realization is obviously the lifestyle entailed by living with those ancestors. While meat is nutritious, it would need to be caught, a fairly involving process for the average person. Our friend Thag had to set out with a crude bow or spear and track the animal first, which could take a few hours. Next, Thag would move in close, making sure not to upset foliage and trigger an alarmed state in the beast. At last he could strike, but even assuming a critical hit, the animal might run for a spell before keeling over. So Thag would go in pursuit, following the trail of blood. Once he managed to catch up with it a few miles down the woodland trail, the beast would then be dragged back a long distance, hopefully absent harassment from other hungry creatures.
Put simply, Thag was expelling a lot of energy and burning quite the calorie count simply trying to get his dinner. Even at home he had to clean the animal carcass in preparation for a meal, or to fashion some warm clothes. Time was of essence too, because salting and the fridge were still thousands of years into the future. But Thag had no choice, because to feed his active routine, food could be nothing less than robust.
And he’s not alone. American Indians were renowned for consuming large amounts of buffalo and deer meat, depending on the tribe. Keeping in mind that they were often nomads who moved frequently and went to war or hunted based on necessity, these people would certainly need a way to replenish their individual energies in time for the next physically exhausting event. The Apache for example were reported to march at times 70-100 miles in a twenty-four period, far surpassing most physical activity pursued in the gym by modern carnivore advocates. The Indians did this while wearing simple moccasins and without the advantages of central air and indoor plumbing because it was part of their social model for life. Yes, they ate heartily of the mammal race, but only with the contingency that great physical exertion would be expected.
The lowdown is that context matters. If you are seeking to follow a diet based on the practices of olden times, don’t ignore other conditions and locations during that period which might have influenced outcomes. We are not only what we eat, but also where we live.