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25 Feb

Hunter-Gatherer Body Composition

A couple weeks ago in my post about health and vanity a good discussion got started in the comment board about the body composition of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Was Grok lean and ripped or not? Let’s take a look at what we know.

It’s pretty well established that hunter-gatherers eating their traditional, whole-foods hunter-gatherer diet (whether Inuit, or Masai, or Pacific Islander, or whatever else) display little to no signs of the diseases of civilization. Infection, warfare, pestilence, starvation, and colonial incursion were occasional or even frequent sources of poor health outcomes, but for the most part they were well-nourished and free of degenerative diseases, even the long lived members. These guys weren’t dying for lack of statins or chemotherapy – let’s put it this way.

They were also physically active. They had to be, since dinner wasn’t to be found on a menu or on a store shelf (or even a farmers’ market). And if food was to be hunted, gathered, or wrestled wriggling from a rushing river, physical prowess increased the chances of success. Some anthropologists even suggest that the athletic prowess of Paleolithic man rivaled that of modern day Olympians. A few months back, I linked to paleoanthropologist Peter McAllister’s claims that his analysis of 20,000 year old Australian aboriginal footprints revealed a top speed of 37 km per hour – pretty damn close to Usain Bolt’s 42 km per hour. Give these guys a hard surface, some modern training, and McAllister bets they’d match or top Bolt. He cites similar feats in other peoples, including 110 meter hardwood spear throws and Tutsi initiation rites requiring high jumps of 2.52 meters. Even if he’s exaggerating or mistaken, the average hunter-gatherer – modern or Paleolithic alike – is going to be fitter than the average modern sedentary human, just as gym rats are fitter than people who never exercise. It’s a pretty simple concept.

But were they jacked? Could they grace the cover of Men’s Fitness? Or did Grok possess the universally lauded “Brad Pitt in Fight Club” physique?

Before we get into this too far let me make one important point. While Grok certainly had the capacity to become very strong and very lean very quickly (just as we do), survival dictates that he (or she) conserve energy. Grok’s not worried about definition in his lats, or getting lean enough to show off his 6 pack or in topping his personal records in the squat rack. It was much more practical for Grok. All that mattered to Grok was whether he was fit enough to bag that next boar. In other words, the capacity to be ripped doesn’t mean you have the obligation to be ripped. When you don’t know where the next meal is coming from conservation of energy is a huge consideration. Additionally, for a society that has virtually no material objectives other than catching the next pig and gathering the next palm frond it’s wealth is leisure time. The ability to relax, play, rest and just live was Grok’s luxury. So Grok’s mentality would have been, “how can I get the most amount of enjoyment with the least amount of input”. (Hmmm. Sounds a lot like The Primal Blueprint.) There is evidence that they were stronger and leaner and genetically they were certainly capable, but bear in mind that there is also a premium put on energy conservation.

Now back to the question of whether Grok looked like Mr. Pitt.

We don’t know for sure. I mean, it’d be silly to suggest no one had the rippling abs, but we can’t say they were normal features for early man. Going by fossilized remains, it certainly seems plausible that Grok was carrying a fair amount of lean mass on his body; Paleolithic human fossils typically evince far higher levels of mineral bone density than do modern humans, and strong, dense bones are hallmarks of physically active people engaged in weight bearing exercises (in a gym or on the savannah). The science is quite definitive on this note, but it still doesn’t mean Grok was overly muscular. It just means Grok was active and strong enough to make it through the day, and he was bearing plenty of weight, enough to stimulate bone density growth. Bones are living organs that respond to stimuli, much like muscle does. Exerting oneself and lifting weights (barbells or fallen game) tells your body to build stronger bones.

But do dense bones necessarily mean big muscles? Couldn’t they simply mean big exertion?

