How did we learn what was safe to eat?

I’ve always been taught that our ancestors learned what was safe to eat by watching other animals and trial-and-error.

The first person who ate the egg was probably did it on a dare. “I dare you to eat the next thing that comes out of that chicken’s butt!”

But what if the first person to try something just happened to have an allergy to that food? Say I’m the first human to dare to try to eat a peanut and I go into anaphylactic shock and die. This is a serious problem, nobody will eat peanuts because they think they will die.

Here’s where my addition to theory comes in. The wives of abusive husbands decided to use these “deadly” substances in meals they served, but lo and behold the husbands sometimes lived.

And that is how we learned which foods really weren’t dangerous after all. Trial and error gave us an indication, but intentional murder ruled out all the allergic reactions.

One general principle is that things that are bad for us taste really bad. It’s not 100% but you could survive in the wild that way.

Well, as there’s nothing in the way of historical records on this (that I know of) it really just comes down to speculation and guess work.

I feel like if one person tried eating a peanut and died of it, it’s pretty likely those who saw or heard about it would have been put off peanuts, but there would be other people elsewhere who didn’t see or here about it and would thus try peanuts themselves and be fine. Some time later, possibly generations later, when the two groups encounter each other and people from the first group see the second eating peanuts, they would likely figure that their parents must have been wrong and that peanuts were safe to eat. Some brave soul would try them and not die and thus, in the long run, the one guy’s allergic reacion gets written off as a fluke (or even just a myth) rather than somehting that will happen to any person who eats peanuts.

I think that poverty plays a role as well. Tomatoes were once thought to be poisonous, as they are related to deadly nightshade. But poor Italians were probably desperate for something – anything – to eat, and took their chances. For a while, tomotoes were poor person’s food. I believe that it was when Queen Margharita first ate pizza that they became accepted by everyone.

feed the kids first, there’s more where they came from.

Probably by observing animals. If the cow/pig/goat eats it, it is probably OK.
As for the exotic stuff (rotten shark, caviar, jellyfish, snails, etc.)-trial and error?

LOL, this goes sort along with my theory! Ty for the laugh :slight_smile: I really needed it.

There was a story I heard about (insert tribal people here) who were crossing a river inhabited by deadly (inhabitants of your choice.)

First, they send over the dogs. Then they send over the old people. Then the kids. Then the women. Then, and only then, the men.

Watching other animals eating foodstuff can only get you so far. Apes and monkeys, maybe, but birds and ungulates can eat toxins deadly to humans with no effect - deer and bluejays eat poison oak berries, for example, which you really wouldn’t enjoy…

I don’t have an answer to the actual question, but my understanding is that allergies are a relatively recent phenomenon. Allergies are when your immune system overreacts to something it shouldn’t, which is more common in areas of the world with more access to modern antibiotics and hypersterilized environments. When your immune system is too busy worrying about things like cholera and diphtheria, it’s not going to make much of a fuss about peanuts.

This is actually why scientists are using parasites like pig roundworms to fight allergies, as they help suppress a hyperactive immune system.

I see one problem with the theory that we learned it from watching animals:

Who taught the animals? It seems to me that instinct has already taken care of our menus.

I believe it was in the book ‘how the mind works’ where Pinker says a persons disgust for food doesn’t really pick up until 2-3 years, then you get disgusted by foods not considered kosher by your culture and this was a form of imprinting the behavior of your parents. So there is that too. We won’t eat worms but in other cultures that is ok, etc.

Primates have been eating eggs since those eggs were laid by dinosaurs. It’s not as if they started making new decisions when they achieved sentience and discovered language - they mostly kept on doing the same stuff their ancestors did. There was no clear line between “human” and “proto-human” and “non-human”.

What I mean is, that humans knew what was safe to eat because they were descended from animals who knew what was safe to eat.

It’s not as if people just sprang out of nowhere one day and had no idea what to shove in their faces. Everybody always had parents. You can go back generation by generation and there are always parents raising their offspring, back long before people were “people.”

So our common ancestor with the other great apes was hanging out in Africa, eating bugs and leaves and such. With every generation, offspring would learn from their parents what to eat and what to avoid. Some was based on taste, some based on experience. Even when that experience wasn’t personal, it could still be absorbed through observation. That observation might be of somebody chomping on an unfamiliar plant and dropping dead or it might be the observation that all of the adults freak the hell out when a child gets near it.

Over the course of millions and millions of years and our ancestors spreading across the globe, that process continued and as we became more sophisticated it, too, became more sophisticated. See a plant that you’ve never eaten before, but it looks like a poisonous one? Avoid it (for example, tomatoes when Europeans first encountered them). See a plant that you’ve never eaten before, but it looks like something edible? Try it. If you die, somebody else is going to learn from your mistake.

There was never a point when a bunch of adult human beings found themselves utterly without knowledge of what their parents ate or the ability to liken a new food to ones they’d eaten before. Cluelessly wondering whether or not you can eat a bird egg simply never happened.

“Here, Bob - try this!”

Come on - every neighborhood had young crazy Bob who would eat worms, eat snails, nibble on the poison ivy plant, eat bugers, lick blood. I assume every culture had a “Bob” and they would probably stop eating what Bob ate when he turned purple and choked to death.
Then it was Chuck’s turn.

I think it was Mark Twain who said, " 'Twas a brave man first ate an oyster."

Or possibly a hungry one - hunger can make you a lot braver about food.

That… can’t be right.

Tomatoes are native to South America. In order for them to even be in Italy, they’d have to have been imported and cultivated there. I’m sure there was some ignorance about them, but if people thought they were poisonous, why grow them?

Some people knew they weren’t poisonous. They took a while to catch on.

Ah, I see that they were originally brought back as ornamental plants, not as food. I stand corrected.

Actually, I didn’t know that. Thanks!