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The World On a Plate: A Guide to Consuming Food in World History

Candice Goucher


Figure 1
  Figure 1: Big History moment as a movie poster from the 1950s sends the message of the centrality of food to other galaxies (Columbia Pictures, 1956).  


     In Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), the fledgling science fiction film genre settled on the seemingly simple and shared iconography of flying saucers to represent the invasion of the earth's frontier by beings from outer space. Early special effects masters used paper plates to convey the idea. Not an inappropriate metaphor, considering the ubiquitous plate or saucer might just as well have been the stand-in for a definition of planetary history. In world history, nothing is more important than the world on a plate. The ubiquitous round plate of food speaks to its increasingly global contents and the circle of common humanity it inevitably represents.

     In many ways, a plate of food is the truly amazing embodiment of world history in the form of human memory. As food is ingested in the human body, it intimately transforms the lived experience of every human being on the planet. Eating changes more than the physical reality of past and present. The elaboration of food and eating is a key aspect of human cultural expression. In the 19th century, early culinary scholars such as Eugen von Vaerst (1792–1855, better known as Chevalier de Lelly) wrote about gastrosophy. Von Vaerst's book Joys of the table (1851), which coined the term, argued for the centrality of food in understanding cultural history. In France, about the same time Brillat-Savarin was thinking along similar lines in his Physiology of Taste (1825): we are what we eat, not just what we think. The famous cooking school in Argentina, Gastrosoficos, has interpreted this food-driven philosophical movement as evolving into the belief that "the reading of civilization [should be] based on the table, that is, on what we have drunk and eaten." But gastrosophical theory aside, it is difficult to remove the central materiality of foods (and their cooking pots) from any world historical discussion of our planet Earth or any other imagined planetary existence.

Evolving Into a Food-Centered World History

     The materialities (essentially, the evidence from the material culture) of world history are necessary for understanding the history of food and they are centered in the essential activity that made us human (cooking food). Cooking food likely led to changes in the human diet with huge evolutionary payback – eventually producing the cooperative human groups, who shared food, developed communication (i.e., language), and improved their diets and thus perpetuated planetary dominance by this seemingly simple act. Many historians argue that one of the single most defining characteristics of the human experience is the home-cooked evening meal. Sometime around a million years ago, likely somewhere in Southern Africa (perhaps at the site of Wonderwerk Cave) our hominin ancestors first sat down to a home-cooked meal; between 125,000 years ago and about 40,000 years ago this became a key (and widespread) characteristic of human behavior. Cooked food becomes a signature feature of the human diet on every continent. In Chinese, the radical (or root) for "fire" is the character for cooking, roasting, frying, and so on. Amongst many sub-Saharan Africans, foodways presented unique markers of the distinctiveness of specific ethnic identities as well as the commonality of group social and environmental behavior and interactions. Yet, the cooking hearth was at the same time the universal symbol of commonalities in cultural and social reproduction.

     Biologist Richard Wrangham has argued that the controlled use of fire made us humans into "creatures of flame."1 There is no doubt that cooked food gave humans an advantage – heat facilitated the chemical alteration of foods (and other matter). Wrangham points out that cooking provided greater energy via three mechanisms: the gelatinization of starch, the denaturization of proteins, and the softening of foods. The notion is that we humans process our foods and get more efficient energy use, more protein, and larger physical bodies as a consequence of cooking them. In fact, it would turn out that food sharing during the home-cooked meal was also a singularly important event in human history. Food sharing likely led to shared language, social communication, and community building – and, of course, this communication was eventually elaborated into the successful strategy we identify as the transmission of cultural memory across generations. Without home-cooked meals, there would be no world history.

     While the chronology of these critical advances in the human experience is still debated, there is little doubt that they are commonly linked to the history of food. What does the centrality of food imply for the teaching and learning of world history? Most importantly is the perspective that a food focus alters the periodization of our past. It is impossible to understand the commonalities and differences of the here and now without an evolutionary or scientific framework. The human diet evolved. It shaped the biological trajectory of the unique species that became fully human and it provided opportunities and limitations on all subsequent evolutionary and cultural developments.2 The history of the human diet is the history of human experience.

