Stephen Beckerman. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Evolutionary Underpinnings

Game (defined here as the meat of wild mammals, birds, and terrestrial reptiles) has been an important component of the human diet since earliest times. A signal difference between the digestive system of humans and those of their closest primate relatives is the modification of the guts of the former for the processing of a diet containing substantial quantities of meat (Chivers 1992). Until the last few thousand years, all meat-producing animals were wild. The continuing cultural significance of hunting as an activity, and game as an element of the diet, must be seen in the light of the age-old importance of game animals in human biological and cultural evolution.

Although little doubt exists that early hominids consumed appreciable quantities of game, lively debate lingers over whether our remote ancestors were primarily hunters or scavengers (e.g., Shipman 1986; Binford 1988). Nevertheless, there is abundant evidence that by the time of the appearance of early modern humans—between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago—hunting was one of humankind’s major activities. It may have been so for uncounted previous millennia.

A striking sexual division of subsistence labor characterizes most contemporary hunting and gathering peoples, with men hunting and women gathering (but see later discussion).Typically, gathered foods more or less reliably provide the bulk of the calories in the diet, mainly as carbohydrates, whereas game (and/or fish) contributes the undependable and sometimes limiting protein fraction. It has been proposed (Isaac 1978; Isaac and Crader 1981) that this bifurcation in foraging tasks and products is ancient and is implicated in the coevolution of food sharing, tool use, paternal investment in offspring, and related features of the unique human constellation of social behaviors.

Game, particularly large game, is often shared widely, whereas gathered foods tend to be acquired and consumed within the family. Meat is usually more valued than vegetable foods, and hunting is typically a more prestigious activity than gathering (Kent 1989). These correlations, too, may be ancient. The ancestral associations of men with hunting, of hunting with high social status, and of game with generosity and display, are an important part of the background of the presence of game in the human diet.

Subsistence Hunting

Global Trends

Studies of the hunting and gathering societies have identified geographic regularities in the quantity of game in the diet of these foraging peoples for whom wild foods are the foundation of life (Lee 1968; Jochim 1981). Behind these regularities are climatically determined abundances and availabilities of game animals relative to other potential human foods.

Close to the North Pole, inedible (for humans) tundra grasses dominate the vegetation, whereas much of the faunal biomass is in grazing animals (caribou, reindeer) with large herds and highly palatable flesh. Because much of the circumpolar region is coastal, terrestrial game can often be supplemented by large sea mammals (seals and whales). Thus, most of the few high-latitude foraging peoples (Eskimos, native Siberians) live largely or almost exclusively on game; the only real alternative food is fish (and that solely for inhabitants of uncommonly well-favored seaboards).

A good number of cool-temperate hunting and gathering peoples (40°-60° latitude) have fish as the primary element in the diet, particularly anadromous fish (fish that run upriver from the ocean to spawn, frequently in enormous numbers; see Schalk 1977). These peoples, however, also consume considerable game. Well-known ethnographic examples are the inhabitants of the northwest coast of North America and the coastal islands of northeast Asia, locations endowed with rivers supporting reliable and abundant fish runs. Other cool-temperate foraging peoples (that is, the Cree and Ojibwa of eastern Canada and several bison-hunting tribes of the North American Great Plains) make game the basis of their diet and eat distinctly lesser quantities of fish and vegetable foods. Cool-temperate regions are mainly forested or covered with prairie grasses, and wild vegetable foods are seasonally scarce and often not abundant at the best of times. With the exception of the North American bison, most of the large game tends to be relatively solitary and the availability of fish and game in a locality usually decides the base of the diet.

Hunting and gathering peoples living within 40° of the equator—the majority of all foraging peoples, and the great majority of those for whom we have reliable dietary information—derive most of their diet from gathered vegetable foods. Tubers, nuts, and seeds tend to be abundant and reliable relative to fish and game at these latitudes. Nevertheless, game remains for these peoples the most desirable part of the diet. Its capture attracts more effort and attention than the harvest of vegetable foods, and its procurers are often rewarded with favorable attention ranging from subtle deference to sexual favors (Hawkes 1990).

It is frequently assumed that game’s desirability to these lower-latitude foragers derives from its role as the only major source of limiting nutrients, particularly the eight essential amino acids found in animal protein. However, complete inventories and nutritional analyses of these foragers’ gathered wild foods remain scarce. That game and fish do supply much (usually most) of their protein is clear; that alternative invertebrate and vegetable protein foods are actually lacking is less clear. Well-documented demonstrations that gathered foods could not supply a protein-adequate diet are still too few to establish the generality of the impression that game is strictly necessary to provide protein for low-latitude hunters and gatherers.

