Although the backyard gardens our grandparents knew so well are returning to popularity, most of us still think of food as something that appears rather magically in the supermarket. You need money to buy it. It comes in tidy packages with attractive packaging and uniform labels. Fruits are not connected to trees. Vegetables are not growing in the dirt. And meat is certainly never on the hoof. A boy visiting an urban farm with a school trip refused to believe that eggs came from chickens. Everybody knows, he argued, that eggs come from the grocery store.
The people 14,000 years ago had a very different world. For one thing, their grocery store and their hardware store were always open and everything was free. Of course, there were a few problems: wild animals that saw humans as products in the meat aisle, poisonous plants, dangerous terrain, wildfires, floods, rock slides, and so on.
These concerns meant cooperation was absolutely necessary. In order to eat, you needed to know where to collect, what to collect, and how to prepare it. Someone had to tell you that roasted cashews were wonderful and raw ones would make you sick. Same for cassava and rhubarb. Some mushrooms were delicious; some were fatal. And you had to listen. A child who didn’t listen to the elders wouldn’t survive. In return for this information, you might share grubs you’d caught or information like a honey tree you’d seen. Food was a communal business.
While we often picture ancient people hunting big game, for many societies, big game meat was an occasional treat. The bulk of their diet was fruits, leaves, grains, roots, and nuts, as well as grubs, crickets, frogs, ants, snakes, mice, rats, rabbits, squirrels, birds, and turtles. They ate what was available, and in the warmer areas, lots of food was available; it only needed to be collected. Children learned early on what they could eat raw and what needed coooking. In the modern-day photos, the boy is eating a grub; the girl is enjoying cooked rat. It’s all what you’re used to.
In modern hunting and gathering societies, the women do most of the gathering and preparation of food, so I assume the division of labor was similar in ancient times.
The men, typically, were the hunters of larger animals. Women might trap rabbits or catch lizards, but the men did the organized hunting of big game. It was difficult and dangerous, with great potential for injury, even death, but also great glory. A kill was a cause for celebration in the village, one that required almost all other work to stop because everyone needed to work together to butcher the animal and process the meat, bones, skin, fat, and organs, all of which were useful. The heart and liver were most desirable since they carried part of the essence of the animal, especially its grace and speed. Kidneys, brains, tongue, head, neck, tail, feet, blood and bone marrow were all prized. The cracking of bones for bone marrow is evident in many of the earliest homonid sites that archaeologists have studied. Even parts like the stomach, bladder, and intestines were used, sometimes as containers for cooking other parts.
All this sounds very foreign, but our sausage comes from the practice of stuffing a meat, blood, and seasoning mixture into a length of intestines. “Natural casing” sausage still uses washed small intestines, and as we hear in the news periodically, some of our “hot dogs” include pig lips, tongue, ears, eyelids, and snouts.
That traditional barbecue you enjoy on your friend’s patio is an echo of a very old tradition involving the celebration of roasted meat from the hunt. And, of course, the women still do the gathering.