biology zoology blog benno meyer rochow food taboos

Food taboos

What to eat and what not to eat

Electronic journals on the internet are becoming increasingly more popular and although I sincerely hope that printed newspapers and books will still be around for many years to come, I have also begun to publish some my research on the web not too long ago. My first article in an electronic journal appeared in the “Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine” in 2009 under the title “Food Taboos”. The article dealt with their origins and purposes.

On a comparative basis food taboos seem to make no sense at all, as to what may be declared unfit by one group may be perfectly acceptable to another. But what about animals? A look at animals shows us that because of their different anatomies, habitats, and skills, different species make use of different food sources. A cat would happily devour an antelope, and a lion would not reject a mouse, but both are not built for these kinds of foods. Pond snails love lettuce, but can never leave their watery realm. It is thus easy to understand why different species should use different food items, but food specialists within a species do also occur and that takes us back to humans. Nowhere on Earth do people make full use of the potential of edible items around them.

Food preferences are culturally inherited, but why? Doctrine and experience are involved. People of this world are not identical: abilities to digest, for example, cow’s milk or alcohol, vary; some food stuffs cause allergies, would be avoided and become taboo. It is thought that pork falls into this category because pigs can harbour disease-causing parasites. Moreover, pigs compete with humans for water, which could have made farmers in dry countries recommend shunning pigs. Beliefs that certain foods can cause a difficult birth (e.g., cryptic fish) or lead to deformed and ugly offspring (watermelons) are behind many taboos affecting pregnant women in some countries. Although medically and scientifically false (the avoided foods are frequently beneficial), taboos of this sort are actually designed to protect life.

When large animals are considered taboo for Orang Asli women and children in Malaysia (they are only allowed to eat small rodents and birds), then this is meant to protect the souls of the weaker members of society from the stronger souls of the big animals. However, allowing only one sector of the society to enjoy a particularly good food, can also lead to the monopolization of that food as reported from Mid-West Nigeria. In some instances food taboos are clearly of ecological value in that they lead to the protection of a resource. If Western Canadian Eskimos (nowadays known as ‘Inuit’ = the ‘real people’) hunt the whale and coastal Indians revere the whale and declare its meat taboo, it reduces the pressure on the resource. Sustainability is also served by the widespread Hindu custom not to completely eat up what’s on a plate, so that some seeds and leftover can be given back to Nature.

Religious beliefs are, of course another major reason for food taboos and the Brahmin Hindu’s avoidance of meat, fish, and eggs is clearly linked with the concept of re-incarnation. Empathy with a poor animal that is to have its life terminated for the selfish reason of being devoured by its killer, is yet another powerful reason for some meat taboos. Finally, food taboos can strengthen the feeling of ‘belonging to a particular group’, foster group cohesion and boost confidence. As someone who likes to travel and experience the various gustatory delights of different countries and cuisines, I find food taboos fascinating and wonder what a dull world we would have if we all ate the same things. Unfortunately the trend seems to be going that way, judging by the popularity of certain globally available fast and so-called “junk” foods. What a sad development for the connoisseur!

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2020.
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