Food for Thought: Some Lessons on Food and Society from the Deep Past

Paul Jenkins

University of Manitoba Institute for the Humanities

Once dismissed as an amateur’s avocation, the history of food has finally entered its own and emerged as a serious subject of study. Indeed, that earlier disregard for the history of this essential fact of life now seems strangely narrow-minded.  Today it is widely recognized that food is a very powerful lens through which to view and make sense of our past, even our deep past, shedding light not only on the natural history of our species, but also on the origins of human societies and civilizations.  Recognition of this has led the historians Felipe Fernández-Armesto and Daniel Lord Smail to argue that

Food ought to be historians’ most important topic, partly because it has mattered the most to most people, and partly because, of all the elements that make human life possible—the sun, the biosphere, evolution, and the vital spark itself, wherever that comes from—it is the only one humans can influence to a point close to control.

Fernández-Armesto and Smail’s point is well argued, and the subject of this entry.

To begin, it is worth remembering that our relationship with food runs two ways. While we might exercise considerable control over our food, especially these days, the historic particularities of the human diet have also exerted powerful influences of their own, directly shaping our bodies and evolution. In fact, given the current dominance of our species in the twenty-first century, and the fact most readers of this blog eat everyday, it should be noted that humans are actually physically ill equipped to eat, or, rather, digest.

The old adage “you are what eat” is only partially right and a little misleading.  One can eat the most nutritious food in the world, but this only matters to the extent one can profitably digest it.  We are, then, what we digest and on this front humans are actually poorly equipped. Admittedly, we have some four miles of intestine crammed into us, and as the late great Peter Cook notes in The Secret Policeman’s Ball, this wee factoid is both interesting and important. It is amazing how they cram it all in, he says, but that is also an awful long distance for food to travel, which means that nothing we eat is ever really fresh!

That is not the end of our digestive problems, however. We also have only one stomach, which means that unlike ruminants (mammals with more than one stomach capable of processing the nutrients of a wide range of plant-based foods by fermenting it in a specialized stomach called the Rumen), we have access to only a limited range of plant food.  Even when related to other primates our digestive systems are unmistakably smaller and less developed.  Further adding to the problem, we have only small fangs and claws, while our weak lips and jaws do little to assist our digestive systems by ripping, crushing, grinding or otherwise masticating food.

To overcome these physical-evolutionary deficiencies, at least in part, we have resorted to eating an exceptionally varied diet compared to that of other animals, particularly other primates.  Most conspicuously, we are alone among primates in our dedication to eating meat, especially that from large animals. Chimpanzees, our closest cousins among primates, eat meat, but rarely (no pun intended). Or, at least that was once thought to be the case. Recent evidence suggests that they too may be developing a taste for meat. We cannot be sure of this, or of the reasons behind this development if it is true, as we still know so little about Chimpanzee carnivory.

What we do know, is that among human societies carnivory has been practiced everywhere at some point, even if some groups or generations may have or do reject it. There is remarkably early and conclusive evidence for this fateful dietary turn.  Ranging and specialized cutting tools, along with bones lined with marks and grooves from butchering, provide clear archaeological evidence that human’s were consuming meat from large animals as early as about 2.5 million years ago.

The causes and consequences of this turn are hard to distinguish precisely, but this is nevertheless where the story gets especially interesting. It would seem our early turn to carnivory helped spur a crucial series of socio-cultural developments important to the story of human societies and civilization—for meat eating fostered the evolution of relatively large, relatively collaborative social units, organized for defense. It is not difficult to imagine that such social organization even helped introduce the emergence of specialized functions or tasks, as well as systems of distributing meat for consumption by turns, leaving some to guard the carcass while others ate, and prioritizing those who expended most in the hunt.

Our turn to carnivory, then, helps explain the peculiar trajectory of our evolutionary arc compared with those of other primates. Indeed, our intellectual and communicative abilities to socially coordinate individuals effectively in the pursuit and defence of meaty carcasses, mixed with our capacity for throwing missiles and for energy-efficient long-distance running (one of the main advantages to bipedalism), are among the few, perhaps the only, examples of our physical prowess in which we excel other primates.

It is, therefore, probable that eating a diet rich in protein derived from meat, helped launch humans on their long and distinctive evolutionary trajectory as a big-brained and dexterous species. Carnivory may have played a key role in shaping human history in another crucial way. By demanding from humans, like all scavenging and hunting species, a keen capacity for anticipation, Fernandez-Armesto and Smail have provocatively suggested that meat eating may have, in turn, played an important role in the development of our rich imaginations, helping to put us on our distinctive evolutionary path.

As we have noted, humans lack many of the attributes with which evolution has equipped other predators: speed, agility, powerful teeth and claws, keen olfactory sense or sight, and so on.  Here, however, keen powers of anticipation may have helped level the field.  Hunters need to anticipate and do so faster and more acutely that their prey and rival predators, to say nothing of their ability to anticipate and adapt to relevant changes in the environment.

And if we define anticipation as the ability to see what is not yet present to the senses, as Fernandez-Armesto and Smail do, then it is easy to see it as a conceptual relative to imagination.  Imagination is obviously different, and it is hard to explain in evolutionary terms, except, perhaps, as a by-product of anticipation. This is an intriguing line, one that attributes the relative complexity of our societies compared to those of other primates who otherwise resemble us so closely, to the fact that we hunt much more than they do.

But however it came to be, humans’ development of rich imaginations is surely vital to understanding not only our early history as a species, but also to most of the sorts of changes and cultural expressions that we commonly refer to as history. We see the world in one way, and we can imagine it another and then act to bring our imagined ideas to fruition. This accounts for our diverse, often volatile societies, as well as our changeable, often dangerously unstable relationship with the rest of nature.

And the history of food and our relationship to it provides a powerful lens on the past. As Margaret Visser succinctly puts it: “Civilization itself cannot begin until a food supply is assured. And where food is concerned we can never let up; appetite keeps us at it.”

Anyway, food for thought. Chow down, and if you get hungry for more, please join us in 409 Tier this Thursday, when Sarah Elvins (History) will be discussing her food history class and what she and her students learned in the history-food lab about historic recipes, ingredients, foods, and technologies.


Paul Jenkins, University of Manitoba Institute for the Humanities

29 January 2019

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