I love a good cow. Its meat is tasty, filling, and, especially when grass-fed and finished, full of fat-soluble vitamins, protein, and healthy fat. A cow’s organs are highly nutritious and affordable, often discarded by butchers, usually ignored by shoppers, and always available for the discerning Primal eater. The cow also produces a magical self-replenishing liquid called milk, which is either consumed straight up (not really for me), skimmed for the rich cream, or fermented (which in turn produces a helpful byproduct called whey) to make yogurt, kefir, or cheese. And those are just a few of the major foods we get from cows. They also poop a fair bit, and that poop has the potential to become fertilizer for plants underhoof. It’s pretty cool how it works – the cow eats the grass, runs the grass through the digestive wringer, poops it out, and, in the course of everyday life, steps on the poop so that it’s literally forced down into the soil to fertilize and promote even more grass growth. It’s the muck of nature, of death, and of life, and we’re all mixed up in it.
Pretty much every culture that came into contact with cattle, whether it was the ancestral wild aurochs standing almost seven feet tall at the shoulders or the large-humped, floppy-eared cattle of the Indian subcontinent, also recognized the importance, vitality, and (most importantly) potential of the animal. Judging from our earliest recorded visual art, our reverence for cattle dates back at least several dozen millennia. As you already know, the first graffiti artists weren’t throwing up aerosol paint on concrete jungle walls. They were ochre-wielding prey animal-obsessed cave painters. And their favorite subject seemed to be the auroch.
Okay, so? Art imitates life, or, more accurately, artists depict that which matters most to them. You don’t get out the easel, mix the paints, obsess over perspective, find the perfect lighting, agonize over getting started, and eventually pour your heart onto the page/canvas or through the lens if you don’t care deeply for what you’re trying to convey to the audience. That goes for starving art students foregoing a degree in finance or business for one in photography, and it goes for Paleolithic cave painters gathering enough ochre, manganese oxide, and charcoal to render massive depictions of stags, bison, horses, and aurochs on the wall. They don’t choose subjects randomly. Those famous cave painters didn’t just happen to paint hunting scenes populated by enormous (seventeen feet across, in some instances!) auroch bulls. Nope – the auroch likely got top billing because it was incredibly important to early man’s existence and survival. And it still is. These were the aurochs, the ancient ancestor of the modern cow, the “uri” that Caesar, in his “Commentaries” on the Gallic War, described as a beast whose size is “very little [less] than elephants” and which the Germanic tribes favored above all other animals. They actually survived, in wild form, until the 17th century in Europe and, throughout the latter part of their history, were given protected, almost exalted status (countries like Romania and Moldavia and various European cities even use the auroch as their official symbol). Poachers were prosecuted and usually executed.
Why does this matter to a bunch of evolutionary nutrition nerds, many of whom are atheist or agnostic with no ties to any deity – bovine or otherwise? Aren’t we supposed to pick and choose the good stuff from our past that makes sense today and discard the miscellanea?
Easy – while we shouldn’t play reenactment and subscribe to every single behavior or belief of Paleolithic man, we should be aware of their reasons for doing or believing things. We should understand why they believed or did what they did, because everything that happened on a wide scale probably impacts who we are today.
It’s normal to discount early spirituality, especially primitive or animistic incarnations, as products of irrational minds “that just didn’t know any better,” but consider the objects of their reverence before tossing them into the dust heap. Hunter-gatherers (past and present) and early pastoralists didn’t concern themselves with holy spirits and abstract heavenly fathers; they were all about the rain that sustained crops, the prey animals that provided meat and fat, and the plants that provided food and medicine. It may seem silly and quaint to see spirit or soul in simple vertebrates and aspects of the weather system, but the reasoning is quite sound. Early man wrought spiritual meaning from the things that provided tangible, material benefits. They respected the animals they hunted enough to paint massive murals on cave walls depicting them (or, as some contend, those paintings were instructional materials for prospective hunters). To my entirely unreligious mind, that kind of spirituality – the type that’s grounded in the things that truly do matter in a very materialistic world (food, shelter, water, life) – makes a lot of sense.
I think of Hinduism, which famously forbids the consumption of cow flesh while fully supporting consumption of its dairy. What’s interesting is that the earliest Hindu scriptures, the Vedic texts, depict the ritual sacrifice and consumption of beef in several instances. For example, in the “Mahabharata,” the king Rantideva (described as the “kindest and most liberal of the kings in ancient India,” so it’s not as if he’s some monster in the literature) slaughters two thousand head of cattle on a daily basis for food for his guests. If you’re interested in more evidence of early Hindu cow eating, check out the controversial “The Myth of the Holy Cow,” by D. N. Jha, or read a quick review. What happened is they realized the cow was a whole lot more useful and productive if they kept it alive for constant milk, ghee, and yogurt, and this is reflected in the later, more contemporary religious literature. Thus, the religious tradition arose out of necessity and out of economy. The cow’s dairy was more useful and sustainable than its meat.
So, what can we learn from this stuff, and what does it mean in the 21st century? To me this simply reinforces my belief in the utility and near necessity of humanely-raised meat. Notice that I did not say grass-fed and finished. While ideally I’d prefer every cow I eat to have only eaten its natural, grassy diet in order to maximize its nutritive status (CLA, vitamin K2, etc.), I understand that plenty of smaller, laudable operations might provide a bit of grain to their animals while still giving them a great overall life and minimizing pain and suffering. These are magnificent animals to whom we owe a lot. We’re not going to stop eating cows, since the depth of our connection with them is contingent upon their spot on our dinner plates, but we’ve got a lot of history with their species, and I think giving them the respect of their natural diet and environment – not because they have a soul or are imbued with spirit or anything – is worth supporting.
That’s my thinking on the subject. What do you think? Do you have reverence and respect for the food you eat? Where does it come from and how does it affect you? Share your thoughts in the comment board and Grok on!
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.