Manthropology

First it was Fight Club, then the rise of mixed-martial arts, then the Paleo lifestyle, and now books like Sex At Dawn and my most recent read, Manthropology. Mix in the rise of CrossFit and Gym Jones and I get the picture that we as a culture may just be tiring of our modern and considerably weaker life-style in which a long run in the park our an hour at the local health club is considered a real workout.

According to Manthropolgy’s author, Peter McAllister, we have been blinded by our version of history in which we told ourselves that, thanks to technology and science, we are healthier than any of our predecessors.; living longer and supposedly happier lives.

In fact, while average life spans have increased since the beginning of the modern age, that is more an improvement of the high-stress and mortality of life from the time of industrialization and the growth of dense urban living, than it is a real rise in life expectancy since per-historic times.

Our ancestors before then lived well into their 70’s and 80’s and did so in a more healthy way. Ancient soldiers fought in battles well into their 60’s and even 70’s, while people in societies everywhere were generally stronger and tougher than even athletes of today. Studies of pre-historic bones showed considerably thicker density than similarly-aged people now.

Past scientists had compared those bones to modern people (by comparing their density with the assumption that the brittleness and early disease of modern man was natural to all people in all times) and so assumed that pre-historic man only lived to 40 while. In fact, the high-protein, high-cardio, and low-stress life of hunter-gatherers allowed for them to live healthier and longer functional lives.

Manthropology walks us through the records of ancient athletes and warriors who out-marched and out-fought our champions of today. Case in point, the US Army fitness test requires that soldiers be able to to march 12 miles in 4 hours with a pack weighing just 40 pounds. Well, Roman soldiers routinely marched 20-30 miles per day with packs weighing close to 100 pounds because each man was also supposed to carry the pieces of their wooden palisades that they had to put together after the march.

The imperial soldiers of the Wu dynasty in China were required to maintain their fitness levels to allow them to quick-march 80 miles per day as well be ready to fight at the end of the march. The same was true of Zulu warriors who had the added skill of doing the same as their Wu counterparts but barefoot!

McAllister goes on to write that these levels of excellence also existed in ancient realms of singing and poetry. As late as this century, there existed bards in the former Yugoslavia who were able to recite 65,000-line ballads as well as create equally-large ballads on the fly. In contrast, modern rap artists generally average 5,000 lines. The Greek poet Homer’s massive oral rendition of the Illiad and the Odyssey put everyone to shame.

The author, who writes in a fun style that makes the book a great quick read, does not say that we should despair. Rather, this is a call-to-arms for men and women to take back their health and happiness by creating a more challenging environment and bring forth all that lies within, dormant and waiting.

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Paleo Sex

Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality is an in-depth look at human sexuality, mores, and behaviors in our prehistoric hunter-gatherer ancestors. The book is well-written and though-provoking and overturns many perceptions of human life in pre-history.

First the authors (Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha) dismantle the Hobbesian/Malthusian view we hold of prehistoric life. That is, that our ancestors lived shorty and nasty lives, overwhelmed with famine and misery.

In fact, citing studies of human remains from that time period, they found that humans were not under-developed and unhealthy but, rather, were quite healthy and lived lives of relative plenty and ease.

Hunter-gatherer males were on average, 5’9″ to 6′ tall with females averaging at 5’5″ to 5’7″. Examination of their bone densities showed very little of the diseases that came later to agricultural societies and that hunter-gatherers had better diets with a wider range of foods than their agricultural brethren (unlike farmers, hunter-gatherers could easily pick up and move on to where more and better food could be found).

Furthermore, hunter-gatherer societies were more egalitarian precisely because humans were a small portion of the total population of life-forms on the planet. As a result, there was no shortage of food and resources for these small bands of humans to fight over.

There being no necessity for ownership as we understand it now, hunter-gatherer society was marked with a more open sexual environment where woman’s sexuality was not owned by anyone else and the group ethic allowed for sexual freedom that has only been seen in human society recently in the past 30 years or so.

The authors do caution that we should not view prehistoric life through misty romantic lens. Like life in any time period, there were challenges for all people. However, they do make the claim that a pre-historic life of relative plenty and health puts our current linear view of history and “progress” on its ear somewhat.

It makes us question what we hold important now and possibly even wonder if the biblical story of Adam and Eve being thrown out of Eden may well have been an allegory of the shift from a hunter-gatherer egalitarian society to a hierarchical agricultural society.

Attack of the Bread Lobby

In an article that must have been funded by the bread lobby (and there must be one!),  Reuters quotes a study by the National Academy of Sciences that described the use of grinding tools to create food from various seeds and other plants, turning them into a form of bread. Reuters went on to say that this called into question the veracity of the paleo lifestyle which is weird because if one actually reads the original report, it states that our ancestors ate a wide range of naturally-occurring foods (animals from the hunt, fruits from trees and bushes, and roots and seeds from the ground).

However, the study did not state that our ancestors consumed enriched wheat products, processed sugars and other foods. Using their simple tools, they supplemented their protein and fruit-rich diet by creating a form of trail-mix, using seeds and other plant material.

