Review: Human Planet

Human Planet is an 8-part documentary series produced by the BBC about we Homo sapiens sapiens and how we live our lives. Here’s the trailer:

My husband and I have been making our way through the series on Apple TV. It’s great for those nights when you might not have the time to devote to an entire movie, but need a bit of mindless escapism. Which is great, except that these episodes always inspire comments, discussion, and a complete evaluation of my own life—hardly mindless.

What’s fascinating about this series from a Paleo diet perspective is that about 90% of the activities documented involve procuring or supplying food, and the often extreme lengths people go to do that. It puts dealing with traffic on the way to the grocery store to shame.

I'm gonna catch some fish right here. Right after I vomit over this ledge.

We see African tribesmen fishing on the edge of Victoria Falls (the indigenous name means Smoke that Thunders). Young men who use toxic compressed air to fish with huge nets in the ocean near the Philippines because it’s the easiest way to make the most amount of money in the least amount of time. (And guess where that fish goes? Our plates.) How in the Arctic native peoples travel with the seasons to hunt for whales or make a mad dash under the ice for mussels, often at great peril. Golden eagles are harvested as chicks and trained to help hunt in the vast Altai Mountains of Mongolia. Huge nets are constructed in New Guinea to catch hordes of giant bats to provide meat to an entire village. Young children go into the Venezuelan jungle to lure and catch giant tarantulas for roasting over a fire the way kids here might with marshmallows. A group of Dorobo men in Kenya demonstrate the dying art of stealing prey from a pride of lions. Bet you didn’t have to do that just to eat dinner.

And the honey! It’s incredible what we humans will do for a sweet treat. The Maasai have a relationship with a bird called the honeyguide that actually leads them to a hive. The Bayaka in the Congo jungle climb very high trees and smoke the bees out to grab several honeycombs, always getting stung multiple times. So when I hear folks in the anthropological or ancestral food community say that sweets wouldn’t have been desired due to how difficult it is to get them, I laugh. Clearly humans are willing to do whatever it takes, and the proof is in the smiles and punch-drunk ecstasy of these people as they greedily gobble and slurp it up. It also drives home the point that will-power is useless against sugar—it’s sheer ubiquity today is evidence of how important it is to us as a species. Only through understanding this and eliminating it from our lives can we conquer it’s power over us.

If only it was that simple.

There’s something I see a lot of in the ancestral community, and that is a tendency to romanticize the lives of those who live more closely to nature in the way many of these people do. Seeing one of these should convince you there’s nothing easy about this way of life. The camera follows several hunts throughout the series that take days and days to land a kill. The hunters are hungry, and you can see why it’s a measure of manhood to be able to feed themselves and their village. There is always celebration when they’re successful—a deep gratefulness, if not an outright physiologically-based buzz, for the animal they’ve eaten and the ancestors who taught them the skills they’ve used to kill it. Unless you’re getting by on subsistence alone, I’m guessing this is a human emotion none of us urban-dwellers will ever experience. Groupon deals and Black Friday scores don’t count.

I appreciate that this series doesn’t flinch from the difficulty, especially if you catch the mini-segment after each episode showing the travails of the crew in one of these locations. The divide is fish-out-of-water stark. For example, the three-person British crew who visited the Korowai in West Papua used extensive rope set-ups to climb the 10-story trees, but the Korowai just clambered on up the trunks and branches. In a show of solidarity, one of the crewmembers decides to try out the compressed air diving techniques of those fishermen in the Philippines, a stunt that probably cost him several brain cells.

Something else I noticed from a Paleo perspective is the difference between the groups who have more contact with the outside world versus those who have less. You see it in their physiques, no doubt. But something I’m not seeing much of is good teeth, even in those with less outside contact. It’s hard to know what’s causing this, whether they are somehow getting processed foods or are just missing some essential components in their indigenous diet. To me, a good measure of that possibility is evident in the clothes they’re wearing. Because clothes are easy to transport and trade, you’ll see Western clothing on people in places that are very hard to reach. For example, one of my anthropologist professors in college talked of how he walked into a village in South America that had no previous contact with the Western world, and children had Black Sabbath t-shirts on and they all wanted to know what Black Sabbath was.

What this means for me is that I need to keep my expectations in check about what this WOE can provide for me. If you’re a peruser of PaleoHacks.com, then you know that people have lots of questions and seek lots of answers. Tweaks. Fine-tuning. But I think we all need to step back and ask ourselves: To what perfect standard are we comparing ourselves? Who has ever had an optimal human diet?

I would be surprised if you could watch an episode without feeling as though our modern lives are somehow lacking. There’s a temptation to see only the differences, either positive or negative. But here’s my take: Though the scenery may be different from their lives to ours, the roots of our behavior and motivations are the same. What’s different is that we have built a world that is now working against those roots. And in order to thrive, to truly thrive, we have to figure out how to maneuver within the new landscape, to reduce arbitrary stress, to eat in a manner consistent with millions of years of cell evolution, to move and exercise in a way that harnesses our biomechanical advantages, to ignore false signals from sources of electricity so we can get to bed on time, to use both ancient and contemporary lessons for finding that sweet spot for ourselves. The rest is just noise and advertising. How ironic it is that we humans have supposedly mastered our environment so much that we think we operate completely independently of it now, almost offended when a bear gets into our trash. Our bodies are now telling us that we are gravely mistaken, that we are still subject to the same rules and that we do not, in fact, know better.

We’re now seeing the logical conclusion of that lesson, and watching this series has given me a new appreciation for the fact that of all the choices available to me, one of them helped lead me out of the madness. One of the crewmembers says of his exposure to the tree-dwelling Korowai that he thinks they’re among the last free people in the world. I say that freedom is available to all of us no matter what our landscape looks like. It’s there all the time, we’ve only to realize it.

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