In pre-historic times, the human species ate a variety of foods, but exact evidence as to what early people consumed is by no means definitive. What we do know is that humans must have survived on what was available to eat before the rise of farming. This probably means that diets consisted of both meat and gathered fruits, roots and nuts. Life was short; very few people survived to reach more than 50 years of age
and lack of sufficient food may well have had some bearing on this. Given that many mammals use most of their energy intake in their guts, humans are distinct in that much of the spare adipose tissue gained from consuming food goes into the production of brains. As a consequence of early dietary choices, therefore, humans developed bigger brains and better strategies for acquiring more food, whether they hunted for it or gathered it.
As humans settled into lives of existing permanently in one place, so farming developed. The earliest signs for such a shift have been found in the Middle East and Turkey. Farming meant tilling the soil to produce food for both livestock and humans and, as such, diets probably became less varied. All over the world, the energy-giving power of grasses were capitalised on. In the West, this meant increasing cultivation of cereals, such as barley and wheat. In the East, rice production was the preferred method of farming. The best land was given over to the production of these crops, with less productive land being given over to the growth of plants more suited to animal feed. As such, sheep, pigs and cattle – animals which could stand such diets - became mainstays of human food intake, particularly in Europe, from the days of the earliest civilizations. In addition, many of the first cities laid close to the sea, around the Mediterranean. Therefore, early urban diets were significantly supplemented by the intake of fish and seafood. When crops failed, both animal husbandry and cereal production suffered, but towns and cities could survive if their fishermen could catch enough from the sea.
Throughout the Middle Ages, crop production continued in a similar vein and little changed by way of dietary intake for the masses. Only the rich nobles could afford to hunt game like deer. Nevertheless, many peasants supplemented their meagre cereal-based diets with occasional catches of rabbits and so on. In early modern times, the more widespread use of the long plough meant better crop production was now possible and greater urban populations could be supported. This process continued into modern times, with more and more land workers moving to cities and away from food production.
In modern times, the ability to keep food fresh for longer has meant more varied diets have come into being once more. Fish, fruit and other perishables can be preserved in cans and jars or by freezing them, allowing them to be stored and transported. Modern human diets have become accustomed to choices of meat and fish, long-regarded as protein rich treats, along with all manner of exotic fruit which could not be grown naturally in Northern Europe, such as the banana. Today, concerns over the carbon cost of worldwide food production has led some to question the availability of all sorts of foods and to call for restrictions in diet to local produce only. However, for now, varied diets remain the norm.
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