Ancient Food Preservatives: a Survival Mechanism


Long before canned food was first introduced in the 19th century, people had to find different ways to preserve food for extended periods of time. They could only get fresh food in-season, i.e. late spring, summer, and early fall, so food preservation was a survival technique for our ancestors. It was the only way to make sure all the family members would have something to eat during the winter and early spring. Many of the ancient food preservatives our predecessors employed are still used to this day.

How Our Ancestors Preserved Food

Smoking was one of the first techniques people used, which is believed to date all the way back to the primitive caveman times. In those days, men would usually hang the meat up to dry somewhere outside the cave, where it would be safe from pests. The legend says that when they first started hanging meat up in smoky areas, they learned that smoked meat tasted better and lasted longer than dried meat. This in effect makes smoke one of the earliest ancient food preservatives to be used by our predecessors.

As time went on, salt found great use in food preservation. Food curing using nitrites, nitrates, and salts was another method our ancestors used to preserve meat, fish, or even crickets, as was the case with locust-eaters in Libya and Ethiopia. Early cultures used sugar as one of the ancient food preservatives, and storing fruit in honey was among the more common preservation rituals. After sugar was introduced in Europe, people started heating it with fruit in order to dry it and destroy the microbial cells within.

How Pickling Revolutionized Food Preservation

Ancient Food Preservatives

The increased use of salt led our predecessors to invent a mixture of salt and water known as brine, one of ancient food preservatives that’s still widely used today – not just for pickling, but as a refrigeration fluid, as well. Pickling is a technique that is considered to have originated in ancient Mesopotamia. People have pickled cucumbers for at least four millennia. It is documented that Julius Caesar would feed his soldiers with pickles, believing they would provide them with energy and mental strength.

In the middle ages, conquistadors used to fill their ships with pickled foods in order to avoid hunger during these long and uncertain transatlantic voyages. By that time, pickles were already a popular snack throughout England. Their commercial production in North America began in early 17th century, nearly seven decades after cucumbers were found growing in Canada. The process of food preservation got its modern form in the 1860s, with the invention of glass jars with metal tops and microbial sterilization.

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