Setting the Record Straight

We love it that the Primal Blueprint is garnering more public attention. We love it that research supporting the PB is becoming more common, more visible, more talked about. And we love it that people are jumping in the game, reading studies, asking questions, configuring their own Primal practices (and in doing so remaking their health!). The inevitable by-product of all this exposure, however, is an occasional misunderstanding, the every-so-often confusion about the Primal approach and what it actually suggests. These misinterpretations often find their way into our inboxes (We truly do welcome all comments and questions!), or we catch wind of them through the health blogosphere network. The remarks go something like this.

While I believe whole foods and exercise are great, I really don’t believe that it makes any sense in modern society to try to emulate exactly what cavemen did. Cavemen evolved to live long enough to reproduce and make new cavekids – they didn’t live into their eighties or nineties, which is my goal. They didn’t have indoor plumbing, either, which I’m pretty darn attached to.

Or this…

My most immediate thought is this: Though the Paleo or Primal agenda is very much in vogue right now, and with some good merit and utility behind it, I struggle with it as a concept, inasmuch as the concept itself suggests that the last 100,000 years or so of advancement in intelligence, business, agriculture, science, and technology are all for naught.

Whoa, Nelly! Hold the phone. Can we call a time out here? We know, we know…. The “Primal” name. The comical remarks from time to time about “going caveman”…. And, yes, there’s Grok himself – our fictitious but beloved icon. We get it. The fact remains, however, that some people are REALLY missing the point on a few levels here. Once and for all, let’s set the record straight.

The Primal Blueprint doesn’t require cave dwelling…

First thing’s first. Despite the Grok logo, we’re not advocating running through the streets in skins with spears. (Although if you’re into that kind of thing, far be it from us to rain on your parade.) Grok, in all his hairy, disheveled glory provides a good illustration of the PB principle, but he’s admittedly for fun as much as demonstration. In the name of literalness we could lose Grok, but – truth be told – we’d miss the guy. (And the t-shirts would make zero sense.) We’re not about dressing up as cavepeople or living their exact lifestyles. You won’t find us beating drums or spending our weekends creating cave art (although that would be cool, wouldn’t it?). We’re all literate, showered (most of the time), and fully dressed (except Mark when he really gets into an Ultimate Frisbee game). We live in furnished houses, use toilets, drive cars, attend cultural events and occasionally take in a movie. We even use computers! (Did people miss that this is a blog? How primordial could our lifestyles really be?)

In other words, the Primal Blueprint doesn’t suggest that you live like a caveman/woman in every sense or forgo all modern conveniences, technology and medical treatment. Grok’s life was hard stuff. We’re no suckers for the naturalistic fallacy. We like our pillow top mattresses, thank you very much.

The Agricultural Revolution hasn’t revolutionized basic biochemistry…

What the Primal Blueprint DOES suggest is that we simply have some vital things to learn from our primal ancestors when it comes to health. Despite our Must-See T.V. and designer shades, we’re not all that different from Grok and company when you get down to the bones of it (or genetic code of it actually). As products of the same evolution – and same genetic lines – we’re cut from the same cloth. Grok’s people evolved in adaptation to the environment. Seeds, nuts, fruits, grasses, leaves and pastured meat were in. Cheetahs, yes. Cheetos, no. Our biology hasn’t changed all that much in the evolutionary blip of 10,000 years since the Agricultural Revolution. Sure, our societies have advanced, our cultures have blossomed, our technological invention has exploded, our fashion sense has improved. (We like these developments and won’t argue for a second that we don’t benefit from them.) But our basic biochemical responses pretty much work the same. Glucose, insulin, adrenaline, epinephrine, glycogen, etc. All still present and accounted for.

In other words, Grok had it right (by necessity) in the food department. Likewise, in the fitness department, he was also spot on (again, by basic evolutionary adaptation). However, in the “I just broke my leg” department, we moderns win it hands down. In the “It’s freezing rain, and some shelter and soup sure would be nice” scenario, again Grok’s got nothing on us.

Primeval actuary tables aren’t what they’re cracked up to be.

