Sites of early agriculture, c.5000 BP


The Middle East and the Mediterranean

China and Southeast Asia

The Americas

Tropical forest, South America

Wheat-growing regions, c.1914

Diet of hunter-gatherers, by latitude

Hunting traps: gazelle and reindeer

Traditional log and box beehives, China

Shipboard processing of cod fish in the eighteenthcentury

Mortar and pestle, and grinding stones

Water mills at Barbegal

Milking regions of the world, c.1400

Evolution of the supermarket cart/trolley

Ancient Chinese cooking vessels

Diet pyramids

Price of sugar in pence per pound in London, c.1200–2010

FAO world hunger map, 2010


Food history has at least two major strands. One is concerned primarily with the history of food itself, often finding its voice in celebration of the joy of preparing and consuming particular foods – raw or cooked – with a strong emphasis on pleasure. The second strand originates more often with social and economic historians whose concerns typically lie elsewhere and show little evidence of the pleasures associated with food. Indeed, the regular fare of this second variety of food history is found in painful problems rather than pleasure, with an emphasis on deprivation and the role of food in conflict, for example, or, alternatively, studies of production and trade located firmly in the “dismal science” of political economy. Alongside these two main streams in the writing of food history are studies emanating from the disciplines of anthropology, archeology, sociology, geography, and psychology. A further, parallel, division exists between the popular celebration of food – exhibited most clearly in the West in the proliferation of television cooking shows, which had their beginnings with James Beard in 1946 – and the predictions of doomsayers, seeing famine and disaster beginning in the global South and spreading globally.

These two central themes, pleasure and pain, coexist in food history but most often run along separate paths. One of my aims is to bring them together, or to make sure at least that the separate routes criss-cross, because fundamentally the division is a false one. A major reason why it is false is simply that food systems are interconnected and codependent, both internally and externally. Contrasting outcomes are frequently merely two sides of the same coin. I believe these connections need to be confronted and the two strands brought together, however uncomfortably, in a single account.

The subject of this book is vast. My objective has been to provide a broad sketch of the history of food but without imagining that this can be achieved in a genuinely comprehensive manner. It is not possible even to mention all the plants and animals that have been important in the food culture of every region and society, in every period, let alone put the development of food cultures in the context of social, economic, and political change. Rather, my method has been to emphasize the truly large-scale and the truly dramatic and significant. This means picking out some periods and places for special attention. As a result, the past 50 years are given a good deal of space, not simply because they are recent and familiar to readers but because they represent a distinctive period in many ways unlike any that went before. The revolutionary transition to agrarian and urban systems that was clearly articulated by 5000 BP (before the present), though far from universal, also receives close attention, as does the fundamental transformation of world food systems that followed the Old World’s discovery of the New. Occasionally, I have focussed on a particular food, because it is especially important or because it represents a type of development. Otherwise, I have selected specific episodes to illustrate the broader trends and processes.

What I seek to do is explain how the history of food, particularly the choices people made about what to eat and how to produce and consume it, has been a fundamental driver of world history in all its aspects. This is a two-way street, an interactive process. Food is both a central driving force and a central part of life that responds and transforms in turn.

For putting me on the path that led to this book, I thank Diane Kirkby and Tim Rowse. The manuscript was written in the School of History of the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University. I thank my colleagues for their comments and suggestions and also the students who took my courses on the history of food. Merle Higman read the entire manuscript, more than once.

Prologue: Questions of choice?

Of the many choices we make in our lives, what to eat is perhaps the most enduring and important. Whereas individual human beings can go through life without participating in political acts and without personal liberty and can survive without forming a family or having sex, none of us can go without food. It is the absolute biological necessity of food that makes it so central to cultural history and so inclusive of all peoples in all times. As Brüssow (2007: 20) puts it, “eat” is “the first commandment of the laws of thermodynamics.” Energy cannot be created from nothing; it can only change form. It is food that draws human beings into the web of life. However, unlike other basic human needs driven by biology, the desire to eat can be satisfied in a huge variety of ways, opening the possibility of choice and selectivity, and making the consumption of food a part of culture. It is this necessity and this shared experience that helps make food history so appealing, inducing a kind of intellectual salivation that matches the appeal of reading cookbooks and watching cooking shows.

