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First published: October 2000

Food in Ancient Times

by Michael Sones

What and how much did our ancestors eat?

Ancestral man was a hunter-gatherer. Remains from sites excavated by archaeologists indicate animals, bird, fish, and shellfish were the primary diet. The ancestors of vegetables such as the radish, turnip, and onion were also eaten. Controlled fire made its appearance on the scene anywhere up to 1.7 million years ago which increased the range of foods which could be eaten. There is an 18,000 year old site in Wadi Kubbaniya, to the west of the Nile Valley. Cooked plant remains have been found there and it is suggested this was a vegetable mash to feed weaning infants. In Syria, between 20-10,000 years ago over 150 edible plants have been identified along with primitive mortar and pestles for grinding the food. Primitive grinders and pestles have been found dating back more than 44,000 years in the Ukraine.

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Primitive farming first made its appearance about 10000 years ago and after the last Ice Age. The Ice Age ended due to rapid global warming. The climatic changes lead to forests replacing grasslands. This and hunting by humans seems to have led to the extinction of many species of megafauna (giant mammoth, ox, elk) which had roamed the grasslands in great herds. The horse originated in America but was probably wiped out by hunting about 10,000 years and did not reappear on North American shores until the Spanish conquistadors landed.

In Old Kingdom Egypt hyenas were kept and fattened for the cooking pot as were hedgehogs. Egyptians were known for their baking, wine making, pickling and drying of foods. Small pots of cheese have been found in an Egyptian Second Dynasty Tomb. Eggs from a variety of fowl were cooked in a number of ways. In the Americas the early Indians ate potato, yams, and manioc. The Aztecs bred dogs for food as did both the Greeks and Romans. Pigs were bred in Neolithic times and were an important source of food. The guinea pig was also domesticated for food use in South America. Milk is represented about 2900 BC followed quickly by butter and cheese.

The Romans cultivated lobsters as did the Chinese. They also cultivated snails. Insects have also provided a good supply of food to man. If termites are lightly fried they have 36% protein and 44% fat. Dried locusts have up to 75% protein and 20 % fat. As well as vitamins. The Greeks ate the larva of cicada. Locusts, which sometimes have plagued human crops, were a source of food in the Middle East. The Aztecs ate caterpillars, corn ear worms, and grasshoppers. Honey was a favorite of early peoples and the Indians of Central and South America cultivated bees for their honey as did the Ancient Egyptians.

The manna which saved the Israelites when they wandered through the desert was probably the secretion of a small insect on the twigs of the tamarisk. Mushrooms would also have probably been eaten by early man and truffles were being eaten in Mesopotamia as long ago as 1800 BC.

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