The Way Back Machine

A Brief History of Food: Where We’ve Been

 As far as we know, farm dog Rhoda has not built a time machine and taken our children on improbable adventures throughout history ala Mr. Peabody and Sherman. How fun would that have been, though? Investigating all of history’s mysteries.

One mystery that intrigues us is how we have gotten to the food system we have today. Thinking about the relationship between humans and food, we might as well start at the beginning. The very beginning. Specifically the mystery of the origins of our species.

Understanding human origins is like trying to put together a 1000 piece puzzle with only a handful of pieces and no picture. Relying mainly on skeletal remains found buried in caves, pieces of the puzzle are sporadically found, thoroughly analyzed, and extrapolated from, trying to guess at what the rest of the puzzle looked like. Scientists also use current understandings of humans, largely through genetics, as a picture to see where the pieces may have fit. The current body, Homo sapiens “wise man”, that we all occupy is believed to be in the range of 300,000 years old based on recent findings. Humans operated as small bands of hunter gatherers during the Paleolithic period until the end of the last ice age and beginning of the Holocene period, roughly 12,000 years ago, when agricultural societies started to develop.

Early human existence is largely defined by food and its procurement. Just like today, it doesn’t take much deprivation for getting food to become the top priority. Based on our current physiology, we know a few things about what early Homo sapiens may have been looking for. Unlike ruminants (cows, sheep, camels, deer, etc.), humans do not have a large first stomach (rumen) to ferment forages. Humans also do not have an oversized large intestine like horses, rabbits, and even other primates like gorillas, that allow for the extraction of nutrients from coarse plants. So humans have to rely on relatively nutrient and energy dense foods and can’t survive munching on grass, leaves and twigs. Humans also have a proportionally large brain that has allowed for things like reading this blog, but also comes with an energetic cost, burning around 20% of calories consumed. This requires fairly frequent eating to maintain bodily functions, and as humans do not go into prolonged periods of hibernation or torpor, these meals have to be year round.

What exactly these meals consisted of is debated, but we do know humans are able to eat a wide array of foods including fruits, roots and tubers, leafy greens, vegetables, nuts, grains, legumes, meat, fish, shellfish, insects, and mushrooms (certainly, being the mushroom tester back in the day was not the most sought-after occupation). This adaptive diet allowed humans to spread over a large portion of the globe, finding nutrition from a variety of environments. 

Is this edible? A fungal growth on one of the farm’s trees.

The development of tools allowed for hunting, fishing, and even processing of foods including grains. This processing, along with the use of fire for cooking, allowed for improved nutrient availability and digestion to better meet the demands of the human body. 

While the use of tools was important in our development of procuring food, the construction of the body also played a role. A subcutaneous fat layer provided insulation and allowed humans to maintain body temperature while foraging in cold shallow waters for plants and shellfish, further expanding the food sources available. 

Finding and eating whatever was available was the key to early human survival. There is some thought that the current appreciation for crunchy foods like potato chips may have developed from our ancestors’ consumption of insects. There are many other ingrained food instincts developed from the survival of our ancestors that we likely take for granted.

Early humans were the first conscious eaters, eating seasonally, locally, and as part of nature. This, of course, was done out of necessity and not really a choice. For the most part, hunter gatherer societies were believed to be egalitarian with everyone working together and looking out for each other. Based on studying current hunter gatherers, their lives were fairly relaxed with each person only spending 15 to 20 hours a week in the work of collecting and preparing food. Hunter gatherers were also very adaptable, moving around to places where food was available and using a diverse range of foods that kept them fed during seasonal and weather fluctuations. In fact, hunter gathering was so successful that the reasons for the transition to agricultural societies is not well understood as there appeared to be many crop failures and periods of disease in early agricultural societies.

Agricultural societies allowed for the settling and creation of towns and villages and eventually cities, freeing up people to specialize in different occupations and creating technological advancements that has brought us to the world we have today. But these societies also opened the doors to social hierarchy, inequality, and increased work demands with cycles of land degradation, famine, and disease. Agriculture did allow for human populations to increase, but this also led to the need for spreading over more land, often done through conquest and war.

Agriculture has been integral in the development of current society and allows support of the 7.9 billion humans on the planet. But there are many lessons that can be relearned from our hunter gatherer ancestors about equality and living in harmony with nature. Using agricultural methods based on a diverse range of plants and animals while working with nature can be an important part in creating a more benevolent world. 

Gibralter Farms has used diverse mixtures and rotations of crops with grazing of cows and pigs for several generations. We are always learning, both from historical methods and new research, and continue to experiment and refine our methods to work with nature in a harmonious manner while promoting the health and well-being of the farm, the community, and the world. Hopefully future way back machines find this current era as a time of conscious decisions to prioritize health, healing, and equality.

If you need help solving any of history’s mysteries, connect with us here and also be the first to know when food is available to purchase! 

A Brief History of Food