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Edible insects throughout human history

edible insects in ancient rome

Insects are a millenary ingredient in the human diet, from our ancestors of the Paleolithic era, through Ancient China to Aristotle's Greece


This edition of Insect Academy’s newsletter is dedicated to all those passionate about edible insects.


We will explore the world of insect consumption throughout human history and answer these questions:


  • What does "entomophagy" mean?

  • How long have humans been eating insects?

  • Why have some countries been eating insects for centuries, while others reject them as food?


And we will even show you historical cases of insect consumption by humans.


So, let's get started!


What is entomophagy?


Well, simply put, it's the consumption of insects.


The term itself comes from the Greek words 'entomo', meaning insect, and 'phagy', meaning eating. The interesting part is that it's not just insects that are part of entomophagy. Arachnids like spiders and scorpions, as well as myriapods including centipedes and millipedes, also fall under the umbrella of this practice.


Although they are not insects, scorpions, spiders, and edible centipedes are also considered part of the entomophagous diet


How long have humans been eating insects?


Think of insects as nutritional powerhouses, right up there with meat and vegetables. When reconstructing the human diet, it’s essential to give insects their rightful place in the diet, taking into account the wealth of nutrients they provide.


In fact, they've been part of the human diet since way back in the Paleolithic era. Picture this: our ancient ancestors ate insects as emergency food, as a dietary complement, or even as delicacies.


Primatologists have shown that many primates, our distant relatives, collect and eat insects, often while foraging for fruit.


Therefore, there are assumptions that humans began eating insects while gathering fruits containing them. These insects were even sweet or, at least, associated with a sweet food, like the bee larvae found in the hive.


Why does insect consumption predominate in tropical countries?


Most of human evolution took place in Africa, where edible insects are plentiful, especially in tropical regions.


Countries near the Equator still hold onto insect-eating traditions to this day. Think places like Mexico, Congo, Thailand, and many more. Just take a peek at a world map, and you'll spot the regions where insects thrive.


Thanks to their year-round warm and humid climates, coupled with lush rainforests, large families of insects are likely to appear in these areas.


Africa map

The countries located near the equator have the greatest culinary tradition with insects, because the tropical climate is ideal for the formation of large families of insects


But in colder climates like North America and Europe, insects aren't as abundant, so their inhabitants would have leaned more towards large animals, like cattle, pigs, and sheeps to meet the caloric demands of the cold continental climate.


It is believed that the cold climate is one of the reasons that may have limited Western societies to adopt an entomophagous diet.


Recorded cases of humans eating insects


Now, what about insect consumption throughout history?


The Bible mentions locusts and crickets as "clean" foods fit for consumption. Yes, over 2,000 years ago. And in China, insects like silkworm pupae, used to produce silk, have been consumed for just as long.


statue aristotle

In the 4th century BC, the philosopher Aristotle mentioned in his book “Historia Animalium” the pleasure he took in eating cicadas, as well as some efficient ways of raising this insect


Ancient Europe wasn't one to miss out on the insect feast either. Aristotle himself wrote about the pleasure he took in eating cicadas, while in Ancient Romans the larva of Cossus cossus was a highly appreciated food.


And if you want more proof, fossils of black soldier fly larvae were identified in fossilized human feces in Mexican caves, dating back thousands of years.


Final thoughts


So there you have it – a brief history of the evolution of human consumption of insects.

For those curious to know more about the subject, we recommend the book "Edible Insects and Human Evolution", by anthropologist Julie Lesnik. A real gem with really clear ideas about the relationship between insects and our diet.


If you liked this article, please tell us what other topics you would like to read about.


To follow the latest trends in insects as food, feed, and other applications, subscribe to the Insect Academy newsletter.


👋 See you in the next edition!


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References

FAO (2010). Edible Forest Insects: Humans bite back!! Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Bangkok, Thailand: https://www.fao.org/3/i1380e/i1380e00.pdf


Lesnik, J.J., (2018). Edible Insects and Human Evolution. Florida, EE.UU. University Press of Florida: https://www.amazon.com/-/es/Julie-J-Lesnik/dp/0813064317


Liceaga, A., (2022). Chapter Four - Edible insects, a valuable protein source from ancient to modern times. Advances in Food and Nutrition Research, 101, 129 - 152: https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.afnr.2022.04.002


Ramos-Elorduy, J. (2009). Anthropo-entomophagy: Cultures, evolution and sustainability. Entomological Research, 39, 271 – 288: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-5967.2009.00238.x


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