History of Food

How did the first men figure out which foods were edible and which weren’t? How did they learn to prepare and cook food? The process evolved over thousands of years.


Fun Facts

  • Early men were hunters and gatherers. They moved from place to place hunting animals and gathering roots, nuts, and berries. This practice left them little time to learn or do other things. It was also dangerous. If they weren’t injured by wild animals during a hunt, there was always the risk of starvation when food was scarce.
  • People probably used trial and error to decide which plants were safe to eat. They probably watched local wildlife and ate the plants they saw other animals eating. If one person became sick after eating a plant, they probably quickly learned not to eat that plant. They might have discovered that many poisonous plants, such as berries, will sting the tongue—an early warning sign not to swallow a food.
  • Some scientists believe that young children are picky eaters because thousands of years ago, they needed to be picky to survive. Imagine your baby brother crawling through the woods eating any plant he saw. Scary!
  • Around 50,000 years ago, people began roasting food, which made it taste better and also made it more nutritious and easier to eat.
  • Soon after, people learned to boil food in vessels or pits in the ground. Native Americans heated rocks and threw them in water until the water became hot enough to cook food.
  • The first pots were not really pots at all. People in Asia used sections of bamboo stopped up at one end and filled with raw ingredients. In the jungles of South America and elsewhere, turtle shells were popular cooking vessels. Native Americans made pots from hardened clay or bark. Many cultures used animal stomachs as vessels for storing and cooking food.
  • Later, people learned to cultivate crops and raise livestock. This one change affected every aspect of their lives. They no longer had to move around to find food. They were less likely to starve or be hurt. They had more time and energy to focus on other things. How food tasted probably became more important.
  • Ancient peoples ate local and seasonal foods, including grains, legumes, vegetables, fish, olives, dates, grapes, and meat. Later they learned to make cheese and dairy products.
  • They learned to preserve food with salt or by drying it in the sun. Later, they learned how to pickle or ferment food.
  • As society evolved, food customs became more elaborate, particularly for the wealthy.
  • The Egyptians did not write recipes in books, but we can learn about their foods from paintings and inscriptions inside tombs, as well as preserved remains of food found in the tombs. The Egyptians developed many types of bread and pastries, although these were reserved for the wealthy. Peasants typically ate flatbread, onions, and ale. On feast days, they ate leftovers from temple celebrations.
  • One Egyptian tomb held a veritable feast, including numerous types of bread, pigeon casserole, barbecued ribs, a roasted quail, date stew, berries, and vegetables.
  • Vikings also enjoyed feasting. They roasted huge amounts of meat. They also ate fish, wild berries, roots, and vegetables.
  • During the Middle Ages, the nobility often gave huge feasts that could last for many days. During this time, the peasants continued to eat simple fare—and they often went hungry.
  • Clean drinking water was hard to come by. Most people drank grape juice, wine, or ale.
  • For thousands of years, preserving foods and keeping it safe had been a challenge. People stored food in cold cellars, dried it, salted it, smoked it, or pickled it. In the 1800s, people began using iceboxes to keep foods fresh. Later, they learned how to can food to preserve it. These two discoveries made it safer and easier to keep.

Learn More

Visit PBS to read lots of interesting tidbits about food history.