**Originally published several years ago as part of my project Arthropodology**
A recent YouTube video about seemingly arbitrary things mentioned how, though we here in the West consider the voluntary consumption of insects to be bizarre and taboo, we are in fact the minority. The reality is that over 80% of the surveyed cultures on the planet consume insects on a regular basis. It’s an odd thing when you really think about it. Why don’t we consume bugs more often than we do? Why do we have this seeming “natural” aversion to eating bugs whereas other cultures do it readily? Indeed, many cultures look at our consumption of cow or pig to be bizarre. Most North American and European cultures will gladly eat lobster, crab, or shrimp, but will run for the high hills if you pull out a deep fried cricket. Or, Ceiling Cat forbid, a deep fried tarantula! Why is that? When did it start? In a coming YouTube video I touch on these questions and go a bit further. **Will link when this damned cold goes away and I can finish it**
Let’s start with the assumption that our species is an insectivorious one. Why would I think that? Evidence indicates that our closest non-human primate relatives, the bonobos and chimpanzees, regularly consume insects. This is not incidental consumption, but regular and deliberate. Gorillas and other primates are known to do this as well. But that’s not necessarily enough; what about our ancestors? Cave paintings in Spain dated 30,000 – 9000 BCE depict bee nest harvesting. This could be indicative of honey or even larval harvesting. Analysis of coprolites (fossilized poo) found in the Ozark mountains showed the remnants of ants, beetle larvae, ticks, and mites present. I’ll break that down for you…scientists sorted through fossilized human poop and found leftover bits of insects inside. Yup. Cool huh? 😉
Pliny the Elder wrote of the Roman aristocracy’s love of beetle larvae reared on a diet of flour and wine. Aristotle also got in on the action many years later writing about the best methods for procuring the tastiest cicada “larvae” (modern entomologists would refer to that stage as nymphs). Silkworm pupae appear to have been consumed in parts of ancient Shanxi, China (~2500 – 2000BCE).
Ancient Romans, Greeks, many Native America tribes, Chinese, Australian Aboriginal peoples, and pretty much every other culture. Because the West is largely influenced by the Judeo-Christian-Islam sphere of history you might be thinking that somewhere along that history rose a moratorium on the consumption of bugs. Well, yes, and no. All three of those religious rely on aspects of the Old Testament. In those pages are rules stating the acceptability (kosher law) of some foods. Guess what? Crickets, grasshoppers, and locusts (winged grasshoppers) are A-Okay by OT terms. There’s also reference in Exodus of this thing called Manna from Heaven. Can you guess what that is? That’s actually the honeydew secreted by aphids! Later on, in the New Testament, the travels of John the Baptist are powered only by the consumption of locusts and honey. Scrumptious! But bees, wasps, beetle larvae, and flies are definitely not kosher.
There it is. Plain as day throughout the history of our species, all across the globe. So why are we in the West so opposed to it? To be honest, we’re not sure. The prevailing hypothesis has more to do with a cultural shift in food acquisition rather than religious taboos. Approximately 10,000 years ago many cultures made the life altering shift from hunting and gathering to plant and animal based agriculture. Some cultures became reliant upon the growth and storage of grains while a few became dependent upon cattle and a pastoral lifestyle. Though this intensive lifestyle allowed for more awareness and control over food production it also have the unfortunate side effect of making our previously mobile societies stuck in one location and thus more susceptible to disease and other previously unknown hardships. Not only were disease epidemics more likely among human populations, they now would impact our cattle and flocks. When locusts could once be used as a comfortable source of food, now they were a threat to our crops with the potential to devastate entire fields in days.
From there we see some critters making their way into western diets over the years but mostly they fall by the wayside until now. There is a push to bring back the bugs. Some think it’s just a novelty and will never get any full traction among westerners. But I am hopeful. With global food, especially protein shortages, projected in our not-so-distant future it is important we explore all avenues of making food readily available. We need to get over our fear and irrational cultural perception that crickets are the enemy. They may in fact, be one of the best chances we have at a sustainable and healthy future.
To learn more about the history of entomophagy, current and future prospects check out this FREE book:
Published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations – Rome 2013