It Is a Puzzlement

Those of us who eat low carb, the exploding ranks of paleo dieters, and the rapidly growing intersection of the two, all base our claims, to one degree or another, on the idea that we can improve our health by getting closer to the hereditary or evolutionary diet of human kind. We know, for instance, that grains are inessential, because they weren't anything but a trace part of the human diet up until the Agricultural Revolution about 10,000 years ago. We know from paleoanthropology that when our ancestors shifted from hunting and gathering to farming, and thus from a diet largely based on animal protein and fat plus vegetables to one based on grains and beans, their health took a major hit, resulting in weaker bones, rotten teeth, shorter stature, narrower pelvises -- meaning far more painful and dangerous childbirth -- and even reduced lifespan. These observations are basic to the assumption that grain-free, sugar-free diets are healthful

On the other hand, we also know that obesity, at least in women, did exist in paleolithic times. How do we know? We have depictions.

This, my friends, is the Venus of Willendorf, perhaps the most famous paleolithic statue ever found. It is estimated that she was carved somewhere between 24,000 and 22,000 BCE. No chance that she depicts a member of a neolithic farming community; there weren't any. She wasn't eating grains or beans, much less high fructose corn syrup.

Paleoanthropologists tell us that the best evidence -- from bone thickness and density, from which estimates can be made of the mass those bones bore -- is that the vast majority of paleolithic people were not overweight. Certainly there was nothing that looked like the local gathering I describe at the end of How I Gave Up My Low Fat Diet and Lost 40 Pounds, where nearly everyone was overweight, if not obese. The testimony of the bones tells us that this sort of obesity was nowhere near being common in the paleolithic world.

Yet is there any doubt that the person who carved this had seen an obese woman? This statue is way too anatomically accurate to be a guess, a projection. The Venus of Willendorf is only one of many paleolithic statuettes, found in various locations, depicting women who can only be called overweight or obese.

Not all paleolithic statues portray obese individuals; there are approximately as many of women of normal size. (Men are depicted in wall art, but statues seem to be mostly of women.) But these statues offer mute testimony that somehow, at least some of our paleolithic forebears got fat.

Why do roughly half of the paleolithic statuettes of women depict overweight subjects? There has been a fair amount of speculation that these are fertility statues, that they depict what our caveman ancestors thought of as the height of sexiness. I find this unlikely.

Through all of recorded history, the single female characteristic most commonly depicted as beautiful is the waist. Not big breasts, not a curvy butt, but the thing in between 'em -- the place where the body goes in. Specifically, a waist-to-hip ratio of approximately 0.7 is depicted in art all over the world. Some of the women in that art are plump, some are slim, but the waist is there.

Turns out that that having a waist roughly 70% the size of your hips corresponds pretty well to being healthy and fertile. Unsurprisingly, nature has given men a near-universal taste for women who look like they'd be able to bear lots of healthy babies, whether the man in question wants a bunch of children or not. This is a plausible explanation for the cross-cultural taste for the waist.

Modern reproductive endocrinology makes it clear that abdominal obesity, far from being a sign of fertility, is one of the markers of a deranged metabolism, and frequently is accompanied by infertility. Indeed, the Venus of Willendorf looks to me like a candidate for polycystic ovarian syndrome, the most common cause of female infertility in our modern world. I see no reason to doubt it was equally unhealthful 30,000 years ago.

So I really doubt that all those obese statuettes are the paleo equivalent of a Penthouse centerfold.

What, then? No one knows, but since when has that ever stopped me? I have a speculation:

What if those statues of overweight women, far from depicting the young and sexy, depict women whose fertility was impressive, but is now past? What if they depict women who were literally the Mothers of Their People, and their overweight is the combination of advancing age, and being pampered by their many children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren? "Here, Matriarch, we found a bee tree. You get the best honey comb." "Look, Grandmother, I picked these berries for you!" I find it easy to picture the Venus of Willendorf as a 60-something woman, who has successfully born 15 or 20 children, and now has the honored position of sitting in the most comfortable place by the fire, as tidbits are brought to honor her.

I'm blue-skying, here. I was just bemused by the realization that we have proof that obesity did, indeed, exist in the paleolithic world, and that, despite evidence that it was not common, it was disproportionately portrayed in art.