Thanks to Joe Kissell of ITOTD  for editing this article. —————————
In the Paleolithic age, fire was invented and was subsequently used for cooking. Cooked food had a dramatic impact on human evolution by helping the development of our advanced brain.  In the Paleolithic age, Fermentation emerged as another important technique. Fermentation, although naturally occurring, is one of the key processes our ancients harnessed to preserve food for longer durations and enabled survival.  In the ancient world, where food sources were mostly local, having access to food in the lean winter season was a major problem for survival and fermentation helped solve that problem to a great extent. We will review shortly, how fermentation had a monumental impact on human civilization rivaling that of the invention of fire.

If you are a resident of North America, you have to thank the ancients for their invention of pickling which employs fermentation and drying.  Legend has it that, Amerigo Vespucci, who was then a stocking agent, stocked Christopher Columbus’s ships with pickles for his voyage that discovered the new world.  Seafaring, aside from being highly risky, also caused several debilitating sometimes fatal diseases, Scurvy being chief among them. Scurvy is caused due to Vitamin C deficiency.  Pickles turned out to be an excellent source of Vitamin C and hence prevented Columbus’s crew from contracting Scurvy on the long voyage and indirectly helped the discovery of the New World.  Captain Cook issued a daily ration of Sauerkraut (pickled cabbage) to his crew on his long voyages to prevent scurvy.

Vikings had learnt how to preserve Codfish by drying and allowed them to take long voyages colonizing Greenland, Iceland and even attempt colonization of North America long before Columbus.  Long voyages were hitherto difficult because of the short shelf life of food. 

Bread and Wine
Patrick McGovern, an expert on origins of ancient wine has proven that wine making was probably invented in the late stone-age/early Neolithic period (8,500 B.C. – 4,000 B.C.).  This probably gives credence to the theory that wine making was invented first and some accidental spillage of wine onto a piece of flat bread resulted in the invention of leavening.  Bread is leavened by the fermenting action of yeast.  Wine is again a product of fermentation and every major ancient culture had developed some form of wine or beer.  Sumerians and Babylonians brewed beer as early as 6000 B.C. We all know the kind of impact alcohol has wrought on us!

Although flat bread is known to have been in use since 10,000 B.C., leavening is relatively new. Egyptians are credited with inventing leavening around 3,000 B.C.  Flat bread was mostly made with Barley and Wheat.  But the high gluten content in wheat that gives bread the rising property quickly made wheat, the preferred grain over rice, oats, barley and other grains available at that time.

What has fascinated me about leavened bread is that there is no leavened bread in the southern part of India that I hail from.  Curiously enough, it is the home of the Dravidian culture which in the view of some scientists, pre-dates the Ancient Aryan civilization of Northern India and so is at least 4500 years old.  So the question is, why is there no leavened bread? 

This led me to look at other older cultures – though China is credited with inventing fermented vegetables and grains, there is no indigenous Chinese leavened bread.  Ethiopians, Japanese, Korean and Polynesian cultures have no leavened bread. As I explored further, I realized that Egyptians, the inventors of leavened bread, were lucky to be a wheat growing culture and as we have seen already before, the high gluten content in wheat gave it the rising property when combined with yeast. However, all the other non-Egyptian cultures listed above including the Dravidian culture cultivated rice, millet, teff and other grains but not wheat. China started cultivating rice as early as 5000 B.C. but wheat was introduced much later around 1500 B.C. So even though fermentation technology was well known within these cultures, they simply couldn’t make leavened bread due to lack of high gluten content in rice.

Given that fermentation is not just a preservation technology but also a taste enhancing technology, every one of these cultures applied their knowledge of fermentation to create their own versions of leavened bread.  In South India, we make “Dosa” and “Idli”  – fluffy pancakes and dumplings, made out of a fermented batter of rice and green grams.  Ethiopians make “Injara” bread made out of a fermented batter of teff. Chinese harnessed some moulds to ferment grains and make “Chu”.  Koreans make the famous “Kimchi” fermented pickle. Polynesians make “Masi” by pickling Taro in an ingeniously designed fermenting pit.  This allowed them to preserve food and survive in the desolate pacific islands that they colonized. “Gundruk” (Nepali Sauerkraut) made by the Nepali community is a fermented and dried vegetable product. “Gari” and “Fufu” are fermented cassava products that are consumed in most parts of Africa.

Fermented Milk Products
Fermented milk products are the other major category of ancient foods and includes butter, yoghurt, cheese, buttermilk etc. Scientists have discovered evidence of fermented milk products in Ancient Babylon dating 5000 years back.  Scientists have also discovered evidence of cheese-making in Ancient Sumer circa 3500 B.C. Today we have 400 varieties of cheese and is an important food through out the world.  Given that most of humanity is Lactose intolerant and aged cheeses don’t contain lactose, it is easy to see why cheese is popular.  Interestingly, in my native southern India, we have yoghurt, butter and buttermilk, there is no indigenous cheese? One reason is that Lactose intolerance is non-existent in that part of the world so milk products could be consumed directly.  Another is that, in India, butter is melted and converted to “ghee” or clarified butter to preserve it, which perhaps obviated the need to make cheese.  “Ghee” is still an important ingredient in Indian recipes. 

Isn’t it scary to think, where will we be without fermentation?
1. Cod, a fascinating book by Mark Kurlansky covers the far-reaching impact of Codfish on the history of mankind. Also covers Codfish preservation techniques of the Vikings and Basques like drying, salt curing etc. 

2. Collapse by Jared Diamond is an extremely well researched book on why and how cultures collapse. It covers the Viking colonization of Greenland, Iceland and attempted colonization of New Foundland. Also covers Polynesian colonization of Easter Islands and other pacific islands and their fermenting pits.  The part where Jared describes how the Inuits survived and outlasted the Vikings in Greenland is particularly interesting.

3. FAO’s website has a lot of details on ancient preservation techniques.

4. An excellent description of Polynesian/Melanesian Pit Fermentation technique by Susan Brown and Edward Mayer on can be found here (PDF File).

5. This National Geographic article talks about Patrick McGovern’s discoveries about ancient wine-making.

6.Wikpedia has a lot of interesting information on Fermentation and links for further reading.

7. New York Food Museum’s Pickle Timeline can be found here.  New York Food Museum also holds an International Pickle Day every year.  Most recent one was held on October 3, 2004.

History of Cheese can be found here. 9. Another article with a similar theme.