The term Neanderthal has often been used pejoratively to suggest someone is unsophisticated or barbaric. The truth is, none of us are all that different from a Neanderthal.
For roughly 95 percent of human history, we were hunter-gatherers. The human genome has changed a bit since the agricultural revolution, but subsequent societal changes have happened far too rapidly for our evolution to catch up. And so the vast majority of modern diseases—everything from cavities to cancer—stem from an evolutionary mismatch between the lives we live and the lives our biology expects.
Shifting daily habits to get a little bit closer to the lives of our ancestors can bring about enormous improvements in mood and overall health.
Want to know what that looks like on a practical level? Here are some ways to think like a Neanderthal and channel your inner caveperson.
Learn to Squat
Your hunter-gatherer ancestors probably walked five to ten miles a day. They spent a fair amount of time resting too. Like chimps and gorillas, early humans were probably sedentary a fair amount of the time.
But here’s the difference: even at rest, nomadic people are dynamic.
Hunter-gatherers would often rest in a squat, a position that most of us weak modern humans think of as active exercise. If not squatting, they might kneel or rest in a position that looks more like a yoga pose than a position of repose. These are sometimes referred to as “active rest” postures.
Researchers have proposed that “human physiology is likely adapted to more consistently active muscles derived from both physical activity and from nonambulatory postures with higher levels of muscle contraction.” Our bodies are meant to be active most of the time; when they’re not, our health suffers.
The key is to move your body as much as possible, however that works for you. Avoid sitting in the same position for ten hours at a time only to move once to another, more slumped position and stay there for another six hours before going to a soft bed all night.
Sleep on the Floor
According to movement expert Katy Bowman, a cushy mattress “locks you into one position.” This prevents us from moving as we sleep, which contributes to soreness and stiffness in the morning. Our bodies are meant to move, even when we sleep, and spending hours in one position isn’t doing your body any good.
[Check out our free ebook, “Sleep Better Tonight.”]
“By sleeping without a mattress,” Bowman explains, “you’ll strengthen tiny muscles that build over time. You’re putting pressure on your body parts. It’s like a massage all night.”
You can start with a camping trip or simply sleep out on your lawn if it’s safe and the weather’s fine. Use a quilt or a beach towel (instead of a plastic tarp or tent) to reap the benefits of the earth’s electrons while you sleep. (Is that a foreign concept? Read on for more information on the benefits of earthing.)
Bonus points if you ditch your mattress entirely—or at least your pillow.
As often as you can, it’s best to walk without any material between your feet and the earth. Conventional shoes cripple us, literally deforming our feet over time. Wearing a wedge beneath your heel changes the way you walk, which affects your posture and may damage your knees and hips.
Earthing or grounding—for example, strolling shoeless on the wet grass first thing in the morning or taking a meditative barefoot hike along a soft forest path—gives us access to the earth’s vast supply of electrons.
Earthing reduces stress, mitigates chronic pain and inflammation, increases energy, and can even help you sleep better.
[Read: “What is Grounding?”]
In cold weather or on treacherous terrain, you can choose to wear minimal shoes. Also known as barefoot shoes, this type of footwear has a thin, flat sole. Some are open, while others have a large toe box that allows your feet to move as they were meant to.
Rise With the Sun
Morning sunlight has myriad health benefits, from improved circadian rhythm to healthier skin.
Get up at first light, get your feet on the earth, and watch the sunrise. Your body will thank you, particularly if you don’t shortchange yourself on sleep by staying up long past sunset staring into the light of your phone.
Try going to bed as soon as it’s dark, at least while the nights are short and the days are long. If you must stay up past dark, consider hanging out around a fire with your friends instead of sitting slumped in front of a screen.
Eat Like a Bio Individual
The paleo diet is popular for a reason, but you don’t have to follow complicated meal plans in order to improve your health. You can simply replace processed products that your paleolithic ancestors wouldn’t recognize as food with, well, food.
Prioritize local produce grown without chemical pesticides and animal products from grass-fed cows and chickens that spend their days under an open sky. The organic label doesn’t mean as much as it used to, so go beyond organic whenever possible. Many small farmers can’t afford organic certification even when their practices are far cleaner than huge organic farms. Go to your local farmers' market (or straight to a farm) and get to know the people who grow your food. Better yet, grow as much of your own food as you can.
For added health benefits, consider incorporating organ meats, wild game, and sustainably harvested herbs. Take a foraging class to learn about healthy foods that grow wild in your area.
Bio-individuality is everything. Your body, your digestive system, your microbiome—all are unique; your exact dietary needs are different from those of your partner, your brother, or whichever “expert” is in vogue today. Listen to your gut.
Thinking like a Neanderthal yet? Try this ritual for getting in contact with the deep past.