A BRIEF HISTORY OF FOOD HISTORY
From Raw To Cooked
Animals don’t cook. The ability to use fire is one of the crucial things that separates us from them. Scientists used to think that humans were different from animals because we use tools and have language. Then we discovered that animals use tools and can communicate with each other and sometimes even with us, like Koko, the gorilla who learned sign language.
As Stephen Pyne, the world’s leading authority
on fire, points out, there may be “elements of combustion” on other planets, but so far, “We are uniquely fire creatures on a uniquely fire planet.”
Humans Learn to Find Foods: Hunting and Gathering
Scientists believe that humans evolved for millions of years before they learned to use fire about 500,000 to one million years ago. The oldest fossils so far, excavated mainly in Africa, put the beginning of humanlike creatures—hominids—at between six and seven million years ago. From the jaws and teeth of these hominids, scientists deduce that they were primarily plant eaters—herbivores. Our back teeth, the molars, are flat like stones for grinding grain and plants and that is what we still use them for when we chew. Scientists think that over millions of years, early humans developed two survival advantages: (1) between 4 million and 1 million B.C., human brain size tripled, growing to what it is today,
approximately 1,400 cubic centimeters; and (2) they stood upright on two feet—became bipedal—which allowed them to see farther and left their hands free to use weapons for protection and to kill animals for food. Food historians speculate that early humans learned to like the taste of meat from small animals that could be caught and killed easily, like lizards and tortoises, and from scavenging the leftover carcasses of large animals killed by other large animals.
Work related to food was divided by gender. Men left the home to hunt animals by following them to where they went for food, especially salt. Women gathered fruits, nuts, berries, and grasses because their lives revolved around a cycle of pregnancy, birth, and child rearing. Gathering was more reliable than hunting. Becoming carnivores—meat eaters—probably helped humans survive, too. In case of a shortage of plants, there was an alternate food source. Now we were omnivores—we ate
everything. We still have the front or canine teeth, sharp like a dog’s for tearing meat, to prove it. However, human teeth weren’t sharp enough to pierce animal hides. For that, something else was necessary—tools. Scientists believe that humans invented tools about 1.9 million to 1.6 million years ago. Early humans butchered animal meat, even elephants, with blades made out of stone, which is why it is called the Stone Age (as opposed to the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, which came later). Archaeologists call these people Homo habilis—“handy man.” Then, approximately 1.5 million to 500,000 years ago, another group appeared called Homo erectus—”upright man.” These people migrated north to Europe and east to India, China, and Southeast Asia. They had better tools than any of the other groups. And for the first time, they had fire.
Scientists speculate that lightning started a fire by accident, but humans figured out how to keep it going by appointing somebody keeper of the flame day and night, perhaps the first specialized job. For the first time, humans had a tremendous tool with which to control the environment. It kept night terrors and animals away. It was also sacred, “the only substance which humans can kill and revive at will.” The god who controlled lightning was usually the most powerful god in early religions. Most cultures have creation myths of how humans stole or were given fire by the gods and how they were punished and suffered for this divine knowledge. Fire completely transformed food from raw to cooked, which allowed humans to eat otherwise indigestible foods and made food preservation possible. Control of fire gave humans control of their food supply—a huge survival advantage.
Once humans had fire, how did cooking begin? Perhaps by accident, although anthropologists are still arguing about this. One theory is that an out-of-control fire burned down a hut and accidentally cooked some pigs. People wandered in, tried the cooked meat, and liked it. Another theory is that a forest fire first roasted meat; still others think that cooking was a more deliberate, controlled act by humans. In any case, now there were more options than raw bar and tartare.
It was cooking, but was it cuisine? Historian Michael Freeman’s definition of cuisine is “a self-conscious tradition of cooking and eating...with a set of attitudes about food and its place in the life of man.” So, cuisine requires not just a style of cooking, but an awareness about how the food is prepared and consumed. It must also involve a wide variety
of ingredients, more than are locally available, and cooks and diners willing to experiment, which means they are not constricted by tradition.
