Sunday, February 01, 2009

Hunting, gathering and starving

I like Ray Mears, or to be more accurate, I enjoyed the TV series he and prof Gordon Hillman made for the Beeb back in 2007. This is probably the one set of programs, other than the Simpsons, that I've watched in the last five years.

Their struggle to find, and then render edible, any sort of bulk carbohydrate in a temperate climate was amusing, especially when they offered the camera crew a taste of one of the less edible concoctions they had produced! The fish and the venison looked good.

The camera crew are very important. Whenever I see advertising for a jungle survival documentary I always think first of the poor camera crews in deepest Borneo or wherever, lugging all their food around as well as their film gear. It must be hard filming someone living off the land while subsisting on baked beans, but then television is a hard calling. Happily Survivorman is self filmed, which limits the suffering of film crews.

The post by Dr Davis had me thinking about evolution and survival, especially these lines:

"The Survivorman show documents the (self-filmed) 7-day adventures of Les Stroud, who is dropped into various remote corners of the world to survive on little but ingenuity and will to live. Starting without food or water, the Survivorman scrapes and scrambles in the wilderness for essentials to survive in habitats as far ranging as the Ecuadorian rainforest to sub-arctic Labrador"

Looking at this sort of TV entertainment (which is probably very good TV, I'd probably enjoy it) as a lead to how humans ate before civilisation strikes me as a bit flawed. There are actually a few places on Earth which are fundamentally uninhabitable, but then no one lives in them. If there is food and an even remotely hospitable environment, we seem to have moved in there long ago, before eventually being wiped out by the forefathers of TV crews.

But we weren't hungry, at least not for most of the time. Population size is controlled by food supply, humans live in tribes of between about 20 and 80 individuals and a tribe will have a territory of a size appropriate to support itself. The members of the tribe will be highly adept at obtaining adequate food supplies from that area. If this is impossible then the tribe would either be smaller or it would be somewhere else. Or dead.

Everyone alive today comes from a very, very long line of successful hunter gatherers. The only reason we are here is because what our distant ancestors did was highly successful. Anyone who's great great great great (X100)th's grandmother died of starvation before having any children is not here today. We are the product of success.

That is tribalism as it has always been. All tribal humans are fully equipped with absolutely everything they need in terms of utensils and knowledge to survive in reasonable comfort where they live. If the comfort is too great, humans will breed to use up the extra food supply. Tight times may be intermittent, but they function to reduce the population slightly and maintain the balance. Tribalism got us here and the phenomenon of a solitary struggle to survive in extreme conditions is a product of Civilisation. The struggle often comes from the ignorance of tribal survival knowledge. Even a group of 100 individuals do not make a tribe. Look what happens when you put over a hundred Royal Navy explorers on to the Arctic ice in 1845 without tribal knowledge or behaviour. Probably with complete disdain for the natives.

This is the unsuccessful Arctic expedition of Sir John Franklin, when all 120+ men perished. The accounts are quite depressing but what is most interesting is that in this extreme, lethal environment where explorers (at the then cutting edge of British naval ability) were starving to death, over 100 native Eskimo were living. Living as they always had, men and women, making babies and looking after toddlers, routine tribal stuff. To the Inuit, fully educated in tribal life of the area, Franklin's expedition died of starvation in a food aisle of Sainsburys. A good speculative account, such as could be made out in the 1930s, comes from Stefansson's "Unsolved Mysteries of the Arctic", cheap on Amazon and far more detailed than anything on Wikepedia, though it lacks some of the modern forensic evidence.

The follow-on from this is the complete lack of respect for the early explorers amongst the Inuit.

The Inuit were there in the Arctic, which was an extreme environment to the Victorians, because there was enough food, shelter and warmth for them to live family lives there. It may not always have been comfortable, but it was successful. They certainly were not struggling to survive. A man alone with a camera is not where they were ever at.


My favourite source of thought on human evolution is, as always, Daniel Quinn.


Brad Reid said...


Not necessarily germane to this topic, but if you find time, would you comment on "Acylation Stimulating Protein" and its role in the body after a high fat feast?

A recent blog elsewhere somewhat at odds with low carb dieting used ASP to disprove that fat eaten in the absence of carbohydrates can't be stored as fat.

Your thoughts?

Cheers! Brad

Chris said...


Ken said...