And speaking of shelter and injury, there’s ye olde misconception about life expectancy. Grok, to set the record straight, didn’t have the lifespan of a fruit fly or die as the salmon do the moment they do their part in procreation. Though the commonly known and repeated lifespan stat revolves around the 30s, the overall picture is much more complex and varied. First off, there’s the “science” behind those conjectures. According to many scientists, including Henry Oliver Lancaster’s seminal epidemiological study, Expectations of Life, modern assumptions about early humans’ brief lifespan are based on little hard evidence but the backward “extrapolation” from contemporary groups, who he says cannot and do not serve as accurate comparison models because of significant changes in population density, disease introduction and spread, etc. And then there’s the issue of how the deed happens. Grok and his forefathers didn’t succumb to diabetes-related complications or heart disease. As Lancaster and others in the relevant fields suggest, although the average life expectancy of early humans was about 33 years of age, they generally died as a result of trauma (accident or warfare), predator attacks, natural disasters, starvation/exposure to the elements, etc. Life in Grok’s day required healthfulness up until that day. People couldn’t live for years sick or debilitated. The tribe couldn’t logistically provide long-term care for someone who couldn’t pull his/her weight, and they didn’t have the tools to offer much assistance anyway. As a result, people generally died in the peak or near peak of health (if they made it beyond infancy). Their problem wasn’t their genes. Given modern medical care, relative freedom from attack and famine, and the generally easier lifestyle of our times, the average Grok could have lived much longer. A fortunate few did in their day.

Going Primal means emulating the best of caveman nutrition, exercise and stress relief in the comfort of your own millennium.

Here’s the take home message. The PB is ultimately about reconciling our primeval genes with modern circumstances. You can optimize health by choosing biologically appropriate food and activities within a 21st century context. And, mind you, it’s a continuum. For optimum fitness, you needn’t lift or hurl boulders like our ancestors. Crossfit workouts do quite nicely. You get the same bodyweight exercise with full range of motion. On the continuum, gym machines might not provide all the same full body benefits, but they’re a respectable substitute and obviously better than couch potato mode. Grass-fed meat is better than CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), but CAFO meat still provides better nutrition than a vegan diet. Rice is preferable to wheat, but the most biologically appropriate diet includes neither. Like we said, it’s a continuum based on evolutionary principles and the physiology we inherited. To our benefit, we have the luxury of knowing how our genes respond to certain things and the price we pay (long and short term) for coloring outside the primal lines.

Still have questions? Heard other misconceptions about the Primal approach? Send ‘em on, and share your thoughts.

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33 thoughts on “Setting the Record Straight”

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  1. Hi Mark

    Being both a fan of your blog and an actuary, I can’t resist commenting on your point that “primeval actuary tables aren’t what they’re cracked up to be”.

    The truth be told, actuaries have no clue about what life expectancies and spans of old were. To our defense we have never claimed to know either. The numbers you see touted around usually are almost certainly sucked from one thumb or another.

    It is hard enough coming up with reliable numbers for today’s world. Anyone whom has ever been involved in the mathematics can attest to that. Producing numbers for cavemen is simply impossible.

    Your overall message here, nonetheless is a good one: 15000 years ago you would have to be really lucky to find something that could spike your insulin. Today you have to be really lucky to find a meal that doesn’t !!

    1. Jordi, We’re in agreement! We used the phrase actuary tables rather sardonically here. Just as you said, it’s impossible to know how long these folks all lived. Nonetheless, you get all kinds of people out there who take loose conjecture and call it fact. Thanks for your comments and insight.

      1. They have found Neanderthal caves with bones in europe, saw it on discovery channel.
        The age was estimated in the late 30’s early 40’s…and the man died of injuries.
        The skeleton has had several broken bones, most of which were healed before the caveman died.
        The body type and bone injuries were similar to those of modern rodeo riders.
        They figured Grok must’ve had quite a fight to bring down the beast for dinner.

        They’ve also found a Hugenotten female in europe, she was estimated age of 86 and after they tested the bones in the lab, she had NO sign of osteoporosis, was still tall and a pure carnivore.

        Grok / Grokette did not die at age 30 of a natural cause.
        People who believe this are idgits.

  2. Hi Mark, I wish I had started practicing primal blue print , years ago. It is so full of common sense!

  3. I agree, the primal lifestyle is about making the best of both worlds. In some cases, primal life was unpleasant and dangerous, and in other cases, modern life poses unique risks as well. By combining the foundations of healthy living with the conveniences of modern technology in a non conflicting way, we’re truly privileged to have the opportunity to live better than ever.

