Weston Price Looked for Vegans But Found Only Cannibals

As I prepare for my talk in NYC this weekend, I have to tone down the blogging a bit.  So it will be back to our regularly scheduled data-packed science next week, but for now, I’d like to offer an interesting observation.

In 1935, a year before the journal merged with The Journal of the American Dental Association, Weston Price published an account of his travels through the South Sea Islands in Dental Cosmos.

Here is the reference:

Price, WA. Studies of Relationships Between Nutritional Deficiencies and (a) Facial and Dental Arch Deformities and (b) Loss of Immunity to Dental Caries Among South Sea Islanders and Florida Indians. Dental Cosmos. 1935;77(11):1033-45.

In the article, Price describes how he looked for vegans in the hills of the South Sea Islands, but found cannibals instead:

The native foods in practically all the South Sea Islands consisted of a combination of two types; namely, plant foods and sea foods.  The former included the roots and tops of several tubers and a variety of fruits.  The sea foods consisted chiefly of small forms, both hard- and soft-shelled, and invertebrates, together with fish of various types.

One of the purposes of this trip was to find, if possible, native dietaries consisting entirely of plant foods which were competent for providing all the factors needed for complete and normal physical development without the use of any animal tissues or product.

A special effort was accordingly made to penetrate deeply into the interior of the two largest Islands where the inhabitants were living quite remote from the sea, with the hope that groups of individuals would be found living solely on a vegetarian diet.  Not only were no individuals or groups found, even in the interior, who were not frequently receiving shell fish from the sea, but I was informed that they recognized that they could not live over three months in good health without getting something from the sea.  A native interpreter informed me that this had been one of the principal causes of bitter warfare between the hill tribes and coast tribes of that and all of the Pacific Islands, since the hill people could not exist without some sea foods to supplement their abundant and rich vegetable diet of the mountain country.

He informed me also that even during the periods of bitter warfare the people from the mountain district would come down to the sea during the night and place in caches delicious plants which grew only at the higher altitudes.  They would return the following night to obtain the sea foods that were placed in the same caches by the people from the sea.  He stated that even during warfare these messengers would not be captured or disturbed.

This guide and many others explained to me that cannibalism had its origin in the recognition by the hill people that the livers and other organs of their enemies from the coast provided the much needed chemicals which were requisite to supplement the plant foods.  Several highly informed sons of cannibals and a few who acknowledged that they had eaten “long pig” advised me that it was common knowledge that the people who had lived by the sea and who had been able to obtain lots of sea foods, particularly the fishermen, were especially sought for staying a famine.  One native told me of having left an Island where he was engaged in fishing because of a tip that came to him that his life was in danger because of his occupation.

This experience is, in part, a testament to the extraordinary nutrition packed into shellfish.  Melissa McEwen recently wrote about this in her post “Being Shellfish,” where she noted that some shellfish are not only more nutritious than meat, but exhibit such a dearth of evidence for sentience and the capacity for suffering that some otherwise-vegans argue that eating shellfish is consistent with the basic ethics of veganism.

When I get back from my trip, I’ll write a more data-packed post about just what type of superfoods shellfish really are.

Of course we also see here the less fortunate fact that, in a population living on the edge of nutritional sufficiency by eating shellfish every three months, famine could drive them to do some horrid things, like eat the people who had better access to animal foods.

These people were not ethical vegans.  Ethical vegans won’t even eat honey, let alone their enemies.  Price remarked in Nutrition and Physical Degeneration that everywhere he found populations long under the influence of such an ethical system, they were invariably ravaged by tooth decay and other problems.

He also noted, however, that individuals exhibit wide variability in their susceptibility to tooth decay, so it should not surprise us if there are some vegans, somewhere, whose teeth remain perfect on a vegan diet.  This is especially true if it is an adult male or an adult woman who is not pregnant or nursing who adopts such a diet, since the nutritional stresses are lowest in these people.  Anything that varies exhibits a distribution, and every distribution has tails wherein unusual things occur.

