January 5th, 2016


Who was the first person to eat _____ and how did they know it would be tasty?

Who was the first person to eat _____ and how did they know it would be tasty?

This is a humorous question that circulates endlessly with the blank filled in with foods like: beehives full of honey, maple syrup, various sea animals, animal milk, fermented juice (or really any fermented food), even eggs. Truly, if you stripped a modern human of their historical and scientific knowledge and dropped them into the wilderness, how indeed would they know any of this stuff is edible?

But that’s not how humans came to discover foods. We have a rich history of many millennia of passing knowledge to future generations; before writing we passed knowledge along with storytelling. Before that we were still very smart very resourceful omnivorous animals—anything is potentially edible to us.

Some of the above foods we ate before we were even human. Probably every omnivore and carnivore on earth eats the eggs of other animals. It’s not even a decision—that thing came out of something edible (an animal) and isn’t running away—I’d be a fool NOT to eat it. Sometimes there is a fetal animal inside; bonus!

Likewise our closest non-human relatives raid social insect nests to gather the food inside. Most of the time that means worker insects, helpless fatty larvae, and once again, eggs. But some species of insects collect and concentrate nectar into honey, a densely caloric food that is impossible to ignore. So of course over millions of years honey-making insects and honey-eating animals engaged in an arms race resulting in bees that sting and bears and honeybadgers with thick skin and fur. Humans lack sting-resistance but are keen and interested observers of other animals. Even today humans who don’t wear protective clothing are brave enough or clever enough to dare steal honey from the bees, for the rare taste of pure sweetness.

In northern forests, some trees store sugar energy in their sap. Deer and other plant-eaters are driven to eat difficult-to-digest bark to get through the winter. Sometimes they are rewarded with sweet running sap. Prehistoric humans made it to these forests and were not stupid, but they were very very hungry. They probably tasted everything they saw other animals eating, and what a happy day when they found that maple trees bleed sweet. A culture that uses fire to cook food doesn’t have to make a huge conceptual leap to know that the faintly sweet flow from a damaged tree can be boiled down into something spectacular.

As for the products of ferment, first there are wild-collected fermented fruits. They might taste funny, but the fermentation process preserves them with a fairly high calorie content (alcohol = 7 kcal per gram) that makes a little light-headedness worth the effort. Wild songbirds get themselves berry drunk on a regular basis, when such food is available. Once humans developed tools for storing food, occasional seasonal abundance could be carried into leaner times. Put all those grapes in a clay-lined basket now, and we can consume their calories when they are gone from the vine. The magic ingredient of wild yeasts turning fruit sugar into alcohol was not understood until modern times, but the fact that one microorganism was keeping others from destroying our food and extending its useful life was exploited hundreds of times across almost every culture.

Humans are mammals, meaning that for millions of years our ancestors have been consuming milk, from our mother’s bodies. The shift to drinking the milk from other animals only requires animals tame enough for us to take it from them. Before animal agriculture there were pregnant and lactating female mammals killed in the hunts—their milk would not have been wasted. Once there were sheep, goats, mares, and eventually cattle that would allow humans to milk them, milk surpluses were possible. Under the right conditions—and humans are smart enough to notice remember and record those conditions—the milk would change into something that could be eaten much later. Yogurt and then cheese were reasons enough to make humans settle down and raise livestock full time.

And as for sea life, I simply don’t know. I still can’t bear the smell of any water creature cooked as food, nor marine algae dried to be eaten. I’d sooner eat a hive full of bee larvae than crack into a lobster, but my personal preferences are those of a human with nearly limitless choices and superabundant food. The humans who first colonized North America did so along a very long and productive coastline. They traveled from one supercontinent to another, fed on mollusks (that they could observe walruses and otters eating), turtles, sea mammals, bird and turtle eggs, and whatever fish they could catch with their technology. Modern human tastes may be more selective than early humans, but that is a result of the ludicrous availability and variety of foods at our hands today. Somewhere on earth at this moment a human is eating a termite and wondering how hungry and crazy someone would have to be to prefer to eat a salad.