13 of the World’s Earliest foods

Food history and the documentation of the world’s earliest foods is an area that has generally comes under studies for food and nutrition. But interest in food archaeology goes beyond that to learn about the role food has played in the development of culture and ultimately civilization as it is integral to social organization.   

As travellers one of the first things most of us do it head to the nearest food market to find out what the locals eat. We experiment with the foods on offer where we are located and explore food culture to learn more about the people, the environment and the country.

worlds earliest foods were meat, and grains this is a view of a market full of vegetables

This is essentially the anthropology of food although on a micro-scale.  The Anthropology of food is a sub-discipline of anthropology that connects culture with its history and how that culture has changed over time with the systems imposed upon it.  It also allows us to study social issues in food consumption and food production systems.

Sadly in the early days of anthropology food was seen as daily life or ritualized. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that Anthropologists began to link the demands for certain food products with empire creation. It was Sidney Mintz who became known as the Father of food anthropology with his book Sweetness and Power which documented the British demand for sugar with the creation of the British Empire and the exploitation of labour.

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The anthropology of food which is directly derived from food archaeology (which isn’t a separate discipline) is a way of re-connecting with the food of our ancestors. It ties us to the world and provides an understanding of not only our culture but that of the hundreds of cultures that exist in the world today.

 A fascinating organization that I came across here in Ireland is a research collaboration with the Washington College in Maryland and University College Dublin in Ireland – with Odaios Foods.  This project is called the innovative “Food Evolutions” project.  

The Food Evolutions Project fuses anthropological knowledge, food and farming sciences, culinary arts, and experimental archaeological evidence to encourage leadership, innovation, and change in modern foodways and culinary practices, from the level of thought leaders in contemporary cuisine, and widening from there to educate and empower the public to take control of their food and eat like humans again. Food Evolutions

Travelling back through history through written and unwritten cultural documentation we can trace back the evolution of the world’s foods by discovering what early foods were eaten by our ancestors.  We also learn how our ancestors developed new cooking and preservation techniques and how those early food preparation techniques are still used today even with mechanization and new technology.

It’s interesting isn’t it how in these days of a “raging pandemic” when folks are staying at home how we revert to those old methods of food preservation and cooking.  People are online searching for yeast replacements, sourdough starters, how to bake bread and preserve foods.  We are turning back to the old ways of food production and hopefully, that continues.

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Grains are among the earliest food crops developed by our ancestors. Millet cultivation appears to have begun in China where husks of early millet have been found that date back around 10,000 years. The 7 ancient grains that have been used since the dawning of time include amaranth, Kamut, teff, millet, farro and freekah.

So having said all that let’s discover the 13 early foods that our ancestors consumed, worshipped and invented.

13 of the world’s earliest foods

  1. Honey
  2. Cheese
  3. Mead
  4. Butter
  5. Noodles
  6. Bread
  7. Yeast
  8. Flavoured Oils
  9. Pickled Fish
  10. Chocolate
  11. Bone soup
  12. Preserved Meat
  13. Popcorn

HONEY

Honey is as old as history and archaeologists have been finding evidence of the use of honey dating as far back as 8000 years. The earliest evidence is found in Valencia Spain where cave paintings show a wild bee colony being tapped for its honey.

a cave painting of a women hunting for honey one of the world's earliest foods

In Egypt honey was used to treat wounds, embalm the dead for skincare and as food. Honey found in some pyramids is still, as incredible, as it sounds edible.

CHEESE

Cheese that dates back as far as 3200 years was found in an Egyptian tomb. The cheese residue is thought to have been made from sheep and goat’s milk.  Food archaeologists believe that cheese making began in the Middle East. Ancient Egyptian tombs contain murals that depict the process of cheese making and this date back to 2000 BC.

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Cottage cheese was made in ancient Egypt by churning milk in goatskin and then straining the residue using a reed mat. This technique is still used today in many Middle Eastern cultures.  Scientists think that since milk was carried in bags made from sheep and goat stomachs and carried with nomadic tribes turned into a version of cheese and thus cheese was born.

MEAD

Archaeological finds in Georgia near Tbilisi turned up the fact that wine was being made in this region around 8000 years ago in the remains of a Neolithic village. Scientists and Archaeologists believe it was a seasonal wine as the preservatives used in later winemaking were not known at the time.

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The pottery and midden finds show pots decorated with grapes and pollen finds at the site all indicate wine making and drinking.

BUTTER

The peat bogs of Ireland are known within archaeological circles as the perfect preserving mechanism and apparently early populations were also aware of this. It was in 2009 that an oak barrel of butter was found. It is believed that the people put butter in the bog to preserve it and then forgot about it perhaps during a conflict that drove the people away.

The butter found in Ireland is now held at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin as a national treasure.

NOODLES

The first evidence of noodles was found in China at the Lajia archaeological site along the Yellow River.  These millet noodles are dated 4000 years old. The noodles were found on a dig below 10 feet of sediment from flooding.  It indicates that noodles were invented in Asia rather than Europe – the legendary noodle debate between the Italians and Chinese.

