Health and the Rise of Civilization: a good intro to ancestral health

Healthcare is a top-down industry where news and changes move slow. In order to institute 'evidence-based medicine' or 'evidence-based nursing', information has to be spread widely and discussed. To that end, I recommend Health and the Rise of Civilization (HRC) by Professor Mark Cohen as an excellent introduction to the concept of "ancestral health" for health care professionals.
Author Mark Cohen (who was previously profiled on this blog and spoke at the recent Ancestral Health Symposium) is a professor of anthropology who pioneered the forensic study of ancient skeletons as a tool to learn about the health of ancient hunter-gatherers and farmers. HRC is his summary of our pre-historic ancestors' health and the effects on our own health of living in complex, modern societies. Spoiler: compared to us, cavemen were a lot better off than you'd guess.

HRC is a good introduction to ancestral health because, unlike The Paleo Diet or The Paleo Solution, it is not a fad diet book. There is no eating plan in this book and no controversial recommendations that contradict the American Heart Assoication or the government's 'food pyramid'. As a health care professional, you shouldn't be able to dismiss this book automatically.

HRC is a good introduction because it is real scholarship. Any MD or PA, or any BSN, should understand the importance of, and be interested in, real scholarship related to health.

HRC is a good introduction because it was written to be a good introduction. Cohen wrote this book back in the 1980s, before low-carb, CrossFit, Paleo diet, or any of the rest. But it is a highly accessible essay that works well as an introduction to any approach to health that criticizes our modern way of eating and obtaining food. Although the book has almost 100 pages of footnotes and 50 pages of references, these are all at the end of the book. The main text--the part you really need to read--is only about half the book's total pages. And it reads easily and quickly.

HRC introduces concepts from anthropology that health care professionals would need to know in order to make sense of the interdisciplinary approach to "ancestral health."

One chapter is devoted to explaining the evolution of societies from small groups of hunter-gatherers to complex, modern civilization. An anthropological understanding of this evolution is necessary in order to get over our modern idea of continuous progress in medicine and nutrition.

Another chapter documents changes in the human diet since pre-historic times. Although we've all grown up with images of cavemen hunting mastodons, many people also seem to have the contradictory belief that a more "natural" diet is a vegetarian one. The story is a lot more complicated than that.

Yet another chapter demonstrates that infectious disease is not simply a matter of our immune system fighting germs with the help of antibiotics. Changes in our pattern of living since ancient times have undermined some of nature's built-in defenses.

Health and the Rise of Civilization should be a common starting point for everyone interested in ancestral health. The "Paleo community" tends to be dominated by personality, thriving older men like Art Devany or thriving younger men like Robb Wolf. But this model is not appropriate for health care professionals or researchers. HRC provides a firm ground in scholarship from which modern nutritional and health advice can and should be examined.

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