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A History of Food

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 3 6

Gathering of fruit and vegetables

From Ancient Gatherer to Contemporary Consumer

Once the focus for survival, food and its consumption has undergone many changes and is no longer a matter of simply hunting, farming or harvesting. 

With supermarket shopping and pre-packaged meals so commonplace these days, we may now all come to realize just how far our relationship with food has changed.

The changes that have occurred are especially relevant to five key areas: 

•  scale
•  control
•  ritual
•  commodity, and
•  source.

Looking across wheat fields

•  Scale

The most visible change in the gathering and consuming of food has been scale. This is seen in the tribes of the Stone Age who depended on elements alive and abundant in their own region to give them sustenance.

Individuals from different families co-operated in activities of hunting and gathering, with women finding edible varieties of plants and roots, and the men tracking and killing wild animals for meat.

Although peoples with nomadic lifestyles were able to journey further afield, food quantities, like for hunters and gatherers, were proportionate to their immediate needs and seasonal requirements.

This contrasts with the advent of agriculture and ensuing developments in the modern age. Epic volumes of foods, eg wheat, are now grown to feed millions of people, with mass crop plantings in various parts of the world.

“Some countries end up with ‘grain mountains’, where others starve. Now we have biotechnology and genetic modifications, whose advocates insist their motives in pressing forward with this technology are to solve world hunger”. (Cook, p. 55)

•  Control

Control, another significant factor in food’s history, had its beginnings in the nomadic lives of ancient Persians who settled land and “took in hand the cultivation of the soil” (Cook, p. 24). With an understanding of ownership, tribal members worked fields close to their homes and began fencing in crops of wheat, corn and barley.

Methods of irrigating the land later developed in Mesopotamia and Egypt, as well as tools for ploughing and digging. This ‘controlling’ of land helped early cultures to guarantee their food supply and ensure successful crop production.

The Middle Ages followed on, with gardens of fruit, medicinal plants and vegetables planted within walled monasteries. Food, as earlier found in Nature, was now grown to fit humanity’s need for self-sufficiency, requiring much less time and effort in its collection.

The travels of Christopher Columbus later initiated the potential of foreign land for agricultural purposes. “To Colombia in 1543 went wheat, barley, chickpeas, broad beans and vegetables as well as the first cattle. Bananas, rice and citrus fruits (natives of Asia) were in turn transplanted to the New World.” (Cook, p. 47)

While cities and consumer demands increased, importation quickly developed as a means of profitable trade, such as tea and sugar in England in the Industrial era, and merchant ships regularly arrived with goods from plantations often harvested by slave workers.

In the modern age, this continues along similar lines, with control of food gathering in the hands of big business.

Planting a rice field

•  Ritual

A third major change is ritual, and is defined as the spiritual value given to, or present in the food eaten by a person, family or community. 

An example of this is preserved in ancient cultures of Western Europe, whose hand-painted images in caves depict the powerful nature of the hunted animal and its sacred status for the tribe.

This spiritual understanding is similar to that of the Aryan tribes of ancient India who worshipped the cow, and revered milk and honey as sacred substances

“The human being of these times felt at one both with nature and the gods, receiving their gifts with a feeling of serenity and security” (Cook, p. 21). However, as nomadic tribes settled and began building homes, food started carrying less spiritual meaning, and a more physical view of life took shape in their minds.

From the 17th Century onwards, emphasis was given to new thinking in science and philosophy that sought to understand the Earth in mechanical and calculable ways, with no thought to man’s inner soul.

Cities expanded and along with it, the heavy toll of working in an industrialized civilisation and the increased consumption of lifeless ‘convenience’ foods, in what is now a modern secular society in need of spiritual awakening

La Prehistoire - Lascaux horse replica

•  Commodity

Our perceptions of food have also evolved in the way a meal was once prepared and cooked at a hearth to now being a ‘commodity’ or ‘thing’.

