Monday, June 15, 2009

Health Profile: Geronimo

A well-known Chiricahua Apache and leader of his people, Geronimo is most recognized for his bouts with -- and escapes from -- Mexican and U.S. military troops in the mid to late 1800s. Among the Apache, Geronimo was thought to have great powers, including the ability to see into the future and leave no tracks when moving through the mountains and deserts of his tribe's territory. His band of Apache warriors were among the last Native American peoples to surrender to the U.S. government and live on reservations.

Tales of Geronimo's cunning retreats from his military pursuers abound. One story holds that Geronimo and his band disappeared without explanation when trapped in a cave that had no second entrance. On horseback, he and his warriors were able to keep ahead of the U.S. cavalry -- with its horses and loads of supplies -- at a pace of 70 miles a day while carrying very little and living on wild plants and animals, even resorting to killing their own horses for sustenance. During battles, Geronimo was shot and wounded several times yet never succumbed to death from a bullet wound.

In short, the man was -- like most traditional native peoples of his time -- quite a specimen.

Looking at his photos, Geronimo's beautiful facial structure -- round face, square jaw, prominent cheek bones, wide flaring nostrils -- is readily apparent. This indicates a full and proper development during his formative years as an infant, young boy, and teenager. (We can't comment on his teeth as he never smiled in photos, but he probably had all of them.) His broad shoulders and upright posture suggest agile movement and strength. Like a wild animal, Geronimo was optimally built for his rugged environment of high mountain sky islands and vast seas of low desert. Having lived near, and backpacked through, the Chiricahua Mountains in southeastern Arizona (Geronimo's former stomping grounds) for several months, I can attest to the ruggedness of this landscape.

Lifestyle plays a major role in the fitness levels of Geronimo. Traveling on foot or horseback for up to 70 miles, stalking wild game, and crafting tools and shelters from his surroundings, he spent his life using his body. This lifetime "use" was certainly a major contributing factor to his physical capabilities. Yet, perhaps he wouldn't have been as capable -- his body not as supported, his build not as solid, his immunity and ability to recover from bullet wounds diminished -- if he hadn't also eaten the natural, primitive diet of his people. What kind of diet was that? Here's a list of some of the staple foods that the Apaches ate and the nutritional qualities that make them supportive:
  • Wild game: deer, elk, quail, rabbit, etc. --> utilizable proteins and fats, which provide amino acids, b-vitamins, fat-soluble vitamins, and, when using the whole animal (as was common in Geronimo's day), every single needed nutrient the human body needs. (Interstingly, the Apaches had taboos against eating snakes, frogs, fish, and bears.)
  • Corn, beans, and squash--> starchy carbohydrates traditionally processed to eliminate anti-nutrients (fermented, roasted, soaked, leached, etc.) providing supplemental energy and sparing fat loss; additional vitamins and minerals (for an interesting account of how Apaches prepared a fermented corn drink called tizwin, see bottom of this post)
  • Agave--> heart of the plant pit-roasted, young stalks eaten; provides supplemental starch and sugars in the diet; spares fat loss ... but gives horrible gas (I can attest to this myself after eating a pit-roasted agave -- yeesh!)
  • Acorns & Pine nuts--> roasted, soaked, leached, pounded, or eaten fresh (some species); beneficial proteins and fats; particularly rich in monounsaturated fatty acids
  • Prickly Pear Cactus--> fruit cooked into syrup or eaten fresh and young pads boiled or roasted (high in oxalic acid raw); fruits rich in electrolytes for a hot, dry climate; pads rich in calcium and vitamin A beta-carotene
Really, if we break it down, we find that the Apaches were quite omnivirous much like other hunter-gatherer tribes across the world (Australian Aborigines and Bushmen of the Kalahari come to mind). Geronimo's very supportive, nutrient-dense Apache diet of meat and properly prepared plant foods allowed for the full facial and skeletal development -- as well as the mental sharpness and alertness -- common to traditional peoples eating a traditional diet (see Weston Price's studies for more on this).

So, it seems that the famous Apache leader lived healthfully with vigor and "fierceness" (as many accounts report) throughout his life. But what of his lifespan? Does it fit the description, "nasty, brutish, and short?" Not in the least. Geronimo lived from 1829-1909, dying at age 79 from pneumonia after drunkenly falling off his horse and contracting a severe cold. Had his life not been cut short by this accident, perhaps he would have lived well into his 80s or 90s.

"I cannot think that we are useless or God would not have created us. There is one God looking down on us all. We are all the children of one God. The sun, the darkness, the winds are all listening to what we have to say."

Making "Tiznin" -- An Apache Fermented Corn Drink

"First, they soaked the corn overnight in water. They dug a long trench and lined it with grass, placed the soaked corn in the trench, and covered it with another layer of grass. Sometimes they covered the whole with earth or a blanket. After sprinkling the corn with water morning and evening for ten days, during which it sprouted, they took it out, ground it with their grinding stones (mano and metate), and then boiled it for five hours. Finally, they strained off the liquid and set it aside. After about twenty-four hours, when it stopped bubbling, it was ready to drink." (From Geronimo: The Man, His Time, His Place by Angie Debo, p. 22)


Stephan Guyenet said...


Just stopping by to say thanks. I appreciate your support.

I'm always inspired by anecdotes of the physical abilities of native groups. One thing that seems pretty consistent is they can walk their asses off. As someone who does a lot of backpacking, it's impressive. 70 miles is a long way. People think Ray Jardine is crazy for going 30 miles a day.

I found some really interesting papers on the Xavante Indians of Brazil recently you might enjoy. They're mostly hunter-gatherers. They have excellent teeth and almost all of them have 20/20 vision or better. I'll be writing about it on my blog at some point.

Ryan Koch said...

Hi Stephan,

Those papers about the Xavante sound fascinating. Can't wait to see your post on the subject.

Here's a great quote from Nutrition and Physical Degeneration re: the enurance of primitive peoples (this one about the Natives of the North in American):

"The truck broke down about half way over the two or three day return trip and the [Native] driver had to leave his two passengers and walk the sixty-five miles back to Telegraph creek for another truck. This he did without stopping to rest or eat, a journey which took eighteen hours." (p. 483)

Pretty impressive for sure!

Thanks for stopping by, Stephan. :-)

Lisa said...

Just wanted to say how much I'm enjoying reading back through your archive Ryan. Found your blog via Stephan Guyenet's, and I'm so glad I did! Loved this latest piece on Geronimo. The last line of the quote haunts me:

"The sun, the darkness, the winds are all listening to what we have to say."

Ryan Koch said...

Thanks for the kind words, Lisa!