Above all, the food writers tell us, avoid fats, especially saturated fats. The hunter-gatherer’s diet was highly politically correct, they say, rich in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids but relatively low in overall fat and very low in that dietary villain-saturated fat. This is the one dietary factor that health officials tell us is responsible
Above all, the food writers tell us, avoid fats, especially saturated fats. The hunter-gatherer’s diet was highly politically correct, they say, rich in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids but relatively low in overall fat and very low in that dietary villain-saturated fat. This is the one dietary factor that health officials tell us is responsible for all the health problems that plague us –everything from cancer and heart disease to obesity and MS.
That the hunter-gatherer was healthy there is no doubt. Weston Price noted an almost complete absence of tooth decay and dental deformities among Native Americans who lived as their ancestors did. They had broad faces, straight teeth and fine physiques. This was true of the nomadic tribes living in the far northern territories of British Columbia and the Yukon, as well as the wary inhabitants of the Florida Everglades, who were finally coaxed into allowing him to take photographs. Skeletal remains of the Indians of Vancouver that Price studied were similar, showing a virtual absence of tooth decay, arthritis and any other kind of bone deformity. TB was nonexistent among Indians who ate as their ancestors had done, and the women gave birth with ease.
Price interviewed the beloved Dr. Romig in Alaska who stated “that in his thirty-six years of contact with these people he had never seen a case of malignant disease among the truly primitive Eskimos and Indians, although it frequently occurs when they become modernized. He found, similarly, that the acute surgical problems requiring operation on internal organs, such as the gall bladder, kidney, stomach and appendix, do not tend to occur among the primitives but are very common problems among the modernized Eskimos and Indians. Growing out of his experience in which he had seen large numbers of the modernized Eskimos and Indians attacked with tuberculosis, which tended to be progressive and ultimately fatal as long as the patients stayed under modernized living conditions, he now sends them back when possible to primitive conditions and to a primitive diet, under which the death rate is very much lower than under modernized conditions. Indeed, he reported that a great majority of the afflicted recover under the primitive type of living and nutrition.”
The early explorers consistently described the native Americans as tall and well formed. Of the Indians of Texas, the explorer Cabeza de Vaca wrote, “The men could run after a deer for an entire day without resting and without apparent fatigue. . . one man near seven feet in stature. . . runs down a buffalo on foot and slays it with his knife or lance, as he runs by its side.” The Indians were difficult to kill. De Vaca reports on an Indian “traversed by an arrow. . . he does not die but recovers from his wound.” The Karakawas, a tribe that lived near the Gulf Coast, were tall, well-built and muscular. “The men went stark naked, the lower lip and nipple pierced, covered in alligator grease [to ward off mosquitoes], happy and generous, with amazing physical prowess… they go naked in the most burning sun, in winter they go out in early dawn to take a bath, breaking the ice with their body.”
The diets of the American Indians varied with the locality and climate but all were based on animal foods of every type and description, not only large game like deer, buffalo, wild sheep and goat, antelope, moose, elk, caribou, bear and peccary, but also small animals such as beaver, rabbit, squirrel, skunk, muskrat and raccoon; reptiles including snakes, lizards, turtles, and alligators; fish and shellfish; wild birds including ducks and geese; sea mammals (for Indians living in coastal areas); insects including locust, spiders and lice; and dogs. (Wolves and coyotes were avoided because of religious taboos).
According to Dr. Eaton, these foods supplied plenty of protein but only small amounts of total fat; and this fat was high in polyunsaturated fatty acids and low in saturated fats. The fat of wild game, according to Eaton, is about 38 percent saturated, 32 percent monounsaturated and 30 percent polyunsaturated. This prescription may be just fine for those who want to promote vegetable oils, but it does not jibe with fat content of wild animals in the real world. Seal fat, consumed by coastal Indians, ranges from 14 to 24 percent polyunsaturated. The fat of all the other animals that the Indians hunted and ate contained less than 10 percent polyunsaturated fatty acids, some less than 2 percent. Most prized was the internal kidney fat of ruminant animals, which can be as high as 65 percent saturated.
Politically correct paleo-dieters also ignore the fact that the Indians hunted animals selectively. The explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who spend many years with the Indians, noted that they preferred “the flesh of older animals to that of calves, yearlings and two-year olds… It is approximately so with those northern forest Indians with whom I have hunted, and probably with all caribou-eaters.” The Indians preferred the older animals because they had built up a thick slab of fat along the back. In an animal of 1000 pounds, this slab could weigh 40 to 50 pounds. Another 20-30 pounds of highly saturated fat could be removed from the cavity. This fat was saved, sometimes by rendering, stored in the bladder or large intestine, and consumed with dried or smoked lean meat. Used in this way, fat contributed almost 80 percent of total calories in the diets of the northern Indians.11
Beaver was highly prized, especially the tail because it was rich in fat. But small animals like rabbit and squirrel were eaten only when nothing else was available because, according to Stefansson, they were so low in fat. In fact, small animals called for special preparation. The meat was removed from the bones, roasted and pounded. The bones were dried and ground into a powder. Then the bones were mixed with the meat and any available grease, a procedure that would greatly lower the percentage of polyunsaturated fatty acids, while raising the total content of saturated fat. When a scarcity of game forced the Indians to consume only small animals like rabbits, they suffered from “rabbit starvation.”
