Our hunter-gatherer ancestors, were very concerned with a high calorie intake. The quality of a meal wasn’t nearly as important to them as acquiring enough food to survive.
But eventually just eating plain meat can get a bit boring. That’s probably why prehistoric Europeans began to spice their food as far back as 6,000 years ago. For instance, garlic mustard has been found in ancient pottery shards in modern Germany and Denmark. Since the spice has little nutritional value, it is thought that it was used simply to enhance the flavor of otherwise bland ancient European meals.
Spices were probably being used in other parts of the world even earlier. Traces of coriander have been found in an Israeli cave dated to 23,000 years ago, as one example.
Around the same time they began spicing their food, many Northern Europeans were acquiring a taste for milk. With the advent of agriculture 10,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers began to domesticate animals like cattle. So sometime between 7,500 and 6,500 years ago we know they were milking cows and goats. Once again, we know this thanks to examining some high-quality ancient storage pots.
In regions with fewer food options, milk became very important, as it was an easy source of nutrition. The human body usually stops producing the lactase enzyme which allows us to digest dairy, after the breastfeeding period. A few biological mutants in the cattle-raising populations, however, didn’t shut off their lactase production at adulthood and were therefore able to utilize milk as a food source without any uncomfortable side effects. These people were less likely to die of malnutrition or lack of food, and therefore were able to have more offspring, propagating future progeny with lactose tolerance.
For this reason, many Northern Europeans and other cattle-rearing populations, like the Maasai of East Africa, have much lower rates of lactose intolerance then the French, Spanish, or Oriental populations.
Cheese then began to become a preferred source of nutrition due to its ability to be stored and used year around, even when fresh milk wasn’t available. Thanks to yet more ancient pottery, we know that prehistoric Europeans were eating cheese as early as 7,500 years ago. Since just about everyone was lactose intolerant back then, cheese was much easier to digest than milk, since it contains less lactose than whole cow’s milk.
Thanks to our ancestors food survival needs and instincts, we today can enjoy a wide variety of foods. Many of these foods are identified with certain ethnicities and cultures due to preferences of spices and preparation techniques developed thousands of years ago. But today we can enjoy a variety of sausages, cheeses, and a wide variety of other foods because of our ancestor’s need for survival.