Anthropology P380: Prehistoric Diet and Nutrition

Lectures 1-2: looking back at human diet

1. First, let's learn to cut through the hype and understand what foods are made of. We'll spend the first few weeks of the semester trying to do this.

2. Secondly, we'll differentiate between what is learned and what is inherited (biological) in terms of what is considered "Good to Eat." Do you think there is a "natural Diet" for humans? 

Imagine that you could drop back into the past and observe the foods and eating habits of your ancestors. What would they be like? What could we observe that could help us reflect on our modern eating habits? Let's look at different episodes:

5 years ago

Not too different! Although marketing strategies have changed, both in response to directives from the FDA about truth in labeling (!), but also as a reflection of FADS. What are we to make of the barrage of seemingly conflicting

We should also note the growth, the last few years, of so-called designer foods, including more and more products from GMO's (genetically modified organixms), including "nutriiceuticals."

50 years ago

Differences in technology and commerce and regional communication (TV). What, no microwaves??! 2003 marked the 50 year anniversary of Swanson's TV dinners, which were frozen foods then.

Fewer "convenience foods" but canned and frozen foods were available, as were packaged breads... milk was delivered to your home in bottles! Vitamins and minerals commonly added to foods (e.g. iodine added to salt to combat goiter and niacine to commercial bread to combat pellagra).

Popular foods very different. "Ethnic" foods were community based, but not common in mass culture. Some foods were "patriotic" (e.g. chipped beef on toast -- white gravy was promoted as an economical way to feed your family with little meat during war time, whereas before it had been considered an "upper class" food by many... now its economic status has changed again -- more characteristic of regional cooking (e.g. southern biscuits and gravy) and "BAD" because its HIGH FAT... yet we see a popular backlash as gravy is promoted as "home cooking" or "comfort food" or "soul food" etc)

500 years ago

Columbian exchange of foods between Old and New World (and the development of modern cuisines) had not yet begun.

  • Imagine Italian food without tomatoes!
  • Imagine Mexican food without cheese, beef, pork or chicken!
  • Imagine Hot Chocolate without the milk!

Many food dishes which we take for granted did not exist until this great interchange occurred. Tomatoes and Potatoes for example, were both New World crops. Potatoes fared better, initially (quickly spread into Northern Europe, which had weather good for root crops). Whereas tomatoes were greeted with distrust when first introduced into Europe because they were from the same family (Solanaceae) as many toxic plants. Meanwhile, hot cocoa (a bitter, but stimulating and spicey mixture of native plants: ground cocoa beans, hot water, chile, sometimes vanilla) had been a favorite drink in Aztec Mexico, but wasn't really popular in Europe until they started adding first sugar, and then milk in the 17th century.


5000 years ago

some culturally-caused biological differences in food habits

At this time food production was still limited around the world, to centers of domestication and their surrounding areas. Starchy staples common, but their distribution was more localized than today (e.g. maize agriculture in Mesoamerica and South America, but in North America still exploiting "wild" weeds (proto-domesticates like gourd, sunflower and amaranth). Most people were still dependent on wild foods.

Also spread of pastoralism and milk-drinking and the origins of lactose tolerance in some human populations.


50,000 years ago

diet is wild, and humans co-exist with neandertals

People hunt and gather wild foods in a variety of opportunistic ways -- but many important tools for acquiring and processing food have not been invented yet: the bow and arrow, the boat, the harpoon, cooking containers, grinding equipment. But fire is used to roast foods, and people exploiting both aquatic and terrestrial foods.

500,000 years ago

"archaic" humans

There are real questions about how successful Homo erectus was at hunting and gathering, and whether or not human populations were successful in climates with long frozen winters. Meat was commonly scavenged from big-game, but they had weapons too (wooden spears).

5,000,000 years ago

the first hominids: savanna apes?

This is the period when proto-humans were just split from ancestral apes, and were starting to exploit savanna foods that apes rarely foraged for. They were probably "feed as you go" foragers with basically ape-like feeding habits and diets. No known tools survive from this period.

50,000,000 years ago

early primates

Early primates co-evolved with the Angiosperms (the flowering plants), and we inherit our color vision and sweet tooth (for finding and tasting ripe fruit), and our need for Vitamin C to the adaptations of these early ancestors (more next week).

A key question becomes, what is the balance between biology and culture in human subsistence? Is there a biological baseline -- a "natural" diet that we are adapted for ?

This creates some interesting trends:

Diet (food) is one of the direct interfaces between an organism and its environment, and therefore selecting, acquiring, ingesting, and digesting food are critical elements of an organism's survival, or adaptation (ecological niche).

Considering primate and human propensity for learned behavior (culture) as a vital component of our adaptive mechanism, most diets we observe today require a complex mix of both biological and cultural explanation. Issue: what influences our CHOICE of which foods to eat?

We'll discuss some examples of biological constraints on human nutrition, and how how human cultural practices have interacted with our dietary heritage as reflected in some physiological traits/adaptations we have inherited from our evolutionary past. Please find more examples of biological and cultural constraints in your READINGS!

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Last updated: 15 January, 2004

Copyright 1998 Jeanne Sept