Taming Fire and the First Outdoor Grill
About two million years ago, prehistoric humans were as unimpressive as any other wandering land mammal. In fact, our particular species, the Homo sapiens, didn’t even make it to the top of the food chain until about 100,000 years ago – a very recent date with respect to the evolutionary timeline.
The ability to control fire was a pivotal point for human development. It provided warmth and protection, allowed weapons and tools to be shaped, and enabled our hominids (any of the species in the Homo range) to start cooking food. Prior to the advent of fire, the human diet was primarily made up of easily digestible plants, seeds, flowers, and fleshy fruits. Plant stems and roots still couldn’t be incorporated because the raw cellulose and insoluble fibres were indigestible. Raw meat was hard to chew, hard to digest, and was often full of parasites.
Once the early humans figured out how to cook their food over fire, a large variety of dietary options opened up. It quickly became evident that cooked meat was a great source of nutrients and caloric energy, and it naturally became a dietary staple. As the amount of energy they absorbed from their food increased, so too did the survival and reproductive rates of humans. We became stronger, faster, and more prevalent on the earth.
In fact, as the human diet changed, the human body also adapted physically. Teeth that were big and flat (for grinding raw leaves) eventually became narrower and sharper (better for cutting into cooked meat and vegetables), resulting in the much smaller jaw size you see on our own faces today. It’s also likely the increased caloric energy that came from eating meat allowed human brains to grow in size quickly – giving them a competitive advantage over other large mammals that existed at the time.
The big-brain advantage also ended up being the selective feature that allowed Homo sapiens (our species!) to out-compete other species in our genus like H. erectus, and spread all over the world to create our own nomadic communities.
Sheep: Man’s Second Best Friend
Sheep were the first animals to be domesticated as a food source by humans, dating back as far as 9,000 BC in the ‘Cradle of Civilization’ (current day: Iraq, Kuwait, Turkey and Syria). But before they were domesticated, they wandered the fields in a larger, wilder form called mouflon.
The nomadic human groups that first hunted wild mouflon gradually changed the composition of the herds on which they preyed. Humans found out that it was to their advantage to only hunt adult rams and old or sick sheep, sparing fertile females and young lambs in order to preserve the long-term vitality of the herd. Then, as the mouflon became a more established part of their diets, humans started actively trying to protect their new food source from wild beasts (and other hunting groups). Over time with selective hunting and protection, the wild sheep herds became more docile, more fat, and more wooly – much like the sheep we see today.
Eventually, however, it would just start making more sense to corral the sheep in an enclosed space for easier access. Why? Well, there were some other factors involved as well.
Vive la Revolution!
About 14,000 years ago, as humans started discovering the power of domesticating plants, they began to settle in large groups near bodies of freshwater and fertile land. The Agricultural Revolution (otherwise known as the Neolithic Revolution) started spontaneously happening in different places around the world.
Over the next millennium, the agricultural revolution would dramatically transform nomadic groups into sedentary societies that would grow into villages and towns. Humans began to selectively breed cereal grasses like barley and wheat, spending the vast amount of their days growing, watering, and taking care of their crops. However, because meat was still such an important part of their diet, people had to find a better (and faster) way to access it; day-long hunts were no longer an option.
Ergo, the sheep pen was developed. Herding and housing all the sheep in an enclosed space at the center of the village was an efficient way of protecting and maintaining villagers’ main source of meat. There is established archaeological proof that proves the domestication of sheep in early Mesopotamian civilizations from over 10,000 years ago – ranging from bone specimens to dung remains in places where sheep were corralled together.
Other than being a delicious (and nutritious) addition to a diet, the secondary advantages of sheep domestication became even more clear as time passed. Sheep provided dung for crop manure, bone for the creation of needles and arrows, fat for tallow candles, milk for dairy consumption, and wool for clothing. In fact, sheep became such an invaluable part of daily living that they were soon traded all over Europe and eventually, to all four corners of the earth.
Today, sheep farms exist all over the world – even here in Canada!
Want to test out the original grill meat and try your hand at some lamb-centered culinary masterpieces? 10,000 years of history thinks you should!
SunGold Specialty Meats is a federally inspected, HACCP-certified, full-service lamb and goat processing plant located in Innisfail, Alberta, Canada. Operating since 1974, SunGold is proud to work very closely with some outstanding western lamb producers to bring our customers top quality, grain-finished lamb products.
Find out more about our story here and get started on your next food adventure!