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Primitive Man and His Food, a short review

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    Steven e

    Primitive Man and His Food: by Arnold De Vries. I just read this book and found it fascinating. In a way it is a reader’s digest version of Weston Price (who is referenced often), but with more emphasis on historical accounts detailing the health, or lack of, of certain groups on a primitive diet. My impression is that the author was really looking solely for information to support his point, almost propaganda like. I think that the main usefulness of the book is that it details what physical, mental, spiritual (not religious), emotional health looks like. Much like the “adrenal type” quote that Matt uses all the time. In that sense it really is fascinating. Excuse me, I need to switch types of icecream. If I eat a whole pint of triple chocolate ice cream for breakfast, the caffeine will totally f#&k me up. Ok, anyway, the emphasis is on fresh high nutrient foods and abstention from processed foods and refined carbohydrates. Loss of happiness and mental health is a common theme in the book, and seems always viewed through the lens of diet and introduction of alcohol or other drugs, rather than looking at displacement and changes in social status with foreign encroachment as a possible cofactor. One theme I noticed, and also noted in Prices book, is that a thing all these people had in common was control of their own food supply.

    I have little doubt that Price and this guy De Vries who is basically riffing off of Price, was more or less right about the nutritional factors involved in healthy development and maintenance of health, although the emphasis is solely on that aspect. Both books reinforced my interest in food and made me want to pursue avenues toward an even better food supply. Of course many of us go off the deep end and vilify certain foods more than we probably need to, while exalting others and packing in as much nutrient density as we can stomach… if not more. I think this is something of a cultural problem where we have to do things to extremes. If we’re eating healthy it is often some extreme version of the concept. If some is good, more is better and nothing else is good. I feel convinced that it doesn’t have to be so and that we can view the problem from a perspective of what we do get to eat, the superiority of fresh foods and stuff like that, rather than negatively around what we shouldn’t eat. It is quite clear from the book that excellent human health measured in all parameters can be achieved on quite varied diets.

    The view in Primitive Man and His Food is somewhat narrow and I think it’s good to keep in mind that all health does not stem from diet and exercise alone. What it does offer is a picture of what health looks like. However we get there, we have to start with a benchmark. Reading Primitive Man and His Food made me realize just how degenerated we are. Of particular interest was that amazing endurance was a common theme, even in the absence of food; true deep energy reserves that could be called up as needed without totally wrecking people. I also noted, an emphasis on carbohydrates in the diet wherever they were accessible. Paleo dieters and carbophobes take note!

    Of the Marquesas Islanders an explorer writes: “They have been stigmatized by the name of savages: a term wrongly applied; they rank high on the scale of human beings, whether we consider them morally, or physically. We find them brave, generous, honest, benevolent, acute, ingenious, and intelligent, and the beauty, and regular proportions of their bodies correspond with the perfections of their minds. They are far above the common stature of the human race, seldom less than six feet two or three inches, and in every way proportioned. Their faces are remarkably handsome, with keen, piercing eyes; teeth white, and more beautiful than ivory; countenances open and expressive, which reflect every emotion in their souls; limbs which might serve as models for a statuary, and strength and activity proportioned to their appearance.”

    and De Vries says they ate: “The stately breadfruit tree, which was met with to some extent in nearly all polynesian lands, attained its greatest excellence in the islands of the Marquesas group, where it was found in fully 52 varieties and flourished in the utmost abundance. The breadfruit itself formed the principal article of food for nearly all of the natives, coconut and bananas were next in importance, in the order named, with the former being usually consumed in its immature state, when it was rich in fluid and of a soft jelly-like texture. The banana was found in different sizes and types, there being nearly thirty varieties of this fruit on the islands. For vegetable roots the people used taro, supplemented by yams and sweet potatoes. Sugar cane was consumed in moderate amounts”… “Of animal foods, the Marquesans were passionately fond of the raw fish, which were rapidly devoured just as soon as they were taken from the sea. The fish were consumed in their whole state, including, the head, eyes, scales, bones and gills and internal organs. Other animal foods used were fowl and pork, though these did not figure largely in the diet.” (in spite of the name, breadfruit has no starch, 24.2 grams of sugar and 227 calories per cup of fruit)

    De Vries says or implies time and again that it was the change in diet that lead to epidemics. My understanding from other reading, or maybe just common knowledge, was that disease raged through native cultures as soon as it was introduced due to lack of immunity. If the that is not so, and diet change preceded disease, that is pretty interesting and might be something worth looking into further.

    Curiously, De Vries was a fruitarian before writing this book. I guess that didn’t work out for him. Finally, I do not recommend Breyer’s low fat vanilla ice cream no matter how cheap it is at the discount grocery outlet. It has more gums than the underside of a 30 year old school desk for that “now even creamier and smoother” texture.

    Primitive Man and His Food can be downloadedheree after jumping through a few hoops. It is an easy read and pretty short. If you want to skim it, sections I found particularly interesting were on the marquesas islands and the story of the bounty mutineers, who hid on Pitcairn Island and the society that evolved after all the white men killed each other leaving only one with 11 Tahitian women and all the coconuts and seafood one could eat… life could probably get worse.

    Anyone else read it?

    Steven e

    Correction, looks like breadfruit does contain starch at least in it’s unripe state. I wouldn’t know, never had it. Anyway, carb city.


    Thanks Steven.

    I got into nutrition and food geekery through my background in archeology and early human anthropology. I heard about De Vries and then learned of Price through him. I’ve long been fascinated with the limits of human potential, and these feats of endurance and strength. I’ve got this book ‘Manthropology’ on hold at my library.

    Matt wrote an article some time ago about Layla, a Somalian refugee he knew, and alludes to those deep reserves you wrote about.
    To give you an idea of her mother’s health, Layla’s mom bore six children, and when war broke out causing the family to run for their lives for six months with scarcely any food or sleep and days without water, she had a child at her breast which she was able to nurse and keep perfectly healthy. In fact, the family walked to the point of delirium and exhaustion, with nothing but grass in their stomachs ? having run out of food completely. They were found, barely conscious, lying in the grass and had to be revived (so they were told, they have no recollection of it). The newborn; however, was fat and happy, sound as a pound attached to mom’s breast. Now that’s some nutritional reserves ? the result of a lifetime of real food with hardly any sugar backed by generations of sugar-free nutrition.

    Crazytown. Anyway, thanks again

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