Module 1: The Evolution of Food Through the History of Humanity

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Animals do not cook. One of the main aspects that distinguishes us from the animals is our capacity to produce fire. Anthropologists believed that people, since we can use instruments and developed speech, that we were distinct from animals. Then, like Koko, the gorilla who studied American sign language, we realized that animals use instruments and can interact with each other and with humans. As Stephen Pyne, the world's leading fire expert points out, there might be "combustion elements" in other galaxies, but so far, "We are unique fire creatures on a planet of unique fire.”

man holding fire flames

Anthropologists claim that people have existed for millions of years since discovering human fossil records of fire between 500,000 to 1 million years ago, but the first fossil record of fire is from the Middle Ordovician period with the first appearance of plant life on land and the emergence of wild fires. It is possible that humans first encountered fire from natural sources, such as lightning or forest fires. Anthropologists gathered that based on the shape of the mouths, jaws and teeth of the Great Apes that they were generally herbivores. The earliest remains as of now, exhumed primarily in Africa, placed the emergence of neanderthals, roughly six to seven million years ago.For grinding grain and vegetation, the molar teeth, were smooth like blocks, which is still common practice within the modern human species. Due to the more plant focused diet of early hominids, they required more molars. Throughout evolution, humans have become omnivorous and we cook the majority of our food, which caused humans to metamorphically have no use for larger jaws. As humans evolved, our jaws became smaller. This is now why many people need to have their wisdom teeth removed. Anthropologists claim that hominids evolved to provide two survival benefits across millions of years: throughout 4 million and 1 million B.C., the brain tripled in size, and humans evolved into bi-pedals, producing a larger range of sight and allowing for free hands to use arms for defense or to hunt wildlife. Scholars believe that humans developed a taste for meat since tiny creatures could be captured and slaughtered quickly, such as lizards and tortoises, or from scavenging the remaining cadavers of big animals slaughtered by other large predators. Hominids were hunter-gatherers, barbarians who chased food anywhere it migrated or flourished. Around 40,000-12,000 B.C. Asian populations migrated east and reached North and South America. The glacial period had desertified the oceans, producing dry ground near Alaska and Asia, allowing each nation to migrate to another. According to this logic, the first settlers in the Americas were of Asian descent. Food-based labour was distributed according to sex. The men vacated the homestead to track animals to their food sources, mainly salt. Since the women's existence was dictated by periods of conception, delivery, and raising children, they collected fruits, seeds, berries, and other vegetation. Harvesting tended to be more efficient, dependable and produced more sustenance than hunting or fishing. It was possible that becoming carnivores enabled humans to thrive, as well. Hunting provided an additional supply of food in the event of plant scarcity. Humans evolved into omnivores, and consumed anything that could be hunted or foraged. We developed canine teeth for ripping through meat, as a result. These canine teeth however, were not powerful enough to puncture animals, which is how humans invented tools. Experts claim that, approximately 1.9 million to 1.6 million years ago , humans constructed tools. Animal flesh, including elephants, was hunted by hominids with weapons made from stone, hence the term, "Stone Age." These humans were named Homo Habilis by historians, meaning "handy man." Another community emerged from 1.5 million to 500,000 years ago, named Homo Erectus, meaning "upright man." These humans moved toward Europe, India, China, and Southeast Asia. These individuals had more superior instruments than all other human ancestors and were also the ones who created fire.