“The groups that depend on the blubber animals are the most fortunate, in the hunting way of life, for they never suffer from fat-hunger. This trouble is worst, so far as North America is concerned, among those forest Indians who depend at times on rabbits, the leanest animal in the North, and who develop the extreme fat-hunger known as rabbit-starvation. Rabbit eaters, if they have no fat from another source – beaver, moose, fish – will develop diarrhoea in about a week, with headache, lassitude and vague discomfort. If there are enough rabbits, the people eat till their stomachs are distended; but no matter how much they eat they feel unsatisfied. Some think a man will die sooner if he eats continually of fat-free meat than if he eats nothing, but this is a belief on which sufficient evidence for a decision has not been gathered in the North. Deaths from rabbit-starvation, or from the eating of other skinny meat, are rare; for everyone understands the principle, and any possible preventive steps are naturally taken.”
Ruminant animals, such as moose, elk, caribou, deer, antelope and, of course, buffalo were the mainstay of the Amerindian diet, just as beef is the mainstay of the modern American diet. The difference is that the whole animal was eaten, not just the muscle meats.
Beverly Hungry Wolf describes the preparation and consumption of a cow in The Ways of My Grandmothers, noting that her grandmother prepared the cow “as she had learned to prepare buffalo when she was young.” The large pieces of fat from the back and cavity were removed and rendered. The lean meat was cut into strips and dried or roasted, pounded up with berries and mixed with fat to make pemmican. Most of the ribs were smoked and stored for later use.
All the excess fat inside the body was hung up so the moisture would dry out of it, recalls Beverly Hungry Wolf. It was later served with dried meat. Some fats in the animal were rendered into “lard” instead of dried.
A variety of plant foods were used throughout the North American continents, notably corn (in the temperate regions) and wild rice (in the Great Lakes region). Dry corn was first soaked in lime water (water in which calcium carbonate or calcium oxide is dissolved), a process called nixtamalizacion that softens the corn for use and releases vitamin B3, which otherwise remains bound in the grain. The resulting dough, called nixtamal or masa, can be prepared in a variety of ways to make porridges and breads. Often these preparations were then fried in bear grease or other fat. Many groups grew beans and enjoyed them as “succotash,” a dish comprised of beans, corn, dog meat and bear fat. As an adjunct to the diet, corn provided variety and important calories. But when the proportion of corn in the diet became too high, as happened in the American Southwest, the health of the people suffered. Skeletal remains of groups subsisting largely on corn reveal widespread tooth decay and bone problems.21
Tubers like the Jerusalem artichoke (the root of a type of sunflower) were cooked slowly for a long time in underground pits until the hard indigestible root was transformed into a highly digestible gelatinous mass. Wild onions were used to flavor meat dishes and, in fact, were an important item of commerce. Nuts like acorns were made into gruel or little cakes after careful preparation to remove tannins. In the Southeast, pecans contributed important fat calories. In the southern areas, cactus was consumed; in northern areas wild potatoes.
Staples like corn and beans were stored in underground pits, ingeniously covered with logs and leaves to prevent wild animals from finding or looting the stores. Birch bark was used to make trays, buckets and containers, including kettles. Water was boiled by putting hot rocks into the containers. Southern Indians used clay pots for the same purpose.
In general, fruits were dried and used to season fat, fish and meat-dried blueberries were used to flavor moose fat, for example. Beverly Hungry Wolf recalls that her grandmother mixed wild mint with fat and dried meat, which was then stored in rawhide containers. The mint would keep the bugs out and also prevent the fat from spoiling.
Modern food writers who assure us we can enjoy the superb health of the American Indian by eating low fat foods and canned fruits have done the public a great disservice. The basis of the Indian diet was guts and grease, not waffles and skimmed milk. When the Onkwehonwe abandoned these traditional foods and began consuming processed store-bought foods, their health deteriorated rapidly. Weston Price vividly described the suffering from tooth decay, tuberculosis, arthritis and other problems that plagued the modernized Indian groups he visited throughout America and Canada.
Modern man has lost his taste for the kinds of foods the Indians ate—how many American children will eat raw liver, dried lung or sour porridge? How then can we return to the kind of good health the Indians enjoyed?
Add some good fats (butter, tallow and lard), aim for liver or other organ meats once a week (but don’t fret if you can’t achieve this with your own children), make cod liver oil part of the daily routine, eat plenty of meat and seafood, and augment the diet with a variety of plant foods properly prepared, including a few that are fermented. Keep sugar and white flour to a minimum. It’s a simple formula that can turn a nation of hungry little wolves into happy campers.
Meanwhile, be skeptical of government guidelines. The Indians learned not to trust our government and neither should you.
The authors are grateful to Don Coté for his help with this article. This article was originally published on the website of the Weston A. Price Foundation www.westonaprice.org and is reprinted with permission.