At the Eating Innovation conference last month in Montreal, I presented my reconstructions of insects in the hominid diet across all of the hallmark stages of our evolution. For instance, it is likely that Homo erectus was foraging for resources in their environment similar to how we see foragers do so today. Therefore, insects were probably utilized in their diets the same as well. I have uploaded a pdf of my entire presentation below.
Click below to download the pdf of the entire presentation.
Big things are already in the works for me in my new city!
Last week I attended the Eating Innovation Conference on Edible Insects in Montreal. It was the first time I gave a talk to a group of people who were already entirely on board with insects as food! MY Q&A portion did not include "have you eaten insects?" or "what do they taste like?" It was amazing!
I have been wanting to get involved with this community for some time now. There are people very active on social media, so I have become acquainted with them in that way, but I was finally able to shake some hands, put faces to names, and have dynamic discussions with them for the first time last week. One of the most notable things was the diverse crowd that was present. In one of the sessions we listed off the disciplines that were being represented at the conference. We came up with at least sixteen. Specialties ranged from anthropology, entomology, and agriculture to marketing, advertising, and business start-ups to name a few.
It was wonderful spending three days surrounded by people with such passion for making the world a better place. Such innovators and forward-thinkers. And then it dawned on me that those words are also often used to describe the people that are part of the revitalization of Detroit. Urban gardens, permaculture, and resource sharing are all burgeoning in the city. Entrepreneurs are making their homes here as well and creating wonderful food and drink culture in the area. I think the D is ready for a big bug banquet of some sort, so I thought, why not bring the next edible insects conference to Detroit?!
Dates will not be set for some time, but you can see that I am already brainstorming and making connections.
In addition to the conference proceedings, we'll have public talks and tastings where everyone is welcome. I absolutely cannot wait. If you are interested in more info or in helping out in some way, feel free to contact me here.
It has been awhile since I posted, but not for a lack of things to say!
I have a new position in the Department of Anthropology at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan! I could not be more excited about the prospects that this city, university, and department have to offer! I have spent my summer quietly moving and settling in, but I am now primed and ready for big things.
In the department, I have amazing colleagues. I am especially excited to be a part of a program with strength in business anthropology. I have so many thoughts on how an insects-as-food movement requires cultural knowledge in order to make it work as a commodity, and I have the exact people around me to help me articulate those ideas.
The city of Detroit is in the midst of an amazing revival. The revitalization happening particularly in the Midtown neighborhood makes me think they might be primed to embrace insects as food.... I am looking forward to talking more with Little Herds, an Austin-based nonprofit dedicated to making a marketplace for bug-eaters, about ideas on how to bring entomophagy to the people of Detroit.
Wayne State University is the right place to support me in these research and public outreach efforts. As a large, public, urban, research institution, WSU is committed to excellence in both academia and the community. I know I am in the right place.
Exciting things, a couple years in the making, are finally afoot!
One, I have an article now available online at the Journal of Human Evolution*. It will be formally published as a part of a special issue dedicated to "The Other Faunivory," an endeavor of many biological anthropologists coming together to look at human evolution's lesser credited insect food sources. I will be posting more on this when that issue is launched. This special issue is based on a session held at the 2012 annual meetings of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Portland, OR. At that session I had the honor of meeting a special guest, Daniella Martin, which brings me to number two..
Two, Daniella Martin's book Edible: An Adventure into the World of Eating Insects and the Last Great Hope to Save the Planet is now available on Amazon!
An excerpt of the book related to human evolution is available here. Daniella does a great job summarizing some of the big points of the evolution of the human diet (and its inclusion of insects) for a broad, popular audience. The book I am currently writing takes the ideas presented here and details them out in academic form.
For instance, Daniella quotes the exact line in Backwell and d'Errico's 2001 PNAS article that inspired my work:
"Termites are a valuable source of protein, fat, and essential amino acids, in the diets of both primates and modern humans. While rump steak yields 322 calories per 100 grams, and cod fish 74, termites provide 560 calories per 100 grams."
Those numbers came from sources published in 1971. We have covered a lot of ground since then and I made it my job to do two things: 1) update the numbers with more recently published data, and 2) make it clear that we should take caution when broadly generalizing the nutritional contributions of "termites," a clade that contains over 280 genera and 2700 species.
