What is ancestral health? Evolving silhouettes showing the change from primates, through early hominins to a modern human sitting on a laptop.

Simple Definitions: ancestral health [3 min read]

Ancestral health may be a term you have heard but are not quite clear on, or perhaps it is new to you. The basic premise is that for the majority of human history, our physiology evolved in alignment with our environment and lifestyle. We were well adapted to live as we did. Modern life has changed at a dramatic pace, and our evolution has not caught up. Our bodies and brains still interpret the signals they get as though we are living a very different kind of life. This creates a mis-match, which leads to challenges – such as the modern epidemic of chronic diseases.

So how old is the human race?

There is disagreement among scientists about how to answer this question. For example, which evolutionary stage can legitimately be called the ‘first’ humans? However, it is generally agreed that current evidence for the first fully modern humans (homo sapiens) indicates that they were found in Africa around 150,000 years ago[i]. If we consider earlier forms of human[ii], our history as a species dates back 4 million years or more.

Has our environment really changed that fast?

Being generous, imagine the shorter of the above two example ages for the human race as an hour long walk. The change from hunter-gatherer life to agriculture would occur within the last five minutes. The industrial revolution, electric light and industrially processed food would all arrive within the last 10 seconds. The internet appears less than a second from the end, and the first iPhone well into the last half a second[iii]. Each one of these developments has had a profound impact on the way that we live.


The walk begins something like this (historical accuracy tenuous, but you get the point). We are fully in touch with our natural environment. For over 55 minutes, the pace of change is slow.


In the last 10 seconds we go from mid-18th century industrialisation to this. Our natural environment almost entirely obscured from our senses. Hardly surprising that our bodies and brains are confused!

But aren’t we still evolving?

Some of the fastest evolutionary change in modern humans that we are aware of has taken place over the course of around 3000 years[iv]. 1 minute and 12 seconds in the context of our 150,000-year long hour. And this is considered remarkably fast, perhaps even evidence that evolution may be speeding up. It is not surprising, therefore, that our biology often struggles to interpret the signals created by our modern environment.

In fact, many of these incoming signals activate the stress response. In this state our bodies are preparing to fight, run, or freeze in order to protect us from danger. This response is obviously useful in a situation of actual danger, when we do need make decisions and act fast. It is designed for the short-term dangers that our ancestors might have faced, such as escaping a predator.

Problems arise when this mode becomes our ‘normal’, which is alarmingly common in the industrialised world. Our bodies put some important processes on the back burner to allow us to address the threat. We don’t need to be putting energy towards digestion, reproduction or repair if we are in immediate danger. Significantly, our brains cannot distinguish any difference between an actual threat to our survival and a perceived stressor – like an argument, a traffic jam, or an impending job interview. In the 21st century it is common to live every day as though we are constantly glimpsing stalking lions headed our way.

Does this mean we need to live like Neanderthals?

The idea behind ancestral health is not to throw out all mod cons and run for the hills (or caves). Rather, that we can try to find ways to work with our biology within the framework of modern life. By doing so we can help our brains and bodies to respond in the healthiest possible ways. Subscribe to be notified when new articles are released with inspiration on how to do this in a wide range of areas. As always, I aim to keep such things as short and simple as possible. However, there will always be links provided (as below) if deeper exploration appeals.

References / further information:
  • [ii] i.e. the oldest fossils found of hominins – members of the human lineage – prior to homo sapiens, see link above.

  • [iii] 1 hour representing 150,000 years gives a progress rate of 2500 years per minute, or 41.6666666 years per second. Calculations are based on the following dates for these landmark events in human history. These give the resulting calculations for when these events would occur in our 1 hour walk through homo sapiens history. Follow links for sources on dates.

  • Agriculture – 12,000 years ago (approx) – 55 minutes 12 seconds

  • Industrial revolution – 260 years ago (beginning in 1760) – 59 minutes 53.76 seconds

  • Electric light – 140 years ago (commercially available by 1880) – 59 minutes 56.64 seconds

  • Industrially processed food – 110 years ago (well on the way to being widely available by 1910) – 59 minutes 57.36 seconds

  • Internet – 30 years ago (1993 accessible for non-academics) – 59 minutes 59.28 seconds

  • iPhone – 14 years ago (launched 2007) – 59 minutes 59.664 seconds 

  • If we take human history as 4 million years, agriculture develops less than 11 seconds from the end, and all the other landmarks mentioned here are within the last quarter of a second.

  • See here to read Functional Medicine practitioner Chris Kresser (founder of the ADAPT Health Coach Training Programme) on ancestral health and how it can help us.

1 thought on “Simple Definitions: ancestral health [3 min read]”

  1. Pingback: Foundations of Health: Stress matters – [4 min read] | Becca Benning | Bromley, Kent

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