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Stop Trying to Live Like a Caveman

Modern humans are doing it all wrong - they eat wrong, they run wrong, they work wrong, they get married wrong. But is the life of cave people really what we should be striving for?

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Photo by Lord Jim, art by Banksy

Modern humans are doing it all wrong—they eat wrong, they run wrong, they work wrong, they get married wrong. At least that’s the common line these days, as people push to return to our more “natural” state. The paleo-diet pushes us to eat foods our ancestors ate. Toe shoes try to make us run like them, too. Polygamy is the right way to have relationships, because that’s what pre-historic humans did. But is the life of cave people really what we should be striving for?

At Discover Magazine, Marlene Zuk says no:

As evolutionary and genetic science show, humans, like all other living beings, have always been a work in progress and never completely in sync with the natural world. If we’re going to romanticize and emulate a particular point in our evolutionary history, why not go all the way back to when our ape ancestors spent their days swinging from tree to tree?

It is hard to argue that a simpler life with more exercise, fewer processed foods, and closer contact with our children may well be good for us, but rather than renouncing modern living for the sake of our Stone Age genes, we need to understand how evolution has—and hasn’t—suited us for the world we inhabit now.  

She calls ideas for turning back time “paleofantasies.” But science doesn’t necessarily back up claims like “Our hunter-gatherer ancestors overwhelmingly consumed meat.” Nor does it prove that, even if our ancestors did live that way, we should strive for the same lifestyle.

Take the paleo-diet for example. First, our ancestors did not consume exclusively meat. They ate all sorts of grains and plants, as well. Second, simply because they ate a lot of meat doesn’t mean that our modern bodies and genes would do best with the same diet. We evolve along with our technology, and farming is certainly one of those technologies. Zuk puts it this way:

What we are able to eat and thrive upon depends on our 30 million years plus of history as primates, not a single arbitrarily more recent moment in time.

The pattern continues for workouts, for monogamy, for cancer and for parenting.

Yes, Zuk says, there are advantages to eating better, getting more exercise, and hanging out with your kids more. But that’s not the same thing as striving to return to cave days. The overall message: stop trying to live like a caveman.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Caveman Cereal Raises a Question: Do Humans Need Grains?
Backwoods Workouts With the World’s Fittest Man

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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