The Internet, the printed press and magazines, the TV (commercial) shows want you to believe that our current urban civilization is the major killer; we need to return to a mythical ancient –e.g. Paleolithic- age, with the reimagined natural diet and way of life. Try it: you will not survive long! Your brain will remain much smaller. Worse, the microbes, the parasites, the fractures and wounds will kill you young, and your offspring has meager chances to see her first birthday. True, too many of our metropolises are clogged with smog, choked with automobiles; lots of their inhabitants are addicted to the deadly combination of sugar-fat-salt, are obese and diabetic, and need overpriced healthcare. BUT life expectancy has jumped from an average of 29 to over 80 in the last century! People do not die anymore –or so it seems. And the planet will be able to feed a humankind of 9 billion in a couple of decades thanks to increasing progress in food science
Brenna Hassett in her book Built on Bones: 15.000 Years of Urban Life and Death, and even more Geoffrey West in Scale, remind us that it took our species something like 200,000 years to get around to trying out living in the same place all year around. Then, it took thousands of years of experimentation for those patchy early settlements to become the cities we recognize today, and it’s just in these last few years that the number of city dwellers has finally outstripped that of our country cousins. We are now officially an urban planet. What we think when we envision the human
past is partly a myth that tells more about where we think we’re going wrong with our own lives today than anything that happened thousands and thousands of years ago.
If we look at the lives and deaths of people through all the different experimental stages of urban life, we can start to see some very interesting patterns in these urban pioneers. Patterns of disease. Patterns of malnutrition. Shrinking faces and growing numbers. Broken backs, broken skulls, bone missing where you want it and piling up where you don’t—the speechless generations of the past still have quite a story to tell.
Indeed, the recent scientific discoveries in paleo-anthropology, evolutionary geology, archeology, satellite mapping, etc. have changed our understanding and knowledge of our Paleolithic or Neolithic ancestors –who shared their genome with us.
Some of the things we know about cities in the modern world can be traced right back to their beginnings, like the role that inequality plays in determining who dies in a slum and who gets top-flight medical care. The story of humans in cities is, if you like, a kind of micro-evolutionary tale,
one that we can read if we follow Monty Python’s advice and start bringing out the dead. With bioarcheology, we have the unique opportunity to get a very inside look at what the move from savanna to city has done to our bodies and our health, from slightly before the very beginning some 15,000 years ago until the Industrial Revolution and the start of our modern age.
And we do not need these ignorant greedy gurus (e.g. Loren Cordain or Robb Wolf) whose unique goal is to fleece you.
Brenna Hassett. Built on Bones: 15,000 Years of Urban Life and Death. Bloomsbury Sigma, 2017