Desolate Landscapes: Ice-Age Settlement in Eastern Europe reviewed by Peter Frost "As humans spread out of Africa, they entered new environments, including one that no longer exists. The loess-steppe covered the East European Plain off and on during successive ice ages until 10,000 years ago. Quite unlike today’s northern barrens, it combined Arctic tundra with fertile loess soil and low latitudes―the Eurasian tundra belt having been pushed far to the south by the Scandinavian icecap. Long intense sunlight favoured a lush growth of mosses, lichens, grasses, and low shrubs that fed mammoths, reindeer, bison, and horses. Despite this high bioproductivity, the loess-steppe confronted humans with a number of adaptive challenges. Winter temperatures averaged from -20 to -30 °C in exposed conditions with little natural protection. Wood was scarce for fuel or shelter. Finally, almost all of the biomass suitable for human consumption was in the form of large migrating mammals. [...]Modern humans were moving into an environment that no other Homo had successfully colonized. To overcome the challenges of the harsh Arctic climate, they created new forms of fuel, clothing, and shelter. To overcome the challenges of a different food supply, they reallocated the tasks of food procurement between men and women. This shift in food procurement is evident if we compare present-day hunter-gatherers from the Tropics and the Arctic. In the tropical zone, men hunt while women gather berries, fruits, roots, grubs, eggs, and other sessile food items, these tasks being more compatible with the demands of pregnancy, breast-feeding, and infant transport (Kelly 1995:268-269). Further north, food gathering is limited by the long winter, providing less than 10% of all food among hunter-gatherers above 60° N, as compared to 40-55% below 40° N (Martin 1974:16-18). The end point of this trend is Arctic tundra, where almost all of the available biomass is in the form of game animals. Such environments compel women to process food obtained through hunting instead of gathering food on their own.

Hoffecker discusses the implications (p. 8). First, “hunter-gatherers in northern continental environments who subsist on terrestrial mammals must forage across large areas in order to secure highly dispersed and mobile prey.” Second, “[a]nother consequence of low temperatures and a high meat diet is that males procure most or all food resources.” " Frost's explaination for the whitening of European's skin is touched on in this article.

Peter said...

Good job it's my birthday soon


chlOe said...

I noticed you live in the UK; do you watch BBC? They're coming out with a new program that you might find interesting
Wish they would show it in America.

Unknown said...

After reading Dr. Davis' post I downloaded and watched the first Survivorman episode. It's got helpful tips on survival but, as you surmise, it's really not educational in the diet sense. He basically just starved for 7 days. He ate a few snails and some sort of little green that looked like clover.

If the show was "Tribalman" then the moose he saw while trying to "survive" in northern Canada would not have been allowed to just wander off. The show was basically "How to not die of thirst or exposure until you can find a highway and hitchhike back to civilization."

Peter said...

Hi Brock,

That's television....


Anonymous said...

I've been reading some in books about Arctic exploration at

Here is one:

True Tales of Arctic Heroism in the New World, by A. W. Greeley, published in 1912.

There is a lovely photo, on page 334, of a group of Inuits.

Peter said...

Hi H,

Nice book, some reading to do there I see. Many thanks


BTW I notice none are too fat in the picture (once I found out how to move the cursor!!!!).

Erik said...

(A little late to the party)

I'm curious exactly what location the episode you reference was filmed in?

I'm in a very temperate climate myself at about 43 degrees N in western NY state and, well, I do a fair bit of foraging. I can testify that readily available starches and sugars on the land are far more abundant, calorically, than game.

Big starchy taproots from cattail, burdock, thistle, starchy tubers from groundnut, spring beauty, arrowhead, starch and sugar from the cambium of most of the surrounding trees, a decent amount of wild fruit throughout the season (some through the winter), grasses and herbaceous plants with easily gathered starchy seed/grain, and lots of starchy nut varieties.

The idea that bulk carbohydrate is difficult to find in most natural environments does not hold up to my experience or reading of others who seek similarly in the wild for sustenance (rather than TV ratings).

Of course, if I'm going make a meal of cattail root it's more satisfying to eat them with a nice fleshy trout, which significantly improves the nutritional value of the meal, but the time and energy expended to capture fish or game (especially with less modern methods) relative to calories gained simply doesn't compete with yanking immobile roots out of the mud for a couple minutes. Inuit aside, one of those things are ancestors were no doubt so successful with was exploiting the abundant starch in most temperate climates, much of which modern leaf-and-berry hobby-foragers are completely ignorant of, to say nothing of mainstream culture.