The Ancestral Health movement typically views diet, exercise, sleep, avoidance of environmental toxins and stress reduction as foundational for optimal health. This focus is predicated upon the premise that our genome is essentially no different than our Paleolithic ancestors, and yet our contemporary diet and lifestyle bear no resemblance to our predecessors. This radical departure is viewed as the primary source of the chronic diseases of Western civilization.
There is something vital missing from the Ancestral Health model, which is equally absent from the traditional Western medical model. Our Paleolithic ancestors had a spiritual relationship with the cosmos.
In 1914 a cave was discovered in Southwestern France, consisting of an enormous hall accessed by a long, low, narrow passageway. The walls of this cave are covered with depictions of animals that lived in Europe 12,000 years ago: bison, mammoths, stags, woolly ponies and leaping bulls. The mural depicts numerous flying spears directed towards these prehistoric creatures. There is a sorcerer overlooking this tableau, a 30 inch being, a therianthrope: half-human and half-animal. This mythical creature has a man’s full beard and dancing legs, the antlers and ears of a stag, and the paws and sex organ of a lion. The Animal Master, a shaman, was responsible for the hunt and the abundance of game.
Les Trois Freres, as this underground sacred cathedral is now named, was used for thousands of years as a space to enact rituals of transformation and rebirth. The purpose of these ceremonies was to increase the supply of game while meditating on the mystical relationship between human beings and the natural world.
In modern life, our relationship with the natural world is denied. We are no longer dependent on the rhythm of the sun’s cycles of light and dark to regulate our patterns of activity and rest. What we eat is unrelated to what is available seasonally. But beyond the physical realm, there is a fundamental spiritual dissociation between ourselves and the natural world. Our modern society is ruled by scientism, the belief that science is the only source of wisdom. Science is no longer an indispensable tool to gather knowledge about nature, but has become deified, and other ways of knowing are viewed with contempt.
This world view not only contributes to the widespread incidence of depression and anxiety in our culture, as it it drains the world of meaning and magic, but has resulted in the continued rape of our planet, threatening the human future on this earth. Our psychological malaise is not only because of refined carbs, industrial seed oils, lack of nutrient dense and fermented foods, and gut permeability , but because we are cut off from our connection to the cosmos. It is essential to include the cultivation of our sacred relationship to nature as an integral part of Ancestral Health.
Hi Dr. Tsafir,
Last night I finished re-reading “Supernatural” by Graham Hancock, and this morning I read your post. What a feeling of synchronicity!
Hancock spends approximately 250 pages of the book discussing paleolithic cave art and it’s implications for the origins of spirituality. His premise that we are perhaps hardwired at the DNA level to enter mystical states is fascinating.
Thanks for posting the video. It was an excellent suppliment to the pictures and line-drawings in the book.
Thanks for so much for writing. I am so glad that you had that pleasure of re-meeting the cave art in the video this AM, and took the time to tell me about it.
I have always adored that art. I have a print of a wooly mammoth from the cave paintings in Lascaux on the wall above my bathtub. Every night when I take my bath I look at it. The caves in Southern France are at the top of my bucket list. It was really fun for me to be able to find a way to include them in my blog.
The idea that we are hardwired to enter mystical states is intriguing. I wonder what a social biologist would say about it’s function? Did Hancock have a theory about why we evolved this way?
I know there are certain types of seizures that can induce mystical experience. I think electrically stimulating the temporal lobe of the brain does that. Its all mysterious.
The entire book is dedicated to that very question: Why did we evolve this way?
I have heard about brain stimulation eliciting mystical states, OBEs, NDEs etc., but Hancock is looking at a different type of brain stimulation; a certain set of chemicals known as tryptamines derived from the amino acid tryptophan. Some tryptamines are hallucinogens. Because we have tryptamine receptors on our cells, we are able to respond to naturally-derived plant-based tryptamines.
Hancock wonders if hallucinogenic plants ingested in the paleolithic were the catalyst for all of the things that make us “human”. Its like we had a time-bomb in our DNA, just ticking away until the right level of neural and physical development occurred, Then BOOM! – civilization!
Yes, indeed, it is all very mysterious. That is what I love about it. I think you would enjoy the book.
It sounds totally wonderful and fascinating. I will look for it. Thanks again for writing and telling me about this.
Emily Deans, M.D. says
There is so much literature on the “spiritual deficiency” seen in personality disorders, for example. I think we need to be important but awed, to feel held by the earth yet insignificant to the sky. But I’m a romantic 🙂
Love your comment, Emily. Very beautifully said.
I tried to leave a comment on your post about Magnesium but had some technical difficulty and then gave up. I also happened to have written a post about magnesium that week. It seemed like synchronicity.
I am not familiar with that “spiritual deficiency” literature. It’s funny. It sounds like a vitamin deficiency. I would love to know more about that.
Half an hour ago I left a question for Dr. T. on another webpage of this site – it was a question about magnesium supplementation –
and then I moved on to read some of her other articles on other topics, and I happened to see these two comments here, bringing me back to the topic of magnesium. So this is a teeny bit of further ‘synchronicity’, at least for me personally. 🙂
About once a year, I check out Dr. Deans’ great website — I spend a few hours and skim through the year’s posts, there is so much of interest! — and seeing her message here reminds me that it’s about time for me to do that again!