A small British study from several years back might give us a clue as to how bone mineral densities correspond to muscularity in active individuals. After comparing the bone mineral densities of several groups of athletes to that of a (non-exercising age-matched, gender-matched) control group, researchers found that rugby players displayed the greatest adjusted increase in bone mineral density. Strength athletes were close behind, followed by triathletes and tennis players. These groups all showed major increases in bone density when compared to the control group, while the “low-strain, low-impact” cyclists and rowers showed no beneficial growth in bone density. To get an idea of the type of physiques that accompany the various bone mineral densities, take a look at a group of rugby players, a powerlifter, and a triathlete. Now, check out some rowers and a cyclist. These are just pictures of individuals, and they don’t tell the entire story, nor do they rule out the existence of heavily muscled cyclists and emaciated rugby players, but I’d say they’re at least somewhat representative of the average. I think it’s safe to suggest that high mineral bone densities derived from athletic activity correspond to relatively robust muscularity. I also think it’s safe to suggest that since our ancestors were undoubtedly active on a regular basis, their robust bone densities indicate a pretty decent physique – unless they somehow found a steady source of fructose-rich honey, continuously gorged on root strips fried in a hollowed-out buffalo skull filled with boiling tallow, and developed an insulin-resistant belly to cover up those muscles.

Based on fossil evidence and modern understandings of how bone densities correspond to muscular hypertrophy in athletes, we can surmise that hunter-gatherers did have the potential for impressive physiques. The actual composition of HG musculature undoubtedly varied based on how they exerted themselves – if you were more gatherer than hunter, for example, you wouldn’t be bearing as much weight or exerting yourself as much, whereas a big game hunter with a steady diet of explosive thrusts, sprints, and carcass-heaving might be a hulking mass of corded muscle (like a Neanderthal).

What about modern hunter-gatherers? They don’t look all that impressive. Are they accurate corollaries for Grok?

Any photographs we have are of fringe hunter-gatherers, of displaced peoples subsisting on less than ideal lands with less available game and fewer resources. They aren’t necessarily indicative of what actual untouched hunter-gatherers looked like. Photos of Native Americans twiddling their thumbs on reservations are just sad reminders of their plight and their destruction; if anything, it’s an indication of the poor Western diet and the effects of sedentarism and perpetual despair. The camera records for posterity, but its very presence affects its subjects. Photos aren’t taken in a vacuum; they are taken amidst the dissembling of the very conditions that enabled our ancestors’ robust health and physicality. It’s impossible to separate the two.

Modern hunter-gatherers no longer have the lay of the land, and what land remains open is forever (short)changed. Roads and towns disrupt the delicate balance of wildlife, the natural ebb and flow that traditional people – as willing, integrated members of the natural cycle – came to rely upon for sustenance and survival. Beyond that, though, the arrival of civilization means the widespread destruction of wildlife and habitat. It’s a basic formula: human population increases (either through agricultural explosion or colonization), wild game population decreases (either by destruction of habitat or overhunting). History is replete with tales of bountiful hunting grounds rendered fallow in a single generation. It’s progress, yeah, and it’s made for some incredible advances, but it also undoubtedly spells certain doom for the hunter-gatherer folk who still happen to be living and eating there. So when someone points out the subtle man-boobs of a hunter-gatherer barely eking out a somewhat traditional existence on a sliver of land in some war torn nation, I don’t think that’s fair to Grok.

There are the stories, though – the anthropologic accounts of individual explorers and scientists living among traditional, mostly untouched peoples still following the old ways before the wagons arrived. There’s the Lewis and Clark journal (available free online), in which our intrepid explorers write of “plains Covd. with game” and witness “immence quantities of game in every direction around us…consisting of herds of Buffaloe, Elk, and Antelopes with some deer and wolves” – game so plentiful “that two good hunters could conveniently supply a regiment with provisions” and so “gentle that the men frequently throw sticks and stones at them in order to drive them out of the way.” These weren’t the skittish, sparse herds that populate civilized America today and have to dodge cars and hunters; no, the America known by historic hunter-gatherers was populated by reams of walking, running, nibbling, grazing, and brazen sacks of living meat willing and liable to walk right up to you. Their native guides would go for a light stroll and come back bearing several elks, a buck or two, and an antelope, almost by accident.

Travel accounts and skeletal records from the precolonial era (or, at least, pre-reservation era) reveal that the native peoples of the North American plains tribes were taller than their colonizer counterparts, as well as stronger, fitter, and healthier (except when faced with guns and foreign diseases, of course). Richard Steckel, from the Ohio State University Anthropology department, published a paper called “Tallest in the World: Native Americans of the Great Plains in the Nineteenth Century” that asserts the Plains nomads were actually “tallest in the world during the mid-nineteenth century” as confirmed by “travelers’ accounts and by the skeletal record.” He compared 9,000 individual fossil records from 51 different Native American groups ranging from North to South America, and the horse-riding, buffalo-eating Plains tribes were the tallest and most robust. They were also among the most physically active – and physically impressive – groups, and they obtained a significant portion of their caloric intake from animal fat and protein. Their neighbors to the south, like the Southern Cheyenne, were more sedentary and ate a more agrarian diet. They were also “less considerable in stature.”