My now-available article, "Termites in the hominin diet: A meta-analysis of termite genera, species and castes as a dietary supplement for South African robust australopithecines," begins to address these issues.
Here is the abstract*:
Termite foraging by chimpanzees and present-day modern humans is a well-documented phenomenon, making it a plausible hypothesis that early hominins were also utilizing this resource. Hominin termite foraging has been credited by some to be the explanation for the unexpected carbon isotope signatures present in South African hominin teeth, which suggest the diet was different from that of extant non-human great apes, consisting of a significant amount of resources that are not from woody-plants. Grass-eating termites are one potential resource that could contribute to the carbon signature. However, not all termites eat grasses, and in fact, the termites that are most widely consumed by chimpanzees and by many present-day human populations at best have a mixed diet that includes small amounts of grasses.
Here I review the ecology of termites and how it affects their desirability as a food resource for hominins, and conduct a meta-analysis of nutritional values for various genera, species and castes from the literature. Termites are very diverse, even within species, and this variability affects both their carbon signatures and nutritional value, hindering generalizations regarding the contribution of termites to the hominin diet. It is concluded here that a combination of soldiers and alates of the genus Macrotermes be used to model the insectivory component of the Plio-Pleistocene hominin diet due to their significant amounts of energy-yielding nutrients and potential role as a critical resource for supporting larger-brained hominins.
I create a model of how termites fit into the diet of our ancestors. As of now, this is the best account of insects in the real "paleo diet." They were valuable back then, they are still valuable for many people today, and it would be smart of the Western World to start utilizing insects more in our own diets.
*If you are interested in the full version of this article but it is behind a pay wall, please contact me here and I will gladly send you a pdf.
This August marks the first time that an international conference on entomophagy is being held in North America.
The Eating Innovation Conference is going to be an amazing event, but they YOU!
There is a call for papers and also a call for artists to display film, photos, or any media in the Entomophagy Discovery Room.
The Eating Innovation Conference is interested in uniting as many unique voices as possible on this topic. They are not looking just for academics but also people in farming, cooking, food products, artists, marketers, etc.
If you or someone you know has ever thought about insects as food and how we can make it more widely available in the future, consider contributing or just attending. We need you! If you have questions, you can use this link to send queries to the organizers of the Eating Innovation Conference.
I am very much looking forward in participating and hope to see you there!
Although I may be the first person to make a career out of discussing the role of insects in the diets of our hominid ancestors, I am by far not the first person to think of it. One of the pioneers is Alan Mann, Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University.
While I was in graduate school, I would see Alan at the annual meetings of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists and he was always happy to talk with me about how insects likely made an important dietary contribution to early hominids. His big thing was always that I should dig for termite eggs.. I never dug for eggs, but the thought has never left my mind! I can definitely say that newly hatched insects, or the larvae, offer higher amounts of fat than adult forms, so I am guessing eggs would be similar, although I have never seen any data on it. Trust me, it is in my long-term goals to figure this out!
This April, I get to present some of my findings in a session honoring Alan's work. Here's my abstract:
Social insects and cultural origins
JULIE J. LESNIK. Department of Anthropology, University of Illinois-Chicago
"Alan Mann’s 1972 article in Man, “Hominid and cultural origins,” concluded that one of the significant changes towards becoming human is modification of the diet toward foods requiring a tool for acquisition and that an individual with a stick could have obtained many of these resources. This viewpoint has been embraced by primatologists more than it has by paleoanthropologists, but it is important for current discussions in paleoanthropology to embrace that hominid reliance on tools does not necessitate the preservation of artifacts. In this poster, Mann’s argument will be reinvestigated paying specific attention to the dietary contributions of social insects. Of all the possible foods that become more easily available with the use of a stick (tubers, roots, etc.), insects such as ants and termites provide some of the most identifiable and reliable high quality resources. Reconstructions of the nutritional and isotopic contributions of these resources, however, must recognize that both termites and ants are from taxonomically diverse clades and that variation in their contributions exists at even the caste level. Using the termite genus Macrotermes and the ant genus Camponotus as examples, these insects may provide good sources of energy and protein and would mainly contribute to a C3 carbon isotope signature. Utilizing these resources more intensively than extant nonhuman great apes could account for the dietary shift that supported brain size increase in the australopithecines."