Cultural Evolutionary Trends

Within the last 10,000 years (perhaps a bit earlier in Southeast Asia) plants and animals were domesticated on all continents except Australia. In some regions (e.g., eastern North America, lowland South America), the major edible domesticates were all plants. Here, wild game and fish continued to supply the meat in everyone’s diet, not only in early agricultural times but even after domestication had permitted the emergence of stratified societies. In these New World stratified societies, the mighty were differentiated from the lowly in diet as in other aspects of life. However, it was the amount of game, the species of game, and the cuts of meat that distinguished the larders of the haves from those of the have-nots; there was no significant substitution of domestic flesh for wild game.

In other regions (that is, Europe, western Asia), large herd animals were domesticated at around the same time(s) as plants, and livestock became important early in the history of food production. Nevertheless, even though domesticated animals and their products (milk, blood) quickly became major elements in the diet of these mixed farmer-herders, game remained in the diet. The hunt continued in parallel with stock raising throughout most of early village life in the Old World, with wild animals often important in the diet. As food production led eventually to the development of Old World complex societies, hunting survived. At that point, however, the reasons for its persistence—previously a straightforward matter of obtaining food—became divergent.

By the early days of stratified societies, a pattern had been established (e.g., Trigger 1965) that continued through much of history and into the modern world: Hunting, and the presence of game in the diet, was most prominent in the lives of people at the very top and the very bottom of the social hierarchy. Among rulers, hunting lingered as recreation and ostensive display, a demonstration of not needing to rely on the efficient meat production of domesticated animals. Among the peripheral and the poor, hunting persisted because people could not afford domestic animals. The conflict of these classes over access to game lies behind such beloved folklore as the legend of Robin Hood.Among both classes, and into modern times, hunting is pleasurable, and game is a prestige food, although there are higher prestige foods among the impoverished.

Sexual Division of Labor

Although numerous societies have produced the occasional female hunter, and many cultures recognize goddesses of the hunt (the Grecian Artemis or the Indian Chandi), hunting remains predominantly (often exclusively) a male pursuit in almost all societies. Reasons proposed for masculine dominion of the chase range from the advantage in mean strength and speed enjoyed by male hunters to the disadvantages in combining hunting with pregnancy and child care incurred by female hunters. In this connection, the evidence of the tropical forest Agta people of the Philippines is crucial: Among some bands of the hunting, gathering, casually horticultural, and trading Agta, women regularly hunt, and their hunting includes dangerous game—like the wild pig—that they kill close up with machetes and improvised spears.

It is significant, then, that among the Agta, most women’s hunting involves dogs; that “during late pregnancy and for the first few months of nursing, a woman will not hunt” (Estioko-Griffin and Griffin 1981: 131); and that “[y]oung mothers … are not the major women hunters; mature women with self sufficient children secure most of the game animals considered [of those taken by women] both by number and by weight” (Griffin and Griffin 1992: 310). Although the sexual division of labor appears remarkably weak among the Agta, and the generalization that women are mainly confined to gathering is overthrown by this case, hunting, nonetheless, remains more associated with men than with women.

Optimal Foraging Theory

A body of ecological theory known as Optimal Foraging Theory or OFT (Stephens and Krebs 1986) generates predictions as to the prey species that should be included in the diet of a predator. The general rule is that the predator should choose to pursue individuals of a particular species only when the predator cannot expect to get more or better food for its hunting time by disregarding that species. If there is a statistically reliable expectation that members of more valuable prey species will be taken in the time that would otherwise have been dedicated to the pursuit of members of a less valuable species, then that less valuable species is not in the optimal diet.

For example, if hares in a grassland are difficult to catch, but gazelles are plump and easy to kill, the optimal forager ignores the small and time-costly hares, even when he sees them bounding away, as long as gazelles are plentiful. Time spent chasing a hare is time taken away from searching for gazelles. Hares enter the optimal diet only when gazelles have become so rare that it becomes cost-effective to chase hares. When the mean encounter rate with individuals of each potential game species is known, along with the average time it takes to pursue and kill them and the average amount of meat they provide, then the optimal diet set can be predicted with considerable precision.

Predictions can also be made as to the predator’s order of preference for the animals included in the optimal diet set. Predicted choices are easily summarized: Hunters should favor large animals over small and easily killed animals over those that require much time to hunt down and often escape.