Anthropologists theorize that lighting ignited a fire by mistake, and in designating one person to maintain the blaze, the title of "firekeeper" may have been the first instance of skilled labour. With the invention of fire, humanity now had a massive advantage. It protected humans from wildlife at night. It was considered holy, and regarded as the sole resource that could be killed and resurrected at will. Early religions believed that the deity who ruled lightning was typically the strongest god. Many communities have legends about the creation of fire, usually recounting stories of how the deities were either robbed of fire by humans or brought fire to humanity and how humans were tortured and reprimanded for this sacred wisdom. edFire converted humanity's diet from entirely raw to cooked, which enabled humans to consume potentially inedible raw foods and made it easier to preserve foods. Fire management aided mankind in managing their over their food stores as well. It is possible that once humanity had control over fire, cooking food may have first occurred by mistake, though many scientists debate its true origins. Another hypothesis is that a shelter was torched by an unruly blaze and some wild hogs were mistakenly roasted. Another is that the first cooked meat was caused by a forest fire; while other anthropologists believe that cooking was an intentional, human-controlled act. Either way, humans were now presented with a plethora of food options. The concept of cuisine by historian Michael Freeman is, "a self-conscious tradition of cooking and eating [...] with a set of attitudes about food and its place in the life of man." Thus, cuisine involves not only a cooking style, but a knowledge as to how the food is cooked and eaten. It must also include a large range of products, beyond foods that are accessible nearby, and consumers that are not limited by customs. According to this theory, it was not considered cuisine, as early hominids were only feeding to live, and had little power in terms of their food stocks. Precisely how people perfected fire and began cooking food, we may never know, but we do know that it was roughly 500,000 to 1 million years ago. Cooking on a wood flame was perhaps the first form of cookery. The second cooking technique may have been pit roasting, by placing food in a pit of glowing embers and covering. The third cooking technique may have been spit roasting, where hunters may have returned to the homestead with an animal still on a spear or stake and planned to roast it by suspending it across the flames and rotating it. Meat was able to be chopped into smaller parts with tools made of sharpened stone to speed up the cooking process. The fourth cooking technique might have been boiling or poaching food in animal hides, or broad mollusk or turtle shells when locally available, but pots and vessels were not conceived until approximately 10,000 B.C. Prior to 5000 B.C., there were no durable boiling vessels or pots made of clay. Bacterial infection could have also incurred by cooking in these containers, as there was no means of cleaning or disinfecting them. Ultimately, anthropologists conclude somewhere between one million and 100,000 years ago, Homo sapiens, meaning "wise man," the immediate ancestral precursor to humans emerged.

Our human ancestors communicated in behaviour prior to the use of vocabulary. They communicated by dancing, as defined by dance historian Joan Cass as, "the making of rhythmic steps and movements for their own sake (as against steps and movements done in order to go somewhere, to do work, or to dress oneself." In worship rituals, they would dance together to pray for the fertility of people, crops, rainfall, and for a prosperous hunt. They performed the dances in the same manner over and over, using it as a routine if the dancing generated the outcome they desired. ItMusic was incorporated into the dance rituals, using beans or tiny rocks in a shaken pouch, animal bones with holes bored to resemble a flute, or even an animal hide spread across a pot to create a drum. Humans began using language approximately 100,000 years ago, which also aided in human survival. It could be used to alert the tribe of imminent threats, inform others about food source, cooperate as a team in hunting, gathering, building or crafting, and to give names to objects and locations, organizing the environment in general, which was a beneficial a move towards managing it entirely as an evolved species. Art was also linked to vitality and foods through language. There were miniature sculptures made of carved stone, featuring people with disproportionate breasts and curves. They carved or painted creatures on the walls of caves. The species most often portrayed in ancient cave art are horses, accompanied by bison, deer and reindeer, oxen, ibex, then elephants and mammoths. Since the earliest ages of humanity, at least in France, food, art, and faith have been intertwined.

Religious painting

But how do we know what happened prior to the appearance of written language? Due to years of evolution and language transformation, how do we even know if our interpretation of these ancient paintings and texts are accurate? Thankfully, science has also evolved to be able to analyze DNA. Scientists are able to extrapolate a series of data about ancient humans by examining their bones, teeth, jaw structure, embalmed and preserved corpses, old waste piles and feces. In ancient Egypt, bodies were preserved by drying or embalming the flesh of the deceased. Other corpses have been found around the world that have been preserved in ice or glaciers, as well as corpses preserved in bogs or corpses that have been dried by desert dry climates.

Anthropologists studied the remains of early humans and discovered that the bones in the right forearm were overdeveloped, indicating the early use of hunting tools. Many preserved corpses displayed traces of parasites within the intestinal tracts that are present in modern humanity, and their intestines gave scientists clues about the diet of early humans.

Within the old waste piles, scientists discovered crushed or split bones, indicating that humans prized the marrow of animal bones just as we do in modern diets.Typically, Osso Bucco, an Italian name for “bone with a hole,” is a popular bone marrow dish served at modern fine dining restaurants. In these middens, scientists also discovered shattered jaw bones and pierced skulls, indicating that early humans also ate tongues and brains. Found in middens dated 60,000 to 120,000 years ago, scientists also found shellfish shells. Fossilized human excrement also played a crucial role in the understanding of early humans.


