Stone-age posture and diet : A facebook discussion
I am relatively new to FaceBook but am finding aspects of the interactions on the site fascinating and educational.
Today I posted the following:
“I came across this picture of a neanderthal guy on BBC’s news site. It discussed new evidence that these people ate cooked vegetables. Clearly that was a necessity as their posture was awful. Look at those gothic shoulders! I bet he had headaches!”
I am copying some of the more interesting of the 30+ responses (some using pseudonyms) this attracted – as well as a few of the flip ones:
Gil Hedley said:
“Heck, that’s my uncle!!”
Sallie Burge-Thurman observed (perhaps speaking with experience?) :
“No neck, squinty eyes, weather-beaten face, mustache that would keep any fly out, and hair everywhere but the belly and shoulder area.. must have rubbed off from all the potato vodka he drank…..falling down on one side all night long will do that to a guy”
“To be serious for a moment….imagine this chap came into your office for an appointment and said -“I have this headache, and my neck’s stiff, and I should mention my shoulders hurt like hell”
Is there any chance at all of more than symptomatic relief?
Can that dense mass of what used to be muscle ever be restored to elastic efficiency?
Could his crowded cervical joints realistically be mobilised?
We have all probably been faced with this immovable mass of fibrous gristle. So, where would you start?”
Michelle Doyle offered a serious thought:
“Yes, I have noticed how immobile this guy looks…could probably barely move to hunt, which is why they may be contributing Neanderthal extinction to over reliance on meat. Perhaps he was beyond help, unless given treatments early on. ‘Movement is life’…which is probably what really lead to their extinction! But today, we can help people with posture and joint dysfunction.”
Pacific Rim Chiro offered specifics:
“Thoracic mobs/manipulation, SCM and Trap MET to start. Then I like to have my patient in a side lying position, mob the scapula in all directions and then using my hand in a knife edge and with the scapula passively pulled into retraction, try to work my hand up in under it, and then cup my hand slightly to create a little space, reduce adhesions etc.”
My daughter Sasha added her thoughts:
“But… they were designed like this weren’t they? As far as I know, skeletal evidence has shown that their arms (shoulder & elbow joints) functioned very differently to ours, somewhat more like those of gorillas than of modern humans. Plus.….. they used their arms much in the same way as gorillas – in addition to walking upright, though again. as far as I am aware there were anatomical differences. So are you sure that the picture we’re looking at is one of pathology at all – because the whole design is different? Unless of course you do actually mean modern folks who actually do look like this! (yep, we’ve all seen them!)
And btw, they were very effective hunters…. used spears very well and could bring down mammoths when hunting in groups….. extinction ( I think) may well have more to do with brain evolution and climate than anything else.
Liz Baker commented:
“I have met many patient’s in the chronic pain center where I work that could make this guy look better in comparison. These patients would fit your description, Leon. Dense mass, crowded joints, fibrous gristle, etc.”
I chipped in again:
If – as Sasha says – they were designed this way – they were destined to have stiff necks, jaws out of alignment, shoulders that were at a mechanical disadvantage (glenoid fossa protracted, putting stress onto rotator cuff muscles), ribs and thoracic cage crowded etc.
In other words their design was not conducive to the sort of activity they would have had to face in harsh environments….perhaps why only a few of their genes are still around?
If they moved around like gorillas do, they would probably have been better off than trying to walk upright.
As for meat eating Michelle…the BBC piece is about traces of cooked vegetable matter (now fossilised) being identified on teeth….so the diet was more varied than previously thought.”
Ed Lark offered cranial thoughts:
This is a great topic! It seems that their skulls also had an occipital bun. Goodness knows how strong their nuchal ligament was. I bet they had tremendous muscular support to hold their heads up! Now I want to look up cervical degradation …amongst Neanderthals!
Is there a field called Paleo-Osteopathy?
Jason Erikson offered support for Gil’s remark about his uncle:
“A paleoanthropologist on the radio was saying that we now have DNA proof that Neanderthals mated with human ancestors. Up to 5% of the DNA of northern Europeans is of Neanderthal origin.”
Ravensara Travillian launched into analysis of Sasha’s earlier remarks….and went on with more insights:
“Hi, Sasha–I am a little bit confused by what you wrote.
You say: “they were designed like this weren’t they?” which sounds like you are about to present an Intelligent Design creationism argument. But then you mention “brain evolution” which… sounds like just the opposite of a creationist argument. And your timeline and use of comparative anatomical evidence certainly does not sound like creationism. So I am not sure what you mean to say.
