Society for Primitive Technology, Fall, 2010, # 40: 46 – 49

Habitat and Health, from the Primitive to the Contemporary

by Lanie Johnson

Unlikely Beginnings      

 I wasn’t particularly interested in health until 1973, when at the age of 35 I was shocked to suddenly come down with rheumatoid arthritis, which turned out to be both a blessing and a curse. The curse of pain and disability is a whole other story, but the blessing was that, through a long process, I discovered holistic health; instead of “learning to live with it,” as the conventional medical doctors had told me after their diagnosis, I became symptom-free in less than two years and have remained so for over 35 years.          

In the early 80’s I began reading about primitive skills and soon was taking courses in New Jersey with Tom Brown, Jr.; Barry Keegan and Tony Follari at Pathways; and in Utah with Mike and Carrie Ryan, and Rob Withrow at B.O.S.S . Soon the scope of my beloved holistic health paradigm began to seem quite limited. Although the concept of ”body, mind and spirit” is focused on the whole human being rather than just symptoms of disease, I began to think also about where and how we live; wouldn’t it also be important to live in harmony with one’s environment? Since the Earth provides materials for our shelter, water, energy and food, we not only need to know how to find these materials, we also need to maintain them, as in being careful not to pick all the Chickweed or Wild Ginger from one patch.  It was but a short step to the next question: Can we learn something about health from primitive people and their habitats?

Learning from Primitives         

During wilderness survival courses in New Jersey I enjoyed learning about wild edible, medicinal, and useful plants. Little did I know that when I signed up for the B.O.S.S. course in Utah, I would have to virtually start from scratch and learn new plants from a very different eco-system! This was my first lesson on habitat and survival: if you are to survive in a particular area it helps to be familiar with its plants and other features. An ancient Hunter-Gatherer tribe knew its habitat well (if nomadic, they knew several). Their knowledge of food collection and processing was passed down from generation to generation. How did their diet and way of life affect their health?       

 It took me many years to find the answer to this question. I learned that consistent diets of local natural foods make a tremendous difference. This answer came mostly from an amazing book, NUTRITION AND PHYSICAL DEGENERATION (Weston A. Price, D.D.S., 1939.) A dentist? Yes, one whose extensive research and photographs of traditional people in the 1930’s has given us a clear understanding of information that is no longer available due to the expansion of civilization. Dr. Price studied the cultures of isolated primitives around the world, cultures which had not yet been exposed to civilization and its refined, nutrient-deficient foods.         

It all started when Dr. Price realized that his dental patients in Cleveland were generally in poor health. Many of the adults had rampant tooth decay plus arthritis, osteoporosis, diabetes and chronic fatigue. He became especially concerned about his younger patients, whose poor health he then worked to understand for 10 years. He saw crowded, crooked teeth become more and more common, along with narrow face, pinched nostrils, malocclusion, and poorly defined cheekbones. These young patients also suffered from frequent infections, allergies, anemia, asthma, poor vision, lack of coordination and behavior problems.         

Dr. Price spent his summers studying a wide spectrum of isolated primitives around the world. Some of the people and places he visited were:                  

remote Swiss villages                  

an island off the coast of Scotland                  

Inuit in the Arctic                 

 Indian tribes in Canada                 

 South Sea Islanders                  

Australian Aborigines and New Zealand Maoris                 

Indians in Peru and the Amazon                  

African tribes in Kenya (Masai, Kikuya, Wakamba, Jalou)                  

Pygmies

In this very wide spectrum of habitat he found diets ranging from:   

• unpasteurized milk, rye bread, bone broth soup, vegetables, occasional meat   

• fish, fish eggs, seal meat, blubber, water plants, berries   

• sweet potatoes, beans, millet, goat, ant, locust   

• wallaby, kangaroo, rodents   

• meat, blood and milk    

His book contains over 150 photographs which show consistent anatomical and physiological similarities in the people who ingested these very different diets: dental cavities were usually less than 0.5%, there were straight teeth, normal facial and dental bone development with room for all 32 teeth, and almost complete lack of disease (even in harsh environments). In contrast to the previously noted behavior problems of his young dental patients, these people exhibited cooperative behavior; Dr. Price said he had never seen such happy people.

