Dr Ann Walker and Her Neanderthal Theories

In this story, a supplement industry spokesperson resorts to Creationist ‘Science’ for their evidence to support the ‘crucial’ nature of supplement pills, shows how we should eat like Inuits, without the messy business of catching fish (or dying young), and has a pop at one of the UK’s most respected academics when he dares to point out some herbal gobbledegook.

A quackometer refrain is that where you find people saying that you cannot get the nutrients you need through diet, you will find a supplement pill pusher. And a new pill pusher has come to light this week: Dr Ann Walker, spokesperson for the Health Supplements Information Service (HSIS), a body set up to be an,

educational programme to present facts about health supplementation in a simple, a straightforward way. We aim to empower consumers with knowledge about nutrients and their crucial role for a healthy living.

Crucial, eh? Given that the HSIS is made up of many large and small business that try to flog nutripills to us, then we might expect strong marketing language. Why take those disgusting little pills if they were not crucial?

So what evidence are we given for the ‘crucial’ nature of supplements? How does the science stack up and should we rely on such evidence? Let’s see what Dr Walker has to say on the subject.

But first a bit of background: Dr Ann Walker looks like a busy person. As well as work with the HSIS, she runs a herbalist training school with her husband, has her own herbalist private practice open twice a week, and still finds time to supervise studies in Human Nutrition in the Hugh Sinclair Unit of Human Nutrition at The University of Reading.

However, the one of Britain’s most eminent scientists, Professor David Colquhoun FRS, has pointed out that Dr Walker’s association with the University counts as about one tenth of a full time job. He also commented that she signs herself as a Senior Lecturer at Reading when trying to comment on the negative effects of supplements without declaring her interests as a spokesperson for the industry. The straw on the camel’s back was exposing her herbalist web site as touting ‘gobbledygook‘ when it suggests that Red Clover is a ‘blood cleanser’. The term has no scientific meaning. All this resulted in Dr Walker’s husband complaining to the Provost of University College London about Professor Colquhoun and his web site. The complaint alleged defamation and breach of copyright. Ann and her husband had not complained to Professor Colquhoun directly and had not answered his request for them to explain what a ‘blood cleanser’ was and why this was not gobbledygook.

Threatening legal action and complaining to the University without addressing David directly is a bit unsporting. Why would you do this if your views on herbal treatments stood up to examination? A simple email to David, pointing out his errors, would surely suffice? The fact that this has not happened rings alarm bells. And so, I felt it worthwhile looking at some of the other claims that Dr Ann Walker makes to see if they too support the popping of supplement pills.

Dr Walker writes articles for the Healthspan web site, which claims to be the ‘largest home shopping supplier of vitamins and supplements in the UK. Tax free prices. Free P&P (UK)’. Her articles for the site are linked to various supplements and give reasons why purchasing such products are ‘crucial’. I am going to pick on the first article in her list and see if it contains good reasons to buy a supplement or two.

The article is entitled ‘Did cavemen get arthritis?‘ and is an attempt to explain why we should be buying Omega-3 and Vitamin D pills. It starts off,

We often hear that the ideal diet to prevent all chronic diseases, including arthritis, is the Stone-Age Diet, which was believed to be based on the meat of hunted animals and the leaves, roots, seeds and fruits of gathered wild plants. Did the ancient Stone-Age diet really combine the best features of what we now call healthy eating? In this article, the links between evolution, nutrition, dietary change and arthritis are explored in relation to archaeological evidence.

It is not clear where we can hear that diet can prevent all chronic diseases. This sort of claim is typical of nutritional therapists and is highly controversial, mainly because there is little evidence for it.

Dr Walker continues,

The earliest known case of human arthritis was found in a cave at La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France in 1908. It was the bent-over frame of a Neanderthal Old Man, who lived 60,000 years ago. His ape-like spine was responsible for the myth that the Neanderthals were one of the missing links in human evolution. But subsequent finds suggest that they were regular humans who just looked a little different from us and that their skeletal deformities were due to diet.

The specifics of the dietary problems are explained as follows:

During the Ice Age, Neanderthals lived in dark caves and probably suffered from vitamin D deficiency due to a lack of sunlight. Hence, if their diet was low in fish, they not only missed out on its rich vitamin D content, but also on its omega 3 fatty acids, with consequent risk of the development of soft, deformed bones and arthritic joints.