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BREAD

In 2018, in the Black Desert, north-east Jordan in a stone fireplace archaeologists found what looked like burnt charcoal. Turned out it was a 4,400-year-old flatbread. Tests uncovered the flatbread was made from wild cereal grains that are related to or similar to Barley and oats. The bread also contained some kind of root mash from a water-based plant that gave the bread a salty tang and grit like texture.

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Other “food” discovered at the site included the bones of hares, wild mustard seeds, waterfowl of some kind and gazelle bones.  There were also charred roots which appear to be some kind of vegetable that was eaten along with the bread and meat.

YEAST

 Yeast appears to have been used as long as 4,500-5000 years ago and Seamus Blackley (he who invented the Xbox) baked a sourdough loaf using scrapings from a piece of Egyptian pottery.

The origin of sourdough fermentation probably goes as far back as 3700 BCE when sourdough bread was discovered at a dig in Switzerland. It is more than likely though that this method of leavening goes much further back.

Because drinking water wasn’t safe fermented beverages such as mead became the drink of choice. Mead and beer are some of the oldest drinks humans have invented. Barley beer was discovered in the 5th millennium BC in Iran and Mead dating from 7000 BCE was discovered in China. It appears that the ancient Chinese were brewing beer with honey, grapes, hawthorns and rice.

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Due to the wild yeasts in the air virtually any cereal grain will ferment when left to sit in a warm area.

Pliny the Elder – sourdough starter

Aristotle talked about mead and Pliny wrote recipes for creating yeast for both mead and bread in his Naturalis Historia.  

Take rainwater kept for several years, and mix a sextarius of this water with a pound of honey. For a weaker mead, mix a sextarius of water with nine ounces of honey. The whole is exposed to the sun for 40 days and then left on a shelf near the fire. If you have no rainwater, then boil spring water.

Pliny the Elder’s leaven or starter dough, from Historia Naturalis, published about AD77-79

Ingredients

2 cups of millet or whole wheat flour

2 cups of grapes (rinsed)

2 cups of tepid water

Cheesecloth

Step 1 Rinse grapes and tie into a cheesecloth pouch. Smash them in a bowl. Drain, add water, mix in flour and cover the grapes with the mixture. Cover the bowl, leave in a warm place for 1-2 days.

Step 2 When the starter is fermenting, bubbles appear. Remove the grape pouch and dispose. Start again if white or black mould has formed. Transfer into a fresh container, and add ½ cup flour and ½ cup water. Leave for another day.

Step 3 Check if a strong-smelling liquid has formed. Stir it back in. Add more flour if the mixture seems wet.

Step 4 After 4-5 days, you should see significant growth and bubbles forming. The leaven is ready.

Step 5 Store in fridge in an air-tight container. Feed your leaven with flour after use.

FLAVOURED OILS

A sunken ship that dated back to 350 BCE was found in 2004 was found off the coast of Chios a Greek Island. Onboard the ship were several jars that when analyzed contained olive oil mixed with oregano.

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It seems that women in the hills of Greece have learned through their ancestors that olive oil mixed with certain herbs like oregano actually keeps the oil fresher.

PICKLED FISH

Pickling has been a method of preservation for centuries and in 2012 marine archaeologists discovered the remains of an ancient shipwreck near the town of Varazze on the Italian coast. Dating back 2000 years the wreck contained a treasure of sealed jars containing olive oil, pickled fish, wine and grains.

CHOCOLATE

Chocolate dates back to the Olmec people of the Americas around 6000 years ago who were the first to turn the cacao plant into a drink. Scientists at the Smithsonian discovered that cacao residue found in Olmec pots was used for drinks and gruels.

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After the Olmecs, the Mayan people were using cacao and left records of its use in their mythological records.  Mayans praised chocolate as the drink of the gods and named it “xocolatl”, meaning “bitter water.” This drink was mixed with cornmeal, chillies and water and frothed so it foamed.

BONE SOUP

Just beyond Xian the home of the Terracotta Warriors a tomb was found containing a 2400 years old vessel containing what researchers called “bone soup”.  The liquid and bones were found in a sealed pot by Chinese Archaeologists in 2010 in a bronze vessel.

PRESERVED MEAT

People have been drying and preserving meats for centuries. The earliest found was a 2000-year-old beef jerky in Wanli, China in 2009.   

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The indigenous people of the Americas were creating pemmican centuries ago. A bison camp discovered in 2010 appears to have produced pemmican in order to preserve the bison meat for the winters. It is believed that the indigenous people were preserving this meat for centuries prior to this camp being set up.

POPCORN

In Peru, people were eating corn up to 6700 years ago and it is here that it is believed that popcorn was “invented”.  Discoveries of corn fossils and analyzes of corn cobs, tassels,s and husks demonstrate the various uses of corn including popcorn.

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It is believed that the people wrapped the cobs of corn in corn husks and placed them over hot coals and as a result – popcorn was invented.

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