In Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, Price put great emphasis on the degeneration caused by the nutritional transition to modern industrial diets. It can be tempting for us to simplify this into the easily digestible message that tooth decay and other degenerative diseases are simply a result of the transition to modern life and diet, but if we do this, we wind up missing the overwhelming emphasis Price placed on what he called primitive wisdom.
Tooth Decay is Ancient
Price never claimed that tooth decay was simply a result of modern foods. Quite to the contrary, he wrote the following (p. 297):
I am frequently reminded that ancient skulls are often found with extensive dental caries, thus disproving that the primitive groups were more free from dental caries than modern groups. It must be kept in mind that the fundamental laws of Nature have been in operation as long as animals and men have been on earth.
Indeed, the modern scientific literature corroborates the view that tooth decay is an ancient process.
In her Fiber Follies post, Melissa McEwen recently cited a paper on rampant tooth decay and other dental problems among hunter-gatherers of the Archaic Period (~8,000-1,000 BC) in the lower Pecos region of Texas. The authors discussed research suggesting that by age 25, these people had lost virtually all of their molars, and that virtually everyone had lost all of their teeth by age 40. They suggest this resulted from wear and tear caused by the consumption of calcium oxalate crystals in cactus and agave.
Whatever the cause, we clearly do not require modern industrial foods to get rampant dental wear and decay.
Dental decay may have been much less common during the Paleolithic period, but the evidence is quite limited. We can at least conclude, however, that dental decay existed during this period.
Dental caries is an ancient disease. . . . The prehistoric skulls have shown about 5 percent of the teeth with caries, e.g. rampant caries of middle Pleistocene skull. A similar less incidence of caries was seen in ancient hominids. But a gradual increase in the incidence rate of caries was seen in the Paleolithic, Neolithic, Bronze and Iron age. This increase rate continued in medieval period among Egyptians and Romans and reached at acme in 17th century in Europe due to easily available sugar and change in diet.
A recent paper showing new evidence for dental pathologies in Neandertals from 40,000 years ago tallied up the number of decayed teeth among modern humans in southwestern Asia during a roughly 50,000-year period of the Middle Paleolithic and reported the rate to be about two percent of teeth.
I suspect that these rates are substantial underestimates because they don’t take into account missing teeth. On the other hand, a “decayed and missing teeth” index would probably overestimate the rate of decay if we assumed all of the missing teeth to represent decayed teeth. Of course, such an index is impossible to calculate if you have loose teeth rather than whole skulls in many cases.
A paper published in 2003 summed up the situation well:
The “real” caries frequency is a fallacy in anthropological studies because it is impossible to determine it in skeletal populations.
I imagine that the rate of dental decay in the Paleolithic was widely variable, with some populations being very well nourished and other populations facing malnutrition because of poor dietary choices, or perhaps more often because of scarcity in a given region as resources became depleted or as groups migrated into a new areas presenting new and different challenges.
Wild Animals Get Tooth Decay
Although Price noted that “in general, the wild animal life has largely escaped many of the degenerative processes which affect modern white peoples” (p. 257), he also noted that “primitive human beings have been freer from the disease [tooth decay] than has contemporary animal life” (p. 13).
As a recent example, here is a cavity found in a tooth of a wild bottlenose dolphin:
Researchers from Brazil and New Zealand published this figure in a recent paper documenting “caries-like lesions” in wild dolphins, studying over 27,000 teeth from just under 350 individual skeletons belonging to nine species of dolphin. The dolphin skeletons were obtained because they were either stranded or accidentally entangled. “Caries-like lesions” were found in three percent of the bottlenose dolphin skeletons and two percent of the estuarine dolphin skeletons. Sample sizes were much smaller for other dolphins. In some cases there were no examples of cavities found in the species and in other cases 25-30 percent of the skeletons of a given species had cavities.
The authors used the term “caries-like lesions” in part because of controversy about whether animals with no dietary source of carbohydrates can truly develop dental caries. The diets of these dolphins generally consist of marine foods such as fish, squid, and crustaceans.
Another paper from 2005 documented the prevalence of tooth decay in skulls of rodents related to the chinchilla and guinea pig collected from Central and South America beteween 1895 and 1994. Ten to twenty percent of the agouti, paca, and acouchi animals showed evidence for tooth decay. These animals prefer to feed exclusively on various fruits. Only one percent of capybaras and nine percent of coypus showed evidence of tooth decay. These animals prefer to feed on grasses and aquatic plants.
Evidence for gum disease, by contrast, was rare among the fruit-eaters but afflicted five to nine percent of the capybaras and coypus.
I don’t intend to make a comprehensive review of tooth decay in the wild here. The point is simply that cavities do occur in the wild, and wild isn’t in and of itself sufficient for maximal protection against the disease.
Thus, it would appear that humans have the unique capacity to maintain themselves in a healthier state than wild animals, but also in a state of degeneration much greater than that seen in wildlife.
If rampant tooth decay can occur without the introduction of modern industrial foods, as it did during the Archaic period among the lower Pecos hunter-gatherers in Texas, what was it that protected many of the “primitive” groups that Price studied?
