Nasty,Brutish, and Short?
by Sally Fallon
Author of Nourishing Traditions
Part one of a three part article (part2)
In order to believe that our society has "progressed,"
we must believe first that the lives of our ancestors were indeed
nasty, brutish and short. But, as study after study has confirmed,
the health of traditional peoples was vastly superior to that
of modern industrial man.
Modern technology—father of the combine harvester, the
automobile, the flush toilet and the fully electric house—does
not bestow his blessings without a price. These twentieth century
tools that have conferred freedom of movement and comfort, and
freedom from drudgery and dirt, leave dark trailings of pollution,
congestion and alienation. This much is apparent. The wise use
of technology has exercised the minds of thinkers and writers
for a fair number of decades. Less obvious is the connection
between modern technology and health. Conventional wisdom asserts
that our current health crisis—in which one in three people
in the Western world develops cancer and almost half suffer
from heart disease—will be solved by more technology,
not less, and that disease, like drudgery and dirt, will give
way to a combination of innovation and funding.
My colleague, Dr. Tom Cowan, likes to tell the story of a typical
patient who comes in for a checkup. "It's just a precaution,"
says the patient, "I'm actually very healthy." Yes,
he had his tonsils removed when he was a youngster; he had his
wisdom teeth taken out and his teeth straightened with braces;
he has a mouth full of fillings and several root canals; he
had a hernia operation a few years ago and his back bothers
him sometimes. True, he often feels under stress, even depressed,
and wishes he had more energy, but he passes these off as normal
conditions, just what one would expect in the course of an average
A family history reveals a sister who died at the age of 40
from breast cancer and a father who is senile with Alzheimers
living in a nursing home. Both his children were born by Cesarean
section. They needed extensive (and expensive) orthodontics.
His daughter suffers from allergies and his son attends a special
school for the hyperactive and learning disabled.
What allows Dr. Cowan's typical patient to claim that he is
healthy is, indeed, the same technology that gave us the vacuum
cleaner and the computer. Without the modern inventions used
to shore up his teeth, safely remove his tonsils, repair his
hernia and help his wife give birth, our typical patient would
be a toothless, childless cripple—or dead before adulthood.
But the technology that allows him to fly to California in five
hours and illumine his living room with the flick of a switch
was not able to save his sister from cancer nor his father from
Alzheimers. The solutions proffered for his depression and fatigue,
his daughter's allergies and his son's difficulties in school
are palliative at best, and dangerous at worst.
Modern technology allows the appearance of health but not the
substance. The age of solutions has a health crisis it cannot
solve. Although heart disease and cancer were rare at the turn
of the century, today these two diseases strike with increasing
frequency, in spite of billions of dollars in research to combat
them, and in spite of tremendous advances in diagnostic and
surgical techniques. In America, one person in three suffers
from allergies, one in ten will have ulcers and one in five
is mentally ill.
Every year, one quarter of a million infants are born with
a birth defect, who then undergo expensive heroic surgery, or
are hidden away in institutions. Other degenerative diseases—arthritis,
multiple sclerosis, digestive disorders, diabetes, osteoporosis,
Alzheimers's, epilepsy and chronic fatigue—afflict a significant
majority of our citizens. Learning disabilities such as dyslexia
and hyperactivity make life miserable for seven million young
people—not to mention their parents.
These diseases were extremely rare only a generation or two
ago. Today, chronic illness afflicts nearly half of all Americans
and causes three out of four deaths in the United States. Most
tragically, these diseases, formerly the purview of the very
old, now strike our children and those in the prime of life.
We have almost forgotten that our natural state is one of balance,
wholeness and vitality.
It seems as if the twentieth century will exit with a crescendo
of disease. Things were not so bad back in the 1930's, but the
situation was already serious enough to cause one Cleveland,
Ohio dentist to be concerned. Dr. Weston Price was reluctant
to accept the conditions exhibited by his patients as normal.
Rarely did an examination of an adult patient reveal anything
but rampant decay, often accompanied by serious problems elsewhere
in the body, such as arthritis, osteoporosis, diabetes, intestinal
complaints and chronic fatigue. (They called it neurasthenia
in Price's day.)
But it was the dentition of younger patients that alarmed him
most. Price observed that crowded, crooked teeth were becoming
more and more common, along with what he called "facial
deformities"—overbites, narrowed faces, underdevelopment
of the nose, lack of well-defined cheekbones and pinched nostrils.
Such children invariably suffered from one or more complaints
that sound all too familiar to mothers of the 1990's: frequent
infections, allergies, anemia, asthma, poor vision, lack of
coordination, fatigue and behavioral problems. Price did not
believe that such "physical degeneration" was God's
plan for mankind. He was rather inclined to believe that the
Creator intended physical perfection for all human beings, and
that children should grow up free of ailments.
He had heard utopian stories about the good health of primitive
cultures and resolved to find out if the "backward"
societies that American was intent on evangelizing and colonizing
were indeed healthier than his own. For the next ten years,
he traveled to various isolated parts of the earth, where the
inhabitants had no contact with "civilization," in
order to study their health and physical development. His investigations
took him to isolated Swiss villages and a windswept island off
the coast of Scotland. He studied traditional Eskimos, Indian
tribes in Canada and the Florida Everglades, Southsea islanders,
Aborigines in Australia, Maoris in New Zealand, Peruvian and
Amazonian Indians and tribesmen in Africa.
