Remember When Everyone Wanted to Be a Caveman?
On the evolution of a 2010s trend
Human history is something like 200,000 years old, which means we’ve had a lot of time to come up with really bad ideas.
Bloodletting. “Dynamic ticket pricing.” Invading Russia in the winter. The McLobster. You get the picture; they’ve not all been winners.
Around the turn of the 2010s, another brilliant-at-the-time idea popped into our disproportionally large prefrontal cortexes. Maybe, this niggling went, the cavemen actually had it better than we do?
This idea — which, if you consider it for more than 10 seconds, is obviously wrong, since cavemen lived in a world that had sabertooth tigers but not microwaves and walk-in urgent cares — nevertheless took off. The “Paleo diet” exploded in popularity. Fitness bros started doing Crossfit and other strength-centric ancestral exercises and overenthusiastically donated their blood to mimic the acquisition of Stone Age wounds. Being a nice parent got rebranded, favorably, as “caveman parenting.” Kevin Roose wrote an entire piece about the benefits of pooping like a caveman. These were dark times.
Fads come and go, and we’ve mostly course corrected since then. Yuval Noah Harari, whose 2014 bestseller Sapiens made him a superstar and contributed to the belief that Stone Ages humans were happier, has since been taken down a notch by fact-checkers. The Crossfit guy got canceled, high-intensity interval training is out, and “sculpt” — not a word one usually associates with cavemen — is in. We’ve at last decided that toe-shoes, meant to get us closer to our barefoot ancestors, are “stupid” and must be stopped.
Some vestiges of Stone Age mania remain, though many of the trends have moderated and become more reasonable. The Paleo diet peaked in 2013, but it’s not gone completely away; there is renewed interest, as one would expect, every January. Still, much of the diet’s foundational science — that we need to eat the foods our bodies were “optimized” to eat during the Stone Age, before the evils wrought by the agricultural revolution and its diabolical offspring: processed sugars and carbohydrates — has been debunked.
Eating whole and sustainable foods, though, isn’t going away. The “pegan diet” (from “Paleo” and “vegan”) is “like the Paleo diet,” one dietitian nutritionist has explained, in that it focuses on foods that “early humans would have hunted or gathered. But the twist is that most of your daily food intake will be plants.” Many researchers say this is the more accurate ancient diet anyway, not to mention far better for the planet. You don’t even need to justify the meal plan by saying our Neolithic forefathers did it: It’s a good idea because it’s a smart and ethical way of eating to address problems that exist in our modern world.
The extreme, macho deprivations of the early 2010s caveman trend have also had their edges sanded off. Interest in “living off the grid” has fallen since its 2013/2014 highs, but the comparatively comfy “van life” has slowly grown. People still crave an escape from the blinking, beeping demands of modern life — there is currently an 18-month-long waitlist to be shut in a completely dark, scantly furnished room in Oregon with no TV or phone, and it costs $250 a night — but that has more to do with the anxieties and demands of contemporary life than misplaced beliefs about the superiority of cavemen living. Unplugging every now and then is a good thing, even at its most literal, but not specifically because it makes us more like Ötzi the Iceman.
It seems clear in retrospect why we wanted so badly to live like cavemen: Modern life is hard. There's consumption fatigue that comes from having 62 different Oreo varieties on the shelf in the grocery store and we want someone to take over decision-making (even if that decision required an at-home meat locker). We are so time-pressed that a scientific blessing for quick workouts and winging-it parenting is very enticing. We may also sense that nature is in peril and so we long for the days when we hadn't destroyed so much of it. Every generation yearns for a “better, simpler time" but, as Gillian Osbourne at The New Inquirywrote back in 2014, "our gazing at the oil wars and rising sea levels of today have provoked collective sighs for deep, and distant, ecological histories."
Of course, while the caveman lifestyle may have spoken to real needs, it was impossibly, laughably selective in picking what it elevated to importance. We were supposed to eat like cavemen because our bodies are genetically similar to early humans’ but no one proposed treating infections with Stone Age first-aid, even if the same principle applied.
With a healthy perspective and accurate science, ancient ways of living can still be productive sources of inspiration. But let’s not bring everything back. Because you know what else is technically an ancient and natural idea? Cannibalism.
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