(photo 1) primitive Melanesian boys from 4 different islands

It seems that in place of a completely primitive way of life, many of us have begun a journey back to a more primitive state of health in relation to our habitat and so we can refer to ourselves as pursuing not only Holistic Health but also what I would call a state of “Harmonic Health.”              

He found that some isolated primitives lived near racially similar groups who, after contact with traders or missionaries, had changed their traditional diets to what was available in newly established stores: sugar, refined grains, canned food, pasteurized milk and processed vegetable oils. These people had rampant tooth decay, infectious illnesses and degenerative conditions. Their children, i.e., the next generation following the dietary change, had crowded, crooked teeth, narrow faces, deformities of bone structure and reduced immunity to disease, all of which served to confirm his observations.         

After taking home some native food samples to analyze, Dr. Price found that they contained at least four times the mineral content of his contemporary American diet and ten times the amount of Vitamins A and D.                                    

  (photo 2) modernized Tahitians                                   

  (photo 3) Australian Aborigines, primitive and modern

Where We Are Now         

Dr. Price’s isolated primitives had maintained good health and remained free of disease into the early 20th Century. However, as history shows us, that would remain true only as long as there was no human contact from outside their habitats. Just as modern white people brought their diet of un-natural food to remote areas, early European explorers brought their own diseases against which primitives had no immunity.         

A fascinating account of the history of disease, GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL, (Jared Diamond, 1997) describes how Eurasians first contracted infectious diseases, such as smallpox, from domesticated livestock kept in close quarters, and how they subsequently developed immunity to these diseases. Diamond points out that cows and pigs, major disease sources in the Old World, were absent in the New World where very few animals had been domesticated and therefore no human immunity had developed against such Eurasian diseases.         

More natives of the New World were killed by white men’s germs than by their guns, as documented by Diamond: “When Hernando de Soto . . . [marched] through the southeastern United States, in 1540, he came across Indian town sites abandoned two years earlier because the inhabitants had died in epidemics. These epidemics had been transmitted from coastal Indians infected by Spaniards visiting the coast. The Spaniards’ microbes spread to the interior in advance of the Spaniards themselves. . . For the New World as a whole, the Indian population decline in the century or two following Columbus’s arrival is estimated to have been as large as 95 percent.”         

Robin C. Brown points out that “nowhere was the decimation more terrible than in Florida. In 1500 A.D. there may have been as many as 100,000 people living in what is today Florida. By 1800 A.D. all aboriginal Floridians were gone.” (Bulletin of Primitive Technology, Fall 2009, p. 10)         

By now, in the early 21st Century, most of the primitives visited by Dr. Price have become civilized so that practically the whole world has turned into the vast mono-habitat described in THE GEOGRAPHY OF NOWHERE (James Howard Kuntsler, 1993): “There is little sense of having arrived anywhere, because everyplace looks like noplace in particular”. And as Norm Kidder remarked, in his Fire Watchers essay (Bulletin of Primitive Technology, Fall 2009, p. 8), “Our goal it seems is to make everyplace not only feel, but be the same.” This trend is probably both cause and effect of the state of being disconnected from Nature which is so common these days.         

Corresponding to our modern habitat is a very widespread mono-diet composed of food that is easy to produce on a large scale and convenient to ship virtually anywhere: refined flour and sugar, polished rice, processed vegetable oils and canned goods; all grown on industrial farms with depleted soil. A clear result of the present habitat and diet is a steadily worsening state of health for many people.

Can We Go Back?         

Certainly, being in poor health and out of touch with Nature isn’t true of everyone today, but it is a major trend. What can we do? Can we go back to a primitive way of life?         

NATURE AND MADNESS (Paul Shepard, 1982) refers to constant maternal contact with babies as basic to their development. Baby rats deprived of maternal contact have less of the hormone oxytocin and develop into runts (K. Fischman, 2010).         

