Sourced from: Infinite Health Blog, by Dr. Davis,
originally posted on the Wheat Belly Blog: 2014-03-14
Ishi: The Last Hunter-Gatherer
One of the last true hunter-gatherers in North
America was believed to be a man called Ishi, with a fascinating tale
of the clash between indigenous cultures and early 20th century
America. But a study of this man provides some insights into the lives
of people living something close to a pre-Neolithic lifestyle, i.e.,
a life without agriculture.
I wrote this piece for my upcoming book,
Wheat Belly Total Health, due for release in September, 2014.
“An aboriginal Indian, clad in a rough
canvas shirt which reached to his knees … was taken into custody
last evening by Sheriff Webber and Constable Toland at the Ward
Slaughter-house on the Quincy road. He had evidently been driven by
hunger to the slaughter-house, as he was almost in a starving condition …
Where he came from is a mystery. The most
plausible explanation seems to be that he is probably the surviving
member of the little group of uncivilized Deer Creek Indians who were
driven from their hiding place two years ago.
In the Sheriff’s office he was surrounded
by a curious throng. He made a pathetic figure crouched upon the floor
… His feet were as wide as they were long, showing plainly that
he had never worn either moccasins or shoes … Over his shoulder
a rough canvas bag was carried. In it a few Manzanita berries were found
and some sinews of deer meat. By motions, the Indian explained that he
had been eating these.”
The Oroville Register
August 29, 1911
Such was the reception a lone Indian received
upon being trapped by turn-of-the-20th century Californians. As details
were pieced together, it appeared that Ishi—-a Yahi Indian word
for “man,” a name assigned to him, since it was customary
to not use personal names in their culture else risk insult and invite
bad magic—-was as close as anyone could come to a true primitive
in a modern world, someone entirely unfamiliar with all the modern
developments around him, having lived a life of virtually pure hunting
and gathering his entire life. Yet the story of Ishi encapsulates many
of the same phenomena we witness over and over again in the collision
of primitive Homo sapiens with modern diet.
Following Ishi’s recovery, in an
unprecedented decision, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs acquiesced
to a peculiar request made by two University of California
anthropologists, Drs. Alfred L. Kroeber and Thomas T.
Waterman, to release the “wild man” to the charge of the
University’s Museum of Art and Anthropology. Kroeber and
Waterman then proceeded to provide Ishi with food, shelter, and
protection, while studying his every habit and behavior.
As he learned to speak broken English and his
anthropologist attendants learned to understand bits and pieces of
Ishi’s native tongue, several details became clear: Ishi was
the last surviving member of the Yahi Indian tribe, nearly exterminated
during a massacre by marauding settlers eager for land in 1865, leaving
only five survivors. Of those five were Ishi, his mother, sister, his
sister’s husband, and a child. After many years of living in the
wild, Ishi was the lone survivor. He continued to live much as his
tribe’s ancestors had by hunting animals and fish and
gathering wild vegetation.
Dr. Saxton T. Pope, a physician, recorded a
thorough physical examination of him: “He was born probably about
1860 in northern California, consequently is approximately 54 years
of age, but appears about 45… Musculature is well developed, with
an even distribution of subcutaneous fat — The teeth are all
present, strong, colored slightly brown, no evidence of decay or
pyorrhea… His breath is sweet and free from the fetor common
to the average white man…”
As Ishi’s time in Western society
progressed, Dr. Pope made a number of other interesting
observations: “He fed at the nearby Hospital and had at least
two full meals daily, besides a luncheon of his own preparation. This
was greatly in excess of any dietary heretofore possible to him. In
consequence he increased in weight rapidly and became ungracefully
fat.” Through it all, surely an unsettling shift from his
hunter-gatherer origins to that of laboratory specimen, though
civilly treated, Ishi was “always calm and amiable — he
had the most exacting conscience concerning the ownership of property.
He was too generous with his gifts of arms, arrowheads, and similar
objects of his handicraft — With those whom he knew and liked
he was remarkably talkative, rambling off into stories, descriptions,
humorous episodes, and many unintelligible tales.” In short,
despite the traumatic excision from his life and culture suffered at
the hands of modern people, Ishi maintained a sense of humanity that
charmed the people around him until his death from tuberculosis
(a disease of the “white man”) in 1916.
The tragic and fascinating tale of Ishi is
about as close as we get in our time to viewing what a nearly pure
North American hunter-gatherer was like prior to the dietary
acculturation that has now come to touch virtually every other
human on earth.
Ishi: The Last Yahi: A Documentary History. Heizer RF,
Kroeber T, eds. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.