Just to see what she might have written about magnesium a couple of years ago that Dr. T. was referring to, I am now looking up “Emily Deans magnesium” on a search engine and I’ve found a Psychology Today article she wrote that mentions her perspective on some of the questions about magnesium which I have just asked Dr. T. elsewhere on this site –
“Magnesium is taken up by the same transporter as calcium and zinc, so they can fight with each other for absorption.
Jaminet and Jaminet recommend total daily levels (between food and supplements) of 400-800mg.
Most people can safely supplement with 200-350mg daily without any problems (again, don’t proceed without a doctor’s supervision if you have known kidney disease or if you are elderly).” (from June 12, 2011)
I’m taking 400 mg a day now of magnesium citrate, and I was afraid that I might already be at the uppermost limit of a safe level of supplementation, and it seems like that might be the case, from Dr. Deans’ perspective. Unfortunately, this amount doesn’t help my constipation.
Philip Thackray says
Sorry that the duck eggs did not work out – we tried!
Karen P said: “I find that when evolution informs everything about our lives, the need for anything spiritual is nil.” Somewhat paraphrased I wrote that exact line to a good friend in Vermont this morning. I added “I believe in what we are – nothing more is possible for me. But that belief alone gives me morality and the joy of following my sensations (within the boundaries of the afore mentioned morality).”
I do feel spiritual as I bet Karen P does but without an external object to worship. Alan Watts said “Life is a spark between one eternal darkness and another”. I accept that fact of life.
Psychologically, I would put the human intellect in the role you have placed Science socially. Much of what I would call psychoses or neuroses results when people allow their intellect to determine their life. When the intellect is seen as just a (recently evolved) tool, it’s cluttering influences can be set aside to allow (good) beliefs and feelings to rule. (the “good” belief discussion is for another day – ok?)
Long before I found this way of life I was in love with Wallace Steven’s poem Sunday Morning. Now I know why.
Dear Phillip. So good to hear from you again! I seem to be able to tolerate eggs a bit better these days. If I eat them in something and don’t overdo it, it seems like its OK for now. Your sending me the duck eggs was so wonderful. Thank you again. That very was very special.
I don’t understand how when evolution informs everything the need for anything spiritual is nil. I don’t get that. Can you elaborate?
It does sound like you feel deeply moved by the beauty of life as evidenced by your love of Wallace Steven’s poem. I like what you said about the intellect. Now you got me curious about “good beliefs” Hopefully you will tell me someday. I have gotten the impression from my Pittsburgh friends that your winter in Pittsburgh has been unusually mild this year, as ours in Boston has as well.
Betsy MacMichael says
Nice message Judy. I agree wholeheartedly and interesting to hear about that cave. One reason I like one of my rituals, of going with a bunch of women to the beautiful Outer Banks each year is to nourish the important connections I believe in, between spiritual development/people/Earth/love…
Thanks, Bets, for writing. Your ritual sounds like a feast for the soul.
Karen P. says
Hmm. I dunno. There is a great sense of appreciation in ancestral circles for nature. Think earthing, barefoot running, MovNat, modern hunting and gathering. I get the sense that you’re talking about a less tangible human experience.
I worry a little that “primitive” shamans and spirituality get romanticized. There is plenty of evidence of abuses by these people who wielded power over their groups. It became a source of magic, paranoia, and superstition. While they often served a practical purpose, and I don’t mean to negate their role entirely, it wasn’t all positive.
I find that when evolution informs everything about our lives, the need for anything spiritual is nil. Of course I feel a sense of wonder and awe in nature, but the connection to “spiritual” gets interrupted in me. I don’t have to make it about anything in order to appreciate the connective tissue that makes life interesting and mysterious. I believe that things like “meaning” and “spirit” are actually somewhat damaging and serve to remove us from the integrity of a moment/experience.
As Gertrude Stein said, “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”
Hi Karen. Thanks so much for writing. Its good for me to hear your perspective. Everyone is so different.
Of course any one who has power can abuse it, and the examples of this are legion in all realms of human endeavor.
The Ancestral health model often approaches the body like its a machine, and views humans as no different than any other animal in terms of our evolution, and that the unique human need for spiritual connection and purpose is not part of the discourse.
Most Paleo devotees are on the young side, though I know some of the luminaries are older. The older you get, the more vulnerable you feel in some ways. There is a way that aging really makes a big dent in in the youthful sense of omnipotence.
It seems to me that especially as people age, and endure more of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that are part and parcel of living longer, that they often can feel despair if they do not develop a larger sense of themselves and their connection to the universe.
Karen P. says
Thanks for your thoughtful response, Judy.
Your point about the body as machine really struck a chord. I agree, and worry that ancestral health can commit some of the same crimes as the Nutritionism that got us into trouble in the first place! I’ve done a lot of research into this (still have a LOT more to go!) and eventually you still have to live your life and not drive yourself into an orthorexic frenzy. And yes, one of the best ways to combat that is to relax the focus and go inward.
Karen, your appreciation of my reference to the body as a machine reminded of something that I recently read and loved, which is a big antidote to the machine model. It’s by a Uraguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano:
Medicine says the body is a machine.
Marketing says the body is a business.
Religion says the body is a sin.
The body says, I am a Fiesta!
I say Viva la Fiesta. The orthorexic frenzy is just deadly and not only that, also boring.