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.

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Comments & Feedback...

  1. Brian Roethle

    Great article! This is an excellent example that we do not need all these additives and preservatives in our foods. Getting back to the basics for a long, and healthy life.

  2. Tom Welsh

    Great. So they wiped out all his tribe, except for his family, and stole their land and hunting grounds. Then, when they finally caught him, they overfed him so he became obese, but he died of TB which he also got from them before he could become diabetic. And they were “civilized”, while he was “uncivilized”.

  3. Cindy

    Hi Dr. Davis,
    My comment has nothing to do with your recent post. Wasn’t sure how to send a general question. I am 65 y/o and have been following Wheat Belly for a year now. I lost 28.5 pounds and now weigh 128.5., which I have maintained for several months. I am not interested in further weight loss. My question is, I have been sick with a cold/flu virus 3 times since starting Wheat Belly. Each time my condition has lingered several weeks. Previously, I rarely was sick. I’m guessing my being sick correlates with my weight loss. I have not taken a probiotic at any time and I don’t believe in flu shots. Any advice?

  4. Amanda

    Dr. Davis

    With all the respect “An aboriginal indian”, should probably be an aboriginal American, or just an aboriginal, they were not Indians…

    • Joe Wrigley

      > With all the respect “An aboriginal indian”, should probably be an aboriginal American, or just an
      > aboriginal, they were not Indians…

      That phrase is part of a quoted passage from 1911…

        • Neicee

          Amanda, I’ve lived within driving distance of several Native Nations for 20 years. The only time I’ve ever heard the ‘term’ aboriginal has been in reference to the first peoples in Canada, Australia, or New Zealand. I’m guessing ones living in the U.S. do not find the ‘term’ Indian as offensive as we think, but do believe they prefer Native American. In fact, you just might get knocked on your bum if you did call them aboriginal because it is dangerously close to saying they are non- civilized.

          • Amanda

            Neicee yes in Canada we call them First Nations people, yet some people choose to call them Indians, which is a demeaning term. I just know that the term Indian is incorrect since it was C. Columbus who call them Indians thinking he was in a different place not America.
            It’s not a big deal, but I thought when writing a book you have to be correct.

    • Uncle Roscoe

      >they were not Indians

      I am almost 1/4 American Indian. So as a part-Indian, please allow me to say that you are wrong. We have been called “Indians” from the beginnings of English speech on the North American continent. The Constitution calls us “Indians” in three different places for God’s sake.

      This leftist tactic of branding perfectly acceptable, commonly used terms as offensive in favor of apologetic euphemisms you’ve made up out of whole cloth? ……itself, is offensive. You are not the definers of words. You do not own the language which other people use.

  5. > In consequence he increased in weight rapidly and became ungracefully fat.

    Did they record what he ate?

    This, of course, was long before modern wheat, pervasive sugars, pervasive corn, PUFA seed oils, transfats, GMOs, glyphosate and a long list of lesser fat magnets and toxins we battle to avoid presently.

    I’m guessing that the weight gain wasn’t just due to increased intake of calories, but carbs specifically. I would guess grains and fruits.

      • Neicee

        Look at the Navajo today. A huge percentage of the tribe have diabetes, heart disease and other ailments. I’ve heard some are trying to reeducate the members on how to eat like their ancestors. Others are waking up to the fact they need to genetically go back in time with their diets.

  6. Malcolm

    Hi Cindy:
    How is your Vitamin D level? I find having a high level of Vitamin D (25-hydroxy) helps protect against colds and flu. Get checked if you haven’t already.

    Best regards,


      • Barbara in New Jersey


        You might want to read about the supplement’s Dr. Davis recommends. Taking them will enhance your recovering immune system. Make sure you are drinking plenty of water too.

        There might be some new health issue brewing or a latent food sensitivity surfacing or even just a reaction to medication you might be taking and needs adjustment.
        Usually any colds or sniffles we might get are short lived and mild. If your feel you aren’t thriving overall, then look carefully at other possible
        allergens, food and environmental that are contributing to your illnesses.