A World with Agriculture

     The second key "event" in a food-centered world history is the origins and elaboration of agriculture. On the one hand, it is amazing that the foraging and hunting lifestyle persisted for so many millennia. On the other hand, equally intriguing is how (and why) agricultural advantages eventually revealed themselves to populations around the globe. Between about 12,000 BCE and 500 CE, food production emerges on every continent. The history of agriculture is unparalleled in importance and its story invites simultaneous understanding of both local and global – the mainstay of world history. It is at this point in the past that "world history became a human story."3

     Archaeological, genetic, and linguistic research provides the primary evidence for understanding the origins of agriculture. After the start of the Holocene (the last 11,700 years of the Earth's history), the beginnings of agriculture were appearing in a variety of environments, both tropical and temperate, highlands and lowlands, and involved a variety of crops, from bananas, sugarcane, taro and yams in New Guinea to enset in Ethiopia, rice in Asia, potatoes in the Andes, and maize in the Valley of Mexico. Unusually in world history, the adoption of livestock-raising strategies in the Nilo-Saharan region of northeast Africa preceded crop cultivation around 9500 BCE. By about 8000 BCE, agricultural villages emerged in SW Asia. The genetic manipulation of plant and animal populations began to shape the world's many hunters, fishers, and foragers into prolific food producers. Material evidence dated by Carbon-14 methods has allowed archaeologists to identify agricultural origins in many parts of the world thereafter. The advantages of agriculture were not all that obvious. Climate change, population pressure, social competition, and shifts in ideology may have played roles in pulling or pushing populations to adopt or reject food production strategies at various times. Recent research has focused on the processes of intensification and transformation on the food strategies of early peoples on every continent, where agriculture enabled increasingly larger and more complex societies to emerge.

     Charting the territory for a world history course presents a bewildering array of case studies choices. Do I choose emmer wheat or rice to describe agriculture in Eurasia? Do water buffalo, camels, or pigs best explain the domestication of animals? Some regional overviews (China, Japan, the Americas, Africa, Southwest Asia, South Asia, Europe, Southeast Asia and the Pacific, for example) are worth taking the time to explore in order to investigate the complexity of commonalities and differences that form the foundations for global cuisines, based on the diverse range of local plants and animals. Archaeologists have developed robust and carefully constructed inferences from the painstaking observations at sites around the globe. Only in this way can the patterns supported by evidence emerge.4

     Three specific case studies of agricultural origins explore the dynamic state of current research: Brze__ Kujawski (Europe), Tichitt (Mauretania), and Kuk (New Guinea). Excavated by Peter Bogucki and Ryszard Grygiel, the site of Brze__ Kujawski(in Poland) reveals how pioneer farmers struggled in everyday life. Alasdair Whittle's extraordinarily rich and imaginative work integrating this and other sites in Europe provides a surprising trajectory that suggests that the narrative of the Neolithic is not a steady development of a world with agriculture. 5 Agriculture is introduced to Europe from the seventh millennium BCE on and DNA evidence favors a model that emphasizes the role that outsiders played in introducing the cultivation of cereals and husbandry of cattle, sheep, and goats. The consequences are varied in this transitional period and include intensive, small gardens, increasing signs of community life, and worldviews marked by a preoccupation with investment in the future. Yet there seems to be no signs of control ever the means of production by a few and no marked increase in social inequality unlike the patterns from almost every other part of the world.

     The site of Dhar Tichitt in the West African Sahel is one of the continent's earliest complex societies.6 Evidence from the pearl millet grain impressions on the bottoms of local potsherds allowed archaeologists to follow the trail of mobile herders and hunter-gatherers to sedentary farmers across the centuries between 1900 BCE and 100 BCE. Again, major socioeconomic changes were not instantaneous. Yet eventually, the Tichitt farming diaspora appears to have persisted, creating in the Middle Niger the foundations for urbanism and empire building at Ghana and Mali. The paucity of archaeological work here compared to the Nile suggests that critical historical gaps (including the chronological gap of more than seven millennia between Nilo-Saharan and Cushitic farmers and the Tichitt settlements) will be slow in being back-filled.

     Finally, the swamps of New Guinea provide equally surprising evidence of independent development of agriculture in a place that qualifies for least likely to produce the stereotypical "rise of civilization." At the site of Kuk, early farmers manipulated and cleared the local wetlands for their farms, probably before 7000 BCE and possibly as early as 10,000 BCE, although the earliest interpretations of the transition between the Pleistocene and Holocene are still tenuous and ambiguous.7 This was vegetative propagation not seed dispersal and it was small-scale farming usually impossible to identify in the archaeological record. Using mounds and ditches, Kuk farmers cultivated bananas, taro, and yams and created new environments through their management of the landscape. Eventually they added the sweet potato and the pig to their food production strategies, emphasizing the interregional connections that have been at play for millennia.

