The BBC has announced that a new reality TV show will cover the attempts of eight Europeans to survive in the Kalahari Desert for one month on the men’s hunting and the women’s vegetable gathering. Later this year, four men and four women will live with one of the San societies in the desert of Namibia, the men learning from their hosts how to hunt using traditional tools and the women learning how to gather tubers.
The show is tentatively called “Man’s First Diet,” a title which shows an unfortunate gender bias that reflects a misunderstanding of the importance women’s food gathering used to play in their society. Richard Lee’s authoritative book The !Kung San: Men, Women and Work in a Foraging Society (1979) points out that when the Ju/’hoansi San used to subsist on their foraging, women gathered 70 percent of the calories the people consumed, and the men hunted only 30 percent, though of course their hunting produced much-needed protein.
The four, one-hour programs, to be shown on BBC Three, are commissioned by Emma Swain, Specialist Factual Commissioning Editor, who is quoted in the press release: “Our Stone Age ancestors lived on the hunter/gatherer diet, or Paleolithic diet, and many western health problems are a direct result of what we eat today. The Paleolithic diet is the only one that fits ideally into our genetic make-up. Man’s First Diet will find out how difficult it is for eight people to revert back to the Paleolithic diet.”
The press release amplifies on that romanticized theme: “In the series, if the eight westerners want to eat they must pick, dig up, trap, and, where necessary, kill their food. Both the men and women must live as their Namibian counterparts do – the men will have to join hunts spending days at a time foraging for food; while the women must live life according to the strict social rules that govern local women.”
Ignoring the present tense of the press release—the Namibian counterparts no longer subsist primarily on foraging for food—Lee’s book, Chapter 10, “The Allocation of Nutritional Stress,” provides a detailed examination of the former eating patterns of the Ju/’hoansi. Lee discusses the health values of their foraging diet but he emphasizes the seasonal variations in availability, and hence nutrition. One can hope the producers will study Lee carefully before choosing the time of year to send the Europeans into the desert. They will either eat well on the bush foods, or perhaps barely survive on them, depending on the decision.
Some blogs have provided additional information about this venture. One indicates that “the overweight eight… will become real spear-bearing hunter-gatherers while the women will be tasked with digging up roots and tubers and turning them into something the men can actually swallow.” The author of that story apparently doesn’t realize that the San people traditionally used poisoned arrows for their hunting.
The author of the blog quotes one Sara Ramsden, Creative Director of Cheetah Television, the producer of the show, as saying that “eating a porcupine you’ve snared, skinned and cooked on an open fire under the desert skies will be a life-changing experience, regaining the essential evolutionary link between food and effort.” Neither the blog nor the BBC announcement indicates what kinds of tools the adventurous eight will take with them—or will they skin out the porcupine with their bare hands?
Another blogger, Nicole Weston, evidently quoting from someone connected with the planned reality show, indicates that “the men will hunt with the tribesmen while the women will ‘have to live according to the San Bushmen’s strict social rules, looking on the ground for tubers and learning how to process and pound them to make them edible.’”
Spear-throwers? Tribesmen? Evidently these bloggers are not aware of the discrimination that the San people are experiencing in Namibia. According to recent research, some of them are treated quite badly in that country, where they are relegated to the margins of society. There have been numerous instances when they have been employed but not paid for their work. Needless to say, the BBC press release did not indicate if the hosts of the eight Europeans would be paid for their roles.
Hopefully the show will be entertaining as it encourages the TV audience to eat better foods while they watch their favorite shows. Perhaps it will also encourage viewers to read excellent books such as the one by Prof. Lee and the other resources listed on the Ju/’hoansi page of this website.