Any attempt to make sense of the contemporary realities of food and eating from a sociological viewpoint must involve some consideration of the past. If we wish to try to understand the food production systems upon which we depend and the food consumption patterns in which we participate, then a familiarity with certain crucial historical themes is essential. Indeed, it is also necessary to push beyond the boundaries of recorded history into the even more speculative and hazy realms of prehistory. The aim of this first chapter is to begin to provide that background. Of course, in this context, such a background cannot be provided in any great detail, since the history and prehistory of food is a vast subject in itself, covering broad sweeps of human activity and experience. Rather, the intention is to draw attention to a number of key ideas which can enhance our comprehension of the foundations of human foodways, foundations which, by their very nature, usually remain unexamined.
Our starting point will be a consideration of the diet of early humans, a contentious and complex question, but one which can lead to insights whose implications are as important now as they were in the early stages of human evolution. The issue of the basic forms of human subsistence will then be raised, along with a discussion of what is arguably one of the most important transitions in human social organization, the shift from an ancient, long-standing dependence on hunting and gathering to food production based on the techniques of agriculture. However, it will be argued that conventional views of this transition may require reconsideration and revision. Finally, we will go on to examine the enormous implications of this transition for human social relations and arrangements, not least of which was the facilitation of the emergence of increasingly complex and large-scale social systems.
Perhaps the most basic nutritional question of all relates to the nature of the ‘original’ human diet. In other words, we need to ask how our evolutionary history as a species has shaped, or been shaped by, our dietary patterns. Attempting to build up a detailed picture of the foods which our distant