This essay was submitted by Alisa Singer
What this old thing? It’s a million years old.
If you pride yourself on your late model car or your trendy clothes, you’ll be surprised to learn that you’re walking around in a body designed over a million years ago. This is around the time the Homo Erectus model was first introduced; the Neanderthal version came out around 100,000 years ago and the very latest (but only slightly modified) body style, Homo Sapiens (ironically named “modern man”) was released by the manufacturer approximately 40,000 years ago. Almost no aspect of civilization since then, including the development of agriculture (around 10,000 years ago), the industrial revolution (a few hundred years ago), and the first McDonald’s (around 60 years ago), has even made a dent in our genetic design. You see this evolution business is rather slow going, requiring tens of thousands of generations for any observable mutation to occur. Extrapolating on the basis of the time span comprising a generation, fruit flies (with a generation of only 9 days) evolve around 852 times more quickly than humans. (Makes one wonder why they aren’t the master species in the white lab coats peering at tiny humans stuffed into test tubes or copulating in petry dishes.)
Anyway, the point is your body thinks it’s still back in the Pleistocene epoch, and if you think you have a hard time getting psyched for work every morning, imagine your body’s surprise and disappointment to find itself planted in front of a computer 8 hours a day instead of romping through the jungle chasing (or being chased by) saber-toothed tigers. (This dismay and confusion is sometimes expressed in the form of Type 2 diabetes and coronary artery disease.)
Now we’re told that approximately 133% of our country’s population is obese, and an even greater percentage is just plain overweight. In contrast, Google up the phrase “prehistoric man and South Beach diet” and you’ll find no direct hits – zilch. This research methodology has led scientists to conclude that obesity was not present among our prehistoric ancestors. This makes sense given the dramatic differences in our lifestyles, particularly related to diet and exercise. Think about it – we struggle against super-sizing; they struggled against famine. We exercise to get rid of excess food; they exercised to get enough food and to avoid becoming food (and, I might add, burned a lot of calories in the process).
With regard to that pursuit of food, it appears that before we became hunters and gatherers we were that less enterprising predator – the scavenger. Now that doesn’t sound like a terribly demanding workout – wandering listlessly through alleys sifting through trash. Many of us forage through the contents of our fridges at 2:00 a.m. without breaking a sweat. But as we evolved into hunters and gatherers our exercise routines were definitely kicked up a notch or two.
Hunting, as practiced by cavemen, could be quite demanding. It involved setting one’s alarm for an ungodly hour and taking long walks through the forest on unpaved roads in bare feet. Also they tended to throw heavy stones and long sharp spears (think shotput and javelins). And then there was the intensely aerobic aspect of the activity which occurred when it turned out the large (but surprisingly agile for his 6 tons) Mastodon had become highly irritated by the barrage of stones and spears, instead of highly dead.
Now gathering is something I haven’t done much of but I feel like this activity involves a lot of bending over, crouching and almost certainly squatting. Picture it – squat for a berry, get up, squat for a nut, get up….repeat a thousand times a day. (That’s a lot of reps.) In contrast, today’s equivalent of exerting oneself for a meal means opting for carryout instead of delivery, or bothering to put the leftovers in the microwave instead of eating them cold.
In terms of dietary differences, what we know about the eating habits of our ice age ancestor is that he favored raw meat but wasn’t very picky, i.e., an “opportunistic carnivore”, willing to dine on insects if convenient. He also enjoyed leafy plants, vegetables, fruits, nuts, roots, and apparently derived his carbs from “tubers”. (In case you don’t know what these are, Wikipedia defines these as “plant underground storage organs”. Hope that clears things up for you.) Other items on the menu were birds’ eggs, the tissues, brains, kidneys and livers of mammals, rodents and, I’m sorry to say, carrion. It’s also possible our distant relative indulged in the occasional “neighborly” meal, though the issue of cannibalism among our forefathers is subject to debate.
Nothing in the fossils indicates that the trim figures of these early humans was the result of iron wills or super self-control. What they lacked, however, was gastronomical temptations of the kind we face today. Thus it’s hard to imagine this conversation between Wilma and Betty: “I just hate myself – last night I polished off a ton of roots and tubers, and after that I binged on a half-carcass of Giant Wildebeest.” One wonders what would have become of our species if Pliocene man had been exposed to such mouth-watering delectables as double bacon cheeseburgers, deep dish stuffed pizza and caramel pecan Cinnabons. Would he have steadfastly resisted, preferring termites and plant underground storage organs, or become a pizzavore like the rest of us? My money’s on succumbing – after all he was only (mostly) human. And what would have happened next? (I mean after he erased all those pictures of bison on his cave walls and replaced them with triple whoppers and DQ Oreo blizzards.)
Well, one possibility, certainly, is that our species would have become extinct long before the invention of Weight Watchers. But there is also the undeniable chance we could have adapted, and done so in a magnificent way. Over the course of tens of thousands of generations we might have developed a super metabolism, capable of burning 20,000 plus calories a day. Our doctors would be prescribing fettucine alfredo, hot fudge sundaes, and pills to increase our cholesterol; scurvy would be defined as the lack of sufficient butter and whipped cream in the diet.
Think how much further along the evolutionary path we’d be if Homo Erectus had the foresight 500,000 years ago to invent cheese fries and polish sausage instead of fire. Perhaps not what Darwin had in mind when he coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” but, oh, so much better.
In a way it’s rather too bad we aren’t fruit flies. You hardly ever see a fat fruit fly.
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OPTIONAL DIET AND EXERCISE PLAN
You, too, can be as svelte as a Neanderthal. Here’s a diet and exercise routine based on the habits of our cave-dwelling ancestors:
Breakfast – eggs of extinct birds, scrambled; fruits and berries
Lunch – flesh of Giant Ground Sloth; termites; side of carrion. (Tip: for flavorful leftovers mash up extra meat with a large stone and sprinkle with assorted insects)
Snack – small fried rodent; nuts and sedge grass
Dinner – leafy plant salad; brains of Woolly Rhino; roots; kidneys of cave dweller living next door (if he happens to be slower than you)
Complementary workout – vigorously chase your pet around the living room hurling small stones and sticks; throw a hundred or so pennies on the floor and squat to pick up each coin individually
Alisa Singer is a writer, humorist, artist, and baby boomer.