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What Did the Bushmen Actually Eat?


“My friend, the way it is with us Bushmen is that we love meat. And even more than that, we love fat. When we hunt we always search for the fat ones, the ones dripping with layers of white fat: fat that turns into a clear, thick oil in the cooking pot, fat that slides down your gullet, fills your stomach and gives you a roaring diarrhea,”


—Tomazo
“Eating Christmas in the Kalahari” Richard Borshay Lee


The term “Paleo” gets tossed around a lot, but what does it actually mean to eat like our paleolithic ancestors? A good place to look for answers is the diet of the Bushmen of the Eastern Kalahari, whose traditional mode of life, virtually unchanged for millennia, persisted long enough into modernity to be recorded in detail by anthropologists.

The Bushmen were doing something right. They had an average maximum lifespan similar to those in the West, and their health persisted longer into old age.1 The diseases of civilization were unheard of. Your average Bushmen elder passed away not from a heart attack, stroke, cancer or diabetes, but because their teeth fell out and they couldn’t chew.2

Bushmen Diet

Almost half of the traditional Bushmen’s calories came from animals (40%) while the other half came primarily from the mongongo nut and fruit (40%). The remainder of their diet was composed of other plant foods (20%).3 In terms of macros, this comes out to roughly 40% protein, 30% fat and 30% carbohydrates.4—starkly different than the U.S. average of approximately 15% protein, 30% fat and 55% carbs.

Animal

Bushmen males were awesome hunters. By the age of twelve a boy could recognize over a dozen species of animal by their tracks alone. The average Bushman went out hunting with his buddies three times a week, sometimes bringing back a large mammal like a wildebeest, but more often bringing home one of the plentiful medium-sized antelope species (gemsbok, kudu, eland), something smaller like a rabbit or tortoise, or nothing at all.5

Meat was the most highly-prized of all Bushmen foods. It provided each Bushman with an average of 800 calories a day, though there was significant day to day variation. After bagging a hefty wildebeest, for example, a family of Bushmen might get almost all of their calories from meat and fat for the next few days.6

Bushmen ate the entire animal, including the stomach, brains, intestines, and blood. They even boiled the bones down to squeeze as many calories and nutrients as possible from the kill. Before bringing the carcass home, the successful hunters would roast and eat the fresh liver, consuming the vitamin- and mineral-packed organ before its enzymes began to degrade (avoiding what we in the West have come to consider a “liver” taste). Once back at camp, they’d cure some of the kill into thin strips of tasty jerky, perfect for munching on when the hunting slowed down.7

Mongongo fruit and nut

The mongongo was second only to meat in traditional Bushmen preference. They got an average of 800 calories a day from this nutritional powerhouse, boiling the flesh into a stew (“like a date though less sweet”) and fire-roasting the nuts (“not unlike dry roasted almonds or cashews… resembling fine old cheese”)8. Consumption varied by day and season, but rarely did a Bushmen day pass without at least a handful of mongongo nuts. There would always be at least a few of them by the door of the hut which your busy Bushmen could grab for a snack on the go.

Fun fact: Gathering mongongo nuts was usually ladies’ work. Although the mongongo was a more important source of calories than animal flesh (same average intake, significantly lower variance), the gathering of mongongo nuts was not nearly as prestigious as hunting. Ladies didn’t brag over the fire at night about the bushels of nuts they brought home, but men would talk literally for generations about that one time /Xashe and !Tsama bagged FIVE GEMSBOK IN ONE AFTERNOON.

Other plant food

The Bushmen ate over a hundred different plant species, but they got the vast majority of their remaining calories, about 400 cal/day, from only twelve plants. These included the Baobab (sour fruit and tasty nut extremely high in vitamin c, potassium and magnesium), ivory palm, wild orange, marula nut (delightful taste, full of magnesium and potassium) and tsin bean (rich and nutty, full of B-vitamins).9 Each one of these plant species is a nutritional powerhouse you could seal in a fancy package and sell for $20 at Whole Foods.

Bushmen were extremely selective eaters. During lean times, when their agriculturalist neighbors resorted to eating plant species considered by the Bushmen to be technically edible but mildly toxic, the Bushmen would simply lower their standards a bit and utilize more of the less favorable but perfectly edible fruit, nuts and beans they’d normally let rot on the ground.10

Nutrition Calculator

In the picture below, we’ve got a typical food diary entry for an average Bushmen male. His name is !Xe and he’s 5’5’’, 110 lbs with very little body fat. !Xe burns an average of 2000 calories a day, which looks like a lot given his size, but remember he has to go further than the fridge to get lunch. This entry is an average of !Xe’s yearly consumption, in reality any given day would look substantially different.

