Food is History

Our hominid ancestors branched off from the chimpanzees around 6-8 million years ago. For 99.9% of the ensuing time they lived by hunting and gathering. Our own species, homo sapiens, emerged from the hominids about 100,000 years ago, and for the next 90,000 years they too were hunter-gatherers. The Neolithic revolution, defined by the invention of agriculture, started a mere 10,000 years ago. Thus for millions of years as hominids, and 90% of our time on earth as homo sapiens, our nutritional evolution has been shaped by hunting and gathering.

Agriculture, by contrast, was a disaster.

The historical record only began to emerge with agriculture and settlement, so the understanding of our vast hunter-gatherer past is sparse and circumstantial. Nevertheless, inferences can be drawn from coprolites (dries faeces), bones, and teeth, from campsites, and by the comparative biology of modern-day hunter-gatherers.

There is room for controversy, but the consensus is that hunter-gatherers actually did rather well for themselves, and certainly better than the sedentary agriculturalists that followed them. Given our modern pretensions, this is somewhat heretical.

Rickets (vitamin D deficiency) and scurvy (vitamin C) are documented from Greek and Roman times onwards, but there is little evidence in hunters and gatherers. Anemia (iron deficiency) causes pitting and expansion of cranial bones, and is found in the remains of about 50% of Fertile Crescent (Persian gulf, eastern Mediterranean and Nile valley) farmers, but in less than 2% of hunter-gatherers.

Hunters and gatherers had fewer dental cavities, joint abnormalities and abscesses and were significantly taller than the agrarians that followed.

If that’s not enough, agrarians traded a short working week (est.  ~10 hours), for a daily life of backbreaking work from dawn to dusk and a shortened life-span due to inadequate nutrition.

But nevertheless populations grew along with the supply of food, and the increasing numbers of sedentary people gave them an advantage over the remaining hunter-gatherers, who were  easily captured to work in the fields (slavery is as old as civilization itself, and damningly it’s still with us – see: Lisa Kristine).

Storing surplus grain was a hedge against the inevitable crop failures and famine. These stores came to be administered by a priestly class made powerful by their control over food distribution and the presumption that they could influence and predict crop success. Times of surplus freed sections of the community from labour. Those privileged not to be working the land began to make a living off those that did.

As people with power evolved, they became specialized. Warriors were needed to protect grain stores (and to ransack the stores of rival cities). Administrators and generals evolved into nobility. Priests worked closely with power and became more powerful. The commoners were just that. Women were less. Society stratified.

Priests trained as scribes kept a record of food stores on clay tablets, which then evolved to record civil laws and codify religious ritual.

Animal domestication may have developed as a convenient source for animal sacrifice. The advantage to the priestly class (and not the working class) was eating the meat and other food afterwards. A white cloth thrown over a trestle often served as a makeshift altar. After offering the food to the gods (who conveniently don’t eat but just savour aroma), priests were free to eat the food. Today, we still gather around, and eat off, the equivalent of that makeshift altar, and some still say a prayer first.

With high density cities came diseases that crossed over to us from domesticated animals (smallpox, measles, influenza), diseases arising from proximity (pestilence and plague), and malnutrition from diets that were not sufficiently diverse (hunter-gatherers probably ate >100 species). Mortality was significant. It’s estimated that ~5,000 years ago, in the middle of the agrarian experiment, life expectancy was around 18 years – barely enough to sustain the species.

The rise of religion and ritual, of class and labour, of disease and plague, of wars and slavery, of government and nationalism – of nothing less than civilization itself – can be traced back to the biological necessity of food, and the power and risks that come from supplying and controlling it.

Food is History


Principal reference: A Movable Feast (KF Kiple), from: The Cambridge World History of Food (KF Kiple and CO Kriemhild, editors, 2000)