In Price’s view, this protection resulted not simply from accident, but from accumulated wisdom.
Indeed, he wrote the following (p. 161):
In my studies of these several racial stocks I find that it is not accident but accumulated wisdom regarding food that lies behind their physical excellence and freedom from our modern degenerative processes, and, further, that on various sides of our world the primitive people know many of the things that are essential for life — things that our modern civilizations apparently do not know. These are the fundamental truths of life that have put them in harmony with Nature through obeying her nutritional laws. Whence this wisdom? Was there in the distant past a world civilization that was better attuned to Nature’s laws and have these remnants retained that knowledge? If this is not the explanation, it must be that these various primitive racials stocks have been able through a superior skill in interpreting cause and effect, to determine for themselves what foods in their environment are best for producing human bodies with a maximum of physical fitness and resistance to degeneration.
And again (p. 3):
A very important phase of my investigations has been the obtaining of information from these various primitive racial groups indicating that they were conscious that such injuries would occur if the parents were not in excellent physical condition and nourishment.
Indeed, Price stated that “Some of the primitive races have avoided certain of the life problems faced by modernized groups,” not that all of them had (p. 5). To Price, it wasn’t primitiveness itself, but the wisdom that the successful groups had accumulated over time. Presumably they had learned through trial and error processes that involved mistakes, or else they could never have had any consciousness about the types of injuries that would occur without proper nourishment.
Price cited numerous examples suggesting that the successful groups he had studied had accumulated specific dietary wisdom:
- The natives often went to great lengths to nourish their soil. After heavy rains, the Swiss villagers would collect runaway soil by hand and return it to their pastures and fields (p. 388). Their milk products were several times higher in fat-soluble vitamins as the equivalent milk products from most European and American sources, including lower Switzerland (p. 25). The Gaelics of the Outer Hebrides collected the residue of the smoke of peat fires to fertilize their soil, which Price confirmed to be highly effective using a laboratory experiment (p. 57).
- The natives of British Columbia and the Yukon territory knew of scurvy, and prevented it by using the vitamin C-rich adrenal glands of moose (p. 75). These natives also had a plant product that they used for the prevention and cure of type 1 diabetes (p. 266). Price cited evidence that Canadian natives of the sixteenth century also knew that a drink made from the roots of spruce trees could also prevent scurvy (p. 279). He cited another case where a native cured xerophthalmia with vitamin A-rich fish eyes (p. 278).
- The natives of the Andes, central Africa, and Australia all carried knapsacks with balls of clay that they would use to dip their food in to prevent “sick stomach.”
- The natives he studied practiced systematic child spacing of 2.5-4 years, and used special diets for pregnancy, lactation, and pre-conception always for the mother and sometimes for the father (p. 397-8, 401).
- Many of the groups would wrap newborns in an absorbent moss that was changed daily but would not wash the baby until several weeks after birth, which prevented irritation and infection of the skin (p. 399).
- In some of the Pacific Islands, inland-dwelling groups relying mostly on plant products understood their need for shellfish and thus engaged in trade with the coast-dwelling populations to obtain these foods (p. 109). This trade continued even during war time, although war was often started during famines when certain members of the inland-dwelling populations would turn to cannibalism and attempt to hunt coast-dwelling fishermen.
- Price observed that the “knowledge of veterinary science is quite remarkable” among the Masai and that they knew of the protective effect of malaria against syphilis (p. 134-5).
- The Peruvian natives invented the anti-malaria drug quinine (p. 418).
- Natives of the Andes knew of goiter, and used kelp to prevent it (p. 265). Some African groups also knew of goiter and treated it with various iodine-rich plant foods (p. 402).
- Price noted that “probably few primitive races have developed calisthenics and systematic physical exercise to so high a point as the primitive Maori. . . . This has a remarkably beneficial effect in not only developing deep breathing, but in developing the muscles of the body, particularly those of the abdomen, with the result that these people maintain excellent figures to old age” (p. 214). This observation is consistent with those noted in Ned Kock’s recent post on “shrinkage” among elderly primitives. Price considered not only their diet but their “system of social organization” to be responsible for their development of “what was reported by early scientists to be the most physically perfect race living on the face of the earth.”
Not Everything Primitive is Wise, and Civilization Isn’t Evil
Price didn’t romanticize the natives he studied or assume that modern civilization was always the source of evil. As an example, Price credited the British with diverting the attention of the inhabitants of the Tongan and Fijian Islands from racial warfare to football and other athletic competitions (p. 120). Since the Tongans largely managed their own affairs under British protection, British civilization actually provided them with a net benefit in Price’s view.
Price referred to “our so-called modern civilization” (p. 324) precisely because he wasn’t an opponent of civilization. That degeneration followed this so-called civilization almost everywhere it went led him to declare that “surely, our civilization is on trial both at home and abraod,” (p. 128), but many of the primitive groups he studied were in many ways modern civilizations of their own, such as the Catholic inhabitants of the Swiss villages and the islands of the Outer Hebrides, and he had great admiration for some greatly expansive civilizations like the ancient Peruvians and the Chinese. And as stated above, he spoke highly even of white colonialism when it had in fact done something positive for the native populations under it, as in the case of the Tongan islands.
