Dawn of Gastronomy

Illustrated by Lucy Zuo

Modern trends in food can make good eating seem like a recent invention, and often one reserved for flouncy people who go to hotel lobbies to eat lunch. But it isn’t. Food, even as a gastronomic enterprise, is prehistoric.

The popular misconception that humans have not always been gastronomers is a failure to integrate our collective historical, anthropological, and biological knowledge. But what difference does it make that there is such a continuous timeline of gastronomy, which I will define just as Google does: the practice or art of choosing, cooking, and eating good food? It makes a difference because the West still uses the idea of primitivity to denigrate and colonize other societies. The picture of primitivity, exemplified by prehistory, still invites the West to “civilize.”

To see an early human as a gastronomer isn’t a difficult feat of imagination, empathy, or projection. But it requires a replacement of some popular ideas about early humans: the “cavemen,” “Neanderthals,” “ancient humans,” “ancestral humans,” and—now that the Paleo diet has become so popular—”Paleolithic” people. 

One doesn’t have to look farther than cartoons to see how the West thinks of our hominin ancestors. Caricatures of Neanderthals are often used to depict lazy husbands, political oafs, and simply stupid people. They are carnivorous, and unclean about it. In this popular image, it’s unclear whether Neanderthals are considered our forefathers or simply loincloth-wearing myths. They’re neither: Homo neanderthalensis is a species of hominin that lived at the same time as Homo sapiens, making them more like our distant cousins. And they weren’t all that dumb or bumbling. It’s true that Neanderthals ate a lot more meat than the Homo sapiens of the same period. But the carnivorous picture of the Old Stone Age seems to apply a sweeping stereotype of all hominins as cave-dwelling prototypes who spent most of their time out hunting with stones and spears or else injuring themselves and dying violently. Imprecise and insulting pop media brand early hominins as evolutionarily inferior. The idea is that our species started off dysfunctional, and that we are now moving toward something objectively better, smarter, more capable.

The most well-known theory of hominin evolution involves a kind of holy trinity of anthropological evidence: stone tools, eating meat, and big brains. Whereas other primates keep very narrow diets of leaves, nuts, or insects, human ancestors supposedly used stone tools to scavenge for animal meat, which supplied more calories to power bigger brains. And bigger brains led to better hunting and cutting tools, which led to more meat. From all that, it would seem that meat makes us human. Yet the risks of scavenging for meat, especially fresh meat, are extreme: “predator exposure, bacteria load, and chewing energetics.” These risks put this theory in as much danger as those scavengers.

It turns out that meat-eating might not be the touchstone of human evolution we used to think it was. I am convinced by an alternative origin: percussion scavenging. The intriguing name refers to a “percussive” use of stones to tap or smash bones until they shatter in order to retrieve the marrow inside. It also worked to shatter skulls, exposing the fatty brain inside. Instead of suddenly learning to slice and gnash raw, rotten meat, the research suggests that early humans took a technique already “deeply rooted in the primate lineage”—that is, using rocks to crack nuts—and applied it to bones. Since sealed marrow and brain matter take longer to spoil than meat, they provide a fresh source of fat. Ingeniously accessed fat, not animal protein, is the thing that turned us human. 

Bone marrow today is a delicacy you find in delicate risottos, in osso bucco, on traditional French toasts. But the impressive ingenuity of collecting bone marrow in early Homo sapiens’s history isn’t just because it’s similar to our Western catalog. Meat may have provided a new source of calories, which are necessary to power calorically “expensive” things like the brain and the gut, but fat delivers more energy per scavenging session, is easier to digest, and provides nutrients that more specifically relate to brain development. The theory of man’s fat-sucking origins emphasizes our cognitive behavior: the development of our brains boosts our memories, our emotional capacities, and our template-thinking skills—the amazing ability to complete steps of a process with a model in mind.

Paleolithic humans did not, of course, read up on A.P. Biology and then neutrally seek out essential fatty acid chains or any other nutrients that would sustain their brain health. They could only have had an emotional, aesthetic desire for these foods. They had the same natural toolkit as us: a rumbly stomach and a sensitive palate for a tongue. They ate because they had cravings for foods they found gratifying or delicious—and which sustained their energy and longevity. They ate because they craved the flavors of fat and sweetness and saltiness. We now know the names of the vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fatty acids, and hormones that we need—but, of course, we would be craving them even if they were still nameless.  

When we find grateful cave paintings of the wobbling necks of antelopes and elands, which signal the animal’s reserves of fat, it’s not just a tone-neutral dietary importance that we may estimate to describe the artists’ relationship to the food—surely they feel enjoyment, love, preference, gratitude, worship. 

In this uniformitarian analysis, we continue to assume that early foraging humans are as human as modern Western ones. Pride, joy, creativity, shame, nostalgia, preference, generosity, furtiveness: emotions in the same timbre and tone that we feel when we cook and eat certain foods. It’s not a projection on cave art to assume emotional involvement in the culinary process, from hunting to eating. But it is a little spare, a little silly, to just say such arts indicates a people functionally organized around gazelles. When we do emotional archaeology, it’s true that we are at risk of being wrong. Or too particular, or moralistic, or presentist. But it is not better, and may be much worse, to expunge emotion from prehistory. We can assume the emotionality of early humans—like a kind of realistic fiction, bolstered in verisimilitude by psychology studies and bio-archeological evidence.

All animals need calories, but not all animals have cuisine. Gastronomy may be the convergence of the necessity of food and the cognitive abilities unique to Homo sapiens: we repeat and recreate recipes, feel immense gratification and pride, and continue to imagine new templates to achieve when we combine ingredients.

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