Meat-Eating And Western Culture: A Review
It’s a common line among historians and anthropologists that meat eating has played a major role in the evolution of human societies—and specifically Western history and culture—for thousands of years. There are two widespread (and somewhat intertwining) explanations for the importance of meat, and those are bio-physical (based on the belief that meat is essential for human nutrition) and political-economic (based on the belief that meat has been key in social processes).
Scholars studying these phenomena have traced the beginnings of meat-eating from present day to ancient times, the dawn of agriculture, and even into pre-history. This is not to say that such scholarship is uncritical: in this paper, the authors draw their historical lines all the way back to Paleolithic communities, but critique the argument that “the everyday lives of hunter-gatherers somehow legitimate meat consumption as an essential, intrinsic element of human behavior more broadly.”
To explore these arguments, the researchers conducted an “extensive genealogical analysis of meat production and meat culture across thousands of years of Western history.” This included primary sources where possible, as well as secondary sources from the fields of anthropology, zooarchaeology, agriculture, and more. Interestingly, the researchers also bring in modern voices to help them critique this timeline, including Melanie Joy and her definition of carnism. The researchers note that, while meat may have played an “indispensable role” in Paleolithic community, by the Neolithic age meat was playing a much more complicated role in “political-economic, gastronomic, and religious imperatives.”
Furthermore, they directly question the idea that meat consumption was ever part of any sort of “golden age” of human health and sustainability. The most recent romanticism of “Paleo” diets is just part of a cycle of promoting meat eating through fad diets much like the Atkins diet. Researchers note that current anthropology recognizes that early human diets were quite flexible and varied according to a wide variety of factors. In other words, Paleolithic diets were not monolithic.
For animal advocates, the study is worth reading in full, and it’s currently available online in its entirety. What we’ve touched on here is just a glimpse into the vast breadth of knowledge and research represented in the paper. Whether you are looking for a history of meat-eating or a contemporary critique of past and current meat-eating practices, this paper has a huge range of ideas worth exploring.