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February 28, 2014

Australians at First Contact in 1931 took photographs of the some million stone age people in upland New Guinea. The look on the faces of these newly discovered people was one of bewilderment or even horror. They were in the process of discovering as well as being discovered. Who were these white people and what are they up to? The upland natives were dressed in grass skirts, very much unlike today, when they are dressed in T-shirts, shorts and baseball caps, much like ordinary Americans.
Diamond describes his experience in 2006 in the airport at Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, at the end of his flight from Los Angeles. The people were dressed just like those in Los Angeles, they milled about catching flights like they do in Los Angeles; flight attendants and baggage handlers were doing the same things such people do in Los Angeles, working at computer terminals etc. The only difference was that everybody was a New Guinean except for Diamond and a few others. In the short space of 75 years, upland New Guineans who had lacked money, schools, metal, credit cards, airplanes and even writing were now flying jet planes, programming computers, earning degrees in chemistry, math, physics, engineering etc. They had crammed into a mere 75 years what it had taken 6 million years from the time human and chimpanzee evolutionary lines diverged, and 75 years is a time scale of unbelievably short duration by contrast. Diamond had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compare a society of hunter-gatherers of some 11,000 years ago with today. What an anthropological opportunity!
He noted something in his latter trips to New Guinea that he hadn’t noticed before – gray haired people. When he first came to New Guinea in 1964 gray haired people were few and far between and there were no gray haired people at all in the pictures taken on First Contact by the Australians in 1931. There was a reason for that – they died too young to have gray hair. After their meshing with civilization and antibiotics and other modern medical wonders, they lived longer. There was something else he noted in the pictures of 1931 and the scene he described at the airport and it was this: there was not one single person in all such old pictures who was overweight. All were slim and there was not a single case among them of cancer, diabetes, heart attack or stroke – not one reported in a million people!
Today the people in Port Moresby look like the people in Los Angeles with “beer bellies” hanging over their belt. Public health statistics show that they are overweight, diabetic, and have heart attacks, strokes and cancers unknown a generation or so ago. They are (as we are) gorging on fast food, sweets and calories without nutritional benefits and are paying the price for going on our Westernized diets. They are also suffering from a lack of exercise since they need not hunt and gather daily, and the combination of couch potato and MacDonalds is more than their bodies (and ours) can handle.
Dr. Anthony Komaroff notes that we humans today are not all that physically different from ancient humans, but we have radically different diets these days and that maybe our health would be better if we ate like our ancient ancestors did, since that’s what our bodies were built to do. (Gray haired fat people in New Guinea suggest that people exposed to Western diets are living longer on average, but that can be attributed to modern medicine.) Dr. Komaroff does not, however, recommend the now popular “Paleolithic Diet” since B vitamins and calcium are deficient in that diet. He tells his patients on this diet to take B and calcium supplements. No magic potions: we must still exercise and diet. GERALD E

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