Chapter 5 Our Ancestors: The Early Farmers

Some of our ancestors didn’t live where there was big game, nor was it always necessary for some of them to be nomadic.  These folks settled in valleys rich with vegetation. Why go through all the risks and travails of the hunt when berries were plentiful in the spring, fruits in the summer and fall, and roots and nuts in the fall and through the winter? All of this was within arm’s reach or a short stroll. There was no need for a scary and dangerous hunt.  They could settle into permanent communities.  They seemed to have an easier life.  Yet, there was still some food insecurity.   Relying on vegetation meant relying on the weather and the local climate. So preparations had to be made to ensure food was available in lean times. Stores of nuts and grains could survive the winter, though it could get rather monotonous eating the same things day after day, waiting for spring with its fruits and berries.

 Our gatherer ancestors ate a mixed diet of carbohydrates from fruit, roots, and finally grains with fat from nuts and fatty fruits like avocados. Over time they had more protein from legumes such as lentils and beans.  Small game was still quite available for protein in most regions of the world.  Early experimentation allowed them to preserve the milk from their domesticated goats into cheeses that could be used during the winter months

People in the Middle East began storing grains that could be used for food. There were wild animals that could be domesticated, such as goats, donkeys, and cattle. They were also able to store calories in the form of seeds, some of which they ate, but they also used them to create crops, thereby creating the Agricultural Revolution. Thus the early farmer ancestor was born. 

 Agricultural practices moved from the Fertile Crescent through Asia and also through Europe. Eventually, as people migrated to the Americas, where there weren’t animals that could be domesticated or grass seeds large enough for agriculture, foods like maze, edible gourds, and beans became staples.

Their biology allowed them to use the readily available carbohydrates for the hard physical work of tilling and tending their crops.  In many areas, there was always the winter months to deal with, so it took a lot of work to dry and store food.  The entire family was involved in the process of agriculture.  Children joined their parents as soon as they were able.  Just think of taking raw land that has never been tilled.  They had no tractors, no machines, and few tools.  They had to prepare the garden or fields by clearing the trees and the rocks.  Then they opened the sod and prepared the ground for seed.  Everything would depend on having enough rain or available water that could be carried to the plot.  No one worried about obesity among these hard working people.  But it was the ones that could store some of the carbohydrate as fat that lived during hard times.  There was a harsh selection process in the world during those times.  Convert carbohydrate into fat or die.  This genetic selection promoted survival.  As you will learn later in this book, it was the function of insulin that made this storage of fat possible. 

With the development of the Agricultural Revolution came a further societal change.  Among our hunter-gatherer ancestors, there had always been leaders and an “upper class”, but everyone worked equally hard physically to keep the community or tribe alive. 

In the new agricultural era, everyone was not needed to do physical work.  The rulers didn’t have to spend all their time working in the fields. They had spare time, allowing cultures to develop that created art, religion, music, writing, and stories. People could even live in cities. Leisure became a way of life for a privileged few while the slaves and servants worked hard to maintain this upper class.

 This was the first shock to the basic survival biology that had preserved humankind for thousands of years. This ruling class had the “survival biology” but since they were not working physically, they began to become “corpulent”.  The Ebers Papyrus is thought to be the oldest “medical book” coming from about 1552 BC.  Here is the translation of a medical opinion given at that time.  “…if a man suffers stomach ailments, all his limbs are heavy, and his stomach goes and comes like waves under the fingers, then over eating may be the cause”.  There is evidence from the Egyptian mummies that the Pharaohs were often obese even though their art depicted them as muscular and thin.  It is thought that they used their healthy thinner slaves as models for displaying what they “wanted to look like”.  Some have called the Agricultural Revolution one of humankind’s worst inventions. 

Up until now, it was only the ruling class that struggled with obesity. Then enter the Industrial Revolution.  It led to almost all of us living like the “ruling class” that did not need to physically work to survive.  Machines began to do the physical work that once was done by people.  We became caught in a dilemma because we “store” carbohydrate calories as fat like our hunter- gatherer and early farmer ancestors did, but we do not “burn” carbohydrate calories like they did.