Once Price had gained the confidence of the tribal or village
elders, he did what came naturally to him—he counted cavities.
Imagine his surprise at finding groups of people in whom less
than 1% of the permanent teeth were decayed. He found 14 isolated
groups in all where tooth decay was rare to nonexistent, in
people who had never seen a dentist and never brushed their
teeth. Freedom from caries always went hand in hand with freedom
from disease, both chronic disease like cancer and heart disease,
and infectious disease like tuberculosis, which in Price's day
afflicted much of the world in epidemic proportions.
These studies occurred at a time when there still existed remote
pockets of humanity untouched by modern inventions; but when
one modern invention, the camera, allowed Price to make a permanent
record of the people he studied. The photographs Price took,
the descriptions of what he found and his startling conclusions
are preserved in a book considered a masterpiece by many nutrition
researchers who followed in Price's footsteps: Nutrition and
Physical Degeneration.1 Yet this compendium of ancestral wisdom
is all but unknown to today's parents and the medical community.
Nutrition and Physical Degeneration is the kind of book that
changes the way people view the world, because it describes
not only societies in which excellent health was the norm, but
also because it shows us how healthy people look. Healthy people
have faces that are broad, well-formed and noble. Their teeth
fill the smile with a band of dazzling whiteness, as even and
perfect as. . . false teeth. Price took photograph after photograph
of beautiful smiles, and noted that "healthy primitives"
were invariably cheerful and optimistic. Such people were characterized
by "splendid physical development." The women gave
birth with ease. Their babies rarely cried and their children
were energetic and hearty. Many others have reported a virtual
absence of degenerative disease, particularly cancer, in isolated,
so-called "primitive" groups.2
Price observed a number of societies in transition where stores
or outposts had been established and native foods were replaced
by the products of western civilization—sugar, white flour,
condensed milk, canned foods, chocolate, jams and pastries—what
Price called the "displacing foods of modern commerce."
His photographs capture the suffering caused by these foodstuffs—chiefly
rampant tooth decay. Even more startling, they show the change
in facial development that occurred with modernization.
Parents who had changed their diets gave birth to children
who no longer exhibited the tribal patterns. Their faces were
more narrow, their teeth crowded, their nostrils pinched. These
faces do not beam with optimism, like those of their healthy
ancestors. The photographs of Dr. Weston Price demonstrate with
great clarity that the "displacing foods of modern commerce"
do not provide sufficient nutrients to allow the body to reach
its full genetic potential—neither the complete development
of the bones in the body and the head, nor the fullest expression
of the various systems that allow humankind to function at optimal
levels—immune system, nervous system, digestion and reproduction.
The diets of the healthy "primitives" Price studied
were all very different: In the Swiss village where Price began
his investigations, the inhabitants lived on rich dairy products—unpasteurized
milk, butter, cream and cheese—dense rye bread, meat occasionally,
bone broth soups and the few vegetables they could cultivate
during the short summer months. The children's teeth were covered
in green slime but Price found only about one percent decay.
The children went barefoot in frigid streams during weather
that forced Dr. Price and his wife to wear heavy wool coats;
nevertheless childhood illnesses were virtually nonexistent
and there had never been a single case of TB in the village.
Hearty Gallic fishermen living off the coast of Scotland consumed
no dairy products. Fish formed the mainstay of the diet, along
with oats made into porridge and oatcakes. Fishheads stuffed
with oats and chopped fish liver was a traditional dish, and
one considered very important for growing children. The Eskimo
diet, composed largely of fish, fish roe and marine animals,
including seal oil and blubber, allowed Eskimo mothers to produce
one sturdy baby after another without suffering any health problems
or tooth decay.
Well-muscled hunter-gatherers in Canada, the Everglades, the
Amazon, Australia and Africa consumed game animals, particularly
the parts that civilized folk tend to avoid—organ meats,
blood, marrow and glands, particularly the adrenal glands—and
a variety of grains, tubers, vegetables and fruits that were
available. African cattle-keeping tribes like the Masai consumed
no plant foods at all—just meat, blood and milk. Southsea
islanders and the Maori of New Zealand ate seafood of every
sort—fish, shark, octopus, shellfish, sea worms—along
with pork meat and fat, and a variety of plant foods including
coconut, manioc and fruit. Whenever these isolated peoples could
obtain sea foods they did so—even Indian tribes living
high in the Andes.
Insects were another common food, in all regions except the
Arctic. The foods that allow people of every race and every
climate to be healthy are whole natural foods—meat with
its fat, organ meats, whole milk products, fish, insects, whole
grains, tubers, vegetables and fruit—not newfangled concoctions
made with white sugar, refined flour and rancid and chemically
altered vegetable oils.
Modern nutrition researchers are showing renewed interest in
the foodways of our ancestors, but myths about primitive diets
abound. The first is easily dismissed—that traditional
diets were largely vegetarian. Anthropological data confirm
what Price found, namely that throughout the globe, all societies
show a preference for animal foods and fats.3 Modern scientific
literature does not support the claims made for vegetarian diets.4
by Sally Fallon
Author of Nourishing Traditions