Would it be fair to reword your statement to say “they evolved like this in response to their environment, didn’t they? As far as I know…”(then all the same as you originally wrote up to the following sentence). “So are you sure that the picture we’re looking at is one of pathology at all – because the whole baseline is different?”
If I am correctly understanding what you intended to say, then I would agree that you have raised a very important point. Evolution is not the same as design; it doesn’t plan in advance, and it doesn’t produce optimal results. The results only have to be good enough to function in a particular niche in order to be successful there. Which I think reinforces your point, if I understand it correctly, that what we would call “pathology” comes from our looking at it from our modern context rather than from the point of view of the environment they themselves operated in.
Leon points out:
“If – as Sasha says – they were designed this way – they were destined to have stiff necks, jaws out of alignment, shoulders that were at a mechanical disadvantage (glenoid fossa protracted, putting stress onto rotator cuff muscles), ribs and thoracic cage crowded etc.”
That is one of the classic critiques of Intelligent Design creationism–if we are supposed to believe there really is a designer, he/she/it is at best incompetent (knees, lower back, retina), and at worst, sadistic (surrounding the urethra with the prostate).
There was an amusing analysis of this in _Scientific American_ a couple of years back; you can see it at:
If humans really had been designed to avoid those flaws, you would expect us to look more like the improved versions illustrated in the article, which look (to me) more like hobbits.
“In other words their design was not conducive to the sort of activity they would have had to face in harsh environments….perhaps why only a few of their genes are still around?”
To avoid confusion, would it be ok to restate your first sentence as “their anatomy” rather than “their design”?
What you say is true, but it’s equally true for us modern Homo sapiens as well. Neither of us lasts as long as we could, because our parts wear out prematurely, or poorly fit our environment in other ways. As you correctly point out, their environment was harsh, and they were poorly suited to it in the long run–but since their lifespan was ~30 or 40 years tops, the long run wasn’t really an issue for them. They didn’t have to be perfectly suited to their environment; they only had to be good enough to get by in their younger years.
If you think about what American football does to its players, it’s similar in a way. It’s harsh and damaging, and chews them up only to spit them out, physically used up, at the end of their careers. The only real difference is that the Neanderthals didn’t have much longer to live afterwards. So what we, with our longer lifespans and more options would consider “pathology” might have simply been their baseline for normal.”
I responded to this:
Thanks for the detailed analysis Revensara
Clearly we are ill-designed for modern life/or poorly evolved – whichever suits you best.
Thankfully much of modern life has evolved/or been designed to match our inadequacies – so we (or most of us)… no longer have to sprint after antelopes to catch supper, but only need to hobble down to the store for whatever approximation of food we can afford.
But in truth – every now and then – I catch sight of a well designed and functioning body, the owner of which could probably chase antelope, leap over rivers and climb trees… and in those moments perhaps there is a glimpse of what we could be like – one in which a designer seems less improbable, and/or evolution seems to be on the right track.
For the most part however, both seem t have missed the mark.
Our neanderthal example seems to be just such a dead-end kid.
Elan Schacter observed:
“That artist missed some things we see that artists don’t. Try this: ignore the head. On that body, where would you expect the head to be? I would expect it to be much more aligned.”
Laura Allen complained:
“My symptoms exactly and I’ve been hunched over the computer for so long I’m starting to resemble him.”
Stefan Chmelik moved back to the question of diet
“The Paleo diet seems to be the new trend, is there any evidence for it?”
· Stefan, around 1985 I wrote a book “Stone Age Diet” based on current (at that time) research into paleolithic eating habits.
· There’s good evidence that they were healthy unless oevrtaken by clubs, tigers or bears etc, BUT
· They had lots of exercise
· They ate at dawn and around sunset (read up on effect of timing of eating, Leptin behaviour & syndrome X)
· They slept at night (read up on Leptin again)
· They ate LOTS of green vegetables (not cultivated, but gathered) as well as seeds, nuts, fruit etc
· The meat they ate was lean
· Many lived by oceans and rivers and fish was a major part of the diet
If we could approximate that pattern then having a physique like a gorilla might not matter…..”
Sasha woke up and replied to Ravensara:
“Ravensara – I was certainly not referring to intelligent design/creationist terms- my use of “designed” was entirely figurative. I’ll admit my wording was sloppy (but it was 5am this end!), and also in Europe (or at least in my immediate… environment) the creationist-evolutionary debate is a non-issue, so apologies for any confusion.
You are correct that my point was in fact that I think the question is starting from a mistaken premise: clearly they functioned effectively, and even though they died out when they did, they were still highly successful for almost 200000 years. Homo Sapiens hasn’t been around for as long as that, so we don’t actually know whether our “design” (figuratively meant!) is any more effective than theirs, and since we left Nature behind centuries ago, perhaps we will never know.
