Paleo Potential? The Vision of Arthur Haines

» August 9th, 2015


Every diet is an aspiration to an ideal. Consequently, every diet is easy to criticize. Vegans aspire to avoid harming animals, but critics note that plant crops require the mass extermination of innumerable wild critters. Weight Watchers aspires to reduce body mass index with a calories-in/calories-out approach, but critics note that not all calories are equal. The macrobiotic diet aspires to balance the yin with the yang; critics note that they have absolutely no earthly idea what this might mean.

If every diet is open to criticism, the paleo diet—also called the “caveman diet”—is in a league of its own. The dietary practices of the Paleolithic period centered on hunted-and-gathered meat, seafood, fruits, nuts, seeds, and vegetables. It excluded grains, legumes, dairy, and refined sugar. Paleo advocates argue that cavemen thrived on these foods, growing tall and avoiding the lifestyle diseases that plague “the moderns,” as some paleos prefer to call the rest of us. But critics deem the quest to replicate the pre-agrarian diet not only delusional—primarily because equivalent foods no longer exist—but also ignorant of human evolution. Recently, as a sort of nail in the coffin of the diet’s besieged reputation, a much-anticipated book on raising paleo babies was pulled at the last minute for lack of scientific evidence.

I’ve been critical of the paleo diet in the past, primarily because of its heavy reliance on meat consumption. But recently I wondered: What would happen if I examined the diet differently? That is, what if I examined its aspirations rather than its failure to achieve an ideal? What if I watched the diet at work in the hands of a master, a true believer, a genuine beneficiary of what’s too easy to dismiss as a fad?

To explore these questions I shelved my presuppositions and went to central Maine to visit Arthur Haines. Haines is an ethno-botanist and paleo advocate who runs the Delta Institute of Natural History, a program that organizes workshops on “neoaboriginal lifeways.” In an attempt to reach “everyone seeking an alternative to the current paradigm of living,” he instructs students on how eat an aboriginal diet, focusing on trapping, foraging, and hunting skills, as well as wild medicinal cures and the finer points of ancestral child rearing. For what it’s worth, Haines, who has developed a loyal YouTube following, is as sturdy as an ox, healthy as a horse, and has a gentle, understated presence.

But there’s nothing gentle or understated about what he eats for lunch. On the occasion of my visit, it’s a heap of pre-agrarian grub. Haines piles his plate with wild rice he recently harvested, gravy made from reduced bone broth, and venison shot and processed last autumn (before being canned for preservation). He leans over the table and eats with urgency. He scoops out seconds while his partner, Nicole Leavitt, and their 18-month-old daughter, Samara, work more deliberately through their first servings. Samara eats exactly what her parents eat—she always has (her parents chewed her meat for her before she teethed). Just as I was wondering to myself how Arthur and Nicole made it through Maine winters, in relative isolation, without so much as a warming drop of alcohol, Nicole plunked down a bottle of homemade mead on the table. Mead is a fermented honey drink that tastes something like Riesling. It was thus with a stomach full of wild rice and a head buzzing with mead that I finally saw what I came to see: Haines in action.

Read more here.

20 Responses to Paleo Potential? The Vision of Arthur Haines

  1. Teresa Wagner says:

    So if he grows so many plants, why still kill and eat animals? He’s in an ideal place to grow and eat a plant based diet. I’m sorry, I don’t buy this diet as acceptable in a world where we know that plants and a one a day tiny B12 vitamin will give us all we need. Why murder animals when there is no medical need to do so?

    • James says:

      Arguably, if he practiced agriculture, he would displace more animals from their habitat than if he hunted big animals for supplemental sustenance. Moreover, if he used organic pesticides or rodenticides, which he might have to do to protect his harvest, he would definitely kill more animals. So, the problem is not as simple as “don’t murder animals.”

  2. Tom Kelly says:

    Have to respect that! I wonder if he calls it a “diet” or is it just his way of life. He also sounds flat out crazy. Do you think it’s authentic or a little bit of an act?

  3. Teresa Wagner says:

    I am wondering if he is displacing animals now with all the plants he grows. And is he already using organic pesticides or rodenticides for the plants he is growing? The photos appeared to be of large fields, not a backyard vegetable garden. If so, killing the larger animals to eat could be eliminated–at least those animals lives could be saved.

  4. Teresa Wagner says:

    Ah, sorry. I missed that important fact in the article.