 

Paleo Bushmen Diet

The results are generally what you’d expect from a low-carb Paleo diet, but some things really stand out:

A GIGANTIC potassium to sodium ratio (K/Na): Bushmen cuisine is packed with potassium, and they don’t salt any of their food. They eat three times as much potassium and one sixth the amount of salt as the typical American.12, 13 That’s 50% more potassium and one third the sodium than even official recommendations! The K/Na ratio of 13 we got from !Xe’s Cronometer is very close to the paleolithic Na/K ratio of 16 estimated by researchers.11 It absolutely destroys the average American K/Na ratio of .75

Standard U.S. Diet Recommended Bushmen
Potassium (K)  2600 mg 4700 mg 7500 mg
Sodium (Na) 3500 mg 2000 mg 630 mg
K/Na ratio <1 2 13


Whether or not it’s sodium excess in particular that causes high blood pressure, the evidence that mineral balance—especially the K/Na ratio—plays a significant role in the pathogenesis of hypertension is convincing.14 Not that correlation proves causation, but Bushmen had average blood pressure of 110/68, which didn’t rise with age as it does in the West.15 Just saying.


Huge daily doses of magnesium (Mg): Magnesium works synergistically with potassium. Jacking up Mg in conjunction with K increases the body’s utilization of K significantly. The average Bushman ate five times the amount of Mg as the average American16 and four times the official USDA recommendation.17 These massive doses of magnesium amplify the effects of the already astounding K/Na ratio discussed above and can also do wonders for high blood pressure.

Standard U.S. Diet Recommended  Bushmen
Magnesium 250 mg 350 mg 1100 mg


Very little calcium: Those of you worried that cutting out dairy will leave you with insufficient calcium, take heart. Bushmen thrived on barely half the calcium recommended by the nutrition authorities. In the mineral balance described above, calcium works against both potassium and magnesium.

Standard U.S. Diet Recommended Bushmen
Calcium 1030 mg 1000 mg 530 mg


Tons of other metals: The Bushmen got massive daily doses of zinc, iron and copper, consuming these metals far in excess of what’s officially recommended. Zinc is a powerful anti-stress mineral and is vital for energy, focus and libido (it’s a primary component of sperm). Iron is essential for the creation of red blood cells, and copper is a critical part of the body’s energy, antioxidant, collagen-production and cholesterol balancing systems.

Lots of saturated fat: The saturated fat and cholesterol in the traditional Bushmen diet is enough to leave an egg-white-omelet-eating USDA researcher shivering in their oxfords. Surely that amount of animal fat must be clogging up their arteries! Not to belabor the point, but heart disease was unheard of among the Bushmen, and it wasn’t because they were dying young.

Protein to the max: You’d think they were little body builders packing on muscle before an upcoming competition. At almost 40% of daily calories, this is the upper limit on what’s considered “safe” consumption of protein before protein toxicity kicks in. It doesn’t seem so high, however, when you consider the substantial amount of physical exercise the Bushmen engaged in.

But very low in the protein tryptophan: Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, one of the so-called “happy chemicals”. Many researchers question this, however, as serotonin is implicated in a number of stress and disease states, and blocking it can do wonders for energy and focus.18

There's a lot more discussion to be had about the Bushmen lifestyle, specifically around exercise, meal timing, sleep and sun exposure, but we'll save that for an upcoming post. 


References:

1. Longevity Among Hunter Gatherers: A Cross Cultural Examination

2. The Old Way: A Story of the First People, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Chpt 13, pg 209

3. Kalahari Hunter Gatherers. Richard Borshay Lee & Irven DeVore. 1998, pg  38

4. The !Kung San: Men, Women and Work in a Foraging Society. Richard Borshay Lee. 1979

5. Kalahari Hunter Gatherers. Richard Borshay Lee & Irven DeVore. 1998, pg  102

6. The !Kung San: Men, Women and Work in a Foraging Society. Richard Borshay Lee. 1979

7. ibid

8. ibid, pg 18

9. ibid, pg 479-488

10. ibid, pg 180

11. Sodium, Potassium, and Paleo

12. CDC on Sodium

13. Potassium Intake of the U.S. Population

14. Pass the Salt

15. Blood Pressure in the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert. BENJAMIN KAMINER. 1960

16. Dietary Magnesium Intake in a Sample of U.S. Adults

17. Magnesium Fact Sheet

18a.Serotonin: Effects in disease, aging and inflammation. Ray Peat. 

18b. Serotonin, depression, and aggression: The problem of brain energy. Ray Peat. 

18c. Tryptophan, Serotonin and Aging. Ray Peat. 

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