Energetics of survival

You wake up, open your eyes. You are surrounded by lush green forest in all directions. There are lots of bees and bumble bees, butterflies and dragonflies, all of them buzzing around the wild flowers and flowering bushes, collecting pollen, sucking nectar, and eating small bugs. There are also birds of all kinds; of kinds and colours you have never seen. Some are flying, frenzied, up and down and all around, some are singing loudly and proudly, some are sitting on branches, watching you, seemingly in just as much amazement to see you there, as you are feeling looking out onto this amazing scene. You have no idea where you are, but you know it’s green, vibrant, and full of life, you know it’s a beautiful place, a wonderful place. Never in your life had you imagined a place like this could still exist in the world.


What happened is that you were brought to and dropped off on this island, untouched by people or technology, while you were asleep, after having been sedated in order not to wake up during the trip. You don’t know why, and you don’t know who did this. Fortunately, and you don’t know this yet, but there are no predators on the island. Not only that, but the weather is perfect in that it never gets too hot or too cold, too dry or too wet, and there are enough food resources for you to live on, even if you have to work to find and get what you need to stay strong and healthy. Since you are alone, you don’t have to provide for, or protect anybody other than yourself. What is your first concern?

Most probably, finding a place where you can rest and sleep, sheltered from wind and rain, and safeguarded from possible dangers or annoyances that could prevent you from getting a restful sleep. You might eventually build yourself a more permanent house, but for now you need to find a suitable cave-like place, get some branches to close the face of it, and some tall grasses and leaves to make the ground soft enough to sleep on. You get to it.

You find a place, find plenty of branches and tall grasses, get your shelter organised. And although this was as easy as you could have hoped for, it has taken you half a day, and it is now early afternoon. What’s your main concern now? Food, of course: you’re hungry! You set off in search of things to eat. You walk half an hour or so, and the first thing you find is a little patch of what looks like wild spinach. So, you pick and eat a couple of small bunches of it. It’s not bad: it tastes just like spinach, even if the leaves are smaller, and a little tougher than you’re used to. However, they’re just green leaves: you’ve had enough of them, but you’re still just as hungry as you were.

You keep walking, looking all around for edible things. Another half an hour later, or thereabouts, you notice a small bush with barely visible blueberries scattered sparsely on it. You walk up to it, and start picking and eating. You’re lucky that it’s summer. The berries are good, but they are tiny, and so sour; you had no idea wild blueberries were so small, and this sour. After about 15 minutes of carefully picking through bush, you’ve eaten the three handfuls of blueberries that were on it. But guess what: you’re still really hungry. Maybe a little less than when you set off about an hour ago, but hardly at all. Think about it: a couple of bunches of small spinach leaves, and a few handfuls of wild blueberries. That’s not much. So, you set off again.

Two hours later, you are famished, and you’re still walking around looking for food. You notice a little tree that looks like it might have something on its branches. You get closer, and you’re so happy when you realise that they are hazelnuts. There’s quite a lot, even if the tree is still quite small. Unfortunately, most of them are green. In any case, you start picking all the ones that look ripe, or at least ripe enough to be picked. You’re really happy to have stumbled upon that valuable find. You manage to collect about twenty five of them that are either ready or just about to be. You find a good stone for the purpose, and carefully break the shell of each hazelnut, one by one, cautious not to crush the nut inside. You end up with lovely, freshly shelled hazelnuts from which you peel the soft skin to reveal the soft milky white nut underneath. There are enough of them to fill your cupped hands held together. You eat them, enjoying every bite, every moment of chewing, every moment of swallowing. Even if you consciously made yourself eat them slowly and mindfully, the pleasure lasted just under a quarter of an hour. Nonetheless, for the first time today, you feel your hunger and appetite have been appeased.

It is now quite late in the afternoon, and you are feeling tired from a whole day’s walking and looking for things to eat, but you are now really thirsty: you haven’t drank in almost a day. You head back to your shelter, and about half way there, stop at a spring you noticed while walking past it in the morning. You drink to quench your thirst: probably more than a litre of the cold, fresh spring water. That feels so good. Now you feel totally full: full of hazelnuts and water. You are totally ready for bed, exhausted after such a tiring day. It’s not even 20:00 but you are bushed. You go back to the cave, and settle in for the night.