The first word that springs out here is ‘myth’. Now, the question of whether Neanderthals are our evolutionary ancestors, or our cousins, or even hybrids, has been the subject of much debate and research, But to call it a ‘myth’ is a bit odd. The next bit is even stranger. Dr Walker claims that subsequent finds now prove that Neanderthals were just plain old humans, maybe a little odd looking, but with dietary problems. Specifically, a lack of Vitamin D would have caused rickets and deformed their bones.

These sorts of arguments about Neanderthals are quite common on the web. However, you will not find them on science web sites but on web sites displaying the rantings of creationists and so-called Intelligent Design advocates. These arguments are important to the creationists. The existence of Neanderthal bones, along with fossils from other homo species, are excellent evidence that archaic forms of humans existed, quite distinct from ourselves, and that evolution can explain their development from earlier, more ape-like ancestors. This is bad news for creationists who like to pretend that no such ‘missing links’ exist. And so the dissemblers on such sites paint these bones as those of diseased normal humans. A good example of the type of argument can be found on the All About Creation web site. The phrasing and style of argument displayed here is remarkably similar to Dr Walker’s site.

The idea that Neanderthals were deformed and diseased ordinary humans has a long heritage, going as far back as the 19th Century German Anatomist Rudolf Virchow, who examined the skeleton of a Neanderthal and pronounced it a victim of rickets and a good bludgeoning around the head. By the beginning of the 20th Century, such ideas had been proved to be nonsense and now they are only to be found on christian literalist web sites (and the odd vitamin sales site).

We now have a much better view of what the Neanderthals were. Far from being backward, diseased and brutish, our cousins were in fact highly successful colonisers of Europe and the Near East. They thrived for hundreds of thousands of years and their remains have been associated with complex hunting and tool making, control of fire and cultural artifcats. Whereas the later arriving sapiens adapted to the harsher environments of Europe though technology, Neanderthals survived through physical adaptions. Their bodies were not diseased but strong and stocky in order to conserve heat and hunt effectively. Their bodies show no signs of rickets. Rather than having the grossly weakened and twisted bones of a rickets victim, their bones are 50% stronger than ours and show none of the usual symptoms of the disease. Why they finally died out, and our own ancestors survived, is still being hotly debated as more evidence comes to light. However, it might be worth noting that the natural assumption that modern humans were far superior in their adaptions for the modern world may yet turn out to be hubris. Neandethals may yet turn out to have a longer dominion over their world than we do.

To further the idea that we will become more Neanderthal like if we don’t take our Vitamin D and Omega-3 pills, Dr Walker goes on to more theories about fish oil in the diet of earlier humans. She says that intakes of “vitamins, minerals and phyto-chemicals, such as flavonoids, would have been much higher than today” and this may have made possible brain growth. It is not clear why she believes this.

But, in support of at least part of this, she cites the work of Professor Michael Crawford who published a theory in a 1989 book that early humans would have had to eat large quantities of seafood in order to get enough omega-3 for brain growth. This idea has been incorporated into what is known as the aquatic ape theory, an interesting but controversial idea that early human evolution must have gone through a phase where our ancestors lived in water. The theory is supposed to explain various odd human features such as our ability to hold our breath and swim and our nakedness. The aquatic ape theory has not gained acceptance as so many of the features the theory tries to explain can be explained in other ways. In similar ways, the fish-eating ape theory of Michael Crawford has been argued to be unlikely. John Langdon recently published a paper in the British Journal of Nutrition that reviewed the literature to see what support there may be for the theory and found that there was probably no need for an extreme fishy diet.

Dr Walker goes on,

There seems to be little doubt that many current health problems result from a mismatch between our genetically determined nutritional requirements and our modern diet. According to numerous studies, the Stone-Age diet, high in fruit, vegetables and fish, is still the best for modern humans to reduce their risk of
chronic diseases

So, far Dr Walker has given us little to convince us of the idea that chronic problems such as arthritis are due to our deviation from a stone age diet. Indeed, the leap to the ‘crucialness’ of taking supplement pills is even more absent. Why not just advise people to have a diet high in the food stuffs our ancestors ate?

