By Shawn Perich
A writer recently proclaimed in the New York Times that the paleo diet ceased being a trend in 2013. And, if you read it in the Times, you know that must it must be true.
In case you’ve been living in a cave since 2012, the paleo diet hearkens back–way back–to that wonderful era when wearing fur was functionally fashionable and everyone ate whatever they could club, throttle, impale or grub from the ground. Today you can make like a cave man in Manhattan or Minneapolis by eating lots of meat and fish, while avoiding cereal grains and processed foods. I’m not sure how today’s paleo dieters feel about carrion, insects and any number of raw and wiggly things that undoubtedly were included on the original paleo menu. Call them cave man comfort food.
In a nation fueled with sugar donuts and Chinese takeout, eating like a cave man is a bold and healthy alternative. Doing so has inspired a surprising number of people to learn how to hunt and forage for their food. In addition to eating well, those folks are making that all-important connection to the natural world. Regardless if foraging becomes a matter of course or they return to the grocery store, they will almost certainly retain their new-found respect for Nature and the people who choose–through hunting–to interact with the natural world.
Some hunters may look condescendingly upon these newcomers, believing that, as hunters, they were paleo long before it was cool. But is that really true? Page through an outdoor catalog and you may conclude that today’s hunters and anglers have come along way from their ancestral hunting and gathering roots. For many, bringing home something to eat is no longer part of the experience. They release the fish they catch, often with religous fervor. And they pursue big game for trophy antlers, rather than a winter supply of meat.
Another big difference between today’s hunters and anglers and their paleo forbearers is the enjoyment of recreation is more important than the results. A paleo hunter wouldn’t spend days or weeks in the woods, passing up opportunities to kill perfectly edible deer, while waiting for a chance to kill a trophy buck. It is unlikely our ancestors would understand what motivates a musky angler to pursue the fish of 10,000 casts and then let it go when they eventually catch one. Heck, I’m not sure I understand musky fishing. Our ancestors sought the maximum results for the minimum of effort. Why try to kill a trophy bison when you and the other hunters in your clan could chase an entire herd off a cliff?
Since they are primarily motivated to procure food, today’s hunters and foragers may be a little closer to our paleo roots. The big difference, of course, is that they don’t need to kill game in order to survive. However, beginners generally get started with just the bare essentials. They’ll head afield wearing an old coat instead of a specialized camo wardrobe. And they’ll go fishing with an old rod they bought at a garage sale rather than the latest and greatest in high-tech graphite. Theoir destination is likely to be relatively close to home and to be chosen because it is a place where they have access rather than for its trophy potential. In fact, finding places to hunt and fish may be more challenging for them than learning how to do it.
For new hunters and anglers, whether they are kids or adults, just having success is far more important than catching or shooting the biggest and the most. Sociologists tell us this is the first of several phases a life-long hunter will pass through. As they gain ability, new hunters become more concerned first with the amount of game they kill and then with trophies. Eventually, the difficulty and finesse of the hunt becomes more important than kill. Finally, just being on the hunt and in the natural world brings a mature hunter satisfaction.
We don’t know whether paleo hunters passed through similar phases, though it seems likely that they did. We know from the paintings found in caves in France that ancient hunters shared our modern fascination with large antlers and physically exceptional game animals. What we don’t know is whether they were willing to expend extra effort or pass up lesser game in order to kill the big ones. Since they relied on hunting and gathering to survive, perhaps their interest in trophy game was a celebration of abundance. Surely then as today, hunters were more likely to encounter trophy animals in places where game hadn’t been exploited by hunting pressure.
Humans are created equal, but their abilities differ. Some paleo hunters were more skilled than others. These skillful hunters probably had better and perhaps more weapons. And, human nature being what it is, we can assume they took great pride in bringing home the bacon when others were unsuccessful. Perhaps they weren’t so different from today’s tournament anglers.
Still, the paleo hunters were masters of simplicity. Although the human desire to make better gadgets for hunting and war has always driven our technological progress, the art of such endeavors is best expressed in simplicity. A northern native can call up a moose using nothing other than a simple tube made of birch bark. Catching a fish on a fly you tied yourself is the epitomy of angling.
Hunting and fishing ethics–the unwritten rules of right and wrong–are general considered the province of sportsmen rather than guidance for those who hunt and fish to eat. Yet ethics are most often based upon attaining a level of hunting and fishing skill and demonstrating respect for the prey. Again, cave art shows us paleo hunters had great respect for the game they depended upon to survive. This suggests they, too, had ethics, albeit based upon different values and beliefs than our own. The ethical standard to which modern hunters are held is a measure of our skills and experience. Ancient hunters likely measured one another the same way.
The promise I see in the new cadre of neophyte hunters and gathers is they are travelling along a different pathway to reach the same, ancient place. As they gain skills and experience, they’ll formulate unwritten rules as the basis for their ethical standards. Their pathway may never lead to fishing tournaments or trophy hunting, but they’ll take their place in a continuum reaching across millenia. The New York Times is indeed correct. The paleo diet isn’t a trend. It is an echo of our humanity.