Food, Power, and Inequality

     Among the more disturbing patterns related to the adoption of agriculture is the nearly universal propensity for the new food producing societies to generate social inequality amidst the dramatic environmental changes they wrought. Food producers relied heavily on new forms of technology for lifting water, moving soil, and clearing forests. These mechanics of food production also paralleled the rise of urbanism, social complexity, and increasing inequality. The boundaries between hunting and gathering and herding and farming remained porous for a long time. Because the capacity to feed larger groups of people also provided the means to lubricate and nurture political and social control, often the increasingly hierarchical structures began to build intertwined state and food systems through networks of appropriation. Expansive trade allowed individuals and groups to control resources via mechanisms that included enhanced food preservation and storage and the enactment of laws and regulations. The complex social structures were everywhere built on the control over food supplies, cultural interactions that relied on alcohol and feasting, ultimately creating the haves and the have-nots.

     Beyond the construction of water dams, irrigation systems, and food storage, the history of technology was implicated in food studies. The development of a bronze plow pulled by an ox was a labor-saving device around 4000 BCE. The Iron Age delivered a devastating advantage to those who wielded iron tools and weapons, allowing the rapid spread of agriculture and, in turn, the rise of larger populations, villages, towns, and cities, and more complex political units, often built and backed by the force of iron spears and swords. Around the world, the makers of iron became ancient blacksmith kings and modern steel magnates.

     The history of food is closely linked to the use of pyrotechnology (the use of fire in cooking food) and eventually becomes allied with chemistry and other sciences, especially after the era of industrialization gets involved in the manufacture of food. The technological era of big dams, which Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru called "temples of modernity," made possible the huge industrialization of agricultural systems around the globe beginning with the construction of the Aswan Low Dam, completed in 1902. The global transport of foods in the era of globalization had similarly relied on new technologies, from steamships and rails to refrigeration. No theme in world history – from empires to education, war to weather—stands apart from the material history of food. Moreover, the cultural understanding of food remained closely allied to the meaning and often sacred act of consuming. Consumption becomes a widespread metaphor for many of the most important activities in world history, from sexuality to metallurgy. The highly gendered activities related to food, empowered the kitchen space as a profoundly female domain. Its divisions extended to age and class. From earliest agricultural beginnings to the commercial kitchens of celebrity chefs, the gendering of food production and preparation has played a central role in food cultures as an expression of possibility and privilege. Yet the very existence of an association of food with women devalued its study within the academy until quite recently.

Food and Identity

     Not only gendered identities were associated with food practices. Food marked the act of belonging to a group and it marked the status of elite classes and cultural sub-groups. What one ate and what was forbidden (taboo) determined the status of insider. Despite shared foods, eating together or eating apart also continued to define one's cultural positioning. Cultural, religious, political, economic, and ethnic markers conveyed the stamp of belonging to a foodway or tradition that could be tasted, smelled, heard, seen, transmitted across generations, and reproduced far away from home. The mobility of cooks meant that food knowledge and practices also traveled around the world, connecting travelers in new places with familiar flavors and the meanings they conveyed. The Africanist art historian Robert F. Thompson called this the language of the kitchen and suggests the far-reaching implications of culinary patterns: "these were more than foods; they were writings in code…systems of logic and belief followed unsuspected from the kitchen."8

     The interwoven relationships between food and identity can and must be tasted daily. Consequently cuisines as markers of identity remind us that culture is an ongoing and dynamic process of becoming, not a fixed status or "tradition" of either individual or group. They represent the mutuality of global and local. Examples abound for all eras and cultures. Medieval Islamic world cuisine as early as the tenth century CE reflected influences from the crossroads of continents and cultures: nomadic peoples north of China, Africans from Cairo and Algeria, as well as Arab, Persian, Greek, Indian, and Turkish communities and cuisines. A thousand years later, the turtle soup served by London mayors at the king's coronation fête in 1902, required the display and slaughter of 35 massive Caribbean sea turtles, was primarily flavored with Asian spices, and fed 800 guests at a gala and yet intended to convey the historical identity of the British state to locals and foreigners. In the Americas, Alison Krogel has shown how the visual and verbal narratives of Quechua (Andean) cuisine were inventive and ambiguous constructions that chronicled women's resistance and held at bay global forces between the 16th century and contemporary times.9

Figure 2
  Figure 2: Two hemispheres meet in the combination of African okra and cornmeal originating in the Americas.  

