Were there any obese cavemen?

I was just looking at a Fat Acceptance magazine and they more or less encouraged their readers not to diet, because two-thirds of overweight people are genetically programmmed to be fat, regardless of how much or how little they eat.

Because of this they said that 95% of all diets fail, even the “sensible diet” plans where the person is not required to starve or eat fewer calories.

Now I know that living in the Ice Age was much more physically demanding than living in modern times, but the article did not mention trying to lose weight by altering one’s exercise habits instead of eating habits.

Nevertheless, were some Cro-Magnons still genetically programmed to gain weight more easily than others to the point where they could become obese? What if one person broke his leg while hunting and was less active for many weeks?
Could his “genetic programming” make him gain enough weight in that time for him to become obese?
What about women after childbirth?

Also, is there any way to tell how fat or thin these people tended to be?

Interesting question. Aren’t there a number of cultures where a many people became obese after adopting a “modern” diet? There may be some “genetic” tendency toward obesity if you come from a culture which has had to get along on a very restricted diet for many generations.

I would also think that people who lived in extremely cold climates would store more fat (although they would probably also be more muscular that modern desk-bound types.)

For the record, relatively little of what is gained in a normal pregnancy is fat–only about 10 pounds. The rest is increased blood volume, placenta and baby, all of which are lost at birth or shortly after.


For the record, relatively little of what is gained in a normal pregnancy is fat–only about 10 pounds. The rest is increased blood volume, placenta and baby, all of which are lost at birth or shortly after. **[/QUOTE]

Oh yes, I know.

I meant that after giving birth the woman might be less active when she’s with an infant.

If a caveman broke his leg, he would either
a)die of gangrene
or b) be left with a permanent and probably very debilitating limp.

They probably wouldn’t get the chance to be fat, since from that point on they would probably rely on their family to provide for them. Moreover, they had not developed extensive means to store food, so it is quite unlikely that they ever saw enough food to become obese. In cultures where subsistence is at all an issue, being fat carries very high social status and is considered attractive.

There is a reason fat and sugar taste good to us. our bodies are programmed to desire them, back from a time when fat and sugar were very rare commodities. I’m not trotting this out as an excuse. If we got as much exercise and just generally stood around in the cold as much as our forebears, we probably wouldn’t have a problem, even with the modern diet.

Sorry to nitpick about this, but archaelogists have found plenty of bones from Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals that appear to have been once broken and then healed because they had been set properly.

Many prehistoric peoples had a good working knowledge of medical procedures and medicines derived from plants.

I know what you’re saying and agree, but a serious break would be serious business, especially later in life. Even if some people made it thru, you’re going to say that most or all did? I doubt it. What about if the break went through the skin? What if there were multiple factures? What if the break occured in a joint, which subsequently calcified permanently? My personal WAG is that considering the danger-filled and active lifestyle undertaken by people at this time, many breaks would be too serious to treat. (ps - I have a BA in anthropology/archaeology & I am definately not disputing what you say about set, healed fractures being found. I just disagree that those represent the majority of cases.)

The caveman diet was merely high in protein (meat) and low in carbohydrates (breads, pasta, etc.).

Thus, very hard to get fat.

Also, typically, they could easily go a few days at a time without eating (which is not hard if you get used to it. I plain forgot to eat yesterday excepting a few beers). Thus their bodies were programmed to store up the energy when they got it and release it slowly over time, just as ours are. But people get into that 3-meal a day mind set and never get to work off the energy.

There are a lot of people who think they are the genetic types who aren’t – some doctors believe this is basically a myth. That fat can’t just appear out of thin air!


It unfortunate that a group would wish their readers to accept a potentially life threatening condition. They should work more on good ways to lose weight instead of accepting it.

I suppose it is possible that some people are genetically predisposed to producing and storing more fat. This probably would have been useful 20,000 years ago. Being as seriously overweight people, in this nation at least, hasn’t been a problem until recent decades I doubt there were many fat cavemen.


95% of all diets fail because people don’t change their lifestyle. Losing weight isn’t about just about eating less it is activity. Get out of the house and do something people. Find a hobby that doesn’t require sitting around.
Uh, and I don’t mean you in specific.


That would require effort. To many people want a quick fix or nothing at all.

Check out the width of seats in old ballparks. 18 inches used to be the standard now they’re increasing it to 20 inches or so. Part of that is better nutrition and people are just bigger then they used to be. How many more men wear a size 14 now then 50 years ago?


Many of the high protein/low carb books out there talk about the fact that our bodies did not evolve to process the amount of carbohydrate that is in the modern diet and promote the idea that the food pyramid is unhealthy and that the grains/starches portion should be the top, not the base.

I recently read “The Protein Power Life Plan” by Eades and Eades. They promote this idea, and back it up with a lot of statements about prehistoric people had very low rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. I have no idea what kind of evidence they have to back that up, and was very curious about it. I suppose it wouldn’t be hard to determine obesity if you know what you’re looking for (extra wear in major joints or something?) but I don’t know about the others.

The most vocal proponent of the no-carb diets is a gentleman who ways approximately 300 pounds. You do the math, people.

If it is, indeed, true that prehistoric people never got obese, it’s pretty safe to say that that’s due entirely to a lower quantity of all forms of food, combined with a more active lifestyle.

Considering the average person living before the Industrial Revolution died before their fiftieth birthday, I wouldn’t give much weight to this. Diabetes, heart disease and strokes all tend to happen later in one’s lifetime.

