Where Do We Come From? Where Are We Going? The Ancestral Health Symposium 2012

"A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots." —Marcus Garvey


(Lindsay with Paleo Solution author Robb Wolf at AHS11)

I'll start with a disclaimer: Many of you have family, friends, or coworkers who credit their weight loss, disease management, amazing hair, or other miracles to the so-called caveman diet, much to the eye-rolling chagrin of others. I'm one of those people: once a gangly nerd with weak and painful joints thanks to my genetic legacy, the autoimmune disorder ankylosing spondylitis (AS). Terrified at the prospect of being on immunosuppressants for the rest of my life and intrigued by rumblings of this weird fad diet helping AS sufferers reverse symptoms, I gave paleo a shot. And I don't hurt anymore; I'm thriving. And it left me wondering what other wonders we might discover in the past.

What has come to be known as the paleo diet has been around since the 1970s, but in recent times (thanks to the advent of the decidedly-non-paleolithic Internet), it's really exploded in popularity. Of course, anything popular enough begets a conference. Paleo is no exception. This past weekend, the Harvard Food Law Society and the Ancestral Health Society joined to present the second annual Ancestral Health Symposium, which momentarily infested Twitter under the hashtag #AHS12. I attended (and fervently live-Tweeted) the inaugural symposium both this year and last year. With that experience, I can say that there is something happening in what has been dubbed, tragically, the paleosphere.

AHS12 wasn't only about food, or eating like a caveman. Ancestral health starts with food, but it doesn’t end there. There was a tangible frisson in the air at Cambridge, as if the chaos of the Twitterverse commentary was manifesting physically in the room. In this weird interdisciplinary mishmash of a conference, couched in a niche diet with an unfortunate name, there is a real movement brewing. MDs and naturopaths, policy makers and anarcho-libertarians, lunatic farmers and social media gurus and scientists of every stripe seem to be asking the same thing: where did we come from? Where can we go from here?

In a way, the three opening talks set the mood for the whole symposium: first, Harvard evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman gave a sort of Evolution 101 class in what humans might (and might not) be adapted for — presenting the theory of our mismatch with our current environment; Binghamton U biological anthropologist David Sloan Wilson called for the testing of the mismatch hypothesis in rigorous and controlled studies; and Harvard biochemist and paleo heartthrob Mat Lalonde laid out heaps of data showing, conclusively, that even if you throw out the anthropology, the foods recommended by the paleo diet win out in terms of nutrient density alone. In other words, evolution provides the hypotheses that we then can test.

Because AHS12 was partnered with the Harvard Food Law Society, there was a powerful focus on policy and even social justice. Our food system is broken — when Hershey's and Mars have centers for health and nutrition that sponsor the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the ADA), there might be a problem. Health care expenses continue to climb, and despite all our innovation, it seems like the world is still quite sick. We are in crisis, and it was no mistake that the keynote address was given by the inimitable Joel Salatin of Food, Inc. fame, who, with all the fervor of a Southern Baptist minister, urged listeners to ground themselves in the earth and respect and honor the nature of food, because food is a vessel of the spirit.

Sure, there were the requisite discussions about carbs that have become ho-hum for a lot of would-be modern hunter-gatherers, or the awe-inspiring stories like that of Dr. Terry Wahls, who seems to have reversed her MS through a paleo diet, but there were also tiny revolutionary moments questioning what else might we learn from our ancestors. We humans are so disconnected from our tribe, and we read about the world rather than experience it directly. At AHS12, surrounded by people who have changed their individual lives, we began to talk about changing the world. Not going back to a violent, scary, and oppressive Paleolithic (as someone who loves the Internet — not to mention little things like science, medicine, and gender equality — I say eff that!), but just saying, hey, human evolution…kind of a big deal.

All I know is that I can't wait to see what AHS13 brings.