As anthropologists, we are continually searching for new or revised understandings of the present human complex by comparing and contrasting people, groups, cultures and patterns of interaction and adaptation. To do this we need to appreciate and account for the historical record in terms of evolutionary change as well as searching for clues that can help us locate and analyze the particular complex taking place today. We do this to enable a broader sense of understanding and respect for changes that are contextual and multifaceted. Let me give an example from my field in Solomon Islands and show how this relates to the need for more nuanced understandings of health and fitness today.
The Solomon Islands has a population of about 550 000 made up of some 900 sparsely populated islands in the south west Pacific. It’s an isolated place, gets few visitors and is utterly fascinating and beautiful in terms of its inhabitants and natural environment. Ideal then for an anthropologist to get involved in sports ethnography in a region traditionally looked at from more mainstream thematic perspectives of kinship, ecology, gender, nationalism, religion etc. The locals are sports mad, especially for soccer, and have flown the national flag at successive FIFA beach soccer and futsal world cups. (More on these amazing players and Solomon Islands in later posts)
I’ve spent months living in Solomon Islands on and off for the past few years in conjunction with my doctoral work at the University of Bergen, and have been able to gain access to, and participate in most aspects of the local society in order to understand and appreciate the pervasive nature of sporting practice there. I have lived, played, coached, travelled abroad with and shared day to day routines with young soccer players, interviewed prominent officials and government representatives as well as spending extensive time searching through archival records from the colonial past. In other words, my methodologies have been primed through academic training in more classical British anthropology, but also with my own form of experiential ethnographic approach that has seen me literally do what I study.
Where does this get us, and how does it relate to modern practical and theoretical comprehension of the human body in relation to physiological health and its adjustments to the social issues facing us today?. Well, a number of things stand out from my work that I’ll endeavour to incorporate more generally into the framework of Primal Movers.
- Confirmation of the fact that a lot of what we know today regarding sporting performance and the factors compounding its expression, have long been with us, yet not adequately extrapolated in terms of the logic of newer ‘scientific reasoning’ that assumes an essentialized cut with the past.
- Knowledge, as we know it in terms of Western-based empirical systems of understanding performance, is often inadequately imparted on non-Western nation states, stemming from an ethnocentric view of development and/or ‘progress’.
- ‘More’ is certainly not victorious over ‘less’ in terms of the vast majority of training methodologies I have both used myself and with others. This logic only makes sense on the scoreboard of a match. Training more can produce some short term results, but inevitably has longer term negative consequences if pushed upon a body that is not hormonally or holistically in balance with its optimized engineered condition. (I’ll talk about this concept in another post)
- Cordain, Linderberg, Eaton, Harris, Wolf et al may have certain disagreements over the implementation of the Paleo/primal framework as a workable modus operandi for the general public, but they all DO agree upon the fact that Western foodstuffs have had a devastating effect on populations who have until recently subsisted on local produce as the mainstay of their diet. This is shockingly apparent in Solomon Islands, and other Pacific Island nations. (for more see the excellent Kitava study)
- Periodization, as the less than ideal umbrella term for change in routine, is essential not only for goal orientated results, but for health optimization over the long term. From observing Solomon Islanders working and eating from the land and sea, subsisting on the natural resources, observing the cyclic rhythms of time, and getting plenty of rest, I am convinced that our ideal balance IS true to our optimized engineered condition.
- Incorporating natural movement as part of your way of being develops both a strong musculoskeletal system as well as enhanced cardiovascular and respiratory capacities. This, combined with proper rest and periodic changes in movement intensity certainly forestalls injury occurrence and burnout, as it is naturally less severe on your glycolic pathway. (I’ll write about my ideas behind overtraining and its effects on insulin release, cortisol and adrenal production and suppression issues in a later post)
Ok, so participation combined with observation and analysis of historical records is the sine qua non of an anthropological study, and produces qualitative data that can be further interrogated and is hopefully beneficial to both researcher and local population. Compared to (what many have said before me) the less rigorous social, and indeed natural sciences, anthropology lays no claim to a bound up notion of universal truths. What I refer to is the fact that cultural relativism, the raison d’être of what it is that we attempt to do in the field, is questioning the practical and conceptual logics of systems of being, based on a holistic understanding of the diverse human condition.
And for the primal mover?. Solomon Island athleticism, their logic for training, playing, winning, sharing and a whole host of other factors bound up in sporting practice contributes to our ongoing attempt to formulate more accurate, boundary-busting and simplistic understanding of who we are and how we are evolved to function.
My work is not a philosophical pontification of what might have been and may be, in a far off land where the majority of the population still lives a subsistence lifestyle. It is not even an attempt to romanticize what existence is like in a world less tarnished by Western intrusion, in a sort of “us verses them” dichotomy. My aim here is to give a brief introduction to the way the discipline seeks answers from the past, to situate the present, and to unmask what needs to be focused upon in the future.
I used myself as a methodological tool to help investigate how sport is played, perceived and affects the people of a small island state. I learnt how they trained, ate, relaxed, theorized and lived out their passion for the game. I taught them some things I knew, like training principles for different physical purposes, the effects of the Tabata protocol, CrossFit style training, some of the science behind the natural nutritional opportunities of the islands vis-à-vis the Chinese imported carbohydrate and artificial sweetener calamity. They taught me how to properly climb coconut trees and dive deep down for barracuda. They broadened my understanding of physical health and wellbeing, more specifically, how Western notions are so incomplete and fraught with hidden agendas that continually derail logical fitness and nutritional programs.
If I was not sure before that we have much to learn when it comes to a holistic integration of social, physical, nutritional and evolutionary forms of bodily function, then the Solomon Islands has ingrained this in me. Stop wasting time waiting for someone else to debunk someone else’s idea on optimal performance, and for heavens sake, don’t take as gospel what you read in the traditional media. Eat fresh, natural foods, rest lots, exercise and move naturally and energetically daily, smile and enjoy your world around you. Solomon style.