Finally, Dr Walker says,

Interestingly, glucosamine and chondroitin (now widely used as supplements to reduce the symptoms of arthritis) are both sourced from marine life. The health benefits of seafood may explain why Greenland Inuits have one of the lowest rates of arthritis in the world.

This article is getting far too long now to look into the glucosamine and chondroitin claim, so I am happy to pass over to Coracle on Science and Progress to see what weight this bears. However, Dr Walker tries to convince us that Inuits have low levels of arthritis and this may be caused by a high fish diet. However, others think that such disparities, if they truly exist, may well have genetic components. It is also worth noting that Canadian Inuits have a life expectancy 10-15 years lower than the average Canadian. Whilst there are many factors that will play a role in this, it has been noted that the Inuit diet must have one the lowest intakes of fresh fruit and vegetables in the world.

The whole hypothesis that our caveman ancestors had superb diets that we can only emulate by buying supplements from Dr Walker’s sponsors must be ridiculous. Today’s western consumer has access to year round fresh fruit and vegetables, a constant and predictable supply of grains, meat, fish, dairy products and jaffa cakes, and almost never goes through periods of shortages or restrictions. Diets do go wrong, with people eating too much, or eating in an unbalanced way. But, supplements are not the answer, in most cases. Daft tabloid dietary advice, nonsense from media nutritionists, fads and scare stories all confuse people into believing organisations like Dr Walker’s marketing firm. Articles, like this Neanderthal one, are not helping.

Ironically, Dr Walker might be nearer the truth of advocating a Neanderthal lifestyle when she is promoting her herbal remedies. Human beings have a long tradition of using plants in therapeutic ways and this undoubtedly goes back into our prehistory. As our ancestors evolved, so their brains got better at fathoming causal relationships in the world. Tools and technology are the consequence of brains that can accurately model cause and effect relationships. To those emerging human minds, the instinct to find causal reasons for disease and to take action to cure must have been strong. After all, humans can influence and manipulate so much of their world, why not their bodies and their illnesses? It is interesting to speculate how humans’ love of quackery comes from those primitive instincts and how our minds still seek patterns and explanations in illness. Is herbalism deeply rooted in our evolutionary past?

Did Neanderthals use herbs to heal? Tantalisingly, there is some evidence from a grave in Iraq. Maybe, our relationship with plants is even deeper than the Neanderthals. Last Christmas, I had the pleasure of meeting a researcher who was off to Borneo to study how Orang-Utans maybe self-medicated with various plants. She was going to be collecting Orang pooh for six months and studying it, and was obviously destined to become the Gillian McKeith of the Orang-Utan world. But with an accredited PhD. And even more matted ginger hair.

But to fall for the alluring idea of the ‘wisdom of the ancients’ and their ‘natural’ healing powers would be missing what was going on here. Maybe, some plants had a therapeutic effect. Maybe, the action of a social group using plants gave a strong placebo response in the ill. As we find today, many illnesses would be fought off by an immune response or be self-limiting in some other way. The act of healing rituals cemented social bonds and the plants used formed part of the groups’ defining cultures. There is evidence that Neanderthals cared for their sick and elderly, however, the value of using plants in healing was probably more cultural and social than pharmaceutical.

We scientific humans, however, have developed skills that allow us to work out which plants really have beneficial effect, and we have technologies that allow us to refine the chemicals that cause the effect, how to minimize risks and side-effects and how to standardise doses. It’s called modern, scientific medicine. Dr Walker’s herbalism has more in common with our ancestors shamanic rituals than with what goes on in hospitals. If there is good evidence for the beneficial effect of a herb then it ceases to be herbalism and becomes part of the tools of real medicine. This does happen, of course. The majority of drugs now used have their origins in plants and other natural substances.

However, Dr Walker appears to be more rooted in our Neanderthal past using mystical and non-scientific explanations for herbal remedies. Professor Colquhoun was quite right to point out that using terms like ‘blood cleanser’ is just gobbledegook. Fortunately, I have just heard that his web site will be re-instated on the UCL servers and that the university consider the meat of the complaint groundless. So much for legalistic threats. Can we get back to the science now please?

So, why did Neanderthals not get arthritis? Was it fish oil? Is this the answer?

Perhaps, it had something to do with the probable life expectancy of a Neanderthal being just 20 years.

