Eating insects: the history of the human hunger for bugs

Top image: Eating insects goes back to the beginning of human time and continues today in more ways than you might think of.

Have you ever thought about eating insects? Do cricket cookies, chocolate covered silkworms, or smoke cured mopper moth caterpillars make you froth at the mouth? This certainly was the case for our ancestors, who, since the beginning of human history have been dining on spicy leafcutter ants, sweet honeypot ants, savory crickets, and an assortment of delectable insect delights. Insect eating continued into the days of civilization too, and continues even today!

But it was not only the earliest apes who had a fondness for grubs and grasshoppers. The word entomophagy, which means to eat insects, derives from the Greek word “éntomon” or “insect,” and “phagein” “to eat.” As humans advanced through the ages, the practice remained a staple in the ancient civilizations of Greece as well as China and Rome.

Later, In the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, eating insects was largely confined to the tropical areas of the earth. It was also an accepted custom in the divine scriptures of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, being kosher as well as halal.

When it comes to eating insects, the fried version seems to be overwhelmingly the most popular cooking style.When it comes to eating insects, the fried version seems to be overwhelmingly the most popular cooking style.

Two Billion People are Still Eating Insects Today!

Nowadays, 2 billion people and 3000 ethnic groups still eat the 2,100 edible insects of the globe, yet in the Western world it remains a taboo topic . However, that is changing. In Europe, insect eating is making a comeback as people have started to realize that they are incredibly nutritious and better for the environment.

For example, a hamburger is 18% protein and 18% fat whereas a cooked grasshopper is 60% protein and only 6% fat. Next, in comparison to livestock, insects are a lot more efficient at converting bio-mass to protein. Forty-five kilograms (99 pounds) of feed produces 4.5 kilograms (9.9 pounds) of beef, but the same amount of feed makes 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of cricket meat.

Insects are also very delicious. Just ask Nicole Kidman, On the topic of fried grasshoppers, she gushes “These are amazing. These are exquisite. Grasshoppers, I recommend them to anyone.” Thus, a strong case exists for eating insects, and the persistence of this habit in human history only serves to strengthen it.

The earliest humans around a campfire after a day of catching insects for the necessity of eating them because there was nothing else!The earliest humans around a campfire after a day of catching insects for the necessity of eating them because there was nothing else!

The Earliest History of Eating Insects

Since the dawn of mankind insect eating has held an important place in the dietary habits of the most primitive humans. Six million years ago, our last common ancestor, the monkey, ate bugs. Because the chimpanzees of today have very similar living conditions, we can reconstruct what life was like for our half-man and half-ape brethren.

We know that primates often feasted on termite mounds by inserting a stick inside the nest, waiting for the termites to climb on, and gnawing them off. Termites were essential as they provided protein which was lacking in their mainly fruit-based diet. Adding to this, archaeological evidence from Jun Mitsuhashi has shown that the fossilized feces of ancient people contained ants, larvae of beetles, lice, ticks, and mites.

Insects continued to be an important food source two million years later for the more advanced Australopithecines, who could walk on two legs and make tools. Unlike earlier generations, they used bone tools to dig for termites. This discovery was made by a team of scientists who made similar bone tools and used them in the same way. They then compared the wear and tear to fossilized bone tools, finding the markings to be exactly the same.

Next, Homo erectus , who appeared on the evolutionary stage 1.9 million years ago and could use fire and cook food, preferred to forage for insects, as they needed protein to support their larger brain sizes.

But with the arrival of the Neanderthals 250,000 years ago, the art of eating insects started to fade. Neanderthals left their homeland in Africa and moved to freezing Europe during the Ice Age. They preferred to subsist on big game and because of the cold conditions there were hardly any insects to forage, and the few that existed were not very big so not worth collecting. As a result, a strong insect eating tradition never evolved in Europe.

Yet not everyone decided to move to Europe. The existence of an ice-bridge between Siberia and North America meant large populations settled in more tropical regions such as South America, where insect eating continued to be practiced and can still be found now. In fact, there are only three countries located outside the tropics where eating insects continued, namely China, Japan, and Mexico.  

Despite this, agriculture was a more popular method of food production. It was preferred because in comparison to growing crops, harvesting insects was more difficult because they were small and hard to find, plus the increasing populations of these early humans could only be sustained by the larger yields of agriculture.

Furthermore, because of the devastation of crops by locust swarms and other pests, insects became the enemy as agriculture became more favored. In addition, the domestication of animals became a more efficient way to produce much needed protein.

Although bug eating eventually came second to agriculture, it continued to play a supporting role, with boiled dragonflies in Indonesia, fire-roasted tarantulas in Latin America, and fried winged-termites in Ghana still remaining popular delicacies to this day.

Grilled scorpions on a stick from Wangfujing street, Beijing, China.Grilled scorpions on a stick from Wangfujing street, Beijing, China.

Insect Feasts of Ancient Societies

In ancient societies around the world such as ancient China, Greece, and Rome, eating insects was a common custom.

According to a study by Yi, He, Wang, and Kuang, insect eating can be found in China as far back as 3200 years ago. Moreover, excavators in Shanxi province found the cocoons of wild silkworms from 2000 to 2500 BC, littered with large holes where they ate the pupae.

The earliest written evidence of insect eating can be found in the Near East and China from the second and first millennia, and a Tang Dynasty cookbook, written sometime between 618 and 907 AD, outlined the uses of wasp larvae and pupae in Chinese cuisine since ancient times. 