Many contained grains and other indigestible items, but the excrement also helped plant growth. By examining fossilized excrement, it was found that wild crab apples were eaten by early humans in Kazakhstan, approximately 750,000 years ago. Using carbon dating, scientists are able to determine the amount of radioactive decay

Tree stump in a field during sunset.

within an organism. Pollen can play a large factor in learning more about the Earth and humans’ history, as well as the rings within trees that display the states of the atmosphere and weather conditions through its life.

The existence of life was and forever will rely heavily on geographical and climactic factors. Life will always migrate towards the most hospitable climates. Global warming became a factor in our environment and atmospheres approximately 10,000 years ago after the Ice Age. Glacier receded, the world became warmer, and the planet underwent three significant warming periods. The Little Ice Age occurred approximately 100 years ago, and there was also the Medieval Warm Era from A.D. 950-1300. If humans do not focus on improving climate change and reducing green house gas emissions, the atmosphere may try to fix itself by producing another Ice Age.

At Fort Mackinac, Michigan in 1822, Alexis St. Martin was shot in the stomach by accident. The situation was dire, prior to a doctor named William Beaumont aided in St. Martin’s care. According to Beaumont’s recordings, “A large portion of the side was blown off… [there was a] perforation made directly into the cavity of the stomach, through which food was escaping.” Although Dr. Beaumont aided in St. Martin’s recovery, the cavity in his stomach was never completely healed and his digestive system was entirely exposed. As a result,

Dr. Beaumont had a view of the digestive system and a new-found sight of how the human body worked. Due to Dr. Beaumont’s observations of this one man’s digestive tract may have changed the course of humanity itself and given anthropologists deeper introspection into what early humans consumed. His research offered an insight to which kinds of diets may have been most prominent in what ages, throughout human history.

To observe the digestion of specific foods, Dr. Beaumont spent years studying his subject by tying small foods to a string and inserting it into digestive cavity of St. Martin. Beaumont would record how much time it took for specific food items to be fully digested, resulting in his theory of “minuteness of division”: that cooked foods were digested more quickly than raw foods, and tender raw foods with a larger surface area are digested the quickest compared to other examples of raw foods.

St. Martin’s story became a portal to the past of humanity’s dietary habits over millions of years. The story of St. Martin was particularly fascinating to Professor Richard Wrangham, author of “Catching Fire.” Wrangham used the research of Dr. Beaumont with a biological anthropology point of view by applying it to humans and apes. Dr. Beauont’s research, according to Wrangham, also contributed in part to the “cooking hypothesis”: a compelling theory of cooking being the main difference between Homo Habilis ancestors and modern humans.

Humanity does not tend to fare well on raw food diets alone. It is difficult for humans to sustain a healthy body mass index and approximately half of women on raw food diets tend to stop menstruating. Humans who rely on raw food diets also tend to rely on juicers or blenders to avoid having to spend just as much time out of the day chewing, just as chimpanzees do. Raw food diets are also very difficult to extract enough nutrients and calories to power our modern powerhouses of brains after millions of years of evolution. Humans and chimpanzees on raw food diets would devote approximately four hours per day to chewing which, according to Michael Pollan the author of Cooked: Evolutionary Transition History, “This happens to be roughly the same amount of time we now devote to watching television.

Dr. Wrangham explains, “The cooking hypothesis says, an ape became human because it learned to cook. Cooking transformed us, our ancestors [...] partly because it gave a lot of energy, and that energy was available for new activities. Like traveling farther. Like having babies faster. Like having a better immune system that gave us better defense against diseases. It also made our food softer, which meant that the mouth could be smaller, the teeth could be smaller, the gut could be smaller because the food was also more digestible. And at the same time, [...] cooking meant that fire was being used to heat the food, and the acquisition of the control of fire meant that our ancestors could, for the first time, safely sleep on the ground, defended by the fire. So they no longer had to adapt to climbing in trees. So that meant that they could really fully adapt, for the first time, to walking and running on the ground.”