Food and Globalization

     The tentacles of imperialism held new opportunities for global cuisines. Food has always been an important commodity, but "trading tastes" greatly accelerated in the modern world.10 The importance of maritime culture generally has been underplayed in regards to the evolution of an increasingly global palate. Food studies have greatly expanded on Alfred Crosby's concept of a Columbian exchange of flora and fauna distinctive to the planet's biospheres after 1492. The migration of African and Eurasian peoples, whether forced or not, helped to carry both foodstuffs and foodways to new, far-flung destinations.11 Foods were not only important commodities. The changing foods in bowls and on plates concisely narrate the history of globalization through the cultural lenses of complex processes of migration, encounter, assimilation, adaptation, innovation, and creolization. The fascinating tales of Chinese and Africa food diasporas are particularly critical in elaborating the cultural politics and complexities of the global past.12

     Food, more than almost any other element of culture, also expressed the dueling identities of nationalism and globalism across the centuries. Awareness of these identities were accelerated after 1500 CE:

In the three centuries after 1500, patterns of food production and consumption were the engines that drove global processes. Cultures of consumption could shape population movements, declines, or increases. They could also shape identity and express cultural values. Finally, they nearly always enriched some at the expense of many others. In recent centuries, changes in food production and consumption have only intensified, and have helped to shape the many flavors of our global community.13

     By the dawn of the twenty-first century, the shared dining table contained "melting pots" or "salad bowls" of modernity that became symbols of the interchangeability of cultural identity constructions not only across an individual's lifetime, but also in a single day or meal.

Tasting World History: Feast or Famine

     This short guide to world history on a plate has suggested two major moments for the consideration of periodization in the history of food: the adoption of cooked food and the origins of agriculture (both "events" situated in the pre-1500 past). In addition, the subsequent sweep of increasing social and technological complexity, urbanization, imperialism, and inequality plays out across the centuries since the full embrace of and dependence on a world with agriculture. To the typical celebratory narrative of globalization must be added the stark unfolding of a deepening environmental and social injustice. World history is both feast and famine. Focusing on food allows world historians to consider both the full and empty plates from the perspectives of intimate family households and the world's vast shipping lanes, giving way to the fullest flavors of the past.

Candice Goucher is Professor of History and Co-Director of the Center for Social and Environmental Justice at Washington State University Vancouver. She is the author of Congotay! Congotay! A Global History of Caribbean Food (ME Sharpe/Routledge, 2014) and co-author, with Linda Walton, of World History: Journeys from Past to Present 2nd edition (Routledge. 2012). With Graeme Barker, she co-edited Volume 2 of the Cambridge History of the World: A World with Agriculture (Cambridge University Press, 2015). She was the Trent R. Dames Fellow in the History of Civil Engineering (2014–15) at the Huntington Library, while researching a new book on the history of iron in the Atlantic World. She can be reached at:


1 Richard Wrangham, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human(New York: Basic Books, 2009).

2 See Kristen J. Gremillion, Ancestral Appetites: Food in Prehistory (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011).

3 Graeme Barker and Candice Goucher, "Introduction: a world with agriculture," in Graeme Barker and Candice Goucher, The Cambridge World History (Volume II): A World With Agriculture, 12,000 BCE – 500 CE (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 8.

4 See the regions and their case studies in Graeme Barker and Candice Goucher, The Cambridge World History (Volume II): A World With Agriculture, 12,000 BCE – 500 CE (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

5 Alasdair Whittle, "Early agricultural society in Europe," in Graeme Barker and Candice Goucher, The Cambridge World History (Volume II): A World With Agriculture, 12,000 BCE – 500 CE (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 555–588.

6 Kevin C. MacDonald, "The Tichitt tradition in the West African Sahel," in Graeme Barker and Candice Goucher, The Cambridge World History (Volume II): A World With Agriculture, 12,000 BCE – 500 CE (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 499–513.

7 Tim Denham, "Swamp cultivators at Kuk, New Guinea: Early agriculture in the highlands of New Guinea," in Graeme Barker and Candice Goucher, The Cambridge World History (Volume II): A World With Agriculture, 12,000 BCE – 500 CE (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 445–471.

8 Robert F. Thompson, Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas (New York: Museum for African Art/Prestel, 1993), 154.

9 Alison Krogel, Food, Power, and Resistance in the Andes: Exploring Quechua verbal and visual narratives (Lexington Books, 2011).

10 Erik Gilbert and Jonathan Reynolds, Trading Tastes: Commodity and Cultural Exchange to 1750 (Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2006).

11 The Annenberg/Corporation for Public Broadcasting multimedia series Bridging World History (Episode #16: Food, Demographics, and Culture) explores the impact of food production and consumption in the Atlantic world, Caribbean, and China; see

12 Compare the diversity of diasporic regions in recent work by Yong Chen, Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014) and Candice Goucher, Congotay! Congotay! A Global History of Caribbean Food (New York: M.E. Sharpe/Routledge, 2014).

13 Candice Goucher and Linda Walton, Bridging World History, Episode 16:

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