I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I think it’s obvious that activity level and macronutrient ratio plays a huge role in hunter-gatherer body composition. The more activity they get, the more hunting they do, the more calories they derive from animal foods, the more physically impressive they are – the more typically “ripped” they appear. Kinda like what you’d expect from modern humans following a meat-and-animal-fat-heavy diet and strength-training regimen versus a vegetarian diet and yoga regimen (nothing against yoga!). The animal eater and heavy-thing lifter is going to have more muscle and less fat, on average (I know, I know, bring on the “entirely representative” pictures of crazy vegan bodybuilders).

This seems to play out in other hunter-gatherer cultures, too. While most of the pictures I was able to find were of flabby or nondescript modern hunter-gatherer physiques (subsisting on less than ideal lands, remember), there were a few with impressive, lean looks – and they were often members of meat-centric groups who still managed to maintain a fairly traditional diet. Take the Ache, from Paraguay, who get over 80% of their calories from animals or insects. Pretty impressive all around:

Check out this bow hunter and note the dense shoulder striations.
Or how about this guy mean mugging the camera?
Here’s another bow hunter with a good build.
Here’s both men and women.
And I’d be willing to bet this guy would have a very respectable back squat.

There’s also the Hadza, out of central Tanzania, who still manage to scrape together a decent proportion of meat in their diet. They do the root-and-tuber thing, too, of course, but meat remains the most prized – if not always plentiful – food.
The guys aren’t completely ripped, but they’re solid enough and plenty lean. Check out the leg musculature, especially the calves. And check out this dude in Papua New Guinea.

Australian Aboriginals, around the turn of the century, weren’t exactly slouches, even the old guys! Here’s a younger one, and here’s a group of lean, dangerous looking hunters. Of course, there’s always variation in any population.

The pictures don’t mean much either way; it’s just my way of showing that, despite pretty much everything stacked against their way of life, some modern hunter-gatherers are still able to forge impressive physiques. They weren’t all flabby. Assuming wild game was as plentiful in the Paleolithic as the travel writers claim it was before widespread colonialism, I’d imagine that earlier hunter-gatherers had more opportunities than their modern counterparts to be decently ripped. That’s all.

The physique of early man was dependent on many factors: activity level, activity type, diet, availability of animal protein/fat, and the seasonal patterns, to name just a few variables. The more hunting they did and meat they ate, the “better” their physique was – at least, that’s how it played out among modern hunter-gatherers, as well as those of us who follow a Primal eating (high meat) and exercising (high exertion) plan. And let’s remember that Grok had an interest in not exerting himself. More often than not conditions were such that Grok had to labor and his physique showcased this fact. But if conditions changed so would his body composition.

I think it’s safe to say that, judging from the robust bone structure and intense physicality of our ancestors, plus what we know about bone density and modern musculature today, there were more than a few well proportioned individuals running around the tundra, the savannah, the forests, and the bush of the ancient world. They may not have had mirrors with which to chart the developing definition of their abdominals, and they probably didn’t care about vascularity or the “pump,” but they were strong enough, fast enough, smart enough, and tough enough to make it this far… do you really think there weren’t even one or two six packs among the lot of ‘em? I mean, if we pampered moderns can somehow manage to put up respectable weight and assemble decent bodies while driving cars, working office jobs, and sleeping in soft fluffy beds, I bet Grok could too.

What do you think? Was Grok a slouch, ripped or somewhere in between? Does it matter? Share your thoughts in the comment board and Grok on!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Firstly Grok probably wouldn’t have been called Grok because early modern humans had considerably larger brains and were probably more intelligent than modern humans. His name probably meant something like “penis the size a mammoths trunk” or “teller of really funny jokes”.

    Humans evolved in the tropics where the temperature and day length is virtually identical all year. Around 80% of all people on Earth still live in the tropics or subtropics.

    Even in northern Europe Grok would never have gone hungry because he was always surrounded by a hyper-abundance of wildlife. He could literally throw a spear in the air and be almost certain to hit an animal.

    There is absolutely no evidence that HGs regularly went hungry let alone starved even in very marginal environments. Life would have been almost totally effortless in the best regions – a permanent camping holiday.