In 1999, Dr. Wrangham provided a theory, written as an article for Current Anthropology, exploring rhizomes, tubers and corms. Corms include taro core, yams, cassava and beans. These were introduced as “underground storage organs.” Within the article, it was theorized that anthropologists focused on meat diets within early humans, attributing to the physiological and anatomical storage organs. The theory of meat versus storage organs concentrated on substance and technique, rather than the consumption of meat. Wrangham describes the same technique of using fire to cook food however, the substance is storage organs rather than meat, since in the time of early humans, Wrangham believed that these would have been much more readily available than sources of meat. These storage organs were also solely available to early humans through the use of digging tools, which kept them safe from other animals and creatures.

Digging and farming tools

The article also indicates that early humans could potentially have eaten meat, omitting any biochemical consequences, as early as a million years prior to the evolution of Homo Erectus. The article also focused on the potential influence of meat eating versus underground storage organs and discovered that cooking a substance with fire gave the early humans a much greater potential energy consumption. The theory of underground storage organs was also better able to explain the male-female bonds between early humans. Cooking with fire would undoubtedly change the main place for consuming food. Instead of searching for food and eating it where it was found, cooking with fire would require these early humans to return to a base camp, of sorts. The benefit is a reduced chewing and digestion time, as opposed to the convenience of eating food where it is foraged. Food that was cooked with fire could become an enviable resource for thieves as well, given its convenience and easy digestion. This is where the theory evolves to the females safe-guarding their storage organs by bonding with males. Many anthropological theories of early humans are based on a male-female bond and work divided by gender. The most common thought is that men hunted and women gathered. However, according to Dr. Wrangham, with a raw diet, this would have been impractical. If a male went out to hunt and returned empty handed, while the female spent all day foraging tubers, the male would have to spend all evening chewing to make up for the energy spent in the attempted hunt. For primates, most of their time is spent chewing. To further understand raw meat digestion and prove the theory, Dr. Wrangham and his colleagues did what Wrangham describes as, “an informational experiment in which friends and I chewed raw goat meat.” The goat meat was consumed alongside avocado leaves to mimic the digestion of early humans.

With the inception of fire, a surplus of leisurely activities would become available to humans, since they didn’t need to spent all day chewing. It also provided more time within the day, as the fire would provide light to continue activities. Hunting would become a constant activity, which would supply the food stores, as opposed to an opportunity of chance, as typically seen amidst modern primates. However, the article did not receive full acceptance within the anthropological community. Professor C. Loring Brace explains that Wrangham and the other researchers involved in the article, did not cover the use of tools related to the early humans, which could give another way of explaining the ease of digestion. For example, instead of using fire to cook meat and reduce the amount of chewing within the day, an hominid might have used a cutting implement to slice meat off of a hunted animal and bash the meat with a club, creating a pseudo steak tartare.

Evolutionary biologists, Katherine D. Zink and Daniel E. Lieberman, concluded in 2016 after consuming raw goat and other items, that cooking by itself was not able to explain the physiological changes that Dr. Wrangham wrote about in his theory since, according to the biologists, “meat eating was largely dependent on mechanical processing made possible by the invention of slicing technology.” Cooking still might have had a part to play in terms of evolutionary biology however, this experiment broadened the term of “cooking” to include cooking techniques aside from the use of just fire or heat.

In Dr. Wrangham’s article, the earliest trace of fire controlled by humans was 1.8 million years ago. However, the earliest proof of human controlled fire, based on archaeological discoveries at that time, only dated to 250,000 years ago. Within the last few years, archaeological discoveries pointed to human controlled fire approximately 1 million years ago, which leaves 800,000 years of unrecorded human controlled fire unaccounted for within Dr. Wrangham’s theory.

Dr. Wrangham backs his stance by explaining that, “no proof is not confirmation of absence.” Regardless, there is still an archaeological and historical inconsistency, since traces of fire can be discovered by scorched earth, stone circles, etc. If this theory was such an evolutionary landmark in the evolution of humanity, there would more than likely be more evidence of human controlled fire than archaeologists have found.