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21 comments for “Dr Ann Walker and Her Neanderthal Theories

  1. Filias Cupio
    June 14, 2007 at 2:18 am

    “During the Ice Age, Neanderthals lived in dark caves and probably suffered from vitamin D deficiency due to a lack of sunlight.”

    This statement is without sound foundation. That most Neandertal relics are found in caves is unlikely to be because that is where they habitually lived, but rather because stuff not left in caves doesn’t generally last 10,000 years. If they did live in caves, they’d still spend most of their daylight time outside, hunting and gathering (and making vitamin D.) There was no less sunlight in the ice-ages – indeed, with reflections from snow, there would be more.

  2. Simon
    June 14, 2007 at 3:22 pm

    Caveman Arthritis, It sounds like a theory from Karl Pilkington. (a man with a head like a f#[king orange). I know Neanderthal is a better term but caveman is all her non-scientific theories deserve.

    These days people stay inside because they watch TV or need to update their myspace site. What the hell did the cavemen do inside all day? We know they love a bit of artwork and then there is procreating. However, if cavemen (and cavewomen) had no shame (or were a bit kinky) they could do that outside.

  3. Anonymous
    June 20, 2007 at 11:07 pm

    I don’t know Simon – painting outside? Seems pretty unlikely.

  4. Anonymous
    June 27, 2007 at 5:09 pm

    Reference to the part about procreation, not painting. Painting could also be done outside but not in the same way modern art is done. I’d wager it’s closer to putting colour on handcrafted tools and items than painting on a canvas.

  5. Anonymous
    July 26, 2009 at 8:45 pm

    GREAT! First westerners are manipulated into spending exorbitant amounts of money on useless supplements because we are told that the western diet is nutritionally inadequate for our needs.

    Now, we are conned into buying pills and potions because some neanderthal skeleton from thousands of years ago showed signs of arthritis and rickets.

    This is her pathetic excuse for her peddling her expensive pills to the public and playing upon their fears to get people to buy them. Next that woman will be saying that if people don't buy her supplements then the bogeyman will get them.

    What a load of self-indulgent bulls***

  6. Andrew
    October 5, 2009 at 11:45 am

    I am Not a Christian and hold no religious beliefs however I have been seeing Ann Walker for about a year now since I have M.E. and I.T.P. and I have found her to be kind and helpful.
    More importantly her nutritional advise and prescribed supplements have been one of the only things to improve my condition.
    I thought I should give this statement for balance. I'm quite sure I would disagree with some of Ann's beliefs and theories but from my experience she is good at what she does and has helped me and many others in the Berkshire area.

    • Antares
      February 25, 2010 at 6:18 pm

      * That a person is kind does not mean she isn’t talking nonsense.
      * That she “acts like a doctor” and treats her clients like patients does not mean she isn’t talking nonsense.
      * That her clients feel better after talking with her does not mean she isn’t talking nonsense.
      * That “it worked for you” is a (fortunate) anecdote without consideration of placebo and confounding effect and does therefore not mean she isn’t talking nonsense.

      Please stop defending quacks and pill-pushers.
      Daniel

      • Alex
        November 8, 2014 at 7:14 pm

        Daniel, lets get some facts straight here… The real ‘pill pushers’ you refer to are the Pharmaceutical Sales Reps that hogg doctors offices and push drugs they know little about, but pretend they do; Drugs that even Big Pharma knows very little about, yet ‘enough’ to put them on the market, and risk people’s health and life… So without wishing to sound biased there should be some balance to address your one-sided view!

        More, I mean a lot more, no I mean a lot lot lot more people die or suffer long term ill-effects from properly prescribed pharmaceutical drugs that they ever do from supplements… Why don’t people like you EDUCATE YOURSELVES?

        Anecdotal evidence might mean monkey-poo to you, but to the person concerned it’s everything! And believe me there is so much ‘anecdotal’ evidence out there that could make your head spin! The only thing keeping it from becoming ‘real’ evidence is people like you ( who probably work for Big Pharma) and the Pharma Industry who deliberately marginalises people’s tremendous health improvements from taking real nutrients, vitamins and supplements, and calls any proof anecdotal evidence, so they can carry on reigning supreme and skimming the population with their poisonous and expensive laboratory-concocted chemicals…. Our bodies were never deficient in a pharmaceutical drug.. lets get that straight! So bog off

  7. Anonymous
    November 2, 2009 at 11:31 pm

    How can quackometer be taken seriously with its tones of blatant bias.