Since early humans were still eating to survive, and had no control over their food supply, it was not cuisine. We might never know exactly how people mastered fire and started
cooking their food, we only know when—between 500,000 and one million years ago. Roasting over an open fire was probably the first cooking method. Pit roasting—putting food in a pit with burning embers and covering it—might have come next. Then spit roasting, when hunters came home with the animal already on a spear and decided to cook it by hanging it over the fire and turning it. With sharp stone tools, meat could be cut into smaller pieces to make it cook faster. Food could be boiled in large mollusk or turtle shells where they were available, or even
in animal skins, but pots were not invented until around 10,000 B.C. and there were no sturdy clay boiling pots until about 5000 B.C. Cooking in such vessels would probably have produced bacterial contamination, since there was no soap and no effective way to clean them. Finally, scientists believe that Homo sapiens—“wise man,” the direct ancestor of humans—appeared between one million and 100,000 years ago.
The Ancient Agricultural Revolution
The two most important factors that determine where life is hospitable to plants and animals, including humans, are geography and climate. When the Ice Age ended around 10,000 years ago, the last of the glaciers receded and the planet warmed up. This was the first of three major climate changes planet Earth has experienced. The other two were the Medieval Warm Period (A.D. 950–1300) followed by the Little Ice Age,
which ended about 100 years ago. Some scientists think that we are in a new period of global warming caused by pollution from gasses produced by car engines and machinery (the “greenhouse effect”) and that we have to do something about it fast. Others think it is just part of a natural cycle. Still others think that climate is random and that a catastrophic change could occur suddenly for no reason and be completely out of the control of humans.
Humans Learn to Domesticate Foods: Sheep and Goats, Barley and Wheat
Gathering nuts and seeds and grasses and hunting wild game was unreliable, inefficient, and could support only a limited population. Humans wanted more control over their environment and a guaranteed supply of food, especially food they liked. So about 10,000 years ago, humans began to tame wild plants and animals. From the earliest times, food was bred to taste better, be hardier, and yield more—in other words, it was genetically modified. This was a time-consuming and difficult process, because all plants and animals have ways to defend themselves—
husks and tusks, shells and spines. The first domesticated animals were sheep and goats, then pigs and cows. After domestication came farming. Fire was a force here, too. Slashand-
burn agriculture is one of the oldest and simplest ways to clear the land of trees. Once used extensively by primitive tribes, it is still used today in some places, like Borneo. The process: slash the bark on the tree, which stops the sap from flowing and eventually kills the tree. The leaves die and fall off, allowing sunlight to filter onto the forest floor where the fallen leaves decompose into fertilizer. Then crops are planted. In two or three years, when the soil starts to show signs of being depleted
of nutrients, the dead trees are burned, the ash provides fertilizer, and more crops are planted. Unfortunately, this requires constantly moving into new areas and destroying the forests. The first cultivated plants were barley, then wheat (Triticum) from wild grasses. There are about 30,000 varieties of wheat. Ancient wheats—emmer, spelt, einkorn—had several layers of protection, including a very hard inedible outer covering called chaff, which had to be roasted to be removed. Then friction had to be applied to the wheat to separate it from the chaff, a process called threshing. This was done by having oxen walk on the wheat, or by hitting it. The chaff was lighter
than the wheat, so it could be blown or fanned away. Then the wheat had to be ground to make flour. This was done by hand until animals began to be used around 800 B.C. These flours were stone ground and coarse ground, and most likely still contained bits of chaff or fine particles of stone. The problem was that heating the wheat to remove the chaff killed what makes it rise—gluten. So the earliest breads were flat, more like crackers. Some examples that still exist are Indian chapati, flour and water baked on a hot griddle; poori, also flour and water, but
quick fried; and Jewish matzo, which is baked. An important change occurred about 7000 B.C.: wheat with a weaker chaff began to be grown, so the roasting step could be skipped and the gluten was free to rise. Leavened bread was born, probably first in Egypt, and it was probably an accident. Settling down and farming allowed humans to have some foods it is impossible to have if you are a nomad. One of these is wine. It takes two years before vines bear fruit, and there is a very short time frame, just a few days, during which the grapes have to be picked and crushed—until recently, by stomping on them. Then they must be kept at a temperature that will allow them to ferment, and stored. It is impossible to wander around and to make wine, too. So, two of the earliest professions were growing vines and making wine.
Did domestication occur only once or more than once in different places? Some plants like barley, lentils, and rice seem to have been domesticated in multiple places. There is also evidence that pigs were kept around 7000 B.C. in the city of Jericho in the Near East and thousands of miles away on the island of New Guinea in the South Pacific. Domestication
altered some plants and animals so much that they became
dependent on humans for reproduction. Maize, native to the Americas and what we call corn, is an example. The seeds, which are the kernels, no longer fall off by themselves, but have to be removed from the cob.
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