    It does seem like some people latch on to the “primal” or “paleo” theme a little too excessively which makes it easy for people to resist with silly arguments. These people fail to understand that primal principles are just part of a healthy lifestyle rather than the whole. It’s really not about emulating a caveman, it’s about being healthy and getting more out of life!

    In regard to lifespan, another thing that should be considered is that the modern medical system significantly reduces infant mortality which has a big effect on the numbers.

  4. Early man lived far longerthan expected with adequate nutrition. RamsesII governed Egypt for 67 years, well into his 80s. Genghis Khan died falling off his horse in his mid 60’s. He was on his way to conquer China. We have no idea what lifespans were like but Biblical references suggest 120 years was attainable for Moses and others. Joshua lived to 110. Others lived longer. Short lives were due to disease, accident, or famine and climate changes. These climate changes destroyed most human life around 70,000 years ago and the few survivors came out of Africa to repopulate the Earth and were all descendants of ONE man. So we have similar genetics and genes are no excuse to suggest our dietary needs are different.

    1. I suggest you read the story about Ida…the 47 million year old ‘monkey’.

      They found her in europe just recently. She was about 3.5 feet tall, walked up right and had the bones of the feet like humans, also the hip bone was already tilted to walk straight. BUT, she still had a tail.
      They found berries in her belly.

      They now right off the entire THEORY that man came from africa and populated the globe. This is all false…

      Why does only Australia have Kangaroos? They found pre-historic Kangaroo bones in Australia…but on no other continent did they make such a find.
      Why would man kind travel and ALL animals didn’t?
      Why would we evolve and apes/monkeys didn’t?

      Don’t believe the out of africa theory…it’s another big fat lie.

      I hope the link works.
      Ida was found in central germany. This article lies about it’s age though..on discovery channel it was said to be 16 years old and 3-4 foot tall and there was an old injury on its hand. Also the fur was of light color and said she was of ‘white’ skin.

      Ida is Grok’s ancestor.

  5. We still have predators… they’re just in the grocery store aisle!!

  6. Laypeople (i.e., statistically untrained) and media alike often don’t understand how to interpret statistics. Average lifespan gives you just that, the average (usually Mean, sometimes Median). This in itself is almost meaningless. You really need to know some measure of variation as well, such as Standard Deviation. And the Range would be helpful, too, as it tells you how long lifespans CAN be if that leopard doesn’t get ya.

    For example, just because families have a Mean of 2.5 kids doesn’t mean there are a whole bunch of half-children walking around!

    Likewise, a mean of 33 years of age at death could be generated by all kinds of mixtures of actual ages at death.

    Open Excel and type in the following 10 numbers: 1, 1, 1, 5, 8, 16, 29, 38, 64, 80. Let’s say these are 10 representative ages at death from a population. The mean is 24.3. You can say the mean age at death of the population from which this sample was drawn is 24.3, but that tells you almost nothing about the range and distribution of those ages. Three people died by their first birthday, another two in early childhood, one in his/her teens, another just shy of their thirties, another approaching 40 years old, one in their mid sixties, and one lived until the ripe old age of 80! So the next time someone throws the number 30 at you as the estimated average age of death during caveman times–rather than arguing that this number isn’t very valid (which it probably isn’t)–it’s more relevant to argue that this number has literally hundreds or thousands of interpretations and thus is meaningless. It conveys just about zero information. Period!

  7. One of my favorites is when people pull the “fiber” card – “if you don’t eat high-fiber grains, don’t you get constipated! you can’t possibly be healthy with out all the (overly processed, chemical ridden, too high amounts of) fiber in grains!” (ok ok i might have added in the part in the parenthesize).

  8. One attribute that continually comes up when talking about the PB is “fun.” Is it not “fun” to live this way? Living the PB lifestyle means we eat food we enjoy, and that tastes great. We go outdoors and “play” like we did as kids! We try to enjoy life to the fullest (yes we still act like responsible adults but we generally enjoy life!). Some non-PB folks may think that our way of eating (living,etc) is “weird” or “different” and that is just fine by me. After all, I can honestly say I am happier and have more fun everyday that most people I encounter. Grok on!

  9. Good post.

    In my experience, usually people who do not want to change their diet/lifestyle willfully latch on to the “paleo” aspect and blow it up to absurd extremes (“Cavemen couldn’t read; should everyone be illiterate?”). It’s a way to dismiss a theory that, if true, would suggest eliminating their beloved pasta and toast. I’m happy that, instead of wasting my time trying to explain common sense, I can now simply direct them to this post. Thanks!

