A Look At Meat Throughout Western History
Humans’ relationship with meat has been evolving since we first began hunting animals hundreds of thousands of years ago. In this study, two researchers from the U.S. and Canada examined around 200,000 years of Western history to try to better understand our complex relationships with meat and farmed animals. In this summary, we’ll look at three areas of their research—meat’s cultural impact, environmental impact, and nutritional relevance.
Around 200,000 years ago, there was no evidence of animal agriculture. Humans started hunting megafauna — animals of similar size to us, or bigger. These large animals could provide more meat than any one family could eat, so people could share food with those around them. Sharing a communal meal gave meat cultural significance, and this relationship between meat and culture became more complex over time. From an environmental perspective, this actually started a long and harmful relationship between humans and the environment. Humans killed more animals than they needed for food, which led to the mass extinction of many large animals. They also set fire to grasslands to control the movement of animal herds, which changed the landscape and habitats for other species. Nutritionally, humans did not rely on meat, and fossil records show that they mostly ate plant-based diets before this time.
From 10,000 to 4,500 years ago, humans began to domesticate plants and animals. From the beginning, these practices caused serious environmental damage. Animal agriculture required a significant amount of land—the land needed for 30 people, 40 cows, and 40 goats or sheep was around 1.5 x 1.5 miles. People cleared forests for land, which led to soil erosion. To keep their herds safe, people hunted other predators to extinction. Living closer to animals also increased the chances of contracting zoonotic diseases like smallpox, malaria, tuberculosis, measles, and influenza. During this time, meat’s use as a cultural barrier started to develop. Pigs became taboo in Egypt, and camel meat became taboo in the Middle East. This created a cultural separation between people who ate certain kinds of meat and people who didn’t.
From 2500 BCE to 550 CE, people started building larger urban centers, which required large farms to sustain. Farmers were able to charge high prices for meat, and owning farmed animals became a symbol of wealth. In ancient Rome, Roman emperors gave citizens pig meat as a symbol of their privilege. In Israel, the Hebrews wanted to distance themselves culturally from the Egyptians, who worshipped animals. They refused to eat pig meat for cultural reasons, and those dietary restrictions created an in-group and an out-group. What’s more, grazing caused damage to farmland — Genesis 13:5–7 makes a reference to the dangers of overgrazing. The Hebrews rarely ate meat, and when they did it was mostly meat from older or non-productive animals. In ancient Greece, people consumed as little as 2–4 pounds of meat per year, mostly at festivals, political events, and religious ceremonies.
From 476 CE–1800 in Europe, meat’s cultural significance continued to evolve. Christians abstained from eating meat on Fridays and during Lent, which created a cultural barrier between themselves and other religious groups. Meat was also used to separate the aristocracy and the middle class from serfs. Doctors claimed that there were physiological differences between these two groups. Meat would be unhealthy for serfs, who should instead eat more vegetables. During this time, people hunted more predators to extinction to protect farmed animals. Deforestation and overgrazing continued. Despite all of this, meat was still not a primary food source for most people for much of the middle ages.
In the 1600s and 1700s, England required more land to feed its increasingly urban populations, especially as their land continued to degrade due to overgrazing. The push to colonize North America was mostly driven by the desire for more land, and the colonizers found this land by forcing out the local indigenous people. While only half of England’s population could afford meat in any form, Chesapeake colonists ate almost 150 pounds of meat per person per year. Because meat was so closely associated with wealth, the colonists felt that they were superior to those in England.
As more immigrants came to the United States in the 1800s, meat’s cultural value was used to fuel racism. Immigrants from China ate more rice than meat, and immigrants from Ireland ate more potatoes. Their lack of meat-eating caused U.S. Americans to view them as inferior. Meanwhile, animal agriculture had similar environmental effects in North American as it did in Europe. Local animals were hunted and forced out of habitats, soil quickly became exhausted, and minerals were washed out of the soil. In 1870, a steer could graze on 5 acres of land. Just 10 years later, that land requirement rose to 50–90 acres due to overgrazing. Cows and pigs destroyed the food sources of indigenous people. They also spread tuberculosis and influenza to indigenous communities. Through the 1900s, the U.S. government and doctors claimed that diets with meat provided more strength than plant-based diets. In 1927, a magazine published by the American Medical Association called vegetarians overly sentimental, fanatical, and ignorant about science. Today, we have plenty of evidence to show that plant-based diets are, in fact, safe and healthy.
Throughout history, meat has had a complex cultural, environmental, and nutritional effect on humans. It’s been used for thousands of years as a tool to separate cultural groups, showcase wealth, and even incite racism. We’ve caused environmental damage at every stage of our relationship with farmed animals. Early animal domestication caused deforestation and overgrazing, but our current reliance on factory farms has taken environmental damage to the extreme. Western countries eat more meat now than ever before in human history. Until a few hundred years ago, meat consumption was extremely limited, and most humans before us survived on primarily plant-based diets.
What all of this information shows is that it is high time to question meat’s place in today’s society. Animal advocates already engage in this struggle on numerous levels, but historical overviews such as this one can provide an added layer of critique that we can use to make our case.