Thoughts on Food, Classification & the General Ecological Niche

A defining feature of anthropological inquiry is identifying the ways in which Homo sapiens differ from other primates and members of the animal kingdom. Out of the many contributions made to this discourse, the general ecological niche model is one of the most pervasive and broadly reaching. This hypothesis posits that a defining feature of the human species is our ability to construct and occupy niches in an unparalleled number of ecological contexts. Such extensive generalism requires a capability of obtaining and processing an innumerable variety of resources in order to survive. The cultural knowledge that is prerequisite for coping with such resource variation is facilitated by the use of symbolic classification and maintenance of resource exchange systems. Together, these attributes have undergirded humankind’s prehistoric colonization out of Africa.

Homo sapiens have been described as the quintessential omnivore. In contrast to a carnivore, an omnivorous forager might behave less opportunistically by taking small parcels of food here and there with less discrimination. However, this generalist strategy can only arise in environments that contain sufficiently distributed patches of food options. When patches are more broadly distributed, an organism might rely on a small set of patches and begin to specialize on these plant resources. Alternatively, some environments offer little in terms of edible vegetation but contain an array of animal food products. Hominids subsist in the harshest of these conditions as well as the most affluent and might be more aptly described as plurivores. How can we account for such immense variation?

One step toward explaining the variability of human subsistence is by examining the process. In general, processing is a way of changing the form of a resource into something more functional. As an example, wood is chopped in order to more easily function as fuel. Broadly speaking, food processing is a method of making a natural resource more edible. When eaten raw, tubers can be poisonous and must be cooked over fire for extended periods before they can be safely consumed. Similarly, cooked meat/vegetation makes calories from food more readily accessible for energy in the human metabolism. Food processing is also a method of extending the duration of a food’s edibility. Raw or undercooked meat, for example, will spoil quickly unless it is frozen or dried. These storage processes are aided by cutting and butchering, a technique that essentially increases the surface area of the food item so that it may freeze or dry more quickly. These techniques have two important effects on human survival. First, more food options are available and considered edible in a given ecosystem, allowing the focal organism to forage with increased optimality. Second, food surpluses can be accrued to fortify the individual or group during an economic or environmental disturbance. But how could such complex processing methods emerge or be maintained?

It can be argued that many, if not most animal species communicate and even categorize phenomena in their surroundings. A ground squirrel, for example, can distinguish between friend and foe, edible and nonedible. The peculiarity of human classification is how dramatically extensive and abstract the symbolization of the material world as become. At its core, language moderates the flow of information about environmental characteristics. This is achieved through symbolic consensus among individual within a network. The diversity and duration of human languages speaks to strength of directional selection that resulted once language was adopted. The classification of food and non-food, edible and inedible, prevents individuals from having to independently innovate using trial and error, thereby reducing the risks of adopting novel strategies. What’s more, categorization and quantification allows individuals to develop and communicate complex processes like recipes or cooking methods. By abstracting these cognitive categories using symbols, icons, and indices, the duration of the category is no longer bound to limits of human cognition. Rather, they are bound to the collection of minds that harbor them and can then be rematerialized in writing or art. However, symbols require interpretation and curation as the environment around them changes through time, otherwise they become obsolete for the current context.

Sociality is implicit in the discussion of communication. However, living in groups affords more advantages then just access to and visibility of information. Social behavior moderates collective actions by reducing the costs of food harvest and processing as well as by facilitating reproductive activities. By way of example, the cost of hunting, processing, and transporting large game is beyond the threshold for a single individual. By acting cooperatively, both the costs and benefits are shared by contributing to the process. Alternatively, individuals may partition into different groups in order to procure a greater variety of resources and nutritional supplements. Through exchange and redistribution, many individuals gain access of food items they would otherwise lose out on. Exchange systems and collective actions carry with them the folly of free-riders and therefore, additional social capital may be associated with certain resources, behavioral strategies, or individuals. As an example, a hunter can gain prestige by consistently making the killing strike. Hunters of similar prestige may exchange more frequently to avoid the cost of exchanging with those that contribute less. Exchange also allows individuals of one community to obtain resources from another community, thus broadening the array of food items available.

The vast ecological generalization of modern humans can be accounted for by the meticulous maintenance of classification and exchange among members of social groups. The impacts of these practices are especially prominent when looking at behaviors associated with food. Harvesting and processing methods in humans are incredibly diverse and offer an avenue to understanding our immense survivability and dispersal within Earth’s biosphere.