Rather than guessing at whether caveman were obese, why not look at other cultures from today or recently in the past and compare? The American Indians and mountain men of 150 years ago tended to be on the lean side (ironically, mountain men supposedly had an average lifespan of sixty or more years, decades longer than their ‘civilized’ contemporaries; there may be something to eating meat and excercising regularly.)

I’m pretty sure that all of the modern hunter-gatherers (as well as most people who do physical labor, FWIW) are pretty lean, as they work off whatever they get to eat.

You should also bear in mind that people who don’t wear clothing burn about twice the calories as “civilized” people. Pre-historic men probably didn’t wear as much as we do.

Also, there is evidence that our distant ancestors regularly went through cycles of feast and famine. They most certainly did put on a lot of weight, but only to burn it off when food was scarce.

I heard that ethnic hawaiians are usually genetically predisposed to obesity. This is due to the fact that their ancestors had to get to hawaii by a very long boat voyage and the skinnier people among them starved to death before they arrived. This is evidence that a genetic predisposition to obesity is in fact NOT a myth.

Does Fred Flintstone count? Probably not…

… after all he was big-boned, not obese.

Good one… I’ll use it next time I get pulled over for DUI. “Yesh othifer… I juss forgot to eath… hic…”

The various “Venus” statues of Central Europe, such as the Venus of Villendorf, portray obese woman. They date back 20,000 years. No one knows if they portray a Mother Deity or the epitomy of Aurignacian female pulchritude. I would speculate that being fat back then was as difficult as being thin and tan now.

Let’s visualize our caveman shall we? Let’s call him Fred.

He gets up in the morning and has his breakfast, perhaps some lean meat or fish, whole grains, and fruit if the season is right. He then gets to work preparing his tools to prepare for the hunt. Other men do the same and some go spear fishing. While the men do this his wife and children go out and gather food, firewood and water. Animals hunted earlier also need to be skinned and the hides processed into usable items. There are a great many things to be done and the whole group participates. Anything that the tribe needs has to be hand made so there is never a lack of work. As the day cools and the animals begin to move, Fred and the other men go out on the hunt, let’s say that today they are going after Mastodon.

After a lengthy hike, Fred and the guys find their target and using only primitive spears and clubs manage to take the animal down with no loss of life to themselves. They field dress the Mastodon and carry the meat back to the camp. This takes a number of trips and other members of the tribe are enlisted to help carry the kill back to camp. Once at the camp the meat and hides have to be processed, the meat has to be cooked and sometime late in the day Fred, the other cavemen, and their families get to eat again.

Fred and his tribe move with the animals so long hikes are going to be a regular part of life. There are no wheels to make hauling things easier. It is all done by man-power.

I don’t see Fred or any of the other cavemen and women being obese if they expect to keep up the pace and contribute to the total welfare of the tribe. Their social structure might not even tolerate one who was obese to the point of non-participation. That person would become a liability and a drain on resources.

If you transported Fred to the modern day where he would have less to do he might very well gain a few useless pounds…

I’ll bet the leaders or upper castes of some caveman societies were fat because they were brought food by others–just a guess based on the way humans interact socially–seems like there is always some sort of top dog who gets extra

A little response to the comment about the women being “less active” following childbirth - this wouldn’t have been true for long. The community simply wouldn’t have been able to do without her work for any substantial period of time. She would have taken the baby with her and did her share, which is most likely why the traditional division of labor is as it is. You can’t run after an antelope with a toddler on your hip, so women stayed close to the camp and gathered food and other necessities. Later they also made clothes, baskets, and pottery, and cared for domesticated animals, jobs that blend reasonably well with caring for a child; you can’t take a baby into a salt mine or a smithy, and having a three-year-old along when you’re trying to plough a field would have serious implications for the efficiency of the task.

Even during the short period our theoretical cavewoman might have to recover from childbirth, she would of course be breastfeeding, which requires extra calories and kicks the metabolism up a few notches. Lactation as a weight-loss plan is overrated (though it does work for some, like me :D), but it is certainly hard to put on a large amount of weight while nursing a baby.

Feynn, I wouln’t be so sure about the “lean” meat part. When you have to put as much effort into getting meat as cavemen did, you’d probably eat the fat as well. Animal fat IS quite nutritious, actually, especially if you need a lot of energy. Cavemen probably used several times the energy that humans, so they probably didn’t eat “lean” meat. For a caveman, the fattier the better. I’m not sure about the calorie content of bone marrow, but I know there’s evidence that cavemen cracked open the bones of what they killed and ate the marrow (I wonder if bone marrow tastes good…).

I’d bet that cavemen that lived in more northern climates tended to be fat around fall, but thin around spring. After all, during winter game is scarce, there are no fruits or berries to be gathered, and fishing is next to impossible (not worth the effort). Cavemen probably stayed in their caves most of the time during the winter. Their weight probably changed in a manner similar to that of a bear who hibernates during the winter. This would apply especially during ice ages.

My mom loves the marrow (gross) so I’m sure it is considered a tasty treat by many, and especially way back in the day. And don’t forget about the blood… On a side note, the bones themselves can be eaten without ill effect and are amazingly filling. You just have to stew small bones (like vertebrae, ribs, etc) until they are porous and can be crunched by the human jaw. A friend did a senior project comparing dog and human tooth marks on bones & various parties were enlisted to chew bones for her.