    A sound scientific investigation considers both sides of the story. This website does not expose quacks but the authors' own ignorance and grim delight in goading innocent practitioners who are not given a chance to defend or present their own views.

    There is no scientific merit in the opinions of this website, other than as comedy value.

    Poor science indeed!

    Posted by an anonymous "Idiot"

    (Was the maker of this site bullied at school?)

  8. Le Canard Noir
    November 2, 2009 at 11:54 pm

    Someone who was not an idiot would have substantiated their comments with evidence and examples. You have not. You look like an idiot.

  9. Jennifer Hodges
    November 21, 2009 at 8:26 am

    It always makes me feel sad to read these thinly veiled personal attacks on individuals practicing complementary medicine, particularly when the individual in question is as genuine and dedicated as Dr Ann Walker. They may reveal something about the agenda, state of mind or personality of the attacker but they do not constitute scientific enquiry and are not in the best interests of patients or the wider public.

    Those that have witnessed Dr Walker at work, as I have, will know that her practice is founded on the twin bedrocks of efficacy and safety. In addition, she has qualities she shares with the very best medical practitioners, including a strong drive to extend her knowledge and skills coupled with the willingness to admit their limits. She is often recommended by local GPs who have seen the benefits of her herbal and nutritional medicine in their own patients and I can only wish that this form of complementary medicine were taken more seriously by the profession as a whole – we would all be a lot healthier for it.

    Jennifer Hodges

  10. Le Canard Noir
    November 21, 2009 at 9:31 am

    Jennifer – I make not comment on whether Walker is genuine and dedicated. This post is about a) using threats of libel to counter criticism and b) talking gobbledegook.

    These are the substantial points – do you want to address them?

  11. Dr Robert Nash
    February 25, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    Blood cleanser may be vague but a scientific intepretation can be put to it very easily. Increased toxin removal by increasing glucuronidation for example for excretion will cleanse blood.

    • Antares
      February 25, 2010 at 6:09 pm

      Fine, and now please some evidence that Red Clover does the trick…? Please?

      Thought so.

      Daniel

  12. AGUSTIN RENDON
    July 17, 2010 at 2:46 am

    Dear Sirs:
    i would like to know how to contact DR.ANN WALKER i being her student at Reading University in 1974 and i would like to wite Her if possible.
    I live in Monterrey Mexico.
    Thanks………………………Eng.Agustin Rendon

  13. Kym
    July 21, 2010 at 9:32 pm

    I have worked with Ann for a year now and for the first time in 7 years i am able to have a ‘normal’ cycle for my extreme pelvic condition and my husband and myself are able to consider trying for a baby and this is after 4 miscarriages

    You have your beliefs but please dont knock those practitionars who work wonders for those of us who dont want to fill our bodies with man-made profit funding drugs

  14. Andy
    July 21, 2010 at 10:28 pm

    As a matter of interest, did you receive your ‘treatment’ for free?

  15. Gil
    November 23, 2010 at 4:52 pm

    The Paleo Diet has gotten some popularity over the past couple of years. Because of it’s no bread consumption people are able to retain muscle mass and lose fat. As far as supplementing goes, I would say taking fish oils does have some benefits, but its about quality that you receive. Also it has been proven that veggies and fruit do not carry the same nutritional value as they had 100 years ago because of our farming practices, so it would be good to use a antioxidant formula. I do believe Supplements can help people, but there is a majority of supplement companies wanting to make a pretty penny.

    • Le Canard Noir
      November 23, 2010 at 5:02 pm

      You really have swallowed the nutribollocks, haven’t you? It is just not true that it has been ‘proved’ that “veggies and fruit do not carry the same nutritional value as they had 100 years”. It is pill manufacturers marketing. A lie. Designed to fool the gullible.

  16. THE KEEPER
    December 15, 2010 at 8:10 am

    If one particular supplement or even medicine works for anyone without side-effects so whats the harm in continueing?Sometimes supplements work and other times medicine work so whats the big deal?It looks like vested interest of some parties to keep on undermining the products not bothering whether it works or not.

    • Badly Shaved Monkey
      December 15, 2010 at 2:32 pm

      Are you happy to pay for useless products?

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