If you were to cross paths with one of your farming ancestors (circa 7,500 to 2,000 B.C.), he'd shove you to the ground, kick sand in your face, and jog off into the sunset with your mate slung over his shoulder. And even with somebody else’s partner slung over his other shoulder, you’d probably never catch up to him. Such has been our musculoskeletal decline in only a handful of millennia.
“Even our most highly trained athletes pale in comparison to these ancestors of ours,” says Dr. Colin Shaw of Cambridge University’s Phenotypic Adaptability, Variation and Evolution Research Group. “We’re certainly weaker than we used to be.”
Alison Macintosh, one of Shaw’s PAVE colleagues, thinks so, too. She’s the one whose recent paper, “From athletes to couch potatoes: Humans through 6,000 years of farming,” claims that, when Central Europeans made the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural ones, men’s lower limb strength and overall mobility decreased (even more so than among women).
Macintosh, a Cambridge Ph.D. candidate, compared laser-scanned femurs and tibia of skeletons from around 5300 B.C. to A.D. 850 She then cross-checked her findings with Shaw’s study of bone rigidity among modern Cambridge undergraduates, and found that the ability among male farmers to move about their environment 7,300 years ago was, on average, at a level near that of today’s student cross-country runners.
Our overall strength declined because, as technologies improved and men’s and women’s tasks diversified, people became less active. The result: today’s man is not only more sedentary than ever before, but compared to men of yon, we’re practically enfeebled. “We do much, much less than our ancestors,” says Robb Wolf, author of The Paleo Solution, “and our skeletons reflect this decrease in activity.”
This decline in physical activity and bone strength has led to osteoporosis, decrease in fitness, obesity, and myriad other problems and diseases. Ironically, “We have an overabundance of nutrition and we train better,” says Shaw, “but we’re overweight and we’re not challenging our bodies like we used to.”
“The average U.S. citizen is considerably less fit than the average hunter-gatherer or forager,” says Dr. Loren Cordain, professor emeritus of health and exercise science at Colorado State University and author of The Paleo Diet. “The lesson to be learned is not from early farmers and their dietary and exercise patterns, but rather from our hunter-gatherer ancestors and their dietary and exercise patterns. These examples represent the norms for our species and the environmental experiences which conditioned our genome.”
Indeed the hunter-gatherers of 30,000 to 150,00 years ago traveled extremely long distances while hauling all kinds of weight. “They were much stronger than the long-distance runners of today,” says Shaw. In a study he published earlier this year, he concluded that “the people back then were monsters by comparison. What you see today is quite pathetic.”
Cordain, for one, thinks we should eat and live like our hunter-gatherer ancestors, whose meat-heavy diets gave them more muscle mass and enhanced their athletic abilities and performance. Wolf would add in weight training, stretching, and, in particular, cross-country running, because it challenges our bodies in the same ways hunter-gatherers had to navigate uneven terrain and the up-and-down of hills—all of which increased their physical robustness.
Do all that and you can reclaim your ancient potential, advises Wolff. “If folks train hard they can achieve remarkable levels of physical development.”