Sink Your Teeth Into Some Meaty History
Humans eat meat. It’s a fact that is accepted as plainly as an unseasoned chicken breast. But much like the bland bird, no one ever seems to want to investigate beneath the skin of this claim, and get to the bones of why we eat meat (I’ll stop with the chicken comparison now). As someone who abstains from meat, this is a question that has puzzled me throughout my vegetarianism – are we designed to eat meat? Can we ever fully function without it? Well, the answer to the second one is yes or I am well and truly fucked; but could our bodies have benefitted from the consumption of animals?
When early humans began eating meat around 2 million years ago, it is thought that the food’s nutritional value may have favoured the evolution of important traits, such as cognition – in short, meat gave us larger brains. However, more recent findings have suggested that other types of food, such as starch (think potatoes and root vegetables), actually had a bigger hand in growing our tickers. On this research Peter Unger, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Arkansas, said “even the staunchest meat advocates recognize that protein and fat cannot power the brain”, noting the need for starch in the hominid diet. Nonetheless early humans ate meat, and seemingly a lot of it, apparently hunting the Woolly Mammoth to extinction. But don’t get it confused – humans weren’t just hunters, they were also scavengers, and a mixture of both methods of acquiring meat were regularly adopted by early human groups.
Skipping forward to Medieval Britain (because this is quickfire Eurocentric history, no time for all those Greeks and Romans and other early civilisations), meat was highly sought after by lower-class citizens, however they could not afford it. Meat was also a relatively small part of the average hyper-religious Christian diet, but not for lack of accessibility, rather the Church imposed severe restrictions on when and what type of meat could be consumed throughout the year. However, there were ways around this - as ‘fish’ was never explicitly excluded the term was sneakily widened to cover all water-dwelling animals, such as geese, puffins, whales, and beavers. For the upper-classes, though, no such restrictions or unattainability applied, and nobles consumed meat in ‘fantastic’ qualities – think a Game of Thrones style feast that would definitely necessitate a breastplate stretcher after finishing. Following outbreaks of the Black Death, however, meat consumption became more commonplace for all due to the dramatic drops in population and increase in farming land. The later Middle Ages also saw the use of the horse in transport, freeing up the oxen to be filleted and fried.
Hunting was popular among the elite, but more as sport than necessity. Interestingly, some conversations about animal sentience started to crop up in the 1500s, asking whether it was right for humans to hunt what could be considered their intellectual equals. While the pursuit part of the sport was thought of as a noble practice, the actual gutting and preparation of carcasses was left to the lowest of early modern society. On this, Sir Thomas More wrote in his Utopia; “Outside the city are designated places where all gore and offal may be washed away in running water. From these places they transport the carcasses of the animals slaughtered and cleaned by the hands of slaves. They do not allow their citizens to accustom themselves to the butchering of animals, by the practice of which they think that mercy, the finest feeling of our human nature, is gradually killed off.”
If you naively thought no one could consume more meat than Medieval folk, I hate to break it to you but you thought wrong – meet the modern era, and with it a hoard of hungry aristocrats for whom one type of game at a dinner table was not enough, as an 1824 article suggests five cuts was standard at any posh party. According to Nick Fiddes, ‘by the 18th century England had more domestic beasts per acre and per person than any other country in Europe except the Netherlands and a longstanding reputation for meat consumption', something that happened as a result of technological innovations in agriculture. Such a reputation was confirmed by a foreign visitor to England in the 1790s who said, “I have always heard that [the English] were great flesh eaters, and I found it true… they nibble a few crumbs, while that chew meat by whole mouthfuls.” But some things never change, as the poor still struggled to afford meat (or any food at all courtesy of the ‘Hungry (18)40s’), their craving for it sometimes led them to accept unsaleable meat from employers over monetary wages. For the working-class, ‘a morsel of bacon was a luxury’. The latter part of the century, however, saw an uptake in general meat consumption, with more money spent on meat than bread in 1881.
Emerging into the 20th century, however, one sees a completely different picture start to form, as vegetarianism takes Britain by storm (granted, a very small storm, less of a tornado and more a dust devil). The reasons for this dramatic change in diet ‘partly, at least, as a result of new knowledge of nutrition which emphasized the dietary importance of fresh fruit and vegetables’. By the turn of the century, London had at least two vegetarian restaurants. With the wars and subsequent rationing that marked the first half of the 1900s, it’s no surprise that meat consumption dwindled, but clearly, it never recovered to the kind of magnificent scale it had boasted in the past.
So why do we eat meat? To me, it seems like a case of it being an option rather than any great nutritional need. Later it was as much about the thrill of the chase as the eating, and meat seemingly became synonymous with class – a diet rife with meat denoted one as rich and affluent while an absence of animal product meant you were either poor or incredibly religious. Essentially, more meat equals more posh. But this has been a brief whistle-stop tour of a predominantly British meat-eating culture, so we should always be wary of generalisations. What may be tough to chew for committed carnivores, though, is that we certainly don’t need meat, and as the past one hundred years have shown, less and less of us want it.
C.B. Stanford et al, Meat-Eating and Human Evolution, (Oxford, 2001).
U. Albarella, ‘Meat Consumption and production in town and country’, ResearchGate, 2005, pp.131-148.
N. Fiddes, Meat: A Natural Symbol, (New York, 1991).
S. Newman, 'Food & Diet in the Middle Ages', The Finer Times, 2012. https://www.thefinertimes.com/food-in-the-middle-ages
Mic the Vegan, 'TIME: Sorry Vegans, Meat Made Us Human Response', YouTube, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cgmfRUwqGy4