Food is a ubiquitous artifact. Found everywhere during all periods of history, it is diverse and symbolic. The study of early human diets is important for understanding the evolution of humans, and archaeologists use various kinds of evidence to determine early foodways, from material artifacts such as food utensils to food residues and even coprolites. The study of ancient foods provides valuable information about health, economics, politics, and religion of early humans and the ways humans adapted to changing environments. Today, Indigenous groups such as the Cherokee are incorporating traditional foodways in cultural revitalization efforts, negotiating with the government to protect their ability to harvest wild foods on ancestral lands.
Many anthropologists take a biocultural approach to the study of food, examining the biological/nutritional role of food and its connection to identity. Agricultural practices such as the Three Sisters practice of the Haudenosaunee are good examples of ways in which human cultures have used their knowledge about food to develop sustainable and healthy farming techniques. Sustainable farming techniques, many of them grounded in traditional practices, typically produce higher food yields, reduce fertilizer costs, build healthier soils, and avoid genetically modified plants. There is also growing interest today in cultural foodways that may increase health and wellness, such as the Mediterranean diet, based on fruits, vegetables, and olive oil, and the paleo diet, which is based on our perspective of early human diets and includes lean meats, fruits, vegetables, and nuts.
Food plays a central role in cultural identity. Cultures practice food prescriptions, or specific foods considered critical to maintaining cultural identity, such as short-grain rice for the Japanese, and food proscriptions, which are food taboos, such as horsemeat in the United States. Feast foods are another way in which cultures use food to mark and symbolize special occasions. In short, what we eat as human societies defines who we are. Some societies, such as the Wari’ in Brazil and many others, have also practiced forms of cannibalism as ways of defining kinship and humanity. Gender and religion are other areas in which food plays a major role in creating boundaries and identities.
Today, many foods are global commodities. Grocery store foods, produced and distributed by transnational corporations, may be shipped many thousands of miles from their points of origin. Access to fresh food is a global challenge, especially in urban environments with concentrated populations. In food deserts, multiple forms of social inequality affect the health and wellness of the whole society. There are also growing numbers of food oases, where local movements offer farm-to-table meat and produce. Food plays an important role in our biological and cultural lives. Given the ongoing challenges of climate change, food insecurity is increasing worldwide as dependable food networks are shifting.