Gathering Food from the Wild

ANDREA PIERONI

Introduction

Gathering food from the wild represents one of the most complex aspects of the use of wild plants, and was closely intertwined with the history of the first human communities. Although past hunter-gatherers are often thought of primarily as dependent on the hunting of wild animals, archaeological and ethnographic evidence shows that plant foods always formed the bulk of their diet. The only exception is in areas such as the Arctic, where it is too cold for most wild food plants to grow. Even in agricultural communities today, the gathering of wild plants frequently remains important for nutrition and food diversity.

In recent years it has become obvious that food and medicine are closely linked; a food plant may be used for medicine, and vice versa. Moreover, eating food from the wild is not simply an essential response in times of famine or food shortages, or an easy way to obtain primary nutrients, but more often a complex evolutionary process, involving different aspects of the relationship between humans and their natural environment. Non-cultivated gathered food plants are often weedy and grow in environments disturbed and managed by man. In addition, eating these plants provides many micronutrients and phytochemicals that are now known to play a central role as antioxidants in the prevention of various illnesses, especially age-related diseases.

The use of such plants reflects local tastes and customs, and is often a strong force for identity and social cohesion, particularly among women. In many cultures women organize the gathering of wild plants and the management of home-gardens.

It is impossible to list and discuss here the huge number of wild and weedy plants traditionally collected and consumed. This chapter covers some of the important species throughout the world, with a special emphasis on edible greens. These are mostly collected in the spring, when the leaves, stems, and buds of wild plants are softer and less bitter. There is little archaeological evidence relating to edible greens compared to nuts and seeds, which are more likely to survive. However, evidence from the diet of primates suggests that consumption of young leaves has always been a feature of the diet of modern humans and our hominid ancestors. Nuts, berries, and grains, also gathered from the wild both before and after domestication, are discussed in separate chapters.

See: Nuts, Seeds, and Pulses, pp. 133-52; Fruits, pp. 77-96; Grains, pp. 45-60

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