After the passing of the Ice Age, the first mention of entomophagy in Europe was in 350 BC. Aristotle, the 4th century BC philosopher, is perhaps best known for his extensive writings on ethics, metaphysics, and politics. However, he was also an avid proponent of insect eating, compiling a diverse array of insect recipes and ponderings in his Historia Animalum.

A whole section of his work is dedicated to the life phases of insects and the most delicious times to eat them. He recommended eating female adults after copulation because of their flavorsome eggs:

“At first the males are better to eat, but after copulation the females, which are then full of white eggs”.

One of his favorite insect-food thrills was the cicada, which tasted best in their final stage of development:

“The larva of the cicada on attaining full size in the ground becomes a nymph; then it tastes best, before the husk is broken”.

He also said that female locusts cooked in sweet oil with their eggs still inside them were “very sweet” , and he deemed grasshoppers a mouthwateringly nutritious snack.

Fried cicadas in an herbal dish that looks very appealing or . . .?Fried cicadas in an herbal dish that looks very appealing or . . .?

Other Greeks showed how widespread insect eating was in the ancient world outside of Athens.

The historian and geographer Herodotus introduced insect spices into the Greek world after travelling for many years. One he discovered was from Libya, where a drying process was used on locust to make a fine powder used to flavor milk. Also, Diodorus, a historian, caustically nicknamed the people of Ethiopia the “Acridophagi” because of their love of grasshoppers who are from the insect family “Acrididae.”

Elsewhere, in ancient Rome, Pliny the Elder, the 1st century BC author, in his Naturalis Historia, noted how Romans loved to eat beetle larvae raised on flour and wine in order to make them meatier.

But towards the end of the 1st century BC, eating insects became less popular. Evidence suggests that there was a growing recognition that insects were the causes and spreaders of diseases and agricultural destruction. Moreover, the discovery of peoples in the New World, who were often smaller and weaker than Europeans and subsisted on an insect-based diet, led to a distancing of insects as a food as it became considered primitive and unhealthy for the body.

Consequently, during the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, there were only a few scattered mentions of entomophagy which mainly referenced the robust insect eating cultures of the tropics.

For example, in 1550 Leo Africanus of Morocco documented how nomads in Arabia and Libya ate cooked and dried locust. Moreover, French philosopher Foucher D’Obsonville described the eating habits of Asians, Africans, and Arabs in 1783, writing how grilled locust tasted like prawn.

Inside Europe, bug eating remained a curiosity and examples of it were rare. For instance, in the 16th century Ulisses Aldrovandi detailed the use of fried silkworms by German soldiers fighting in Italy.

Calls to reconsider insects as a food were even more scarce. French naturalist René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur, in his Memoirs of the History of Insects of 1757, reported examples of insects as food in French provinces, but also made an impassioned plea to bring insects back to the dining table without much effect.

However, the few examples of insect dishes in Europe that can be found today show that a small insect eating tradition did persist. Caterpillars can be found on menus in France and Belgium, in Germany bee larvae is eaten, and in Italy Cazu marzu cheese can be found on Sardinia, made with live insect larvae. Even the first recorded case of insect eating can be found in Altamira, Northern Spain, in a series of cave paintings dating from 90,000 to 30,000 BC. However, the practice was nowhere near as large as that found in the tropics and in China, and largely died out after the Ancient Romans.

Locusts or grasshoppers ready to be eaten.Locusts or grasshoppers ready to be eaten.

Eating Insects as Worship

The holy books of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have a few things to say about insect eating. The Old Testament recommended Christians to chow down on locusts, beetles, and grasshoppers. In Leviticus 11:22 it proclaims:

“Even these of them ye may eat; the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind”.

This advice was eagerly taken by John the Baptist, who persisted on locust and honey during his time in the desert. Jews were a little stricter on this, with the Torah indicating that:

“Every swarming thing that swarms upon the earth is a detestable thing; it shall not be eaten”.

On the other hand, there were some exceptions to this, as 4 types of insect were considered kosher:

“However, you may eat the following kinds of winged creatures that walk on all fours: those having jointed legs above their feet for hopping on the ground”.

In Islamic lore, the Koran justifies the consumption of locusts, describing them as “game of the sea” and “Allah’s troops” . Alongside this, bees, ants, lice, and termites were also viewed as halal.

The modern cricket burger is already for sale in places like the Netherlands and one day we may have to resort more to eating insects as meat becomes too environmentally expensive.The modern cricket burger is already for sale in places like the Netherlands and one day we may have to resort more to eating insects as meat becomes too environmentally expensive.

Breaking Taboos

In Europe and other places without bug eating traditions, munching on insects is considered taboo because they are perceived as dirty and disgusting. Yet in other societies, such as the many Jewish settlements around the world, the European penchant for shellfish like shrimp and lobster is seen as equally as repugnant.

But taboos are often misleading, and they often change through time. For example, in the 17th and 18th centuries, feeding lobsters and other shellfish to servants and prisoners was considered an extremely cruel punishment in Europe. In the same vein, a modern revival of insect eating in Europe is surely paving the way for the break-up of one of the longest standing taboos in history.

From the early days of man up to the present day, insect eating was and still is a truly a global phenomenon, albeit one that meandered in and out of fashion like a butterfly caught in the wind.

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