A story like this makes me thankful for modern civilization.  I would rather live amongst people with non-violent ethical systems than amongst people who eat other people.  Where people are vegan because they choose to be, those who find that their health suffers have animal foods at their finger tips to save themselves.  If we engage in agriculture wisely, we can prevent famine, provide consistency, and promote health.

If we all learn to coexist, perhaps someday we can learn to help and teach each other rather than mocking each other.  I do not think vegans and meat-eaters have fully achieved this, but we have learned to live without civil war, and that is a step in the right direction.

Ultimately, what this story makes especially clear is that there is an enormous difference between a small amount of animal products and no animal products.  Being “mostly vegan” is like being “a little pregnant.”  As I pointed out in my response to Dr. T. Colin Campbell and my review of Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s Eat to Live, animal products that constitute two percent or ten percent of a person’s diet may make or break the healthfulness of the diet, especially if that small percentage is something incredibly nutrient-dense like clams or oysters.

If someone achieves vibrant health on a vegan diet, I will be happy for them.  We should face the facts, however, that humans with limited access to animal products have often gone to great lengths to include at least some animal products in their diet.  And they’ve done that for a reason.

Read more about the author, Chris Masterjohn, PhD, here.

16 Responses to Weston Price Looked for Vegans But Found Only Cannibals

  1. Stabby says:

    No doubt about that. Some clams and hopefully some eggs would make a world of difference and deliciously spare someone a boatload of supplements.

    How much merit do you think the nutrients most prevalent in ruminants like carnosene, CLA and l-carnitine have? I don’t suppose one needs them to avoid disease and early death but they might make a significant difference.

  2. ben says:

    nice one, Chris, as always. Again we see a focus on starch and tubers as being perhaps more central to many so-called paleo ways of eating than many of today’s practitioners are interested in. Animal foods and tubers are I believe a solid one-two punch that will deliver good athletic performance, leanness, and satiet – something that animals products and merely salad, lets say, just doesn’t seem to do. In other words, higher %age of total calories from starch is probably a good thing, for the metabolically healthy practitioner.

  3. Lava says:

    An ethical-vegan system is violent. The idea that to eat an animal is UNethical shows a hatred for human beings. It is not I who have difficulty learning to coexist. It is vegans who have trouble learning to live with meat eaters.
    I would rather live near cannibals than see people like you getting your own lesson backward failing to recognize (paragraph 10) that vegetarians ARE the cannibals.
    The repetition of the word learn is annoying.
    It is the vegan camp that began mocking.

    • Christopher Masterjohn says:

      Hi Lava,

      I agree that a system binding others to veganism is anti-human and violent, though I don’t think binding oneself to such an ethical system is necessarily violent. In any case, usually this system results more from a delusion about what it means to be human than from an actual desire to do violence to other humans, and I think the intent should be acknowledged. I’m certainly not stopping you from living with cannibals, if you’d like. The cannibals Price studied were not ethical vegetarians, as is quite abundantly clear from the text. Who started the mocking seems irrelevant to me, so I’m not sure what your point is.


  4. I disagree with this:

    If we all learn to coexist, perhaps someday we can learn to help and teach each other rather than mocking each other.

    Not possible! This will never happen, and is not even desirable to happen, because each side represents a different form of consciousness and culture. We are dealing with an incompatibility between the collectivists and the individualists. At present time the former happens to be represented by vegans, environmental activists etc, while the latter by the “paleo” bloggers, libertarians etc. The type of a diet is just a decoration. A decorations may change but the fundamental incompatibility will stay!

    There is nothing wrong about living apart. We are not obliged to socialize with them, nor are they!

    Stan (Heretic)

    • total fing hippie says:

      I’ve got to say I am an environmentalist and believe in collective living and eat paleo. I am not a liberal or a libertarian.

    • David I says:

      In the same way that the conservatives claim to be anti-government but often push for greater government control in selected areas, while the liberals often push for less government control in certain areas, I find the “collectivist” and “individualist” labels to be tired, sloppy, and useless for rigorous thinking.

