However civilised we may now consider ourselves to be, biologically we remain much as we were before we began farming and moved into cities. Can we create a healthier future by returning to our paleolithic past?
The city is not our natural habitat. For the last three million years, we evolved as hunter-gatherers, living in small tribal societies, breathing fresh air, drinking fresh water and eating fresh foods. But more than half of us now live in cities. Culturally, our society is transforming, but anatomically, our genetic evolution is slower: we remain much as we were even before large-scale farming was adopted 5,00010,000 years ago.
However civilised we may now consider ourselves to be, biologically we are much closer to our stone age ancestors. There is a major mismatch between our modern urbanised world and our paleolithic genome, the genetic material encoded in our DNA, which supports an ancient hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
Put simply, urbanisation which began with the advent of farming is bad for us. Studies of skeletal remains in cemetery sites show that when the Romans introduced town life to Britain 2,000 years ago, they also introduced us to scurvy, rickets, osteomalacia, Reiters syndrome, gout, ankylosing spondylitis, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, septic arthritis, tuberculosis, osteitis, poliomyelitis and leprosy. And today, the most common causes of death in half of our urban populations are obesity, cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, atherosclerosis, high blood pressure and various cancers. It is a sobering thought that all these conditionsare rare or non-existent innon-urban societies, such as the tribal communities in Kitava, Papua New Guinea.
But all is not lost. We can help our society have a healthier future by returning to our paleolithic past.