Background

Reconstructing the history of food is fraught with dangers and difficulties. Much of what is written, especially that for prehistoric times, is based on a number of assumptions, some warranted, and some not. Those based on human biological necessities probably have some validity. Those based on archaeological research are subject to two major problems. First, not everything preserves. Second, archaeological interpretation of what does remain is difficult and has itself been based on assumptions. We are all familiar with the image of "man the hunter" and the portrayal of Stone Age humans as mighty, intrepid hunters of massive, dangerous, and cunning game like mammoths and cave bears. This image comes to us through the magnificent Late Stone Age paintings of western Europe, from food bones found in caves and other living sites and from kill and butchery sites found throughout the Stone Age world. Because plant foods rarely preserve and are even more rarely portrayed, incautious interpretation by some has left the impression that prehistoric humans ate mostly meat. Except for environments like the arctic and the subarctic, where edible plants are rare, this is unlikely to be the case for a variety of reasons.

Humans are primates. Most primates are herbivorous and only accidentally omnivorous, and some are omnivorous (1,2). Higher primates tend to be plant eaters, although a few, such as chimpanzees, will deliberately hunt and eat meat (2). Humans are omnivorous today, and it is likely that our hominid ancestors, as primates, were also omnivorous. Early hominid teeth, like those of modern humans, are those of omnivores (2). The greater majority of modern humans cannot extract sufficient vitamins and minerals from meat alone to survive. Eskimos are an exception, but even they eat the stomach contents of the herbivorous animals they kill and take advantage of plant foods during the short growing season (1). Nor can we live on plants alone without bringing together the right combination of plants to supply us with complete proteins. Nutritionists tell us that humans need a diet balanced so that we receive all the vitamins and minerals the body demands for efficient functioning. This means a combination of plant and animal foods with heavy emphasis on plants as opposed to animal protein.

Anthropological study of historic and modern gatherer-hunters shows that, with the exception of the Siberian and North American Eskimos of the subarctic, the ratio of wild plant food gathered is almost always greater than that of hunted or fished animal protein. The actual ratio depends on both available environmental resources and cultural factors and differs between groups. An additional factor affecting the ratio is the seasonality of resources. In some seasons plant foods are more available than in others, such as winter in the temperate northern hemisphere, when, in the absence of plant preservation techniques or even with them, more meat will be eaten—or perhaps, less food will be consumed in general.

In a given environment various small animals are foraged, such as rodents, birds, reptiles, and insects. While larger game may be preferred, it is not always present or present in sufficient quantity to appease human appetites for animal protein.

In short, gatherer-hunters adapt to the environment in which they live and the ratio of plant to animal foods will reflect that adaptation. It will also reflect cultural factors such as religious taboos and the cultural definition of what is and is not food. We also recognize that hunting is high risk and not always successful. Gathering provides an ensured food supply.

Archaeologically, little trace of the plants consumed by recent gatherer-hunters will remain. Without the ethnographic documentation of these living people, we would never have complete knowledge of their subsistence economies. This is because plant material is notoriously perishable and subject to selective preservation. In some dry desert areas, plant remains do preserve. So do human cop-rolites. Ancient coprolites contain seeds, pollens, and husks or shell parts that aid in reconstructing paleodiet. But human coprolites are rarely found. In wet areas, such as bogs, plants often preserve, as do human bodies. Perhaps one of the most famous and scientifically valuable examples of preservation is Tollund Man, in whose preserved stomach were found the remains of his last meal, a porridge prepared from a wide variety of seeds of domesticated and wild plants (3). A very recent technique of extracting collagen from human bone and conducting trace-element and isotopic analysis enables us to determine whether and what kinds of cereal grasses were being consumed, for example, maize. But, of course, the bone itself must be preserved and unfossilized (4). Fossilized bone is completely mineralized and contains no organic material.

Animal bone is also subject to selective preservation. Large bones survive better than do small bones, and not all bone fossilizes. Acid soil destroys bone. Insect parts rarely preserve. In sum, little of what was originally deposited at a site by human subsistence activity preserves. There is no real way of reconstructing the ratio of plant to animal food consumed by our remote ancestors or even those closest to us in time.

We are left on shaky ground. Our assumptions are: (1) both presapiens and sapiens hominids were omnivorous; (2) they adapted to the varied environments in which they lived and exploited their edible resources using the then current technology and sociopolitical organization; (3) gathering plants and foraging small animals provided them with a more reliable food supply than did hunting large game; and (4) by the Late Stone Age, fully human cultural factors surfaced that led to food selection among the edibles when people could afford it.

Figure 1 is provided as a convenient guide through the time periods discussed below. The chart is highly simplified and applies only to Europe, northern Africa, and the Near East. Although data from other world areas are discussed within the time divisions, it is fully acknowledged that the terms Paleolithic (Old Stone Age), Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age), and Neolithic (New Stone Age) do not apply well to Subsaharan Africa, the Far East and North and South America. With this in mind, the periods used and their finer subdivisions are briefly defined below.

The Paleolithic or Old Stone Age began about 2,500,000 years ago (2.5 mya) and is subdivided into three major chronological stages on the basis of advances in stone tool technology: Lower or Early Paleolithic (2.5 mya-100,000 yr ago), Middle Paleolithic (100,000-40,000 yr ago), and Upper or Late Paleolithic (40,000-12,000 yr ago) (Fig. 1). The Paleolithic ended with the end of the last ice age, called the Wurm or Weichsel in the Old World and the Wisconsin in the New World.

The Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age was a short period that began with the final retreat of the last glacier about 12,000 years ago (Fig. 1). No definitive end date that applies to the planet can be given because the proper end of the period is with the beginning of agriculture. Agriculture began at different times in different parts of the globe. In the Near East, the period fades into what is sometimes called the Proto-Neolithic. The Proto-Neolithic (about 11,000-9000 yr ago) is called such because it was the era of incipient agriculture. Various animals and plants were brought under domestication, but wild animals and plants still constituted an important part of subsistence. There appear to have been some similar developments in Thailand dating to this period.

The Neolithic began in the Near East about 9000 years ago, when human subsistence was based fully on agriculture (Fig. 1). Fully agricultural economies were later in Europe, the Far East, and the New World.

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