How did humans learn what to eat? (as in what was edible)

Title kinda says it all.

Was it a process where Grog munched on a random leaf, dropped dead and then everyone else decided that was a bad thing to eat?

Given the huge variety of foods we can eat combined with the huge amount of plants we can’t (either nutritionally deficient or poisonous) how did we (humans) figure it all out?

Is there some magical, “don’t eat that” sense in animals that rolled over into big brained humans or was it literally watching people eat random stuff and learning the hard way?

We don’t actually have a very good track record for figuring out what’s nutritionally deficient - look up Scurvy, Pellegra, etc.

The primary hypothesis is that ‘Grog’ watched other animals and ate what they ate.
But, this presupposes that Grog had no parents.
Cultural transmission occurs in many species, amongst which are the great apes.
Useful activities and choices lead to a longer lifestyle.

But, if you suppose that ‘Grog’ was the very first who ate a leaf that killed him (or was edible), then you misunderstand the ability of historical statistics to divine individual actions.
This individual probably existed in multiple groups of geographically close origins all of whom had a ‘Grog’ that a generation later was a synonym for ‘DO NOT EAT THAT!’

Whose suicidal hypothesis is that?

Animals eat all kinds of crap that would kill a human, and vice versa. Animals also have much different senses than humans, enabling them to detect change sin edibility status that we can not. There are plenty of plants that are poisonous on Tuesday and edible on Wednesday.

IOW watching what other animals eat is a really, really lousy way of figuring out what is edible.

In the real world, the chances of an individual leaf or an individual fruit killing anybody is so remote as to not be worth considering. So long as you eat only small quantities virtually nothing in that occurs naturally can kill you or even cause permanent harm. Even hideously and notoriously toxic things like castor beans or noogoora burr will only make you sick if you eat just one or two of the fruit or leaves. And when you think about it, it would be astonishing for an omnivore to be any other way.

Which is the most likely answer to the OP. People encountering a new potential food source would sample it in small quantities. If it failed to have any unpleasant effects the dose would be increased and the food eventually proven harmless.

One important point to remember is that there was never any reason to eat unknown foods in large amounts. Humans migrated slowly into new habitats, or plants spread slowly into theirs. The traditional and well-known foods would still have been available when any new food was encountered, so there was no need to eat large amounts of any new food.

Poisoning occurred mostly after people adopted agriculture, for three reasons. Firstly, with advent of agriculture people lost most of the knowledge of wild foods. While a hunter gatherer could tell you the nutritional value of every plant in his environment few, if any, agricultural people could even name all the food stuffs. It was the loss of knowledge that brought the risk of poisoning. Secondly agriculture produced famine, and it was in famines that people turned to wild foods after they had forgotten their uses. Poisoning in famine is sadly common throughput history. The third reason was exploration and invasion. HGs generally didn’t travel far from home, and if they did they always did so with the pemrission of the owners, so they could ask for advice. Agricultural people travelled and waged war far form home and were often not on speaking terms with the locals, making poisoning a possibility. This is the reason why so many explorers poisoned themselves. They were in a strange land with no local guide. This isn’t something that could have occurred throughout most of history.

A lot of poisonous things that occur in the wild taste bad, or smell bad. You don’t run into lead paint chips in the wilds, or antifreeze.

I never understood how someone got up the nerve to try shrimp, or most sorts of shellfish. Of course I don’t LIKE shellfish, and don’t like the looks, the smell, or the taste of it.

One problem is that a lot of them don’t. An even bigger problem is that a lot of edible things taste even worse than the poisonous things. Stuff like morinda or chillies, for example, taste absolutely foul yet are highly nutritious. If humans only ate things that didn’t taste or smell bad they would almost certainly starve to death. So clearly some mechanism needed to exist to distinguish between “edible and tastes good” “inedible and tastes good”, “edible and tastes bad” and “inedible and tastes bad”.

No, but you do run into finger cherries and puffer fish, which are much more poisonous than paint chips or antifreeze and much more tasty.

I figured their parents showed them what to eat, as pre-human primates who chose to eat poisonous things had a less successful reproductive history than those which did not choose to eat poisonous things.

And there’s always the time-honored thesis of “Them that ate poisonous stuff is among them that didn’t live long enough to reproduce more dumb uns.”

Which might work well enough for African savannas (though it doesn’t), but humans don’t all live in African savannas.

How died the people living outside of Africa manage to eat? Their parents obviously can’t have shown them since at some point humans never lived there.

The inescapable conclusions of such a thesis are that

a) Every single poisonous substance on Earth is instantly fatal in all doses


b) Nobody alive to day ever eats anything poisonous, since we are all descended from the smart survivors.


In general though, stuff that is poisonous tastes bad. After all, a plant that is poisonous but animals love to eat it - will die as fast as the animals it kills. (Sort of like how wasps not only hurt, but have a coloration pattern that everyone/everything recognizes quickly as “caution! I hurt!” so it does not have to spend hour after hour stinging stupid predators.)