Optimal diet set predictions have been tested for a number of subsistence hunters, with observed hunting behavior generally agreeing with the OFT model (Hill and Hawkes 1983; Kuchikura 1988; Kaplan and Hill 1992). Preferred game orderings have also been examined from an OFT perspective. Again, subsistence hunters appear in general to conform to theoretical predictions (Altman 1987; Hawkes, O’Connell, and Blurton-Jones 1991).

Game Allocation

The goal of subsistence hunting is game to eat. However, it is seldom if ever the case that all animals are considered game or that all parts of all game animals are eaten randomly by all members of a society. Rules governing the allocation of game are highly variable cross-culturally. Indeed, the issue of who makes the distribution is far from uniform from one culture to another. In many egalitarian cultures, the game belongs to the man (or woman) who killed it; in others, to the hunter who first wounded it; and in still others, to the person who made the arrow or other weapon with which the kill was accomplished, independent of that person’s participation in the hunt. In ranked or stratified societies, the right to distribute the game may belong to the head of the lineage to which the successful hunter belongs, or to a village chief, or to another official.

Among the egalitarian, hunting and gathering !Kung Bushmen of southern Africa, the hunter whose arrow first hit the animal makes the initial distribution of meat, which is to the other hunters in his party. These hunters, in turn, distribute shares to their kin. All the hunters’ kin who receive meat have additional kin obligations, and eventually everyone in the camp receives some meat, although portions may be small for individuals genealogically distant from the members of the hunting party (Marshall 1965).

But distribution methods aside, there are often rules of striking salience as to where different parts of animals are directed. Among the egalitarian, horticultural Anggor of New Guinea, when a wild pig is killed, the carcass, once cooked, is parceled out in a detailed way: The extremities are given to local clans; the hunter’s clan gets the viscera; old women eat the fetus of a pregnant sow; old men receive cooked blood; and so on (Hurber 1980).

Parts (or all) of particular animals may be reserved for or prohibited to particular people or all people. Among the egalitarian, horticultural Barí of Colombia and Venezuela, the head and tripe of howler monkey are not eaten by anyone, whereas the head of spider monkey is eaten, along with the liver and some other organ meats. Peccary heads are reserved for old men; children are not allowed to consume any part of a bear; and no one eats jaguar.

People in particular statuses may have privileges or prohibitions connected with consumption of designated parts of game animals. Excavations at sites belonging to the late prehistoric Mississippian chief-dom centered at Moundville, Alabama, indicate that preferred cuts of deer meat were sent from outlying areas to elite centers, presumably for consumption by chiefs, their families, and retainers (Welch 1991).

Entire game species may be associated with social statuses. Among contemporary Anglo-Americans, consumption of opossum meat is restricted to rural lower classes, although venison is acceptable at both extremes of the social ladder, and smaller game birds are eaten largely by people of means.

There are a few general principles known for game distribution: (1) Many cultures assign carnivores and scavengers to an “inedible” category; (2) in egalitarian societies, the larger and more unpredictably obtained a game animal is, the more likely it is to be shared widely; (3) in ranked and stratified societies, the largest and most desirable game animals and the best cuts typically go to the most important members of society; and (4) the reproductive parts of otherwise edible animals are often prohibited to some if not all members of a society. Beyond these empirical generalizations, a general theory of food allocations, prescriptions, and proscriptions remains to be constructed.

Game in the Diet

The amount of game in the victuals of subsistence hunting peoples varies from a small fraction, as among many peoples with domestic food animals who also hunt when the opportunity arises (many societies in Oceania are of this type), to virtually the entire diet, as among some Eskimo groups. Some regional trends were mentioned previously. Within subsistence hunting societies, the distribution of game may or may not also be highly variable, with some or all game animals widely distributed and consumed or effectively confined to a minority of the society’s members. In general, the higher the proportion of game in the aggregate diet, the weaker the exclusion of classes of individuals within the society from game consumption.

Prestige, Recreational, and Commercial Hunting

Prestige Hunting

Rulers of antiquity were often conspicuous hunters. Near the dawn of recorded history,”the Middle Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser I claimed … to have killed 4 wild bulls, 10 elephants and 920 lions—800 from his chariot and 120 on foot” (Roaf 1990: 154).

Millennia later, in December A.D. 799, on a different continent, Charlemagne and his three sons killed a wolf, 2 European bison, 6 aurochs, 66 boars, and 80 deer in the space of two hours, to the applause of the queen and princesses, at a hunt organized by a count and his foresters. The royal party feasted later that day on the choicest parts of the kill (Halleux 1988).

