Out of the thirty thousand types of edible plants thought to exist on Earth, just eleven – corn, rice, wheat, potatoes, cassava, sorghum, millet, beans, barley, rye, and oats – account for 93 percent of all that humans eat, and every one of them was first cultivated by our Neolithic ancestors. Exactly the same is true of husbandry. The animals we raise for food today are eaten not because they are notably delectable or nutritious or a pleasure to be around, but because they were the ones first domesticated in the Stone Age. (Bill Bryson, At Home (Doubleday 2010), 37-38 Courtesy http://delanceyplace.com
I have to admit I don’t find this fact (which Bryson simply takes from scholars) particularly shocking or surprising. There are good reasons it is so. Our ancestors spent a million years plus surveying the earth’s edible resources. They discovered how to detoxify poisonous cassava, turn the bark of a tropical tree into sago, grind hard grains into flour, eat algae from the surface of lakes, and preserve perishable meat and fish for a year or more. In short, they were champions at finding and preparing almost anything that could be eaten.
Many of these edibles were always marginal. Barrel cactus just grows too slowly to be a major food. Moles and blue flies tasted awful as the Buckland family discovered in the nineteenth century when looking for alternative sources of protein. Lettuce provides micronutrients but isn’t ever going to be a major source of calories. It’s just too hard to eat enough.
In short, we do our ancestors a disservice to suggest that they simply stuck with the first things that they ran across in the Neolithic. Quite the reverse. They were always looking out for new sources of food, sugar cane being a prime example, coming in around the 2nd century B.C. (and shouldn’t it be on that list above)? They have always leapt on new foods from old plants (sugar and oil from maize).
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t try to eat as wide a range of plants as possible or that with modern science and technology we couldn’t exploit more plants by breeding and processing (andean tubers for example). It is to say that to find plants (and animals) that provide palatable calories without huge costs of chewing, digestion, cooking, processing, transport, storage, farming, and environmental impact is the devil of a job.
Candidates anyone? Lot of people would love to know.
Edit: Continue the rant. 93% of all humans eat? By value, by weight, by calories, by trade? Hopelessly vague.
And what would happen if you aggregated fruits or vegetables, especially in the advanced world?
Anyway isn’t it a good thing, if we want to have diverse diets, that lots of local plants don’t make it into the top ten or eleven?
How many other bitches do you want with this kind of sloppy rhetoric (which I don’t blame on the amiable Bryson by the way but on the people he is quoting)?
- Brain and Gut
- Truly Mexican