The full list of papers for the session can be found here. I think what strikes me most about the session is the broad range of topics to which he has, in some way, contributed to our understanding. The main thing all of this research has in common though is "the continuation of a perspective that places variation at the center of how our discipline conceptualizes human evolution." Understanding variation is truly the primary goal of all biological studies. For me it is in the dietary contributions of different insect species and castes, but for other biological anthropologists in this group it is in areas such as skeletal development, human/landscape interactions or survivorship across life stages, to highlight just a few.
I am looking forward to being in Calgary April 9th-12th. I hope to see you there! And I hope to see you at this amazing poster session!
The insects-as-food movement is a tricky one. On one hand, there are many people who can be rallied to support sustainable food resources, but on the other, there is an immense disgust factor related to the idea of eating insects. How do we get around this? I think the answer lies in processed food. We have long removed ourselves from what we eat. We don't eat "cow" or "pig," we eat "beef" and "pork" from tidy little packages from the supermarket. Many people get their daily vegetables in the form of Odwalla juice or something else similar instead of eating them in their natural form. Why then would we expect people to open a can of insects - legs, antennae and all - and start chowing down? I think the best way to get people to start eating insects is not to eat the insects, but eat the benefits of insects. Cricket flour is opening that door.
Chapul is a small company with a wonderful mission who makes protein bars out of cricket flour. I had the chance to share these bars with a couple of friends and colleagues. Here is a brief transcript of two of my friends trying the peanut butter chocolate bar:
M: Tastes good. It's chocolate-y
D: Peanut butter chocolate-y
M: Maybe a little light on the peanut butter, but good. It's more peanut -y than peanut butter-y. *reads ingredients* You can definitely taste the dates.
D: Can you taste the bugs?
M: No, of course not. It's good.
D: The bars are dense and satisfying, not oily, you know?
M: Yeah, they're good.
There needs to be more people cooking with cricket flour in order to see the whole potential. It is not something just for protein bars; it can be incorporated in all sorts of baked goods and main dishes. Check out this video about Future Food Salon providing opportunities for people to try many of these foods. They will be in Austin, TX next month and are looking to book in other US cities in upcoming months. A great way to try these foods wherever you are is to sponsor the Austin event being thrown by Little Herds, North America's first charity dedicated to promoting edible insects. Check out the great rewards in their crowd sourcing project!
Additionally, if you or someone you know is interested in trying to incorporate crickets into a dish, get in touch! I will get you in contact with the right people. Who knows, your recipe may be used in an upcoming Future Food Salon!
The AAA meetings are starting tomorrow here in Chicago!
I launched my insects-as-food survey at the end of last week just in time for these meetings. I am hoping that people will be interested in talking with me more about the project and will help by participating and by spreading the word.
To facilitate participation, I am planning on:
In addition to talking research, I hope to talk more about the prospect of insects featuring more prominently in our Western diets. I will be bringing with me a limited supply of Chapul bars. Here is a description of the company and their product from their site:
Chapul Bars are delicious, all-natural bars with protein from crickets-one of the planet's most amazing, energy-efficient creatures. No soy. No dairy. Just our innovative flour made entirely from crickets...inspired by native techniques used for centuries in the American Southwest and Mexico.
Each Chapul flavor is inspired by a culture where insects have historically formed part of a healthy diet, and we donate 10% of all chapul profits to water conservation projects in those regions.
It's simple...Learn from our ancestors, choose a sustainable diet, and make the world a better place. Simple, but revolutionary.
Just from their description you can tell why I am very interested in their efforts. I will have all three of their flavors: 1) Peanut butter, chocolate, 2) Dark chocolate, coffee, cayenne and 3) Coconut, ginger, lime.
If you are interested in trying a bar, contact me here and we will arrange to find each other at the meetings!
I am looking forward to a great conference! Hope to see you there!
A nice piece about University of Wisconsin professor, Gene DeFoliart (1925-2013).
DeFoliart started his insects-as-food work back in 1974 and has been the leading researcher on the topic ever since, taking his work beyond academia in effort to promote a change in attitude in the Western World.
Furthermore, DeFoliart believed in open-access research and was publishing his latest book for free on his personal website. Although he was unable to finish the project, his bibliographic account remains one of the most comprehensive sources on the use of insects as food by people across the world.
October 16th was world food day, so I thought I would share this map showing insects consumed around the world.