      To give an example of how silly it gets, there are a number of people who ascribe laws passed in the 1960s – 1980s to the “collectivist” baby boomers. Talk about fuzzy thinking. If people bothered to look at the facts, they would see that in fact the “individualist” “Greatest Generation” was in charge of virtually all elective offices in this period. And, even though many baby boomers were able to vote later in that period of time, voting was still dominated by the depression and WWII generation.

      Witness the fact that Ayn Rand’s anti-collectivist diatribe “The Fountainhead” was published in 1943 (and therefore written over a few years prior), well before the first baby boomer was even conceived, while “Atlas Shrugged” was published in 1957, when the first baby boomers were 8 years old. Despite what some Tea Party whackjobs seem to think, those books weren’t inspired by the “collectivism” of the Boomer Generation; they were a reaction to the “individualist” John Wayne Generation.

      I’m not accusing you of the kind of sloppy thinking I describe in the previous two paragraphs. But I get nervous when I hear people try to describe things as only black or white or bin things into simple binaries. As Robert Benchley once said, “There are two kinds of people–those who divide people into two kinds of people, and those who don’t.”

      I’m afraid I’m on Chris’ side here. I think all of the nutritional camps can learn from each other. And one of the things I love about his work is that he tries to stay open to the scientific evidence. Even when it conflicts with current medical dogma, or–gasp!–when it brings him into conflict with those ruggedly individualistic low-carbers* or Paleo people!

      *Full disclosure–I eat low-carb.

    • Christopher Masterjohn says:

      Hi Stan,

      I think the replies other readers have made to you show that this is overly simplistic. Even the division between “individualist” and “collectivist” is deeply problematic itself. In any case, applying such a crude distinction to dietary camps as if there was some unified political philosophy among people who eat paleo, low-carb, or WAPF-ish is easily shown to be false by surveying different political philosophies among different bloggers, or better yet, reading all of the threads with the POLITICS tag on the Native-Nutrition list back in its heyday. Clearly, no one is obliged to socialize with anyone — I don’t think I said otherwise.


  5. Dave says:

    I see where you’re coming from Stan, and it sure is easy to push the vegan crowd away because they’re incredibly self-righteous and smug for a group that has so much wrong about nutrition, but the only way to save a few of em from themselves is to interact.

    I have friends who are vegans and whenever it comes up I just point them to the research, or the fact that they’re frail and I’m not. I may be wearing one of them down. 🙂

    Liked the post Chris, will be interested to read more about the nutritional content of shellfish, something I haven’t explored yet.

  6. Anita says:

    In ‘The Enigma of Aztec Sacrifice’ Micheal Harner argues that the Aztec diet of maize, beans and birds was not sufficient to sustain vigorous life and that they supplemented with what the South Sea Islanders call ‘long pig’. They kept the surrounding jungle lands and its people as hunting grounds, sacrificing their victims in elaborate rituals to be butchered and divvied up according to merit.

  7. Helena says:

    Greetings Chris,

    I also live in CT and love learning about traditional foods in different cultures. I was adopted from Colombia and finally at age 30, finally getting in touch with my roots and researching what my ancestor’s ate in order to have optimal health.

  8. Ron Lavine says:

    Thanks, Chris. My son has recently been following a vegan diet; I’m not actually concerned with his health but I do find it interesting to engage with him about his motivations and experiences.

    His motives have more to do with his environmental concerns about methods of meat production than his personal health, but even in that area I question whether meat is the problem or if the problem isn’t concentrated agricultural production of everything – meat, grain, and legume.

    I also have a slight concern about his mental health – there seems to be a growing awareness that vegetarians are more subject to depression.

  9. Hi Chris,

    your mention of clams and oysters as nutrient-dense foods reminded me of a paragraph in “Nourishing Traditions”:

    ” Two types of meat are best eaten only occasionally, or completely avoided – these are pork and shellfish. […] Parasite contamination and pollutants are […] good reasons for being careful about shellfish such as scallops, clams, and oysters, and to a lesser extent shrimp, crab, and lobster. […] Be sure of your source before you buy shellfish, otherwise you risk food poisoning and allergic reactions.”

    What is your stance? Are you as wary of shellfish as Sally seems to be?

    Thanks, Heidrun

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