The next morning you get up, and immediately, based on yesterday’s experience, realise that your main concern is to find and get enough food to feel nourished. You figure that the easiest way is to try to catch some fish. At least if you get even just one, that will be enough for the day. You need more than leaves and berries, and that the hazelnuts will need more time to ripen. You walk to the coast. That takes you about an hour. You construct a very simple underwater trap a few meters in from the shoreline, by placing stones in a circular fashion that creates a kind of rounded wall with an opening on one side, in a way that the fish will be able to swim in, but will not be able to continue on their way out to the other side, and will thus get stuck in the shallow underwater pool. That way, you will be able to either grab the fish with your hands directly and throw it out onto the shore, or be able to harpoon it with a sharp-ended pole you would have made. Either way, your hope is that at least one fish of good enough size will get stuck in your trap. You set that up and walk off to continue scouting out the island for other food and water springs.

It’s a beautifully sunny day, and you are thoroughly enjoying walking slowly, looking around, exploring the island, discovering the landscape. A couple of hours later, you find a little valley along which runs a small stream. As you walk along the bank, a few minutes later, you come across a patch of blackberry bushes. That’s fantastic! It’s not yet peak season, but there are already a some ripe ones on the south-facing side of the thorny bushes. You haven’t had any breakfast, obviously, since you didn’t have anything you could eat, and so, you eat all the berries you can find that are ripe enough to be picked. After nearly an hour of delicately and carefully looking and picking while trying to not get all scratched up by the thorns sticking out everywhere in all directions from the long and skinny branches of the blackberry bushes, you have eaten a few handful of berries, but your arms and legs are nevertheless itchy from all the small scratches you did get; it’s just impossible not to get scratched picking blackberries. And although you’ve barely eaten the equivalent of a large bowlful of blackberries, and although you feel a barely noticeable difference in the feeling of your empty stomach, you’ve had enough of this precarious and thorny picking. You decide to go back to check on your fish trap.

You beam-line to the place you set up the trap, and make it back in a little over an hour. You are so excited when you see that there is a large fish swimming in circles in the shallow pool of your trap that you can hardly contain your excitement, but you need to be very careful with your manoeuvres to not let it slip out and swim away. You grab the harpoon you made and left on the shoreline, go up to it very slowly to avoid making waves in the shallow waters, circling around from the north side to make sure you don’t cast a shadow on the water over the trap, and with great care and attention, holding your breath both from the excitement of actually catching the fish, and the anxiety of failing to do so, you bring down the harpoon and spear the fish solidly right on the end of the sharpened stick. Fantastic! Brilliant! You never imagined how amazing and empowering it would feel: you’ve never before had to catch a fish or anything else in order to feed yourself.

You make a fire, grill the fish, and finally eat it with immense pleasure and satisfaction. You feel great, really great: totally full and totally content. It’s now late in the afternoon, but you’re ready to sleep. So, you go back to the cave, and sleep on a full stomach, calm and at ease, a wonderfully restful sleep.

When you wake up the next morning, you’re surprised by the fact that you don’t feel hungry. You’re really thirsty, but you’re not hungry. You haven’t felt like this in days. You get up, walk to the closest water spring, and drink. You drink probably the equivalent of a litre and a half, and you feel totally full. You set off and spend the day walking around, exploring and getting more familiar with the island. It’s not until the afternoon that you start to feel hungry again. So, you just go back to the beach where your trap is. You walk up to it, and man! Holy cow! There are three fishes in it! Being even more cautious then you were yesterday, you manage to catch two. The third one escapes, but this is really good anyway: you have two fish instead of just one.

Again today, like you did yesterday, you make a fire and grill the fish. But you only grill one of them to eat today. The other one, you wrap in a large banana type leaf, and place in the hot ashes on the side of the fire. You grill your fish to perfection, and eat it with as much joy and satisfaction as you did yesterday, taking your time, eating all the little bits of flesh and skin, sucking clean every fish bone. It’s so good! A couple of hours have passed now, since you started grilling, and the second fish wrapped in the leaf has now been steamed in its own moisture, making it easy for you to separate all the edible parts. Putting these aside on a small wooden platter you’ve made by weaving together thin branches, leaving enough space between them to allow air to flow through. After that you make a little structure that you can place over the fire, and on which you can set the ventilated weaved branch plate with the fish, letting it sit there, a foot or so above the ashes, making sure to maintain the coals hot, and putting dried leaves and pine needles to make smoke.

