AHSNZ International Symposium 2017 Opening Address


Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa

Nga mihi nui ki a koutou katoa

Ki a papatuanuku – tena koe

Ki te whare – tena koe

Ki te hunga mate

Ki te hunga ora


Ko Tawera te maunga

Ko Otakaro te awa

Ko Pakeha te iwi

Ko Jamie Scott ahau

Tena koutou katoa


Kia ora and greetings to everybody who has travelled, quite literally, from the four corners to be here today

To the earth mother (Papatuanuku), responsible for these majestic views – greetings

To this house, the Icon Room, where we gather together – greetings

To our ancestors, whose death gives us our life – farewell

To the living – welcome

As part of my introduction, I’ve introduced the mountain which I identify the most with – Mount Torlesse (Tawera), in North Canterbury, a mountain I grew up in front of in the early years of my life.  I also named my river, the Avon River (Otakaro) in Christchurch, which I live on the banks of currently.  

Like most New Zealanders of European descent, Pakeha, I’m a bit of a mongrel in my ancestry – some Irish, some German – but it predominates, on my father’s side, from the Scottish border clan,  The Scotts, and the English farmers , the Tegg’s, on my mother’s side.

I want to introduce you all to the Ancestral Health Society of New Zealand.


AHSNZ current Executive and Associate members. Photo by Steph Gaudreau


Somewhere around 2012/2013, we came up with this crazy idea to form a society around a core group of likeminded health professionals in New Zealand who use evolutionary biology as a starting point of enquiry for the work we were doing with individuals and groups.  

No matter what our particular professional backgrounds were, we found that by stripping our patients, our clients, and ourselves, back to the essentials of our evolutionary roots – good sleep and circadian rhythms, unprocessed meals based around high-quality protein, healthy movement patterns – moving slow, moving fast, lifting and carrying – and good, deep, supportive real-world social connections – our health, well-being, energy, vitality – whatever you want to call it – improved.  

Our resilience to the trials and tribulations of modern living improved with this essential foundation repaired and rebuilt.  But that resilience also suffered when the same modern life was just left to erode it in the insidious way that it tends to do, with our prevalent social and cultural attitudes and norms such as sleeping when you are dead, eating whatever you like as long as you balance your calories with cardio, and riding the self-esteem rollercoaster that is the likes, hearts, and thumbs of online social networking.  

From this seemingly revolutionary evolutionary approach, The Ancestral Health Society of New Zealand was born.  As we have grown, we have taken on a dual purpose.  The first being the essence of this symposium:

“The Ancestral Health Society of New Zealand aims to foster community and collaboration among health professionals, researchers, and laypersons, who study and communicate about health from an evolutionary perspective in order to develop solutions to the common biopsychosocial mismatches in our modern world and the health challenges these present.”

The second purpose of the Society is to provide safe harbour, professional support, and connection for its core members, all of whom, at one point or another, have been burned at the metaphorical stake for their ideas and practices.  For me, as someone with a decades’-worth of university qualifications in exercise science and human nutrition, I can make the case for better sleep from an evolutionary biology perspective – we evolved as creatures of the daylight, with our circadian rhythm tagged inextricably to the sun coming up and the sun going down – and nobody bats an eyelid.  But if I try making a similar evolution-based argument for how we should eat, people often start getting very upset at you very quickly.

The Society has members who are medical doctors, physical activity specialists, psychologists, researchers, nutrition professionals and social academics, all of whom have similar stories, and all of whom, at one point or another, have decided that is it generally easier to keep quiet, keep the head down, and stick with the guidelines and conventional wisdom, no matter how ineffective those guidelines or that wisdom might be.  As you can imagine, working this way can feel very isolating.  So AHSNZ provides a good sense of community and support to these professionals.  

In many ways, the foundation of AHSNZ mirrors that of the deep ecology movement from the 1960’s & 70’s (what is considered the foundation of today’s modern environmentalism).  In 1973, philosopher and mountaineer, Arne Naess, outlined what he saw as a short-sighted approach the environmental issues of the day – what he termed “shallow ecology.” In short, shallow ecology is about managing pollution (or at least that which is most visible to the public eye) and resource depletion, keeping everything else business as usual and not noticeably upsetting the lifestyles of the property owning class and the affluent.  

This short-term shallow approach actively tries to avoid making any fundamental changes and often plays on our common belief that technology – if we wait long enough – will fix whatever issue we happen to be facing, and in the meantime, we can carry on with our consumption-driven lifestyles and economics.  Anyone who was paying attention during New Zealand’s recent (2017) elections might recognise some of these central features of shallow ecology as they are direct from the National Party of New Zealand playbook.  

