Tyrolean Iceman & Common Health Problems | Paleo Diet Health Blog

Date: 05/01/2012    Written by: Beth Levine

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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    Submitted by Dr. Eric Cohen on
    July 13, 2012 - 1:57pm

    It's been my undersanding that humans have been eating grains for over 10,000 years. Animal life has been on this planet for about 4 billion years and humanoids for well over a million years. We've been eating grains for only about 10,000 years. The Iceman is less than 6000 years old, and therefore likely ate grains himself.
    The theory is that it takes a species about 20,000 years to addapt to a food source. If that is indeed the case, The Iceman disproves nothing.

    Submitted by BaselineFoundation on
    July 16, 2012 - 9:19pm

    It is paleo paradigm that no primate other than man eats grains, but that is simply not true. Many primates eat grain and have done so for untold millennia. Here is footage of Ethiopian Gelada baboons eating their primary staple, which is grass/grain – far, far, predating the emergence of man. The fundamental premise that primates (i.e. man) have only been eating grains for 10,000 years is merely a theory -- contradicted by a plethora of empirical evidence. That doesn’t make grains healthy. Nor does it make the paleo diet necessarily unhealthy. It just means that the underlying theory behind the paleo diet doesn’t stand up to examination. What the iceman proves is that man fell right in line with the primates that predated him.

    Submitted by Karel on
    July 24, 2012 - 12:56pm

    It probably depends on the amount and type of grains, too. While a caveman probably was not able to collect a bag of grains, Oetzi was not a caveman, held domesticated pigs and his last meal contained wheat. This means we cannot call him hunter-gatherer. Same with milk. If he ate pork - and that is proven by worms in his intestinal tract, it is quite possible his village had some goats and milk...

    Submitted by Halli Magg on
    October 1, 2012 - 4:50am

    In the article it says "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". I would like to know what these coronary-heart-disease (CHD) risk factors were, as many experts believe that the modern medicine´s interpretation of CHD risk factors is wrong. As an example, arterial plague has been considered a clear risk factor for CDH, but it has been pointed out that arterial plaque is present in societies (then often primal) that do not suffer from CDH and it seems that the arterial plague might be normal physiology but the bursting of it is not and there is where inflammation and the strength of the lining of the plague comes in. So I think it is relevant to know how these scientist came to the conclusion that Otzi had heart disease, was it based on the faulty diet-heart theory. And then we have always known that man (and other animals) have always had trouble with arthritis.

    Submitted by CJ on
    December 30, 2013 - 6:40pm

    Look up the story of the Ice Man that was featured on PBS. If i remember right, Toward the end of the feature they briefly discuss that the cause of the heart disease was genetic. Fascinating stuff for sure.

    Submitted by Weight Loss Tea on
    December 2, 2013 - 6:05am

    I personally think that the success of any weight loss diet lies with the fact that you must first consult your physician before you try anything else. Especially if you are suffering from some health conditions, it is a must that you see your doctor before you engage on any diet regimens.

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