Tiffin Project

A Short History of the Human Diet

by Todd Caldecott on August 30, 2011

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(Image by Banksy)

Human evolution has been a gradual process over millions of years, from our earliest ancestors that diverged from other primates over four to seven million years ago, to the modern Homo sapiens of today.  We first begin to bear some semblance to the modern human as Homo habilis and H. erectus 2-3 million years ago, with rudimentary technology that characterize distinctly human behaviors such as hunting and gathering, using spears and stone tools, as well as the control and use of fire. The first anatomically modern humans known as Homo sapiens made their appearance as far back as 400,000 years ago in Africa, and over this time gradually developed technology and society until they began to undergo a radical transformation about 10,000 years ago. Collectively this period of time in archaeology, from the advent of Homo habilis to the agricultural revolution, is called the Paleolithic period, and represents more than 99.9% of human evolution.

As our primate ancestors evolved, the nature of our diet gradually shifted from eating plants and insects as tree-dwellers, to becoming the fur-wearing big game hunters that come to mind when we think of the archetypal ‘cave man’.  Out of necessity our diet was as diverse as possible, our ancestors maintaining a vast knowledge of local foods including plants, animals, fungi, and minerals in order to survive.  Depending on factors such as geography and climate, how much of each type of food we might eat at any given time varied considerably.  Researchers at the University of Colorado suggest that whenever possible our early ancestors preferred animal foods as their primary source of nutrition, comprising between 45-65% of their total energy intake, supplementing the remaining percentage with plant foods. These findings corroborate evidence that suggests early humans preferred animal foods for its high calorie impact, a crucial evolutionary feature that allowed for the development of the characteristically large human brain.

About 10,000 years ago something revolutionary began to happen to humanity. Quite suddenly we began to experiment with the domestication of animals and plants, gathering together in settled communities to forgo our hunter-gather ways. The first wave of this happened in discrete areas in different parts of the globe: in Africa, the Middle East, India, China, Meso-America and Northern Europe.  Whether caused by climate change, population pressures or some convergent mechanism of human evolution, our ancient ancestors began to leverage local resources to their advantage.  Although animals such as the dog, pig and cow were among the first species to be domesticated, humans soon began to experiment with a diverse array of plant species, selecting and planting only the choicest specimens generation after generation, weeding out undesirable characteristics such as bitterness and fiber.  The most outstanding feature of the agrarian revolution was the production and reliance upon cereal grains and legumes.  Gathering, crushing, soaking, fermenting and cooking the seeds of various grasses including millet, emmer, einkorn, barley and maize yielded a surprisingly energy-rich food, while dried and boiled pulses such as lentil and pea provided a good source of protein. In the relatively stable global climate of this period, peoples that had already settled found that the reliable seasonal cycle of crop production yielded greater food security than the luck of the hunt, and slowly the foundations of human culture began to change.  Gradually the diversity of foods in the diet began to decline as our Neolithic ancestors labored from dawn until dusk, limiting themselves to a few high-yielding species such as wheat and rice.  Stored food became a valuable commodity in early human society, and used to advantage by a select few, helped to produce the social stratification we still see to this day, with an underclass of laborers and an elite that directs society by controlling food and its means of production.  Since this time, although empires have risen and fallen, the diet of this toiling underclass has changed very little, at least up until very recently.

For your average peasant, poor hygiene, malnutrition and a lifetime of hard physical labor took its toll, but there was little evidence that they suffered from the chronic degenerative disease that is the hallmark of Western culture.  In contrast, wealthy nobles that could afford the luxury of refined and processed foods, and were spared the labor and toil of an “honest” living, often suffered from chronic diseases such as gout and diabetes. This stratification between the diseases of wealth and poverty continued more or less up until the “green revolution” of the 20th century.  During this time industrial-farming practices dramatically increased food production, relying upon machinery, synthetic fertilizers and petroleum-based pesticides and herbicides to increase crop yield.  Governments and corporations invested heavily in the development of new technologies to enhance the shelf life, flavor and preservation of food, altering the ratio of key nutrients in our diet and exposing us to a plethora of additives that we had previously never consumed.  Within a few generations humble communities that at one time survived on subsistence diets were now eating refined foods formerly the preserve of kings and nobles.  The impact of this change was observed by researchers such as Dr. Weston A. Price, meticulously documented in his book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, confirmed later by researchers such as Trowell and Burkitt. Less than a hundred years after Dr. Price published his observations, developing countries such as India and China that wish to model the economic success of the Western world have become afflicted with characteristically “Western” diseases, and now have the highest prevalence of diabetes in the world.

Taken from Food As Medicine: The Theory and Practice of Food, p. 93-95

~ Todd Caldecott


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