  10. Well, I do get a little “uncivilized” around mealtime occasionally. So much of this food is so yummy I end up eating it with my fingers straight from the pan…

  11. I’m now helping a few people change their eating and exercise. One thing i always say when explaining P.B. is that this way of eating is so healthy, it’s also great for their mood because what you eat does affect how you feel. That gets their attention!

  12. Quality post.

    Not to sound overly romanticized – but I think there is also a certain amount of “connected-ness” to it as well. ‘Living Primal’ follows in the rich history of human activity that allowed us to stand up on our 2 feet (no pun intended), and finally become who we are today. I think that there is some pride and timelessness in that. Eating Cheetos on the couch while watching Survivor – not so much.

    Just adds to the appeal if you ask me.

  13. Even though studies interest me, if I waited for a consensus on diet from scientists I would have died long ago. Sure discussion is a lovely way to pass the time but I didn’t have THAT much time since I’m 60 years old.

    I have tried almost every diet imaginable, high fiber, low meat, non-processed, low fat and all versions of low carb and paleo. I wasn’t afraid to try all of them but it was necessary due to the many health issues I had that I won’t bore you with here. Some diets made me weak, some gave me so much pain I thought I would be wheelchair bound within a year, some made me extremely depressed and angry. Once I started eating foods man ate before agriculture that’s when I really started regaining my health. Don’t take my word for it, try it Mark’s way.

    To make a long story short…don’t wait for studies and proof. This is your health we are talking about.

  14. Amen. People need to not jump to conclusions. They need to engage in enquiry and ask questions.

    “Primal” refers, unless I have misunderstood you some, to a theory/idea of health and nutrition. “Primal” is a consequence of following science and reason.

    “Primal” does not refer to a philosophy of irrationality and of hate for technology and science, with a consequential giving up on modern conveniences, foods, medicine, science, culture, and society.

    Some aren’t confused about that, though, Mark. I am aware that you blog, use the Internet (to search for science articles about nutrition, for one thing), use computers, have electricity, make the money to pay for it all…

    Some people have the whole entire context of “primal” wrong. It is not a fundamental, philosophic outlook on all life, it does not (nor does it presume to) answer questions like: what is good? what is the ideal society? what is art? what is the ideal man? how do we know?

    It is an outlook on one aspect of life, on one limited area of life: health and nutrition.

    Enjoy the blog!

  15. Wow – what an absolutely fantastic post! Mark, I can’t wait to read your book and learn more.

  16. I love what you’re doing, and since I switched from running every day to the primal philosophy, I’ve never felt better! Thanks for insights.

    My only remaining question and challenge is this: some of longest living people on our planet eat whole grains consistently. I get the GI index dangers, but because of the preponderance of people who eat whole grains and live long lives. Dare I say this on your excellent web-site: I feel better when I have a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast!! Can anyone help me out here?

  17. Mark –
    I love your blog, and I have to get your book. It is all so spot on, and your writing is extremely entertaining as well.
    Anyway, I did a little study a few months back on my wife’s family, the Slocum’s(, who have birth and death records going from 1630 – 1880. I did an analysis of about 600 people (both Slocums and their spouses) and found that if you made it to 16, your average age of death was in the mid-60’s and the decade you were most likely to die in was your 70’s. Many people made it to their 80’s, a few into their 90’s, and no centenarians (though 2 made it to 99). The myth that you hit middle age at 12 is just that – a myth – and it’s made it seem like our wonderful culture of processed foods has been of trememndous service to us. Certainly, the tremendous drop in child/infant mortality has been stupendous (my own son would have been a statistic), but if more people knew how healthy we were in our later years, our current view towards health and medicine would change dramatically.
    Keep shouting the truth –

