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.

© 2015 The Weston A. Price Foundation for Wise Traditions in Food, Farming, and the Healing Arts.