    Grok needed to be big and strong mainly to fight or intimidate other males not to hunt food. He is needed as much to protect the tribe as to feed it. In virtually all social mammal species the male role is merely to protect the females and offspring. For example adult male lions are absolutely hopeless hunters because they are far too slow and heavy (up to 250kg). They live by scavenging and stealing food from lionesses and other predators such as cheetahs. The role of the male lion is to protect the females and cubs not to feed them.

    In many HG societies it is documented that females and children provide the majority of food while the men act primarily as protectors.

    Murder and warfare is by far the most common cause of death of adult males in pre-agrarian tribal societies. In many of these societies the chief is literally the biggest and toughest man in the tribe. The big man gets to eat the best food, have the most wives, father the most children and has the most prestige. The skinny guy doesn’t get a wife, eats the scraps and is treated with contempt.

    Andrew wrote on April 28th, 2011
    • To those talking about the sprinters of West African descent, I remember reading a Sports Illustrated article a while back that tackled the issue. The main thrust of the article was about the general dominance of athletes from African descent.

      I don’t have the magazine anymore, so I’m going from memory here. The person giving their opinion (don’t remember if they were an anthropologist or even a scientist) was making the argument that those of African descent were on the whole better athletes because of a more diverse gene pool.

      His contention was that a relatively small population/gene pool left Africa, and they were responsible for populating the rest of the world.

      Going on that theory, the person’s claim was that since a more diverse human gene pool has existed in Africa, you will always find the fastest runner, strongest, smartest, fittest, etc represented by someone of African descent. On the other side of the coin, you should always find the opposite there too – the slowest, weakest…

      BTW, I’m not making an argument here, just relaying something I read and found interesting.

      I think we could debate and speculate forever about how exactly our ancestors looked, lived, etc. and probably never come to a definitive conclusion…but it sure is fun to do it and to try to emulate them.

      Jason wrote on May 28th, 2011
  2. Not sure if someone has linked this yet, but this tribe that has virtually been totally isolated is probably the best example of “Grok.”

    The average age is 35, but not because of health, but because a lot of them kill themselves to go to the after life! Notice the healthy physique.

    http://youtu.be/ubKS4_mM3bo

    Daniel M wrote on October 13th, 2011
  3. I was a world class powerlifter for a number of years in my 20’s. I always envied the chimp and gorilla natural strength, which is enormous. Although, they are vegetarians their bodies are able to chemically convert vegetables and fruits into muscle. If we could discover this process, we could all be enormously strong.
    To understand how our anscestors appeared it is only necessary to look at current primitives in New Guinea, the Amazon Forest, Laplanders, etc. as well as examining old photos from various regions of the earth taken in the 19th Century. I’ve noticed, they are, in the main, lean and muscular.

    James Johnson wrote on November 13th, 2011
  4. Uh, warfare is a disease of civilization? I’m sorry but it is well known that hunter gatherer tribes spent a large portion of time “at war” with other tribes.

    Now is it “total war” as we now know it (the means of production as viable military targets) like the US Army Air Corps action over Japan and Germany? No. Is it industrialized warfare? Of course not. Is the whole society militarized? Usually not. However warfare is a human condition.

    Larry wrote on February 24th, 2012
  5. Great article. I would like to mention, as counter to the heavy lifting/heroic physique corollary, that an indigenous Florida tribe, before the Seminole displacement,the Calusa, the fierce tribe that kicked De Soto’s ass out, were a shellfish hunter/fisher/gatherer people known throughout the Caribbean for being giants and having an advanced culture, occasional cannibalism aside.

    Elsie Harrington wrote on February 27th, 2012
  6. I know this is an old thread, but dude, the only emaciated rugby player, is a DEAD rugby player. It’s like Sumo: if you’re under a certain size, you cannot play!

    Cody wrote on July 23rd, 2012
    • … or DARE not play!

      Cody wrote on July 23rd, 2012
  7. I watched a show on the bbc a few years back called last man standing, that sent a group of modern athletes to compete against remote tribes around the world. The modern athletes did pretty well especially considering they competed in the natives own sport.

    Callum wrote on July 24th, 2012
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    find a rich man free wrote on December 6th, 2013
  9. Seen the Bathurst Island men of the Northern Territory in Australia? I’d say they don’t look too bad for primitive peoples.
    http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bathurst_Island_men.jpg

    Luke wrote on April 23rd, 2014

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