  5. John T. Maher says:

    I grew up listening to Beowulf recited on Olde Saxon by my mother who taught her graduate students in that language, a tale told in Mead Halls so this little set piece has some romantic appeal. In contrast, Arthur does not quite cut it as King of the the Geets in Maine, although I agree with the premise that a so-called “neolithic” relation to the ecosystem (Umwelt would be the fancy word here) is a more considered way of life and better for both humans and the environment. Where that analysis falls apart though is with an understanding that even neolithic humans altered their environment through farming and overhunting and killed off entire species with their relentless extraction and technological development. With a human population in the billions as compared to a neolithic population which, varied greatly over time, but was 1/n smaller than today, a reversion to neolithic ways would cause a collapse of what is left of the natural world. Can one imaging humans pouring out of cities and harrowing the countryside? Look no further than your favorite zombie film to see what that would be like for all life forms. (I know, the natural world has never been natural, as Harman pace Latour has written). Neolithics were also more sensible about human population control through human sacrifice and culling, something a great many have a problem with today, which really goes to the heart of the matter of how to live in balance with the land. My other issue is the technopocene or transformation of the earth itself into a systemic cyborg unaware and out of touch with its biological component. The fact that Arthur used a gun instead of lower or no technology is troubling, as it is when discussing native hunt issues. I do admire the very sensible deep ecology principle of species preservation rather than the individual rights position held by many in the animal oriented world. So my issue with Arthur is not so much his lifestyle but an implied sacred status as a human whereby, for example, I would be punished for clubbing him to death and eating him along the same reconstituted ethics of the ‘paleo’ principles by which he kills other animals. Many early neolithics ate each other and it changed their DNA. I would also like to know if he has Type O blood.

  6. KathyKale says:

    7 billion humans all surviving on wild foraged food! Pretty silly. There isn’t even enough “wild” left to sustain any significant percentage of our current population. I guess we have to leave that fantasy to privileged folks, who can then upload their caveman adventures on to YouTube for us.
    Also, please let’s not promote Lierre Kieth’s inane babble about vegan’s killing more animals that omnivores! It is so senseless, I can’t imagine why anyone would reprint it? There aren’t a whole lot of rodents clambering to live in lettuce fields, carrots, broccoli, but they thrive on “cereal crops”, corn, soybeans, wheat, etc.. It’s a fact that over 80% of all cereal crops grown in the US are fed to livestock animals. Obviously anyone who consumes meat, dairy & eggs is not only killing those mistreated animals but all of the animals that were killed to feed them also.

    • James says:

      I never claim that this is a way to feed 7 billion people, or even 7 million, or even 7. I never mention Lierre Kieth. Please read the full article and you’ll see what I claim in terms of what we can learn from Haines. Voles are a serious presence in Maine and would almost certainly have to be controlled in some disruptive way if Haines grew any sort of crop. Plus, it’s not only row crops that have rodent “problems.” You wouldn’t believe what orchardists–nuts in particular– do to squirrel populations. Fact is, Arthur gives vegans a lot to contemplate, and I think we are better off contemplating it than dismissing his example with bad arguments.

      • Daniel says:

        The fact that Arthur’s way of life is not scale-able to any degree does make it dismissible.
        Of course there is no “100% cruelty free” diet. And Arthur wins the numbers game with only a few animals killed each year. But I’m not convinced we learn anything from him that is applicable to the world we live in.

        • James says:

          Interesting. You concede that Haines kills fewer animals but then declare there’s nothing to learn from that.
          I don’t follow.

          • Daniel says:

            I stand corrected – there’s much to learn from him – but I don’t think we live in a world where enough people can apply this knowledge for it to have a substantial impact.

        • James says:

          I would actually argue that if we took into consideration access to resources and living conditions on a global scale, more humans are in a position to live like Haines than they are to go vegan.

  7. Lucas says:

    “mass extermination of innumerable wild critters”.

    Are there any figures you can cite to support this claim? I see you cite Steven Davis in the link you provided in this article, yet he admits he doesn’t even know how many wild animals are killed in agriculture.

  8. Jennifer Mora says:

    This man’s story is such a romantic fantasy. I wonder if freegans do less harm than this man to animals and their environment. Hunting, trapping and killing without a gun (or weapon of sorts) is so far removed from most human being’s repertoire of experiences. There are vegan foragers such as this person and there is veganic agriculture (that you have written about before). Dr. Milton Mills talks about how we human beings are not natural meat eaters and are disgusted by raw blood, flesh and mucous in his presentation “Biology of Disgust” and addresses the Paleo Diet in another. Marlene Zuch’s book “Paleofantasy” talks about what we truly know of the Paleolithic era. There are so many areas of the world that are so polluted and degraded in diversity that it would take many generations for us to help diversify the plant and animal species and “clean up” wherever possible the damage we have done. Living in the pristine wild is not an answer for most people. Not to mention that there are already nonvegans who do hunt for wild animals such as boars and turkeys. We know so much about their behaviors to know that considering them “meat” or “it” is not something to encourage because it is just exchanging an uncalculated violence for another. Do we have solid figures on how many crop animals are killed and displaced for animal agriculture versus veganic agriculture? Do we want to advocate that people become opportunistic survivalists versus nurturing caretakers of the earth? Isn’t this how we have gotten into this mess in the first place with Earth?

    • James says:

      “Hunting, trapping and killing without a gun (or weapon of sorts) is so far removed from most human being’s repertoire of experiences.”

      So is veganism.

  9. Teresa Wagner says:

    Karen Orr thank you for this article–very telling information. Will share.

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