Today, what stresses and habits are contributing to back pain? It turns out we can learn from early humans and the lifestyle that broke their backs.
The development of agriculture around 10,000 B.C. was another major turning point for the back. Entering the Agricultural Revolution unknowingly created a second leap forward in what we like to call “technological progress”. The need to relocate and feed larger groups of people created tough challenges. With a bigger brain, more tools, and larger groups, early humans learned it was inefficient
to chase down large beasts, and by chance started exploring domesticating species of plants and animals.
The life of a hunter-gatherer wasn’t easy: continuously running away from danger and walking vast distances in search of food and resources. They benefited from a wild diet rich in nutrition through a variety of plants and animals. The downside is that most species of plants and animals can’t be domesticated. Of the thousands of species our ancestors hunted and gathered, only a few were suitable for farming and tending, and by trial and error, they discovered wheat to be the most efficient crop.
Humans invested more and more time cultivating wheat, and within a couple of thousand years,
people around the world were doing little more than taking care of wheat from morning to night.
“It wasn’t easy. Wheat demanded a lot of them [people]. Wheat didn’t like rocks and pebbles, so Sapiens [early humans] broke their backs clearing fields. Wheat didn’t like sharing it’s space, water
and nutrients with other plants, so men and women labored long days weeding under the scorching sun.” Writes professor and historian Yuval Noah Harrari in the book; Sapiens.
Slowly, farming started to change people’s diet, habits, and lifestyles, ultimately creating new
demands on the back and spine. For early humans, who became the first farmers, this gradual
change pushed them to look for more ways to protect and nurture wheat: building fences, digging irrigation canals, lifting, carrying, and dragging heavy buckets to water the plants.
Harrari further explains: “The body of Homo Sapiens had not evolved for such tasks. It was adapted
to climb apple trees and run after gazelles, not to clear rocks and carry water buckets. Human spines, knees, necks, and arches paid the price. Studies of ancient skeletons indicate that the transition to agriculture brought about a plethora of ailments, such as slipped discs, arthritis, and hernias.
Moreover, the new agricultural tasks demanded so much time that people were forced to settle permanently next to their wheat fields”
This completely changed their way of life, Harrari shares the provocative claim:
“We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.”
Wheat, as the transition between foragers to settlers, in a way has set the trajectory of what became modern life: demanding repetitive labor disguised as “work”.
As you might remember in the previous post, the functional demands on the spine first occurred over millions of years. They are now accelerated to a couple of thousands of years by agriculture.
The spinal segments first evolved for swimming, then crawling, eventually modified for climbing. It
was then configured and rotated for upright walking, and is now forced to accommodate repetitive tasks. This repetitive motion of bending, twisting, lifting, and carrying, is all centered around the lower curve lumbar of the spine- the most recent and vulnerable segment.
Harrari concludes, “Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Agriculture was more effective at enlarging the sum total of food for humankind, but the extra food did not bring more leisure. Rather it resulted in population explosions and pampered elites”.
In today’s vastly connected world with a human population of 7.5 billion people, we are building a increased surplus of food and products faster than we realize the toll it takes on the human body. Like Harrari, we must think: how are cultural and technological progress causing physical turmoil? Ultimately, it is the progress of society and civilization that is disrupting our body’s natural movement and causing pain or injury.
From our ancestors, we can learn that back pain is a symptom that we feel gradually. It appears
before we fully understand the true cause, and even more critically, we must recognize that the demands caused by progress will continue to overstress our spines. There is no stopping or undoing progress – no going back.
So what can we do? At Dorsum, we’re committed to unpacking the complexity of spinal health in
order to create products that can help humanity progress without pain. Your experiences, ideas, and comments are essential to fully understanding this problem, and, together, developing solutions to reduce the risk of back injury.
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Together we can free the world from back pain.