Swarthmore College Environmental Studies

5 February 2006

Bon Appetit

There are inner two forces that drive our consumption of food: hunger and appetite. Hunger is a biological (and painful) sensation that prompts us to take in food for the sake of subsistence. On the other hand, appetite is more of a psychological product, causing food consumption that is solely in the interest of our personal pleasure (Foreyt). In exploring the act of feeding oneself within early human hunter-gatherer societies, some people may claim that the conception of appetite is a byproduct of today's world of cookies, ice cream and overindulgence, postdating hunter-gatherers on the grounds that their sole motivation to eat food was subsistence. Yet, subsistence is a granted motive of food consumption for it is, has been and will be every living creature's goal. While environmental factors were strong determinants of early humans’ diets, food preferences among hominids are discernable. This prompts us to ask: Do these preferences indicate the existence of appetite? When did the integration of the biological aspect (hunger) of feeding ourselves with the psychological aspect (appetite) of feeding ourselves truly arise?

Due to their lack of developed speech and language systems, it may be easy to believe that early humans possessed primitive mental capabilities. However, the absence of sophisticated speech abilities is not indicative of the depth of hunter-gatherers’ mental abilities. Hunter-gatherers’ nomadic lifestyles coursed different patterns, as they were often dependent on environmental factors such as the variation of seasons. These seasonal fluctuations caused certain foods to be available in certain places at different times (Ponting). Hunter-gatherers therefore possessed a large cache of knowledge of their local areas.

The wide variety of available food products did not subject hunter-gatherers to an ever-constant danger of starvation (Ponting). Furthermore, the range of foods permitted a variety of ways in which these early human groups could achieve an "adequate diet" (Southgate). Plants were widely attainable. Fruits provided a source of carbohydrates and water, whereas leafy plants supplied various nutrients. Nuts and seeds were a source of protein, as was meat, but prior to hunting large game (and the use of fire for cooking), hunted animals were often small because they were more easily obtainable.

Early hunter-gatherers exhibited food preference, as they usually only consumed a small portion of these food products which were available to them. For instance, let us examine the “bushmen” of south-west Africa. In their habitat, “...84 different species of food plants are available although the bushmen normally only use twenty-three of them. There are 54 edible animals available although only 17 are hunted regularly” (Ponting 20). Furthermore, let us take note of the bushmen’s staple food the “mongongo nut,” which “contains 5 times the calories and 10 times the amount of protein of an equivalent amount of cereal crops and half a pound (about 300 nuts) has the calories of two-and-a-half pounds of cooked rice and the protein of almost a pound of beef” (Ponting 20). While these early humans could have achieved proper nutrition by means of various combinations of food products, they cherished the most energy-dense food items such as mongongo nuts.

Perhaps in addition to their concentrated energy content, mongongo nuts were an easily accessible and a stable food. Yet some of the other most treasured energy-dense foods were not. For example, let us examine past practices of Aboriginal hunter-gatherers of Australia. Aboriginal hunter-gatherers valued “energy-dense” foods such as “depot fat (on animal carcasses), organ meats, fatty insects and honey” (O’Dea 238). Yet, hunting large animals was not a particularly safe or efficient process, and animal carcasses tended to have a low fat content-- except for at certain times throughout the year. Furthermore, hunting and the task of obtaining honey were relatively energy expensive. So if these hunter-gatherers had the opportunity to obtain energy from more easily obtainable food stuffs such as seeds, nuts and other plants, why did they struggle for these particular products? Since we ourselves inherently employ our senses of taste and sight when consuming food, it is reasonable to suspect that our ancestors did too. Although these foods had a higher energy content, their collection often necessitated greater energy expenditure. Perhaps these energy-dense foods imparted some sort of greater (psychological) pleasure than other foods. In regards to honey, the preferred taste of sweet foods “appears to be instinctive” (Southgate 285). This innate sensory preference proves that the concept of appetite is not some new phenomenon.

The demonstration of food preference does not mean that early humans were indulging in more food than was necessary for their survival, but it does imply that they took more pleasure in some food than others. As today we often associate appetite with the notions of delight and pleasure, we cannot deny the fact that early humans not only needed to fulfill their hunger, but also chose to satiate their appetites.


Foreyt, John P. <http://www.faqs.org/nutrition/A-AP/Appetite.html>

O'Dea, Kerin. "Traditional diet and food preferences of Australian Aboriginal hunter-gatherers". Philosophical Transactions 1991: 233-241.

Ponting, Clive. A Green History of the World. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Southgate, D.A.T. "Nature and variability of human food consumption". Philosophical Transactions 1991: 281-289.


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