When I read about various foods which are pretty strange but people eat them, I too wonder just how desperate they were when they first tried it. Like the other thread, people eating grass leaves, when times are tough people will try anything - odd plants and strange creepy-crawlies. If they find a new food source, they make note of it for future and pass that on. If it turns out to be tasty - shrimp or lobster - they probably add it to the regular culinary repertoire.

Thinking of all the poisonous plants and animals I know of, including those poisonous to livestock, it isn’t immediately obvious that stuff that is poisonous does taste bad at any higher rate than things that are edible.

Certainly amongst livestock this is not true. Animals that are experienced in an area will know which things are poisonous, presumably form experience, but animals introduced have a much, much higher rate of poisoning. Amongst naive cattle and horses introduced to “poison paddocks” the initial poisoning rate is close enough to 100%, which is pretty strong evidence that poisonous plants do not generally taste bad. Rather the plants are poisonous precisely because they are palatable. If they were unpalatable being poisonous would be redundant.

Do you have a reference for your claim that things that are poisonous are generally unpalatable, by which I mean they are unpalatable at a higher rate than the background level of unpalatability of things that are not especially toxic?

Many plants and animals do evolve warning appearances, but they do that precisely because their poisonous nature is not immediately apparent prior to consumption. An animal eats one members of the species or part of a plant and it then learns that the species with that appearance is poisonous. The appearance exists precisely because the toxic nature is not otherwise easily identifiable. If a plant tasted immediately unpleasant, like chillies or wild lettuce, then being toxic would be largely unnecessary.

Given the degree of preparation a lot of these foods require, it is highly unlikely that they were invented in times of desperation. Rather I imagine exactly the opposite was true: people sampled small amounts of novel food when times were good and when they didn’t need to survive on them and when several days of purging, a common symptom, could be survived by subsequent feeding on more reliable foodstuffs.

Only a tribe of complete idiots would wait until times of desperation before testing the edibility of the local foodstuffs.

parents have been saying, ‘try it, you’ll like it’, to their kids for a long time. back in those days it was for a different purpose.

I’ve always sort of wondered how people started eating the sorts of things that require a lot of processing to not be poisonous, like taro - one of the earlier cultivated plants, but it’s poisonous and inedible before you cook it. Desperation in famine?

This is what I’ve heard some Native Americans say of how man found medicinal plants. Watching perhaps a wounded animal eat or rub up against a certain plant, or a obviously since animal eat something. Many Native Americans go on vision quests, which they will travel into nature and learn from their surroundings amoung other things.

It’s not a great stretch that man would also learn what to eat from animals, like on a travel or a situation that a person or small group (perhaps a army) is away from home and in a area without food, sees a animal eating some plant and figure they can too. Desperation is a very good motivator.

More likely some fell into the fire, and some curious kid picked it out of the ashes and ate it.

I dunno how (other than desperate experimentation) people discovered how to process bitter cassava - it requires soaking for three days to remove the cyanide!

The answer probably has to do with the fact that there is a continuum of poisionous cassava - from stuff requiring little processing, to the “bitter” variety that requires a lot.

As for judging by taste - this is most unwise for poisionous mushrooms. Many of the most poisionous (such as amanita phalloides) both look and, allegedly, taste very much like edible species … leading to many poisioning deaths.

That’s nothing. Hákarl is an Icelandic dish made from Basking Shark. Apparently the Basking Shark is toxic if eaten without preparation.

After preparation it apparently becomes edible but is supposedly among the most disgusting things on the planet you can eat.

The preparation takes months…

How in the hell did anyone figure all that out and how hungry did someone have to be to go ahead an eat it even after preparation? (Not to mention making it a thing people want to keep making.)

There were a whole combination of techniques.

First, it’s true that most poisonous things only make you sick if you eat them in small quantities. I can’t find the reference now, but this is actually part of a military special forces manual - when in doubt, eat a little bit and see how you feel after a while.

Second, once you discover that soaking, cooking, pickling, etc. one thing helps, it’s natural to give that a try with other things. All you need is that first example.

Third, ancient people had animals, prisoners and slaves that they could try things out on. If your pig or dog is killed by something, then avoiding it is probably a good idea. Pigs and dogs historically were not fed good diets and often subsisted on trash and forage, so I’m sure there was a lot of experimentation going on. Poisons don’t always work the same way on different species, but that’s where the slaves and prisoners come in. You weren’t spending top dollar for filet mignon for those people.

That’s because it’s easier to figure out what we shouldn’t have eaten vs. what we should have. We eat something and start vomiting three hours later, we are good at surmising cause and effect. Animals like rats are good at that too, where you can add an emetic to a good food. The human/rat will quickly learn to avoid that food. Stretch it out longer though, and there are more meals and potential causes, and so an association isn’t as easy to build. So with things like scurvy, it might be easier to say “my gums are bleeding because I just ate a raw plum,” and not “obviously, my diet shows a longtime trend for low levels of Vitamin C.”