Home Healthy Eating Food from the Past, part 1: How did our Ancestors Eat?

Food from the Past, part 1: How did our Ancestors Eat?

Published on January 29, 2013 by in Healthy Eating

How did our ancestors eat? If you surf the web you’ll find all kinds of theories on this. Some will say that we ate meat, fruit, and veggies in large amounts when they were available. Others say that we ate a mainly plant-based diet with anything else available such as bugs, grains, and occasionally meat. One thing that can’t be denied is that we are omnivores. We can digest meat, plants, and grains just fine. What about people before our time? What was the plant to meat ratio of people long ago in the “hunter-gatherer” era of the world? Well, currently I live in a village by name of Kotlik in the great state of Alaska for 9 months out of the year. Maybe some of the things I have personally experienced in the past 2 years here can give perspective to some of the theories out there about how people ate “way back when.”

So, let me give you a little background on Kotlik. It is a small village with a population between 600 and 700 people that lies on the Yukon River Delta. Modern technology and conveniences are a fairly new concept here. For example:

  • Running water is a little over a decade old. There are still some people that chop ice and let it melt for drinking water.
  • Cell phones are less than 5 years old.
  • Satellite television is a few years old.
  • In Kotlik there are no roads, and thus no cars. People do have snowmobiles, ATVs, and boats. Some will travel by snowmobile to the nearest village of Emmonak which is 70 miles away. My neighbor tells me that his grandfather would ice skate to Emmonak several decades ago.
  • There are two stores in the village that are about the size of a large convenience store. In the stores there are limited amounts of produce, some meat, canned goods, boxed food, soda, junk food, candy, etc. Essentially like a 7-11 that sells a little bit of meat, fruit, and veggies.


Me walking into Kotlik for the first time


A large part of life here is living off the land – subsistence living. It’s the hunter-gatherer lifestyle meets the modern era. The Native Eskimo people here are exempt from a lot of the hunting laws that most states have and even that us non-Native Alaskans abide by. They can poach fish, hunt seal, and spear a whale, if needed. This is, after all, their land they have been living off of for thousands of years.

There are a few things that I have experienced while living here that give me a perspective on how people ate long-ago. I’ll share a couple of stories that have given me some insight about eating from years past.

One day I was watching a documentary filmed in the 1970s in Emmonak, our neighboring village. In the documentary a women (probably in her 20’s or 30’s at that time) describes how her grandfather would hunt (we’re talking less than a century ago). She tells of how some men would go out with a spear to hunt a bear. When they would see a bear, they would approach it. When close enough, they would poke the bear with a spear to antagonize it, prompting the bear to attack. The hunter would then dodge the bear, and then poke it again. Dodge, poke, dodge, poke, and continue until the bear was slightly worn-out with its back turned to the hunter. The hunter would then seize the moment by shoving the spear into the bear’s rectum. Voilà. Dinner is served.

Another time I was attending a local church service. A woman spoke of how her family’s food supply was recently really low. She was praying and praying that her family would be supplied with meat somehow, some way. Then a family member was able to slay a moose and they were able to fill their freezer with meat, and she thanked God for it.

The first year I moved here I learned that my neighbor, who is in his 40’s, shot his first moose that year after nearly a decade of trying.


Seal – a part of the Alaskan Native diet


Next I’ll tell you of another time when I went to my friend’s house after helping him chop some ice. After being out for several hours chopping ice for drinking water we returned to his house to find that someone had left a slab of seal meat as a gift on his front porch. Boy was he happy! “Praise God!” he exclaimed. He brought it inside, cut off a small piece, proceeding to eat it raw. He then cut me a piece to try. As I was chewing on it my friend looked at me. Noticing I was having a bit of a hard time with it, he said, “It’s better if you just chew a couple times and swallow.” After that he showed me some of his meat supply and showed me a bag of miscellaneous bird parts (feet, necks, heads, etc.) and told me how he uses those to make a stew. I’ve yet to try that stew.

So, a few things come to mind when thinking about food consumption from millenniums ago. People that I know in these parts are hunters and gatherers. Fortunately they have some modern tools that their ancestors were not lucky enough to have and help in the hunting/gathering process such as high-powered rifles, snowmobiles, and motorized boats. Even with these things available ,there are still people praying to God for meat, and any food for that matter. And not long ago it wasn’t quite as easy (refer back to the bear story above).

For as long as we know, people around Kotlik have eaten fish, meat, native grasses, and native berries – things indigenous to the land. Nowadays those things still make up a large part of the diet, but people are also able to have milk, grains, beans, canned soups, Hamburger Helper, and more due to the integration with the United States a generation ago.

So how did our ancestors eat? What was in the hunter-gatherer diet?

I’ll tell what they ate back then. They ate whatever the heck they had! If they lived by a river, my bet is they ate fish. If they lived by an ocean, maybe some whale or seal. If they lived where cattle roam, they got steak. Lived by a wheat field, ate wheat; lived by an apple tree, you get the picture.

Today most Americans can walk in a store and get whatever they want. We can eat vegan, primal, Paleo, low-carb, whatever.

How should you eat?

Well, if I have learned anything from my friends in Alaska, my answer is you should eat what you are blessed enough to have. I have no problem with going easy on grains if that works for you. If a vegetarian lifestyle is working out for you, rock on! You want to eat a bunch of meat? Go for it! In either case I would get a physical exam every so often and check your nutrient levels.

I’m not sure there is any one “right way” to eat. And being that this world of ours is fairly large, I find it hard to believe that people living long ago ate one particular way either, though they sure as heck had fewer choices.

I think there are many good diets and food plans out there. I believe that in modern day America we should be looking at what gives us optimal health and nutrition and taking advantage of what is available to us, not focusing on how people ate “way back when” as means to how we eat today as far as protein/carb/fat ratios are concerned.

Did our ancestors eat meat? Yes. Did they eat fruits? Yes. Did they eat grains? Yep. Did they eat aspartame, Red 40, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, and monosodium glutamate? Hmmmm…

I’ll leave it at that for now.

Join me in a few days when I take a look at “How we were designed to eat.”

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