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Historical Eating Patterns

Learn more about the history and evolution of eating patterns.

Before being able to consume food from the comfort of restaurants, humans were hunter-gatherers. In short, we hunted for game and collected wild plants and tubers.

One major revolution that occurred was the “discovery” of fire. This is so important to human civilization that Greek mythology describes the intervention of Zeus himself to punish humans for stealing this indispensable creation.

Why did the discovery of fire change the course of humanity? Here are at least three reasons:

  1. It allowed for the sterilisation of food, namely meat. Note that we started eating grains and vegetables long after meat because we had to wait for the creation of pottery necessary to boil the former;
  2. It improved digestibility, freeing metabolic energy that went from digestion to brain activity. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but brain size increased when we started grilling meat rather than eating it raw.
  3. Some historians point to the fact that fire is hypnotic, calls for gathering around it while waiting for the meat to cook, and in turn date the birth of philosophy at the time of fire discovery and managing.

Approximately 20,000 years ago (but some historians say 10,000) we settled down, very likely in what is called the Fertile Crescent (Asia Minor). One interesting theory posits that we settled down to grow grains to be later fermented.

There is some archeological evidence that we drank alcoholic beverages obtained from grain fermentation before we actually ate cereals.

Start of Agriculture

For sure, we started domesticating animals and storing cereals. In brief, agriculture started and with it our modern way of eating. In keeping with the aforementioned, the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau hypothesized that civilization is the result of moving from meat-eating to grain eating.

According to his theories, agriculture coincided with the birth of private property and inequality, when we started building fences and raising animals for food, and plowing the earth.

First Changes in Eating Patterns

From the Fertile Crescent, eating patterns moved via the Danubian culture until they got to a fork. One kind of diet remained quite traditional and can be located in the Greek area. The other segment moved West, transiting across Sicily where it became enriched with other foods.

The discovery of the Americas shook the eating patterns of most Europeans. This is due to explorers bringing foods such as tomato (which was initially considered as poison), maize, sugar, as well as more “exotic” goods such as coffee and cocoa (note that consumption of the former was prohibited in Europe until Pope Clement VIII “blessed” the bean and authorized its use in infusions).

Tea also entered Europe via the East India Company and became so important that the American Independence War started precisely by throwing boxes of tea in the water, in turn shaping the current political scenario.

What About the Much-touted Mediterranean Diet?

What is now called “the Mediterranean diet” can still be found in some areas of Greece? Yet from a scientific viewpoint, the term “Mediterranean diet” pertains to the dietary habits of Southern Italians at the end of the ‘50s, when Ancel Keys was dispatched by the American army to a small village south of Naples.

This diet is, unfortunately, disappearing from the Mediterranean area even though globalization is moving it around the world.


Author: Dr. Francesco Visioli

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Nutrition for Health and Sustainability

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