I don’t know how you feel about numbers, but I’ve got a good one for you. After plowing my way through a stack of books on human history, evolution, biology and anthropology, there’s one that comes up with astonishing regularity. This number has the potential to completely revise our culture, our lifestyle practices and even our identity. That number is 99.9, abbreviated here for convenience to 99.
We see it all over the literature. Pick up any book or research paper that has anything to do with the Paleo or human history and you’ll find some version of this statement: “For 99% of human history, humans lived as hunter-gatherers in natural environments.” This figure is repeated so often and with so many variations, it has now become iconic. Just as 13.7 has become a symbolic representation of the Big History of the cosmos (as in “the Universe is 13.7 billion years old”) so too does 99 tell us a powerful and often inconvenient story of who we are and what we might become.
It’s not just hunting and gathering that we’re talking about here. The number 99 tells a story about every dimension of our human experience. Take our immersion in nature. For 99% of human history, we lived in intimate contact with wild, outdoor environments. We were massively and continuously exposed to the forces of heat, cold, wind, rain and sun. And of course, the number applies to the physical challenges we experienced as well. For 99% of human history, we moved our bodies over natural terrain: dirt, sand, mud, rocks, uphill and downhill. We walked long distances, occasionally running or sprinting. We were athletic bipeds, making a living with functional movement.
The same goes for our social history. For 99% of human history, we lived in small tribal bands. Consensus among anthropologists holds that most tribes numbered between 20 and 100 individuals, but no matter the number, you would have known everyone in your tribe by sight. You would have seen and interacted with them almost every day, face-to-face. Every interaction was personal.
For 99% of human history, human navigation was mediated entirely by the bodily senses, supplemented by story and song. For 99% of human history, humans ate local foods, hunted or gathered by hand. For 99% of human history, our sensory experience was exclusively natural; every touch of skin, hand or foot was something natural and organic. For 99% of human history, our environments were noise-free. For 99% of human history, we lived a “participatory consciousness.” That is, we saw ourselves as part of a larger whole, an animated, living cosmos.
The obvious challenge of 99 is that it forces us to reconsider what’s normal for our species and healthy for our bodies. And for many, this realization comes as a shock. After all, most of us are highly adaptable. We are born into this world with extremely plastic nervous systems and after a couple of decades, we are fairly well-adjusted to modern conditions. Consequently, it’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking that this modern world is normal; as if this is the status quo, as if it’s always been this way. But 99 jolts us out of our folly and forces us to consider the true depth and breadth of our history.
Likewise, we are called upon to reflect on the nature of the 1%. The fact is that this modern world, however familiar it might happen to be, constitutes only a tiny sliver of human experience. By comparison, it is abnormal. Modern physical challenges constitute less than 1% of human experience. Modern social experience, less than 1%. Modern nutrition, less than 1%. Modern sensation, less than 1%. Modern consciousness, less than 1%. In other words, our modern life is wildly novel and historically unprecedented. There is nothing to say that it’s right, healthy or sustainable.
The number 99 give us a dramatic perspective, but it’s also powerfully instructive for our understanding of health and disease. Our bodies are sculpted by evolution to succeed in the 99 world, not the 1. Every detail of our anatomy and physiology is the way it is because it worked in our ancient past. It is safe to assume that if we want to promote health, we need to put people in contact with this primal number and the conditions that it represents. Life in the 1% is occasionally comfortable and sometimes even wonderful, but it is distinctly abnormal to our ancient, aboriginal bodies. It is folly to expect an animal that is sculpted by evolution for 99% to function flawlessly in the 1%.
So, when you feel challenged by the stresses and absurdities of modernity, don’t despair. Your body is built for another number and another world. Give yourself a break. It’s going to take some time to adapt. And when in doubt, go to the 99. That’s the source of your life, your vitality and your sanity.