This article is from the In-Depth Report The Food Issue: The Science of Feast, Fuel and Farm

Processed Food: A 2-Million-Year History

It is the dark force, we're told, behind the obesity epidemic, the death of the family farm and Tang. But humans have been “processing” food ever since we learned how to cook, preserve, ferment, freeze, dry or extract. Processed food has powered the evolution of the species, the expansion of empires, the exploration of space. Here are highlights

Peter and Maria Hoey

As early as 1.8 million years ago

Fire-kissed food is easier to digest and more nutritious than raw food is. Some anthropologists argue that cooking was the essential step that allowed early humans to develop the big brains characteristic of Homo sapiens [see “Case for (Very) Early Cooking Heats Up”].

30,000 years ago

Agriculture began around 12,000 years ago, but early Europeans were baking bread many thousands of years before that time. In 2010 scientists found surprising evidence of starch grains on crude mortars and pestles at sites in modern-day Italy, Russia and the Czech Republic. The starches came from the roots of cattails and ferns, which early humans pounded into flour, mixed with water and baked into bread.

Bread was portable and nutrient-dense and resisted spoilage. It was also a nutritional step backward. Comparative studies show that Neolithic hunter-gatherers ate a more varied and nutritious diet than Neolithic farmers. And from the perspective of energy consumption, hunter-gatherers were far more efficient: a farmer would have to spend 10 hours to grow food with the same number of calories that six hours of foraging could provide.

Then why bother with bread at all? Anthropologists debate why farming became dominant, but one thing is certain: bread and agriculture were codependent. As societies began to rely on bread as a major foodstuff, they were also forced to expend more effort on agriculture (and vice versa).

7000 b.c.

The birth of beer is hard to place. The oldest physical evidence comes from pottery shards in Iran that date back to 3500 b.c., but archaeologists such as Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania suggest that the first ale may have been produced as early as 7000 b.c. as a by-product of bread making. Early societies quickly embraced the accident: ancient Sumerians may have diverted as much as 40 percent of all grain to beer production.

Modern-day brewers, with help from archaeologists, have attempted to re-create ancient brews. McGovern has partnered with Dogfish Head Craft Brewery to ferment ancient Egyptian and Chinese beverages, whereas Great Lakes Brewing Company, with help from researchers at the University of Chicago, is brewing beer based on a 3,800-year-old ode to the Sumerian beer goddess Ninkasi.

6700 b.c.

No written records predate the arrival of Spanish explorers in the Americas, but the earliest archaeological evidence for maize domestication dates back around 8,700 years. Early Americans would soak kernels in a lime solution to create masa, releasing nutrients in the process.

5400 b.c.

The earliest evidence of wine making has been found in the Zagros Mountains in Iran. Seafaring Phoenicians then spread the practice westward from Lebanon to Egypt and the Mediterranean.

5000 b.c.

Take milk, place it in a ruminant's stomach, then churn. Scholars suggest this method is probably not too far off from how cheese was invented. The earliest evidence for cheese making comes from 7,000-year-old archaeological sites in Poland, where milk fat remains were found in holed ceramic containers that could have served as rudimentary strainers. Yet with the domestication of sheep and goats as early as 8000 b.c. and of cattle a millennium later, it is possible that cheese making has been going on for longer.

Like other formative foodstuffs, cheese was most likely a product of necessity. Cheese, yogurt and butter could be kept longer than fresh milk. Neolithic humans also could not digest lactose—the gene for this adaptation has spread only in the past few thousand years. Bacteria used in cheese making ferment the lactose in milk into lactic acid, making dairy products easier to digest.

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This article was originally published with the title "The Amazing Multimillion-Year History of Processed Food."

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