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Food in the Neolithic Age

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Who doesn't love food? But why do we eat the food we eat? In this lesson, we'll look at Neolithic culinary cultures, and see how they paved the way for our modern appetites.

The Neolithic Revolution

As we've seen throughout history, humans disagree on a lot of things. We get in fights, we argue, and we can get downright destructive. But if there's one thing we can all agree on, it's this: we love food. Food is great. Humans don't just eat to survive, we eat to thrive, selecting quality ingredients and mixing them to create new recipes.

Our food cultures weren't always this way. In the early Stone Age, humans could only eat what they hunted or gathered. They likely spiced up their food with local herbs and plants, but cooking as an art was limited. By the end of the Stone Age, however, people were making full meals and experimenting with their culinary skills. What changed? The Neolithic Revolution.

Centers where agriculture was first developed around the world
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In the Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age, people hunted and gathered for food. This was mostly the case in the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) as well. However, around 10,000 BCE, the global climate changed, bringing the world out of the Ice Age and into a more temperate era. With milder weather, vegetation flourished, and people were able to start controlling when and where plants grew. This was the invention of agriculture. The Neolithic Revolution is defined by the domestication of plants and animals, which let formerly nomadic humans settle down and establish permanent communities. This last part of the Stone Age, the New Stone Age, laid the foundations for many things in our modern world, including the ways we eat.

Neolithic Food Items

The Neolithic Revolution introduced agriculture to the world, so what were the first crops these ancient people were planting? The earliest farms seem to have been based around basic cereals, notably wheat, barley, peas, lentils, and flax. The first societies to figure out how to domesticate and farm these plants tended to be in temperate and fertile river valleys, notably in West Asia (the Middle East), India, and China. These cereals were being farmed by roughly 9,500 BCE.

As people got better at agriculture, other products joined the menu. Rice was domesticated in China by 7,500 BCE, and squash was domesticated in Mexico by 7,000 BCE. Societies across the Americas would soon domesticate beans, corn, and potatoes as well. Olives and grapes also took root (literally) around the Mediterranean basin and became important parts of life there.

Just as Neolithic people learned to domesticate plants, they also domesticated animals as part of their early agriculture systems. Many archeologists actually think dogs were the first domesticated animals (which happened in North America and Asia by 10,000 BCE), although they probably were used for hunting and not food. Cattle were being domesticated in West Asia and India by 7,000 BCE, closely followed by pigs, sheep, and goats. Around this time, people in China domesticated the chicken.

What was the Neolithic Diet like?

So far, we've discussed several agricultural products of the Neolithic era, but these are just ingredients. What was the food actually like? To answer that, we need to fully understand the concept of domestication. Domestication and taming are different things. You can tame any animal or naturally harvest any wild plant. A domesticated plant or animal, however, has been bred to genetically improve it (improvement here being relative to human benefit). So, ancient humans were breeding wild strains of plants and animals in order to make them more useful.

A Neolithic farmer would have used tools like this wood and flint sickle to harvest their crops
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For animals, this meant breeding out aggressive qualities and increasing things like the amount of meat and fat they stored. For plants, this meant breeding grains that were larger and more plentiful. Have you ever seen a wild strawberry in comparison to a domesticated strawberry? Domesticated ones are larger, juicier, and tastier. Neolithic farmers used domestication to increase the nutritional value of their food, as well as its taste and appeal.

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