  18. I am a big fan of the Primal living and think you’re doing a great service to the community by hosting this freely accessible site. I can see the primal way of living to intercept the more environmentally friendly lifestyles, as really, what’s polluting the earth is polluting us. This aside, I noticed you mentioned the “we still bathe” part in your post. Bathing is a beneficial part of the lives we live today, as even or ancestry regularly had a dip in some water (it appears so judging by some of the constituents and varieties of sebaceous glands). The addition of chemicals however, is hardly primal, and is hardly the best we can do in our modern society. I’ve done a bit of research, and the amount of known health-degrading chemicals in everyday cosmetics is quite worrisome. It also seems absurd to apply all these harmful chemicals everyday to our skin whilst we attempt to minimise them in our food. You’ve done the write-up about plastics and harmful chemicals; maybe you should extend the primal living plan to excluding the other many toxins we absorb unnecessarily (really they are required by the marketing executives, not the human body). I have been doing a little experiment by not using soaps and detergents when I shower, and not using toothpaste when I brush my teeth and have been quite pleased with my body’s ability to take care of itself. Not using shampoo has made the biggest impact as my hair seems so dam healthy with volume and shine! My acne has also cleared up dramatically. Give “SLS” a whizz in Google and you’ll quickly see what I mean, and its just one chemical among others. I also clean my bathrooms with the Enjo cleaning glove and it does a great job, without exposing me to the chemicals and fumes from the over-kill cleaning products.
    What do you think about extending the recommendations? The cosmetics really undermine everything the P.B is trying to accomplish. This is one case where the conventional wisdom is so obviously affected by companies striving to sell their product (what did people do before herbal essence!?!).

    1. Good to see I’m not the only “caveman” who has also foregone some of these modern hygienic conveniences. XD Unfortunately, I can’t give up certain products entirely – my BO is way too strong for that – but I’ve exchanged many of my “necessary” products for baking soda and it’s been working marvelously.

      My only complaint is with my baking-soda deodorant – I have to be careful with it in order to avoid a nasty rash.

  19. Ah yes, the BO. I’m an 18 year old male, so I know about the BO. I’m quite keen to start some intermittant fasting, as this has effects on the endocrine system, which also has large effects on BO. I find though if I can relax, I don’t smell anywhere near as much. Society’s whole attitude towards smelling someone is ridiculous, how can you expect someone to forgo a normal physiological function? Pungent body odor in confined spaces however may be a little inconsiderate, but this is probably due to other lifestyle areas that are messing up the system. Also Mark, have you thought of getting in touch with some research facilities? You have a whole bunch of willing participants for experimental study, and scientists are having a hard time getting any humans to do intermittant fasting among other primal things.

  20. @Vin: unfortunately that research is talking about the “molecular clock”, which only measures the time two lineages have been distinct from one another as a function of (mainly neutral) random mutations. Functional, adaptive change can happen in much less time than that, with a change in DNA much less than 0.001% of the total base pairs. It only takes copying, deleting, or altering a very short section of our DNA “instruction manual” to make significant changes in our physiology. The fact that these functional changes (whether adaptive or deleterious) are swamped numerically by the neutral ones (which is what makes the molecular clock such a good indicator of time spans) doesn’t mean they are not important, or can’t have long-reaching effects on our biology.

    Take, for example, the human amylase gene. Amylase is the enzyme (secreted in the saliva) used to break down starches into simple sugars for absorption. The number of copies of the gene determines how much amylase is produced, and therefore how quickly starches are broken down and absorbed in the digestive tract. Peoples whose traditional diets are high in starch (e.g. the Irish) have higher numbers of amylase gene copies than people with different traditional dietary compositions (e.g. Inuits). This is evolution affecting our physiology meaningfully in just a few centuries or millennia, with just a small change in DNA.

    That said, I think most of the adaptations we have made since agriculture have not changed so much our basic needs, but rather how good we are at squeaking by on a diet grossly deficient in variety and nutrition, and overloaded with poisons. I certainly don’t disagree with Mark’s guidelines (and they jive very well with Michael Pollan who I also respect highly), and I think we’d all be healthier living by them. Sort of in the same way that someone could evolve a resistance to Herpes that reduced the symptoms, but it would still be clearly preferable to avoid getting infected altogether! But I do think the power of natural selection to act on short time scales is sometimes underestimated.

    Mark: just found your site a couple of days ago and have been wolfing the information down, especially the “Definitive Guides”. Tons of great stuff, and I’m jumping in headfirst to the Primal diet since my last visit to the grocery store. I’ve always known that I feel better when I eat more plants and whole foods and less processed junk, but this was the kick in the pants I needed to really get on it. I’m about 20-30 pounds overweight, always been chubby (though otherwise in good health, probably mostly thanks to only being 22 years old), and hoping to change that right quick. Thanks for putting this information out there.