        • Cindy

          Taking only 10 mg Lisinopril for high b/p. I have been feeling terrific since this change in lifestyle, which has now been a year. The frequency of colds/flu is very unusual for me. Started probiotics a few days ago and will now try taking vitamin C. I eat little fruit as I am prediabetic. I’m wondering if this is my deficiency.

          • Neicee

            Cindy, since you’ve been on grain free for a year and still take BP meds, can you tell if your BP has become lower? Reason I ask is that a good friend of mine was just diagnosed with high BP and is going to start taking the same med you are on? I brought mine down with magnesium and potassium supplements, a few more supplements as well. I also take hibiscus tea and in the summer aloe vera juice with a squeeze of lemon. I took one Lisinopril and felt like I had hit a brick wall. Could not tolerate it, but then I don’t most prescription drugs.

    • Neicee

      Malcolm, I’ve noticed it’s the Vit D3 that helps as well. I spent from November through New Year’s Day in Texas. I didn’t have the wherewithal to take anything but a small amount of coconut oil with me…..the dreaded TSA seems to pitch anything more then 3 ozs. in carry-on. While there I picked up the dreaded H1N1 virus right before coming home. After sleeping 36 hours and knowing I had to do something about my chest congestion I started taking a tsp. at a time of coconut oil. First I could again breathe, 2nd I didn’t feel like I wanted to sleep all the time, 3rd the head congestion and aches went away. Continued with the D3 and was over it enough by New Year’s Day I could travel home. Never did go to the doctor. Was it the Vit D3 or was it the coconut oil? I’ll ever know. But, friends down there are still suffering the aftereffects up to now.

  7. Louise

    Cindy…..I have no insight for you but it reminds me of two people I know who gave up grains and just about 9 months later they were diagnosed with MS. They both felt much better too but now have a chronic ailment.
    What is that all about Dr. Davis?

    • Steve

      OMG Louise… Two people! That YOU know! Gave up the MS-protecting qualities of modern wheat and immediately contracted the disease. Have you called the CDC? Don’t hold out on them girlfriend! The truth must be told! I feel MS coming on, get me some Pilsbury… Stat!

      OK, sarcasm aimed at the Troll is now off. Do you see what “Louise” did there? She took Cindy’s fear that perhaps by giving up modern wheat that she was depriving herself of some cold-and-virus protecting nutrient, and made allusions that even darker diseases awaited her. Then, to cap it off, she threw the ball to Dr Davis and said “Here. Disprove my totally unsubstantiated claim.” This is professional Internet Troll-ism at it’s best. If “she” follows the script, in a few days some sock puppets by the name of “Joe” and “Margy” will chime in and say “Hey Louise! How come Dr D never responded to your concerns about MS? What’s he got to hide? Clearly, everybody needs to start eating modern wheat again.”

      Cindy, I have been wheat free for a year and a half. Since then, I never get sick. No colds, no flu, and certainly no flu shot. As others have mentioned, I take supplements, vitamins and such, but most importantly, I take 10-12000 IUs of Vitamin D in the winter time to replace what the Ohio winter is depriving me of.

      If MS starts creeping in to the picture, I’ll be the first one to post back.

      • > If MS starts creeping in to the picture, I’ll be the first one to post back.

        Indeed, many people switch to LCHF, grain-free, and with particular attention to increased consumption of EPA and DHA, in order to treat MS. How effective this is, and how fast, is not yet known, but I’ve seen several anecdotal reports that MS symptoms, particularly flare-up, remiss. And of course we have the case of Dr. Wahls.

        Because the WB, paleo, primal, LCHF etc. communities are breaking new ground in nutrition, it’s important to keep alert for all adverse signals, but the claim that giving up grains causes MS strikes me as highly unlikely. And in this case, we don’t have any further clarification on the diet other than “gave up grains”.