The question of choice, sometimes called the question of social nutrition, is not the only way of approaching food history but it is perhaps the most fundamental. Tracing the history of choice opens doors on its many consequences and ramifications. Choice affects every one of the major phases of the food system, from acquisition to production, processing, and preservation, to distribution and exchange, and preparation and consumption. Each of these phases is important in itself, with far-reaching consequences for world history, while the different phases can also be articulated in a wide variety of combinations. Thus, any attempt to understand systems of food production and consumption requires close attention to the global pattern of resources and human perceptions, changing patterns of availability and seasonality, the diffusion of plants and animals, human migration and colonization, warfare and domination, as well as social attitudes and religious prohibitions, the concept of taste, health and nutrition, and the politics of distribution. For many people, and for many long periods, the search for food has been a central preoccupation and a vital driver of social, cultural, economic, and political development. Only in very recent times have some societies enjoyed food security and year-long abundance. How this transition came about, and why it occurred in different ways in different regions of the world, is a fundamental question not just for food history but for world history on the grandest scale.

How much choice do we really have? How has the ability to choose changed over the long term? The notion of abstract freedom is at base a dubious assumption to apply to the living of daily life, because humans are creatures of habit. As social beings, we find it difficult to surrender long-held practices and attitudes shared with a community, and difficult to offend or contradict others. Communities and societies quickly build hierarchies of power and command, so that the ability to choose is regularly surrendered to individuals or small groups who take advantage of their authority to make decisions for the population. Further, and more broadly, it can be argued that it is climate and soil that play a determining role in ordering the world, creating patterns of production and consumption that essentially remain intact in spite of the great forces of imperialism, migration and globalization (Becker and Sieber, 2010).

However it may be produced, distributed, and exchanged, food serves as one of the most vital means by which power relations are expressed. Thus, those agents who hold the reins of the political economy, and those who possess the authority to control consumption by law and custom, have great power to shape societies. Such domination is not confined to the power of nation-states but has been exercised also by chiefdoms, warlords, religious institutions, global trading companies, multinational corporations, and social modelers. Further, the hegemonic power derived from the control of food has not been limited to the satisfaction of material, bodily needs, but has also been mediated through ritual and symbolic meals, in which food is deployed as a means of connecting the physical with the spiritual, this world with other universes.

Why do we eat what we eat and why have different cultures and societies at different times eaten other things? These questions put the idea of choice at the center of the narrative and thus open up connections with the broader context and the implications of specific decisions.

A simple model of food choice would look something like the following. People choose first from the environment around them, selecting from the plants and animals that may be ingested directly, fresh, without ill effect, and, hopefully, taste good. Plucking a ripe fruit dangling tantalizingly from a tree, for example, may appear seductive but may equally prove a deadly choice. Deciding to swallow something new represents a vital moment, answering an expectation of pleasure and satisfaction but matched by fear.

This association of pleasure and pain created what Rozin and Rozin (1981: 12) were first to term “the omnivore’s dilemma,” a dilemma which confronts modern humans and affects their willingness to sample unknown foods but was much more threatening for those who were the original testers (Pollan, 2006). Further risky experimentation was essential to demonstrate that some plants and animals have ill effects if consumed fresh but are safe and nutritious once processed in special ways, by squeezing out toxic elements, for example. Cooking, the application of heat, offers the next stage in the chain of choice, making certain plants and animals edible or better tasting, as achieved by the roasting of yam or kangaroo meat, for example. Regardless of particular methods of preparation and cooking, these technologies helped introduce to the human diet plants and animals that would not otherwise have been eaten.

From the thousands of possible plant and animal species that might be eaten by humans, only a small proportion is in fact consumed. A further narrowing is associated with the self-conscious manipulation of nature, through cultivation and management, that privileges certain plants and animals over others. Domestication carries the process to a new stage, through the selection of particular species and varieties, and the selective breeding of seeds and animals. It is a process dominated by choices, whether decisively or less consciously made. This process can be carried to a high level of scientific sophistication, as in genetic modification or superdomestication. On the other hand, knowledge of the foods, plants, and animals natural to the world beyond the boundaries of a particular region or locality creates the potential for choices about what to adopt and adapt, with the outcome generally expanding the locally available range of possible food choices, though sometimes with quite different long-term consequences. All of these choices involve selective acquisition from nature.