Conversely, deep ecology focuses on the balance between all organisms on this planet, including humans, taking a long-term, sustainable, and regenerative whole-systems approach to preserving – or rebuilding – ecological diversity.

Where shallow ecology is egocentric, deep ecology is ecocentric.


Photo by Steph Gaudreau


It is my belief that we can, and should, take this same deep approach to our health care systems – plural, not singular.  Few of the medical doctors within the AHSNZ team would argue that much of the medicine they practice couldn’t be characterised as shallow medicine.  We keep coming up with, and extolling the virtues of, new tests, technologies, and drugs all of the time, all reinforcing the notion that none of us really need change our lifestyle, habits, or environment anytime soon as the nanobots that will one day be put into our bloodstream will ultimately save us!  

By way of example, taking a deep health approach, and knowing what is actually fairly recent food history in the grand scheme of things, we might become far less enthusiastic for the current trend of plant-exclusive diets or the prospects of lab-grown synthetic meat as a supposed easy fix to climate change related problems.  Stories such as how Procter & Gamble was going to save us from the horrors of using animal fat for cooking with its trans-fat laden hydrogenated plant oils, or how we could simply replace breastfeeding, wet nursing, and animal milks with soy-based infant formula and a added few vitamins, should serve as precautionary tales and curb the enthusiasm for such limited, ultra-processed diets and high-tech foods.

I’ve watched, with interest, the debates in recent years about sitting versus standing in the workplace.  Sitting is apparently the new smoking, and so offices were quickly fitted out with electric height-adjustable desks.  But now the pendulum has swung back the other way as standing all day is causing issues such as back pain, knee pain, and deep vein thrombosis.  Our shallow, quick-fix mindset often blinds us to the deeper issues at play.

The deeper issue in our corporate settings, are stressed humans working in a relatively confined area, virtually chained to a desk, with few opportunities to engage in true human-type movement, with multiplier effects such as the required footwear and clothing of the modern corporate uniform.  The deep reality of our modern human environments is often too inconvenient for our shallow economic models and wealth accumulation, so we tend to mess about with novel quick fixes on the fringes, while largely keep our heads buried in the sand regarding the underlying real problems.

Let’s talk about our current “grassroots” health culture as we might see it on popular social media channels, where the message is that our health authorities have it all wrong, and our newfound health heroes & gurus can unlock all the truths and secrets that you need to know about.  In this shallow, social media-driven health model, it’s all about the ego.  It’s all about being thin or buff, or whatever it is you need to be depending on the virtue signals you are trying to send to your social media audience.  

Check the often silently sponsored social media feeds of these health gurus and influencers, and what do you see?  Mostly pictures of themselves, or if not, pictures of the products they are being quietly paid to spruik to you.  Do they talk about the bigger picture, the directions we all need to move in, and the part they are playing to help everyone get there?  Or are they spending all of their time talking about their egocentric selves, a few shallow hacks, and some product or service available via a link in their profile?

Over the next three days, you will see and hear all of our speakers talk to a deeper, more ecocentric approach to population health.  They will discuss our evolution and our history – necessary not only for a deeper understanding of where we have come from – but also in understanding that for every apparent solution other problems are potentially created. Some will encourage you to take a systems-approach to our core health issues, inspired by the health framework of indigenous cultures. Most speakers will define the common biopsychosocial mismatches we face.

And your role over the next three days?

After I’ve already suggested we shouldn’t be too egocentric, your first questions should be “how am I connected to this problem?” or “what influence does it have on my life?”

Be open and honest with yourself. Be prepared to challenge your own current world views. In the breaks, connect with each other. The shallow health approach often places the onus of change on individuals. But it is only when we join forces with others that any real environmental shift can come about. Forge your own community and support network with the people you meet over the next three days.

Lastly, connect with the environment here. Logistically and cost wise, it would have been easier for us to hold this event in a bunker type building in Auckland or Christchurch. But there is a reason we have come back here and you only need to look out that window to see why. Take some time to put your phones down while you are here in Queenstown and take in what you are surrounded by. If the scenes here don’t leave you feeling a deep sense of awe and wonder (not the kind that you have to Instagram or it didn’t happen), then you are almost certainly paddling in the shallow end of the pool.



Photo by Steph Gaudreau



Upcoming Events


    AHSNZ International Symposium 2017 Opening Address

    September 26 @ 11:19 am