Wrangham’s implication was that the idea of inspiring other scientists to research and expand the timeline to look for evidence of human controlled fire. Wrangham’s theory may not yet be proven however, it has opened the doors to the possibility of other developments throughout the archaeological record of tools used to improve hunting and those leading to the use of human controlled fire. Although storage organs have been significant throughout the history of humanity, they have never been revered as a status food, as opposed to meat. The consumption of meat can be seen as crucial to the evolution of humanity and applied with the inception of cooking, it could have been the beginning of the evolution of modern humanity as we know it.

As for which food had the biggest impact on the evolution of humanity? It is difficult to choose just one. Spices make a compelling argument, considering its long lasting presence and how esteemed spices were throughout history. The spice trade also linked many countries across the globe. The spice route is also thought to have been the source of the plague and many other diseases. It connects to Marco Polo, whether or not his stories were even true. The Dutch even traded Manhattan for an Indonesian island that was populated with nutmeg trees, which demonstrates the significance of spices throughout humanity. Although the spice trade had a huge impact on the evolution of humanity, it definitely requires its own episode and it is impossible to choose just one spice.

However, salt and sugar could also be compelling topics. Salt is a product that is essential to the survival of mankind and has definitely contributed to the evolution of humanity however, its presence across the globe is so omnipresent and consistent throughout the history of humanity, that singling out a specific reason as to how exactly it has shaped humanity, can be tricky. Sugar began as a natural plant resources and evolved to become a commercial product. Sugar could be considered the strongest opponent, just based on photosynthesis alone. Photosynthesis is a critical operation within the food chain since almost all living creatures eat plants and humans eat animals that consume plants. Sidney Mintz researched sugar from a culinary point of view, as well as how it contributed to the inception of a global market. Since the majority of the globe’s providence was between Western Europe, Africa and the New World, sugar became a staple resource. The global prosperity from the sugar trade however, has been and still is reliant on the labour of enslaved humans working the sugar plantations.

As biochemist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi explains, "What drives life is thus a little electric current kept up by the sunshine."

Although evidence of sugarcane plant husbandry points to Guinea over 10,000 years ago, Europe did not get a taste of “sweet salt” until the Crusades when armies returned with the product. At that point however, most of Asia and the Middle East had already refined the process of sugar and used it for confections, herbal mixtures, as well as sculptures to denote status. However, sugar truly began to impact humanity when it migrated with Christopher Columbus to the New World. “The first documented revolt of African slaves in the Americas broke out around Christmas 1521 in southeastern Hispaniola on a sugar estate owned by the eldest son of a Christopher Columbus,” according to historian Jack A. Goldstone. Since sugar husbandry was so labour-intensive, the spread of sugar plantations solicited the African slave trade. According to Mental Floss, “Millions of people were enslaved and transported to the New World to labour on sugar plantations, including 5 million solely to the Caribbean. In the terms of slavery, the sugar plantations were especially labour intensive. A white Barbados planter named Edward Littleton claimed that anybody required to operate on the sugar plantations had an expected longevity of ten and seventeen years before dying under the brutal conditions. The effect on aboriginal cultures was dually catastrophic. While some indigenous communities, "In the Caribbean the [indigenous] population became virtually extinct within a generation," of European colonization, as per Professor Linda A. Newson, due to a mixture of barbaric exploitation and Old World epidemics.”

Louisiana became the United States’ second wealthiest per capita due to the sugar industry’s slave labour. These conditions caused deaths that exceeded births and according to John C. Rodrigue, post-slavery, “Plantation labour overshadowed black peoples’ lives in the sugar region until well into the 20th century. The sugar industry’s slave labour also consumed Hawaii and in 1890, the McKinley Tariff caused Hawaiian sugar to be uncompetitive within US markets. However, it is a common misconception that Hawaii was annexed by the United States. According to United States Law, annexation can be imposed if a treaty is signed by two governing entities of two internationally recognized governments. However, Dole’s republic was not technically internationally recognized. Dole’s republic was only recognized by the United States. Grover Cleveland, the 22nd United States president missioned emissaries to Hawaii. The emissaries were lead by U.S. Commissioner James Blount. Blount reported that the United States was ungovernable in the abet of the deposition and the next year, John Tyler Morgan was sent to investigate. Regardless of the commission being unable to agree, Morgan signed a report, stating that the deposition was fair. There was no treaty of annexation signed by either party and a treaty of the annexation of Hawaii in any form does not exist to this day.