The next stage in the model relates to preservation, processing, and distribution. Being able to stretch food supplies over long periods is important, especially where acquisition and production are highly seasonal or uncertain, with abundance followed by scarcity. Preserved foods not only contribute to improved food security for local communities but also enable exchange and long-distance trade. Spinach grown in India can be frozen and shipped to markets across the world, for example, and, long before the invention of freezing, fish could be made viable by drying, smoking, salting, or pickling. Rapid transport, by steamship or airplane, created trade in exotic fresh fruits, making available bananas and mangoes grown in the tropics and sold in temperate zone markets. Canning had a similar effect but required prior processing. Thus, preservation, processing, and transportation technologies determine choices about what can be consumed out of season, what can be consumed in exotic places (which do not themselves have the conditions necessary to produce an item), and what can be acquired cheaply by trade. The choices made can create very short or very long food-chains.

Choices about distribution depend not only on technologies. Trade and exchange are controlled equally by decisions made about preferred market partners and what we wish to offer and accept. Such choices are often as much about politics and social relations as they are about price. There are many levels of choice here, ranging from distribution between households and local markets, to distribution between nation-states, governed by theories of the benefits of trade and agreements brokered by the World Trade Organization. Individuals may seem to have little choice under some of these arrangements and even at the household level distribution may be quite closely controlled by custom, with rules about who gets the biggest and best portions based on gender, age, and social rank.

Overlapping and adding to some of the choices already introduced to the model, the next stage in the food system relates to preparation. Where people in the past depended on a single basic element, like whale meat among the Inuit or potatoes among the Incas, the possible ways of preparing food were inevitably limited. Where modern systems of supply make available almost any ingredient in any season of the year, the choices appear much greater. Outcomes will depend on particular cooks, whether poor people cooking for themselves at home or chefs employed as professionals in the kitchens of expensive restaurants, and their knowledge and experience. The combination of ingredients in single dishes depends on cooking technologies and fuel, as well as the availability of cooking media: oils, fats, ovens, spit-roasts, and so on. As well as these choices based on knowledge, resources, and technologies, it is necessary to decide whether to do one’s own cooking, to appoint a cook from within the household (typically a wife or mother, or perhaps a servant), or to eat the food cooked by commercial establishments such as restaurants or takeaways.

Finally, choices are made about how to consume food, be it raw or cooked. When to eat and with whom to share. Whether to eat alone or communally, whether to eat inside the house or out, whether to dip from a common pot, and whether to use utensils or the hand. Whether to organize a meal into courses, and how to decide their order. All of these matters may be surrounded by tight social rules and rituals.

Even the simple model outlined here suggests the numerous and multilayered choices that are made by individuals, communities, and states in the process of deciding what to eat. Not only are the choices significant in their direct consequences for the development of global agrarian systems and patterns of trade, but they may also be seen as additive. This is one reason why the trajectory of world history or so-called big history can be seen to speed up as we approach the present. Broadly, we can regard the last 50 years, the time in which we now live, as a unique period of momentous change, equivalent in many ways with the global transformation that occupied the previous 500 years, the centuries since Columbus. These fundamental shifts match changes that had their origins five to ten thousand years ago, derived from the growth of agriculture, urbanism, and writing, which marked the true beginnings of the modern world food system. This rough periodization does not fit every large region of the world equally well, but it can be deployed as a guide to megatrends that not only had implications for food history but were also very often themselves the product of dynamics within the food system itself.

A central feature, and apparent paradox, in the long-term development of world food systems has been a parallel trend toward both uniformity and diversity. On the one hand, modern human migrations and the associated redistribution of plants and animals have given a substantial portion of the world’s people access to a wider range of foods than they knew five or ten thousand years ago. This means that people can now choose between a much extended range of possibilities but, at the same time, their experience is repeated across the globe to a significant extent. It is also repeated across seasons and climatic zones, thanks particularly to rapid and cheap transportation technologies and methods of preservation. There are still significant regional and ethnic variations in food cultures, but many items have come to be naturalized to such an extent that they are no longer thought of as having their origins far away in different places.


Becker, J. and Sieber, A. (2010) Is the spatial distribution of mankind’s most basic economic traits determined by climate and soil alone? PLoS ONE 5: e10416.

Brüssow, H. (2007) The Quest for Food: The Natural History of Eating. New York: Springer.

Pollan, M. (2006) The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. New York: Penguin Books.

Rozin, E. and Rozin, P. (1981) Culinary themes and variations. Natural History 90: 6–14.