This change started taking place in settled tribes of Mesopotamia where the creating of pottery was a natural part of the culture. It provided a versatile means to cook, store and carry food, and was a development followed by the ancient Minoans who produced storage vessels for oils and other liquids.

Methods of storage aided the spice trade during the time of the Romans and also in the 14th Century as markets increased from the Americas and Asia, bringing in new foodstuffs, such as cocoa and coffee.

As cities grew, so did shops and marketplaces, and the concept of food as a manufactured product became a reality in the Industrial Revolution. Factories were soon producing canned and frozen products en masse, consisting of meat, fruit and other food types.

No longer ‘fresh’ food, these packaged items were then branded and transported long distances, with shelf life no longer an issue. The change to ‘commodity’ status can most clearly be seen in modern day through media advertising and the marketing of ‘fast foods’.

"Many people are buying ‘photographs of meals’, for the gaily colored, appetizing meals pictured on the packaging seldom measure up to the frozen factory meals inside – they are ‘virtual meals’.” (Cook, p. 56)

Shelves of packaged foods in a supermarket aisle

•  Source

Change has also occurred in relation to source – where our food comes from. This has led to issues associated with human health in conjunction with the gathering and consumption of modern food, both natural and processed.

When trying to picture the food and lifestyles of ancient cultures and nomadic tribes, it is extremely hard to imagine a wild environment free of chemicals and modern technology. 

The natural state of our food is, in comparison, far removed from its original source, having been impacted by science, manufacturing and environmental pollution.

People working in factories at the time of the Industrial Revolution would have had an early taste of things to come, with a loss of connection to the land, very little fresh produce to eat and unclean air to breathe.

Yet, the strongest effect on the source of our food and consumption has been since World 
War II, with chemicals produced in the form of pesticides, fertilizers and food additives, such as preservatives, colorings and artificial sweeteners. Such substances are routinely added to foods in modern times, accompanied by the genetic modification and hybridization of food plants.

This change to the source and quality of the food we consume makes dietary disorders all too common, such as gluten intolerance with wheat, and has caused “great cost to the environment and human health, both psychologically and physically. (Cook, p. 55)




Aug 18, 2012 1:53am
Nice article. How come out of all the photos in your article, the one I like the least is the last one?
Aug 18, 2012 6:37pm
Thanks for your comment. Yes, our eating habits have changed a lot ... everything out of packets. Maybe that's why supermarkets aren't that natural or nice looking, perhaps.
Sep 30, 2012 10:42pm
Great article!
The supermarket is not that bad because people always had buy food from a market.
But what's more worse is, is the habit to eat out ... something quick between appointments for example. As a result many don't even know how to cook or better how to prepare anymore.

Thumbs Up!
Oct 1, 2012 2:17am
There's a point you forgot to add - 'laziness'. Why cook it when you can get it out of a packet? I am appalled at how many children come out of school and start instantly snacking on something that comes out of a sealed packet. I see children do this every day and I worry about these children's insides.
Oct 2, 2012 12:50pm
Grand in scope. I personally appreciated the "ritual" section as much of food preparations are social/ceremonial. A thumb, and a +1 from me.
Oct 3, 2012 5:10pm
Great to read your comments. We all have to eat in order to live and it is important to consider just where our daily eating habits are taking us . . . to a healthier, high energy life or a 'fast food' lethargic lifestyle (or maybe somewhere in between??)

I agree, AnuCosta, it is pretty hard to avoid anything in sealed packets. It is the way food is repeatedly marketed on television, in magazines and grocery stores. It doesn't help people make wiser choices about their food intake. As you say, it just promotes 'laziness'.

That said, everyone does have the ability to change this aspect of our food culture by consciously choosing to buy different, eat different and live different. It is up to us as individuals to make that choice for ourselves.
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  1. Cook, W. Food Wise: understanding what we eat and how it affects us. England: Claire View Books, 2003.

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