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The Most Interesting Man in the World

by on February 10, 2013
Russian taiga of the Abakan region

The Lykov family called this Siberian wilderness home for 40 years, sustaining themselves and living entirely apart from human contact. Fierce.

His name is Karp Lykov. After witnessing his brother’s execution at the hands of religious persecutors in 1936 Communist Russia, he gathered his family and the belongings they could carry and retreated to complete isolation in the wilderness of Siberia. It was here, 6,000 feet up on a mountain and 150 miles from the nearest village, that a team of geologists found the family in 1978.

This article, recently published by Smithsonian magazine, tells the story of what the geologists learned about the family in subsequent years of contact. And to be sure, there is a lot that we can learn from the family; the scientist and the doctor in me revel in many facets of the Lykovs’ story. Innovation and adaptibility of the human species? Try making everything from shoes to kettles out of birch bark, or building a garden using only the seeds available when Karp fled from society. Irrepressible human curiosity, despite growing up knowing only family and the forest? Find it in Karp’s youngest son Dmitry, born into this isolated home, yet quick to learn the modern technology in the geologists’ camp. Physiology? If you want to talk about a paleolithic diet, try  potato patties, ground rye and hemp seeds (with an occasional bit of meat thrown in) for your whole life.

But perhaps most exciting to me, an exercise physiologist at heart, was reading of the way that the Lykovs hunted game. The article’s author Mike Dash writes:

Lacking guns and even bows, they could hunt only by digging traps or pursuing prey across the mountains until the animals collapsed from exhaustion. Dmitry built up astonishing endurance, and could hunt barefoot in winter, sometimes returning to the hut after several days, having slept in the open in 40 degrees of frost, a young elk across his shoulders.

This is known in the world of anthropology as endurance hunting, a concept I first learned from Dan Lieberman, Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard, when he presented about the evolution of human running during an American College of Sports Medicine conference. Essentially, Lieberman showed us that while other animals greatly outpace humans, they cannot maintain that level of activity without overheating or becoming injured. Ultimately, the persistence of human pursuit brings them down. And while this seemed like an interesting concept in Dr. Lieberman’s lecture, it is truly exciting to read about it played out in life, by a modern human.

Whatever you find to be the highlight of Smithsonian’s article, I think that one message shines through. Humans are amazing. Though the family met with what seems to me a premature end, they gave us a case study in behavioral adaptability, physical fortitude, and pure strength of will.

In other news, I don’t want to hear any more complaining about dining hall food.

What in this article gets you fired up? What else are you reading lately? Let me know in the comments below, and I’ll be sure to check it out!

Original article:

Dash, Mike. “For 40 Years, This Russian Family Was Cut Off From All Human Contact, Unaware of WWII.” Smithsonian.com. January 29, 2013.

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3 Comments
  1. What about the bit about running barefoot in cold conditions? That part greatly surprised me- any insight or explanation? The next time I hear someone advocate anarcho-primitivism (it happens more often than you would think) I’m going to bring this up!

    • Alright, so for reference, summers in the Abakan district, just north of Mongolia, are very similar in temperature to living here in the northeastern US. In the winter months, however, averages are about 20 degrees colder (Fahrenheit), with averages in the single digits to teens from November right through February. A brief literature search turned up little specifically regarding adaptation of the feet to bare travel in the cold. Since barefoot was his native state, I suspect he would have had the obvious adaptation of some impressive callousing, higher tolerance for pain signals from the feet, and probably very efficient blood flow management that kept his extremities functioning. For example, the muscles of his feet would have been more active and well-developed than a booted foot, and probably highly vascularized. All speculation though, for all I know it could have been artistic license. Just one more reason I would have loved to learn from this family.

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