Any number of factors could have contributed to the demise of the Neanderthals, though I think that brain capacity/evolution in contrast (and perhaps competition) with Cro Magnon man may well have been a major factor (abstract thought, innovation, complex reqasoning, etc). But I really don’t see how we can talk about this as a pathological posture if this is the build that served them best in their natural environment. Many animals are paradoxical with notoriously inefficient systems of one type or another, yet somehow, they survive and continue to exist and function quite nicely.
Would he have had neck pain? Not if the whole skeletal and muscular setup is different to ours,so that even though the position of the head looks out of alignment in comparison to a modern human – perhaps what we consider “normal” would have been entirely unnatural to him. Skeletal studies necessary?”
“PS, as some of you know, I’m actually a bit of an interloper on this thread, since my area is not bodywork at all, but the Humanities.
Being Leon’s daughter however, I’ve been weaned on a good number of these concepts (and it’s his own faul…t for explaining what he did as he went along and being a great teacher to boot!) But given that I’ve gone off in a different direction, my use of language tends to be more figurative in nature.
Just explaining as I won’t pretend to be able to get into the fine detail of anatomical issues, but as I have done quite a bit of reading into prehistoric culture fairly recently, that is why I have an objection to the assumption that this was anything other than a reasonably effective anatomical structure for this particular creature at this particular point in evolution – particularly as it’s unlikely that this would have been why they died out.”
Ravensara returned to the fray:
No worries, Sasha–I quite understand the 5 AM thing, and I also live in England, where creationism isn’t really an issue, although it’s a huge problem in the States. And I have to confess that we biologists add to the confusion whenever we use “design”, “purpose”, or “body plan” as a shorthand. As convenient as it is, I really think it generates more confusion among non-biologists than it’s worth.
From the way your argument was proceeding, it didn’t sound like you were taking the creationist position overall, so the word was a little jarring. But you cleared up that confusion nicely.
My favourite example of your point is the use of the terms “obese” or “obesity” in reference to bears. Certainly, they (mostly) have higher BMIs than humans do–but is the term “obese” appropriate? To decide that, we would first have to decide whether “obese” means pathological or not, and how it relates to “normal”, which is a whole other discussion right there.
Your overall point about applying human standards of health and illness to other species is well-taken, and can be the basis for some fascinating discussion.
Interloper? To the contrary, some of the best discussions are the interdisciplinary ones.
Leon’s point is well-taken:
“If we could approximate that pattern then having a physique like a gorilla might not matter…..”
Being young and having lots of physical reserves to draw upon, and maintaining that pattern as long as possible can compensate for a multitude of what would otherwise be problems. 🙂
Eric Beard was also worried about the accuracy of the picture:
“I too wonder about this accuracy of the artist’s rendering. I also have enjoyed Sasha’s comments. If this person were to walk in to me me today it would take some serious time and $ on his part to start to get “straightened out”. I question what sort of permanent changes could even be made. His continued habits outside of the bodywork sessions would be entertaining to hear about. How did he get this way? Nature? Nurture? or both?”
Charles Smith was clearly pro these ancestors (of some of us)
“Has anyone here ever tried to work flint into anything? It is not such a simple task. A heightened sense of smell would have been a requirement. Just foraging and hunting to survive took far more intelligence than we know. This guys head forward posture screams cervical, neck and upper body issues. Hunting mastadons and other large game is both dangerous and physically demanding. All sorts of joint and alignment pain from stalking, exertion or hard blows in assaulting the beasts. They ate whatever they could find in a area between forested and tundra conditions. There is no reason to assume that they only ate meat but probably learned as much from animals as each other. I an animal can eat it and live (particularly small) then a human might also. Russian soldiers actually ate grass rather than give up when under siege as late as WWII. Food from sources not usually tapped often means survival.”
Ferguson John returned to less serious (for some) matters:
“The San Francisco 49er’s need a new head coach. Maybe we will see more of this guy.”
Which was responded to by
“How about a line backer? Stocky and low to the ground just right for tripping up other linemen.”
“The They Died out Suddenly Theory is in question. A skeleton that had all of the characteristics was found that dates a few thousand years later than the commonly accepted die out date. Interbreeding is most likely the case. The Hittites of Eurasia were highly successful in their empire yet none of Hittite blood is present today as a separate race. Men meet, fight and interbreed as their mode of operation.”
….end of day’s play…which reminds me, today England beat Australia in Melbourne (cricket) – actually gave them a lesson to remember.
HAPPY NEW YEAR