That’s a far cry from a chocolate cake and a baguette, but let’s not let facts get in the way of a good time!

Paleo Sleep

At Day’s Close is an excellent book on the history of sleep. It details the evolution of sleep and the impact that technological and social changes (improved lighting, improved law enforcement, and the effects of industrialization) have had on humankind’s sleep cycles.

In effect, natural human sleep begins with “first sleep” in the evening until midnight when people awaken and experience a sense of calmness and creativity which lasts for about an hour before they fall back into their “second sleep” which lasts until dawn. Modern tests have shown this to be true, that our natural rhythms are tied to the transitions of day and night.

Of further interest is the impact that night has on our perspectives, consciousness, creativity, and even our loves. In essence, it strips away the distractions of daylight, societal mores, and enables us to turn inward while experiencing stronger religious, spiritual, sexual, and creative experiences. Many writers and artists, as well as people of other trades and classes, wrote of the special freedom and joy that night brought to them.

The roots of this “paleo” sleep could have come from our need to keep watch throughout a 24-hour period as well as the advantage of hunting at night (human vision is actually quite good, especially peripheral vision).

The value of this bisected sleep was a stronger sense of wakefulness and more energy during the day. With our 24/7 society, being connected with people throughout the day, always on at night, we have lost this unique and special connection with the night as well as losing the benefits of “true sleep.”

Kids, Run For Your Life!

Anecdotally we’ve always known that exercises makes us feel better and think more clearly. Now recent studies show that exercise has a direct positive impact on brain growth and development in children as well.

The recent emphasis on test scores and the cuts in non-academic programs in public schools, the concern should be that we are not only contributing to poor health in our children but also not truly supporting their mental and educational development.

The ancient Greeks had it right when they created what we now call a classical education with an emphasis on physical activity, thereby creating the concept of the fully-formed individual. Of course, despite what we see on ancient urns and vases, not every Greek school graduate was Charles Atlas but at least they had a higher concept to pull them up as far as they could go.

With the decline of physical activity overall in our youth, schools concerned with lawsuits, and the removal of any competitive activity in K through 5, our children are at risk of becoming more than just couch potatoes. They are also missing out on vital mental development.

Sun and Steel

These words are highly evocative and it is no surprise that the great Japanese writer Yukio Mishima used them as the title of his meditation on the power and value of the human body over that of the written word.

Mishima’s arrival at this point in his life where he embarked upon started in a world quite removed from both sun and steel. He was raised until his teenage years primarily by his grandmother, being forced to sleep in her room and not being allowed to play with boys his age. He avoided conscription in World War II by feigning illness (although I would think that he actually just failed to pass the health exam) and held on to that guilt long after the war was over.

However, this allowed him to avoid an unnecessary death and he went on to become one of modern Japan’s greatest writers, writing many novels, short stories, plays, and film scripts. Mishima was also an acknowledged expert in Noh dramas; thanks in part to his grandmother’s influence as she raised him on these plays and contributed to his classical education.

Given his history, it seems quite shocking that he would perform an about face and become an enthusiastic weight-lifter and martial arts practitioner but Mishima explains it in Sun and Steel as realization that his words were like acid, eating away at his body and soul, essentially making him a coward for removing his body from the world and its reality.

As I read his book and reflect on the world around me, I see how technology is removing many of us from physical reality. Whether it be immersion in the world of an MMO, spending hours playing Farmville and watching ones friends on Facebook, or just being glued to a phone while outside in the real world, I have to agree with Mishima that many of us are lacking that necessary component that truly awakens our inner selves. The hard work and physical sensations that only come from training and competition.

Mishima’s life ended in a spectacular suicide, in the traditional samurai method of cutting his belly and having his head removed by a companion. Some felt that this invalidated his work and made any association with his ideas as dangerous. However, I feel that he just chose the time and method of his death and it just happened to be in this most dramatic way. Many people die in a hospital bed of a lingering illness, surrounded by strangers and Mishima chose another path.

He did leave the world though with a call to action (though I do believe that, had he chosen to live, he would have contributed so much more to literature and the world around him). As we plan our days and our lives, it is critically important that we make room for both sides of human existence: the body as well as the soul.

Longer but not Better?

Living to 80 is not the feat that people think it is. As I’ve often said, people routinely lived active lives well into their 80’s in ancient Asian and Mediterranean cultures  (there are numerous examples including my favorite being that of Alexander the Great’s elite troops who were active in the field well into the 70’s and 80’s long after their king had died).

The key to a quality life, regardless of the number reached, is what you do every day in that life. Are you living fully as a parent, a professional or business owner, and as a person in pursuit of their own philosophical or spiritual goals?  If you’re not and every day is just a burden then maybe that long-life will be ill-spent.

Maybe we should expect to live only to 60 and live a consequently fuller life because mortality draws even nearer. Would we be more active? More willing to take a necessary risk? Would we live more richly?

The men who landed on the beaches at Normandy, climbed Everest, or who landed on the moon took risks that many now would not in our age of mandatory bike helmets, safety regulations, and other attempts to soften the impact of life’s challenges.

By living longer but without challenge and risk, do we live well?