This is a slow process, and you want to dry the fish, not just smoke it lightly, because you want to be able to keep it without it spoiling. You end up doing this all afternoon and well into the night. Eventually, you fall asleep on the beach, next to the smouldering fire, and by the time morning comes, the fish is dried: you can keep it, and it won’t go bad. You’re exhausted. You hardly slept all night. You take the smoke-dried fish with you back to the cave, and go to sleep for a few hours.

When you wake up, it’s already mid afternoon. As the day before, you go drink, and then go back to the fish trap to assess the catch, but today there is nothing: not a single fish. Well, no problem, you think, there’s the smoke-dried fish back at the cave that you can have for supper. You decide to make a detour and hike back to the blackberry patch on your way back. It’s going to take some time, but you already have your plan for supper, so you enjoy the one hour walk to the valley with the blackberries. You pick and eat berries for a while, maybe a little under an hour, and then make your way back home to the cave. You take out your smoked fish, but eat only half of it. You never know if there’s going to be a catch tomorrow, and your don’t want to be left without having anything to eat for dinner the next day. Anyway, half the fish is enough to make you feel full and satisfied from your meal. You go to sleep.

When you wake up in the morning, you don’t get up right away. You lie back, and reflect on the last few days. You’ve been on the island for just three days, and in this short period of time you have understood, without having had to think about it even for even a second, the energetics of survival. You have understood, first of all, that there is no way at all that anyone living in the wild could survive for an extended time on plant foods alone. Second, you have understood that the value of foods, in terms of energetics, is measured in the amount of calories, and of the feeling of satiety or fullness they provide. Therefore, the richer in fat and protein the food, the more valuable it is: animals and animal foods come first; fat and protein-rich plant foods like nuts and oily seeds (sunflower, sesame) come second; and all other foods like berries, greens, and other edible fruits and vegetables come third. It’s plain and simple, and there’s no way around these two basic conclusions.

In addition to that, it strikes you that the circumstances in which you have landed—a place with a perfect climate, with no predators, at the best time of the year for finding and harvesting plant foods, and with an amazingly easy access to enough fish to feed yourself—really couldn’t be any better. They must have been far worse for almost every individual in all of our ancestral lineages, no matter where they might have been on the globe.

And now, considering that every human being on the planet today is a descendant of a tribe of homo sapiens that, it is believed, lived on the south western coast of Africa, ate mostly crustaceans and fish, developed larger and more versatile brains (almost surely due to their diet), and were the first ones to develop advanced language skills, which gave them a greatly increased power of communication, conceptualisation, and abstraction. Considering that it is these people that, beginning between 100 and 70 thousand years ago, started migrating northward and eastward first through and then out of Africa, reaching Polynesia and Australia around 50 thousand years ago, Europe and Asia most likely in several waves between 70 and 35 thousand years ago, their descents eventually reaching North America 12 to 13 thousand years ago, near the end of the last ice age. And considering that this last ice age lasted 100 millennia—that’s one hundred thousand years—during which every hominid on the globe, other than those living in equatorial regions, and this includes all homo sapiens and all neanderthals, must have had to live almost exclusively on animals and animal-derived foods, not just for a while, but several tens of thousands of years.

Can this even be imagined from the perspective of someone who lives approximately 80 years, but who keeps in memory a sense of time that spans much less than that? Your parents were born around 20-30 years before you. Their parents were born 20-30 years before them. Your great grand-parents, another 20-30 years before that. And do you know anything about your great grand-parents, other than possibly having seen a few pictures and heard a few anecdotes about them told by your parents or grand-parents? And this is just a period of time spanning 60 to 90 years. Think of what this means: not one hundred, not two or three hundred, not five hundred, not even one thousand years, but ten, twenty, thirty, fifty thousand years eating basically only animals, without ever knowing what it’s like to eat anything else, a whole lifelong, generation after generation, hundreds of generations after hundreds of generations.

What do you think this implies for us now? What does it say about both the essential and most important macro and micro nutrients our bodies and brains need? What our bodies and brains, these incredibly complex living systems, refined over millennia upon millennia in every aspect of their coarsest physical and mechanical, and their most subtle biochemical, hormonal and neurological functions, actually need to function properly? What does it say about what we, as human beings, have evolved over these vast periods of time being dependent upon to be healthy, survive and reproduce?

If you enjoy this article, please share it with your friends and help more people.