Shepard also describes “terrain symbiosis,” as another vital part of primitive child development in which babies lived and grew up outdoors with their clan or tribe, as if their habitat was part of the family. In this way they became bonded with Nature – what a contrast with nature-deficit disorder! However, most people would agree that going back is not an option due to the growing world population. What are some feasible options?         

In the last chapter of NUTRITION AND PHYSICAL DEGENERATION, entitled “Practical Applications of Primitive Wisdom,” Dr. Price makes many instructive suggestions for improving the health of newborns. He points out that most primitives had behaviors that resulted in the spacing of childbirths from between 2-1/2 to 4 years, resulting in better health for both mother and child. He describes special traditional primitive diets for mothers-to-be which of course varied with habitat: fish eggs were important for people living by the sea as were high-quality dairy products for cattle-herding tribes in Africa and isolated Swiss in high alpine valleys.        

  For several months before Masai girls could be married, they had to use milk from cows grazing in the season of green grass. Price infers that a contemporary diet during pregnancy, based on the nutrition of various successful primitives, would include milk, butter, green vegetables, organ meats, sea foods, and cod liver oil.         

Dr. Price concludes his book with an exhortation that we return to the “use of natural foods which provide the entire assortment of body building and repairing food factors. . . all forms of animal life are the product of the food environments that have produced them. . . our modern process of robbing the natural foods for convenience or gain completely thwarts Nature’s inviolable program.”         

It has been over 70 years since Dr. Price’s book was first published and there is now a growing number of natural food movements such as organic farming, Permaculture, and “slow food.” PLENTY (Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon, 2007) tells of a Canadian couple who decided to eat only locally grown/locally produced food for one year. They describe with sincerity and humor the wonders and difficulties of their adventure, which they began in Spring when the only fresh local vegetable was wild Dandelion greens! The idea of localization of our food supply is important in that eating locally and seasonally can re-connect us to our own habitat and help keep us in tune with Nature.         

Another valuable resource is NOURISHING TRADITIONS (Sally Fallon and Mary Enig, 2001), an encyclopedic treatise on cooking with whole, natural foods which includes methods of preparation that promote best digestion, many of which utilize ancient methods observed by Dr. Price, whose work was a major inspiration for this book.         

Indigenous peoples used locally grown and available products but food is just one thing that can promote harmony with habitat. Another is how we treat our place. Conservation and clean energy are important, of course.         

We can also buy products manufactured locally. Some manufacturers have started to manage the entire life cycle of their products and, to take it another step, they could align manufacturing with natural rhythms by refraining from making new products during winter and instead spend that dormant time preparing used materials for re-use in the next season’s manufacturing, e.g., a manufacturer who collects its customers’ discarded rugs and processes any reusable material in order to make new rugs. (Tom Brown, Jr., c. 1983).         

It seems that in place of a completely primitive way of life, many of us have begun a journey back to a more primitive state of health in relation to our habitat and so we can refer to ourselves as pursuing not only Holistic Health but also what I would call a state of “Harmonic Health.”      

Bibliography Brown, Robin C.. “Tropical Prehistoric Florida,” Bulletin of Primitive Technology, Fall 2009

Brown, Tom, Jr., personal communication, c. 1983

Diamond, Jared, 2005, GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL, W.W. Norton & Co., New York

Fallon, Sally & M. Enig, 2001, NOURISHING TRADITIONS, New Trends Publishing, Inc., Washington, D.C.

Fischman, Ken, Ph.D., personal communication,

2010 Kidder, Norm, “It All Depends – Being Where You Live,” Bulletin of Primitive Technology, Fall 2009

Kuntsler, James Howard, 1993, THE GEOGRAPHY OF NOWHERE, Simon & Schuster, New York

Price, Weston A., D.D. S., 1939; 2004, NUTRITION AND PHYSICAL DEGEN-ERATION, The Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation, Inc., La Mesa, CA

Shepard, Paul, 1982, NATURE AND MADNESS, The University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA

Smith, Alisa & J. B. Mackinnon, 2007, PLENTY, Crown Publishing Group, NY