What we used to eat

FishingThe subtitle of Paul Greenberg’s wonderful book, Four Fish, is “The Future of the Last Wild Food.” In discussing the history and future of salmon, tuna, bass, and cod, the author also remarks on other wild foods our ancestors used to eat.

How did early humans choose the animals they were going to tame and eat? An examination of middens [a collection of waste products – like a garbage dump — that provides archaeologists with clues to everyday life] at Neolithic European dwellings reveals that humans used to eat from a fairly wide buffet of wild game. In varying amounts, the meats they consumed consisted of red deer, boar, cow, roe deer, horse, goat, antelope, elk, chamois, bison, reindeer, fox, badger, cat, marten, bear, wolf, dog, otter, lynx, weasel, mouse, rat, rabbit, beaver, and marmot.

That’s quite a variety.

This diet didn’t last, however. “By the time of Christ, we were down to four basic kinds of mammals in our fire pits: sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle.”

Greenberg goes on to list the variety of birds humans once consumed.

When it came to birds, there was a similarly broad choice available. Pigeon, snipe, woodcock, pheasant, grouse, dozens of different ducks, grebe, various wading birds, and many more.

What birds do we eat today? Chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese.

The domestication of livestock

We used to eat a wide variety of wild animals. These days – with the exception of those who survive by hunting — we eat only those animals that can be easily tamed.

The 19th century intellectual and polymath Francis Galton, speaking in his capacity as anthropologist, enumerated a number of conditions that determine which animals are domesticated.

1. They should be hardy
2. they should have an inborn liking for man
3. they should be comfort-loving
4. they should be found useful to the savages
5. they should breed freely
6. they should be gregarious

With the exception of condition number four – which concerns animals used for labor, not food – these qualities are still regarded by anthropologists as the guiding principles of our ancestors. They determined what we eat now.

Gregariousness is essential for domestication

A quick word on the significance of the gregariousness of animals. Galton explains this quality in a paper published in 1865. It’s interesting to read this today while holding in mind an image of the contemporary life of cattle, pigs, or chickens.

They [the animals] must be tended easily. When animals reared in the house are suffered to run about in the companionship of others like themselves, they naturally revert to much of their original wildness. It is therefore essential to domestication that they should possess some quality by which large numbers of them may be controlled by a few herdsmen. The instinct of gregariousness is such a quality. The herdsman of a vast troop of oxen grazing in a forest, if he sees one of them, knows pretty surely that they are all in reach. If they are frightened and gallop off, they do not scatter, but are manageable as a single body. When animals are not gregarious, they are to the herdsman like a falling necklace of beads whose string is broken, or as a handful of water escaping between the fingers.

He adds: “The cat is the only non-gregarious domestic animal. It is retained by its extraordinary adhesion to the comforts of the house in which it is reared.”

Galton, BTW, is roundly shunned these days – for good reason – due to his writings on eugenics.

The taste of supreme tuna belly

Four Fish asks its reader to consider whether we’re content to eliminate — through overfishing — the fish in our oceans, lakes, and streams. Are we prepared for a future in which our only source of seafood is fish farms? What would we be missing?

Sam Sifton, in his review of Four Fish, describes what it’s like to dine on freshly caught bluefin tuna.

I was newly installed as the restaurant critic of The New York Times and had spent the previous few months on a surreptitious tour of some of the city’s best restaurants. I had been eating stupendously well. But nothing I had eaten that summer and fall prepared me for the taste of this tuna that late afternoon, for the intense blast of flavor and rich, creamy fattiness delivered by a cut of truly fresh otoro — supreme tuna belly, in the parlance of the sushi bar — not yet four hours old. …

In a bite of that absolutely fresh tuna from New Jersey, I experienced a taste of truly wild food, a majestic flavor, something incredibly rare.

And as it melted on my tongue and receded into memory, I felt guilt and doubt and fear. Will my children, who demurred in eating the fish that day, ever have a chance to eat bluefin tuna? Will their children? Will anyone? Should they?

Greenberg is also concerned with these questions in Four Fish.

There are many things — in my opinion — that recommend this book. The author has been fishing all his life and is at one with his subject. He doesn’t criticize fishermen, nor is he preachy about what consumers choose to eat. He doesn’t leave his reader with a sense of doom and gloom, a common aftertaste of books that document the extinction of species. Greenberg believes there’s still hope for the future of fish. He’s also a fabulous writer. That’s why I recommend the book highly.

Related posts:
Is it safe to eat yet?
What’s wrong with our food?
Is agriculture bad for your health?
Not just peanut butter: What’s happening to our food supply?
Pig dignity: Animal welfare in Europe
Links of interest: Organic food


Image source: Gone Fishing

Paul Greenberg, Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food

Francis Galton, The first steps towards the domestication of animals, Transactions of the Ethnological Society of London, 1865 (PDF)

Sam Sifton, Catch of the Day, The New York Times, July 29, 2010

Four Fish website

Recent Essays by Paul Greenberg and Interviews about Four Fish


2 Responses to What we used to eat

  1. I have a question; or questions. Did early man eat such a varied diet because it was available? Or did they eat such a varied diet because they knew intuitively it was healthier? Or did they just like variety? Or did they eat such a varied diet because that was what they were able to kill that particular day?

    I don’t know for sure, but I can make an educated guess that one of the reasons humans domesticated animals was because they could begin to have some guarantee of food for themselves and their families.

    • Hi Roberta – I don’t know the details of when and where the remains of all these animals were found, so I don’t know the answer to your question. I would guess that it’s the last thing you mention – people ate what they could find and capture. I did find an article that said prehistoric people were probably not predominantly meat eating or vegetarian, as experts used to think, but are a fairly balanced mix.