Tyrolean Iceman & Common Health Problems | Paleo Diet Health Blog

Prehistoric Man Wasn’t So Healthy


There are certain ailments we tend to associate with the stress and strain of living in modern society, such as cardiovascular disease.  We assume that in earlier centuries, life was a little more simple; farming your land, tending to your flocks, and spending time with your family and immediate community.  But now, there is evidence that predates our type of lifestyle by several millennia showing that man has always suffered from some of the same common health problems we suffer from today.

The Tyrolean Iceman, called Otzi, was so well preserved in his final resting place in the ice of the Italian Alps that his body has provided scientists with a tremendous amount of knowledge about prehistoric man.  Now, some 5,300 years after his death, researchers have sequenced Otzi’s complete genome and added to the steady stream of information he has provided since he was unearthed in 1991.1

The analysis of Otzi has yielded such detail as his age of approximately 46 at his death, which resulted from an arrow wound, and difficulty with his arthritic knees.  Now, the study of Otzi’s genome has revealed that he had heart disease.  In fact, the researchers have suggested that he might have experienced a heart attack at some point soon had he not perished from other causes.  So clearly, cardiovascular issues are not brought on solely by of our high-calorie, high-fat diets and relative lack of exercise since these would not have been the case for the Iceman.  Although these are definitely contributing factors in heart disease, Otzi has shown that, regardless of his paleo diet, something else was at work, opening the door for scientists to study other potential risk factors that might have applied to the Iceman.

The researchers also determined that Otzi had brown hair and brown eyes, had Type O blood, and was lactose intolerant.  The lactose intolerance is an interesting fact especially considering that he probably didn’t drink milk, but not really surprising.  After all, back in those days no one drank milk past infancy.  Hunters had no farms with cows to milk. Nor were they wandering herdsmen with goats and sheep. Milk consumption did not come naturally to humans and it most likely took many generations after we started domesticating animals for our bodies to adjust and process milk proteins properly, which is not to say they do so fully even now.  For many people, digesting milk is still a problem even beyond lactose intolerance.

Lactose intolerance, incidentally, is not a food allergy as is caused by several of the proteins in dairy such as casein. A food intolerance is caused by an inability to digest a food and occurs in the digestive tract rather than the bloodstream and is characterized by symptoms such as gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, headaches, and dark circles under the eyes.  Your body is unable to break down the lactose present in dairy products because it doesn’t produce the required enzyme, lactase, leaving the protein too large to pass through the walls of your intestine.  If you’re lactose intolerant, it certainly helps to cut way back on your consumption of dairy, but you can also be proactive and shore up the beneficial bacterial within your digestive tract as well. Yogurt and other conventional starter cultures and probiotic bacteria in fermented and unfermented milk products can improve lactose digestion and somewhat eliminate symptoms of intolerance in lactose maldigesters. These beneficial effects are due to microbial beta-galactosidase in the (fermented) milk product, delayed gastrointestinal transit, positive effects on intestinal functions and colonic microflora, and reduced sensitivity to symptoms.

Lactose intolerance aside, if you must drink milk, drink raw, unpasteurized, organic milk, if possible. Absolutely avoid milk that has added growth hormones and antibiotics. And do not drink homogenized milk. Homogenized milk contains xanthine oxidase, which attacks the arteries and is a potential factor in heart disease. Interestingly enough, this problem seems only to occur with homogenized milk. When non-homogenized milk is consumed, the body excretes the xanthine oxidase. If you do drink homogenized milk, it is essential that you take a folic acid supplement, which can help neutralize the negative effects of the xanthine oxidase. And if you’re lactose intolerant, you’ll have to take a supplemental digestive enzyme formula that contains lactase, or drink milk with added lactase

An even better choice, though, is goat’s milk (it’s much closer to human milk in composition), if you can stand the taste. And you also have the option of a number of grain and rice-based milk alternatives…in moderation because they tend to be high glycemic. Jon Barron does not recommend soy milk — but that’s a newsletter in itself.

And think about Otzi the next time you tell yourself a caveman diet is disease free. Unfortunately, there is much to recommend in the paleo diet, but good health and diet are more complicated than that.  And chances are good you don’t get nearly as much physical activity as the Iceman did either, climbing through the Alps on a daily basis.  Without having to worry about getting taken out before your time by an arrow, you want to keep your body as fit and healthy as you can for a long time to come.


1 Bhanoo, Sindya N. “Lactose Intolerant, Before Milk Was on Menu.” The New York Times. 5 March 2012. Accessed 23 April 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/06/science/iceman-had-brown-eyes-and-hair-and-was-lactose-intolerant.html?_r=1>.

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