Knowledge Versus Wisdom
Price drew a distinction between wisdom and the mere accumulation of knowledge.
Consider the two possible programs he outlined for the prevention and cure of tooth decay (p. 301):
There are two programs now available for meeting the dental caries problem. One is to know first in detail all the physical and chemical factors involved and then proceed. The other is to know how to prevent the disease as the primitives have shown and then proceed. The former is largely the practice of the moderns. The latter is the program suggested by these investigations.
Modern science is excellent at accumulating knowledge. But insisting on knowing every detail of an approach before acting is not wise. Indeed, it is quite stupid, because we have been practicing science for centuries and even with modern techniques we still only understand a tiny smidgen of what can potentially be understood about the universe.
Many traditions may be unwise, and it would be wise to test them all rigorously and discard them if they prove to be useless or counter-productive. Discarding them all at once and starting from scratch with the scientific method, however, adding nutrients one at a time to refined flour as they are slowly proven beneficial, is a great example of human stupidity.
Price had great respect for the vastness of the unknown (p. 258):
I do not use the term “vitamins” exclusively because as yet little is known about the whole group of organic catalysts, although we have considerable knowledge of the limited number which are designated by the first half dozen letters of the alphabet.
This led him to pronounce that “great harm is done, in my judgment, by the sale and use of substitutes for natural foods” (p. 294).
Some seventy years later, the scientific field is beginning to acknowledge that foods may be more than the sum of their parts, and that there may be other important “organic catalysts” besides vitamins, such as polyphenols, which may provide important benefits through a process called hormesis.
The Natural Selection of Wisdom
We must naturally ask why, if primitive groups were so wise, so many of them abandoned their wisdom in favor of the modern diets that destroyed them.
We have to realize that Price emphasized that wisdom was accumulated, and the only way to accumulate wisdom is by undergoing extensive trial and error that involves many mistakes and failures.
We can imagine that every change of environment that humans encountered would require the development of new knowledge and wisdom. This would include migrations out of Africa or into the Arctic, and would include the development of agriculture. Before these transitions could stimulate the accumulation of wisdom, they would first have to stimulate the occurrence of error and physical degeneration as a consequence.
Of course, we would also expect there to be variation in how each group might respond to such a transition, and for those that adapted themselves more successfully to thrive, sometimes at the expense of groups that fail.
The advent of modern industrial foods is another similar transition. Some groups adopted modern foods and lifestyles because they were so delicious and appealing, some because of the use of force. Some opposed them in varying degrees.
Price recalled how the inhabitants of New Caledonia, an island of the South Sea, had their access to seafoods cut off when the French attempted to establish a colony and sugar plantation. The natives “swept down on the French colony in the night and massacred almost the entire population” (p. 107).
Price also recounted the following about the tribes he studied in Africa (p. 160):
The native African is not only chafing under the taxation by foreign overlords, but is conscious that his race becomes blighted when met by our modern civilization. I found them well aware of the fact that those of their tribes who had adopted European methods of living and foods not only developed rampant tooth decay, but other degenerative processes.
Of course, many of the groups that modernized were not so wise as to notice this trend. Indeed, Price tried establishing a dental clinic among modernized Swiss, and the people objected that if the girls didn’t have all their teeth extracted and have artificial teeth replaced while they were young, they would just wind up losing them later and would never be able to marry (p. 41).
Thus we see that many groups may have accumulated wisdom about how to thrive in their own environment without having in some cases the wisdom or in other cases the opportunity to retain their way of life once they encountered “our modern so-called civilization.” Some groups may have resisted this transition either because of greater opportunity or greater wisdom. Thus a natural selection of sorts has favored the groups with both the wisdom and opportunity to maintain their traditional ways of life.
Others may not have encountered modern civilization at all, and thus retained their traditional ways of life because of circumstance.
Of course, the prospect of traditional wisdom winning out currently seems dim. Modern civilization has many things to admire, but the dark side of its so-called nutrition comes with it in a package. Often the fake foods that carry its malnutrition are manufactured to have drug-like addictive qualities. It peddles the illusion of ease with its elevators and office chairs. Its televisions and radios and educational systems constitute unparalleled systems of mass media that embed its ideologies within the minds of its students.
Perhaps, however, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. With the apparent rise of infertility, natural selection may indeed begin operating in favor of traditional wisdom, the prospect of which is sad to say the least. Given the urgency of the situation, and the desire to live well ourselves and see our friends and family and neighbors live well, we also have the internet, our local chapters and meetups, and many ways to propagate wisdom through the superior and more humane force of persuasion, and this may just be our salvation — in an ironic twist, the gift of modern civilization, perhaps finally beginning to heal itself.
Read more about the author, Chris Masterjohn, PhD, here.