5 Takeaways from Ancestral Health Symposium 2016

The Paleo movement has come a long way in the past few years. We’ve grown from a  niche “lunatic-fringe” community into something that is being increasingly recognized as credible by the mainstream. This growth is due in no small part to gatherings like Ancestral Health Symposium.

I recently had the pleasure of attending the 2016 AHS event in beautiful Boulder, Colorado, and walked away with a ton of information to ferment.

What is the Ancestral Health Symposium?

Straight from their website:

AHS is a historic three-day event created to unite the ancestral health movement and to foster collaboration among scientists, health professionals and laypersons who study and communicate about health from an evolutionary perspective to develop solutions to our health challenges.

The event is a gathering of incredible thought leaders in the realm of health and fitness whose presentations have an underlying theme of evolutionary mismatch. In addition to these scientific presentations, there are vendors like Fatworks, Vital Proteins, EPIC, and Xero Shoes, and natural movement workshops throughout the day.

Put succinctly, it’s a jam-packed three day period. Even as someone who has been engaged in the online Paleo community since I can remember, I feel like I learned more in one weekend than I learn in most years.

Here are my major takeaways.

5 Major Takeaways from AHS16

Paleo: the Science is There.

The information presented at AHS16 reaffirmed what we all know: Paleo is not a romanticized caveman fantasy – it’s an approach to lifestyle that has, as it should, a foundation in hard science. We’ve all heard the common mainstream criticism of a Paleo diet and lifestyle. Critics like to say that it’s “half baked”, writing it off as a silly attempt at historical recreationism. We in the community know that’s not the situation, but not all of us have the scientific expertise to explain why that’s bunk. AHS has pooled together the leading scientific minds to share the numbers, statistics, and peer-reviewed studies to back up the idea that maybe we should eat fewer grains and get more sleep. It’s one thing to know that this stuff works anecdotally; it’s entirely another to see the statistics laid out before you.

Ancestral Health is Endlessly Nuanced

When people think “Paleo,” they tend to think food first. There’s still some major paradigm shifting to be done to convince people to ditch bread and stop fearing fat, but the diversity of presentations at AHS16 goes to show that Paleo principles have something to offer everyone, regardless of nutritional beliefs. There were several presentations that focused on other, often undervalued, factors in human wellness.

  • Frank Forenrich explored the “long body,” the idea that the external stimuli of a healthy environment and sense of community is just as important as eating well and exercising.
  • Aaron Blaisdell gave a presentation on how our lifestyle choices can affect our cognition and mindset, for better or for worse.
  • Dr. Sarah Ballantyne gave a presentation on Ancestral sleep patterns, and how the modern world is completely out of alignment. Spoiler alert: doesn’t matter who you are: you need to be getting more, better, sleep, and she’s got the numbers to prove it: sleeping less than 6 hours per night increases the risk of all-cause mortality by 12%.

There’s also plenty of nuance within the Paleo realm itself. You might be high-fat or high-carb, high-meat or high-plant, and there is plenty of research to support every position in one way or another. AHS showed that there is something for everyone in this evolutionary health framework.

Movement: It’s Important.

Going beyond the framework of “training” or “exercise,” AHS made it clear that we need movement like we need oxygen.

  • Darryl Edwards delivered a lecture on the role of play, explaining that a 13% increase in physical activity has been correlated with a 15% decrease in premature death. Not all of us have more time to “train,” but we can certainly play more throughout the day.
  • Allyson Chrystal espoused the importance of proprioceptive input. Developing awareness and interaction with their environment helps kids develop self-regulation and quell anxiety, fear, and aggression.
  • Tony Federico explored how we have become sedentary, why that’s immobilizing us, why said immobilization is killing us, and how “movement snacks” sprinkled throughout the day could be more important than going to the gym. Let that be your cue to get into a deep squat for the next 60 seconds.

More importantly, there were tons of movement workshops throughout the weekend. There were demonstrations on a wide variety of human movement, including barefoot running, parkour, and owning the deep squat as a resting position. This allowed attendees to put theory into practice and refresh the mind after taking in so much new information.

Sustainability is the Next Big Frontier.

We’ve got this food and exercise piece figured out (pretty much). What was driven home at AHS16 is that sustainability needs to be a priority. Doesn’t matter if you’re Paleo, vegan, vegetarian, or whatever, we all need access to nutritious food without destroying the environment in the process. The Paleo community has a unique opportunity to push for sustainable food production, as we recognize that appropriately raising and eating animals is an important part in creating a healthy ecosystem that is sustainable over the long-term.

Diana Rodgers delivered a great presentation on the hows and whys of intelligent animal agriculture. The conversation is too dense and involved to summarize here, but you can read more about her position here and here. To sum up very, very briefly, raising grass-fed cattle could be the key to reversing years of damage done to our soil, and could be the key to reversing the detrimental effects of poorly managed land. Of course, this goes against “conventional wisdom,” which is exactly why the Paleo community is so empowered: because that’s what we do best!

Tribe and Community are Powerful

AHS16 was an invigorating weekend, due in no small part to the feeling of community with all of the attendees. It was refreshing to be surrounded by like-minded individuals, all from different walks of life, all with something different to bring to the table, all of whom care about the same underlying theme: human health and vibrancy.

In the aforementioned talk from Frank Forenrich, he described tribe as part of the “long body,” that is, the network of external factors that impact our health. Connecting and sharing with people makes you a healthier, happier human being, and this has never been more apparent to me. Being able to interact with like-minded people geeking out over health simply left me feeling happy and enriched. In my mind, this sort of connection, even amidst incredible lectures and workshops, is worth the trip to AHS alone.

And lest we forget, community and collaboration breeds innovation. After all, Paleo f(x)™ was born after Keith and Michelle Norris’ trip to AHS12!


All said, Ancestral Health Symposium was a beautiful weekend with a ton of information to digest. I’d like to extend a thank you to the organizers at the Ancestral Health Society, and I encourage everyone who has the opportunity to attend to do so. But hey, don’t just take my word for it: make sure to check out their YouTube channel to see all the great presentations from this year and years past.

Boulder Flatirons image licensed under the Creative Commons.


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Benjamin Nutt

Benjamin is a fitness enthusiast with a passion for human health and happiness. He is a graduate of the University of Colorado with a BA in Anthropology. He’s been implementing and experimenting with Ancestral diet and lifestyle protocols since 2010, driven by a passion to optimize his health and lifestyle. Benjamin is thrilled to join […]