        Here in the heart of grainland, a family member has lost multiple childhood acquaintances to MS. They were all grain consumers their entire lives.

      • Cindy

        I live in WI. My vitamin D level as of last July was 53. I take 2 tablets, 2000 IU ea. maybe I will increase to 3 after I have taken the probiotic and the vitamin C for some time. If I get sick again, I’ll know these supplements are not building up my immune system. Thanks for your input.

    • Louise,
      It could mean that your friends should have given up wheat years earlier. Often, MS is not diagnosed until one becomes symptomatic…..and in many cases, that can take months and years.

      • Louise

        Good point. More than likely it’s a coincidence in both cases. Just thought I’d mention it for further discussion.

  8. Neicee

    Louise, I’m sorry about your friends, but do some research. Since I’ve never found where carbohydrates are a required food group I can’t see how giving them up would trigger MS. I live near the highline on the U.S. Canadian border. We have a huge number of residents with MS. For months, those of us that live in those climes get very little absorbable Vitamin D3 from the sun. There is some research online that outlines the connection between Vitamin D3 and MS. In fact, I’m guessing that on the sidebar here to your left or the search on this site would yield some interesting discussions. If reducing carbs would hamper our abilities to fight off MS, every single one of us that have given them up would suffer from it.

    • Barbara in New Jersey

      Hi Bill,

      Good information. Worth viewing. I always learn something new with these knowledgeable people lecturing. Thanks for posting.

  9. Allen

    Dr. Davis,

    Do you have a response to the recent report that came out in several news agencies about how eating too much animal protein between 50 and 65 shows a 4 fold increase in cancer and a 75% higher chance of dying, and then an increase in protein at 65 is again good for your health. With the wheat belly eating plan calling for as much meat as you like, and plenty of eggs and cheese, what is your point of view with this. I am assuming that eating fewer carbs and having less swings in blood sugar and therefore less inflammation, that this might reduce these numbers in this report. Any word you have on this would be appreciated, especially since I’m in my early 50’s.

  10. david potack

    Question? I’ve been living the lifesyle for two and half years. Got my older son sucessfuly on the path and now my sister. Has anyone tried Chapul? She found it on Sharktank. I googled it and it appears ok. Seems like more and more ‘stuff’ coming out everyday. I’ve been sticking to Doc Davis’s recomended products so i’m a bit suspicious.

    • Neicee

      Made using bug flour. Hmmm, Believe I can live without trying this new taste treat. Please do let us know how much you enjoy them. ;)

    • > … Chapul? … and it appears ok.

      Appears not. 24 to 29 grams net carbs, likely due to the main ingredient, which is dates. This number needs to be way below 15. Quest bars are, for example, 3-5 grams.

      Chapuls are also way too low in fat to be a meal replacement bar (as are Quest for that matter), but one of the Chapul fats is sunflower oil (an adverse omega 6 seed oil). I would avoid them.

      There’s another cricket bar on the market recently (Exo) that is lower in net carbs, but still above 15. They, alas, list “honey” as an ingredient, which is a red flag. For why, see:,895.0.html

      Nobody in the bar business gets it. Quest misses the mark by the least.

  11. Neicee

    1. Dr. Davis, forgot to give kudos to you for bringing us another book this coming Fall. Can’t wait.
    2. I wandered over to YouTube and did a search for something and low and behold a whole group of new videos about your Track Your Plaque site. I watched a small group of them but they all seem to be very short in length….under 30 sec. Then you say “so let’s discuss it”. Are we to go to the discuss link and input questions or thoughts? If so all of the regular contributors here (WB warriors) need to run over there and lay some comments on the various subjects. YouTube gets millions of hits a year and would be an excellent means to spread the word.

  12. Neicee

    As usual for me, failed to mention the name of the new series is “Cureality” under Track Your Plaque.