Marco Polo’s description, nearly 500 years later still, of Kublai Khan’s yearly round illustrates a number of the features of prestige hunting: its prominence in royal life; its ostensive display; its employment of sumptuary laws; and its ranking of game animals by their suitability as royal prey. For six months of the year, hunting figured large in the life of Kublai Khan’s court:

The three months of December, January, and February, during which the Emperor resides at his Capital City, are assigned for hunting and fowling, to the extent of some 40 days’ journey round the city; and it is ordained that the larger game taken be sent to the Court. To be more particular: of all the larger beasts of the chase, such as boars, stags, lions, bears, etc., the greater part of what is taken has to be sent, and feathered game likewise… .

After he has stopped at his capital city those three months … he starts off on the 1st day of March, and travels eastward towards the Ocean Sea, a journey of two days. He takes with him full 10,000 falconers and some 500 gerfalcons besides peregrines, sakers, and other hawks in great numbers; and goshawks also to fly at the water fowl.… The Emperor himself is carried upon four elephants in a fine chamber made of timber, lined inside with plates of beaten gold, and outside with lion’ skins.… He always keeps beside him a dozen of his choicest gerfalcons, and is attended by several of his Barons, who ride on horseback alongside. … And when he has travelled till he reaches a place called Katar Modun, there he finds his tents pitched … full 10,000 tents in all.… The Lord remains encamped there until the spring [May] and all that time he does nothing but go hawking round and among the canebreaks … and across fine plains … for 20 days journey round the spot nobody is allowed … to keep hawks or hounds … and furthermore throughout all the emperor’s territories, nobody however audacious dares to hunt … hare, stag, buck and roe, from … March to … October. (Polo 1927: 127, 129-33)

Recreational Hunting

Much prestige hunting is clearly recreational, but hunting for enjoyment is not limited to royalty. Indeed, most hunting, even explicitly commercial hunting, has a pleasurable aspect. Although the recreational chase of the upper classes is nowadays often more a matter of public socializing or trophy skins than of table meat (British fox hunting, international big cat hunting), a notable proportion of the recreational hunting of all classes produces edible game such as duck and deer. In modern times, ethical considerations may impel the consumption of this game as a justification for the enjoyment of the hunt, even when the hunter finds it less palatable than the highly processed food to which he is accustomed. Generations of North American boys have learned a version of the “You shoot it, you eat it” hunter’s code from their fathers. The pleasures of the hunt may paradoxically cause moderns to eat game they would otherwise omit from their diets.

Commercial Hunting

Hunting in order to sell or barter game has roots more ancient than commonly recognized. There are no contemporary tropical forest hunters and gatherers who do not maintain trading relations—most often game for crops—with agricultural neighbors. It has been proposed that humans did not enter the tropical forest until the invention of agriculture made this interchange possible (Headland 1987; Headland and Bailey 1991). The Pygmies of the Congo Basin have been trading game for crops with their Bantu neighbors for centuries, if not millennia. Similar relations, possibly of comparable antiquity, are maintained with agriculturalists by the hunting and gathering Makú of the Amazon region, the Agta of the Philippines, and a number of Hill Tribes in India. The game-producing hunters and gatherers are typically considered by their agricultural trading partners to be serfs or slaves.

In Western industrial societies commercial meat hunters are also marginal people. Guides and “white hunters” are glamorous figures in fiction and may, in fact, make considerable money, but they provide recreational and prestige hunting for others. They do not make a living by selling the game they hunt themselves. In a sense, contemporary individuals who sell game can be looked at as the cultural descendants of the peripheral individuals who continued to hunt for food while more affluent members of their societies obtained animal protein from domesticated animals.

Game is usually tougher than the meat of domesticated animals, but many consider it to be tastier. Its generally lower fat content has led some to believe that it is healthier as well.

It is indicative of the persistence of social evolutionary trends noted earlier that in the Western world, restaurants habitually serving wild game are of two kinds—the most expensive establishments in major metropolitan centers and small, “mom and pop” places in rural areas. Many people frequenting both kinds of establishments eat game in considerable measure for its status marker value, although of course the prestige of consuming game differs widely in association as well as scope between one type of restaurant and the other. In the former, game is affiliated with wealth and display, whereas in the latter it is primarily linked with recreation and the manly virtues.

Aside from its survival in this and similar commercial contexts, game has largely disappeared from the diet in modern industrial societies. Areas where it is still a notable part of yearly food consumption are uncommon. These include tribal enclaves, a few rural areas where subsistence hunting traditions are strong, and a very few spots where recreational and prestige hunting are major components of the local economy. In prospect, it seems that whatever amount of game remains in the diet of humans in the developed world will be retained for its association with the prestige of the hunt rather than for the nutritional value of the meat itself.