Bugs, despite turning some stomachs in western culture, have been a staple of the human diet since humans were mere hominids, and are still a prevalent food source around the world today.
Julie Lesnik, assistant professor in anthropology at Wayne State University in Detroit, visited App State on March 21 to remind students of the nutritional value of bugs in her public talk, “The Evolution of Insects as Food, From Hominids to the United Nations.”
The talk was coordinated by Appalachian State anthropology lecturer Colin Quinn.
“This talk explores what makes us human,” Quinn said. “Eating is one of those major things that unites us; it’s something we all have to do every day.”
In the talk, Lesnik examined insects as food throughout history and across the world, discussing how humans have developed a reliance on insects for nutrition as well as how the bugs influence human diet in some modern cultures.
“Dr. Lesnik’s work really focuses and challenges us to rethink our models about what our ancestors were eating and recognize that they were probably eating insects,” Quinn said.
Lesnik has devoted her career to researching the importance of insects in the diets of prehominids and beyond, examining fossilized artifacts as well as the diets of primates and insect-eating humans today. Lesnik has sought through her research to discern the differences in insect consumption between primates and determine whether these differences have affected human evolution.
For example, while chimps seek out protein rich termites of the Macrotermes genus, gorillas prefer Cubitermes, which are rich in micronutrients and minerals such as iron. Lesnik’s findings revealed that the early primates who would eventually evolve into humans preferred termites high in fat.
Fatty acids are essential in brain function, and as prehuman primates developed larger brains with evolution, fats became more essential in their diet with time. These hominids, Lesnik said, developed eating habits similar to those humans who eat termites today: eating protein rich Macrotermes year-round, but taking advantage of the seasonal flying termites which had a higher fat content.
While the history of human evolution evidences the importance of insect consumption in humans’ development over time, Lesnik also put focus on the humans that are still eating insects today. Her more recent work examines humans today, why some cultures eat bugs and why others shun them.
Looking at current mapped data, Lesnik connected latitude lines with prevalence of bug eating across the world today. Lesnik analyzed information as affected by the “latitudinal diversity gradient,” which essentially asserts that biodiversity is greatest along the equator. There is more sunlight and in turn photosynthesis closer to the equator, and seasons fluctuate significantly less.This allows for greater insect growth and diversity in these areas, one aspect influencing which cultures rely more on insects as food.
“Latitude predicted edible insects 80 percent of the time, which is a very strong result for logistic regression models,” Lesnik said.
While insect consumption is common in equatorial regions such as Mexico and Africa, it is significantly less prevalent in more northernmost areas such as Europe, Canada and much of America. Because of their lack of year-round availability, insects could not serve as a consistent resource in human diet.
Further, Lesnik said, Europe was under ice until about 18,000 years ago. By this time, Neanderthals were extinct and modern humans had taken over the domain. As a result of this “little ice age,” she said, insects were far from plentiful in Europe and thus not considered a nutritional resource. This does not, however, fully explain Western Europeans’ distaste for bugs. Even after colonizing the Americas, where indigenous people have utilized insect resources for generations, Europeans resisted the adoption of insects as food.
Lesnik said that this was not a result of evolution, but culture.
“This really is a good example of ethnocentrism and othering,” Lesnik said. “Insects are something that we don’t eat but other people do, so they must be starving, or they must be unable to produce any other resource or they must not be smart enough to have the technology that we have.”
This was especially relevant in the European colonization of African and Native American territories. Europeans saw these people as “other,” as people whose customs were backwards and savage simply because they were different from their own. As a result, customs such as eating insects were looked down upon and vehemently resisted.
Lesnik said that Americans today typically view insects as a “fallback food,” a source of nutrition only when nothing else is available. They think of lost hikers and people of impoverished, developing countries who have no other choice but to rely on bugs. With time, Lesnik said she hopes that Americans can increase conversation about edible insects and one day learn to think of insects as a healthy and sustainable resource.
“I offer samples all the time and get gut reactions from people,” Lesnik said. “A lot of times, people will say, ‘Ew, that’s gross,’ and I’ll say that that’s just your biased cultural opinion. So I try to explain to them that that’s a product of their culture, and that people all over the world eat insects.”
Though parents can be grossed out by bugs, Lesnik recommended that parents keep those opinions to themselves and allow their children to develop their own. She hopes that this way children will be allowed to look at food with their own ideas, free of the influence of a culture that tells them to shy away from edible insects.
“There are a lot of things that my parents would be icked out by that I’m not. Crickets might have an ick factor for me, but my children might not be freaked out by it,” Quinn said.
Quinn hopes that products like cricket flour and cookies can allow consumers to move past the image of the insect to embrace the concept in the future.
“There’s such a good payoff to eating insects; we’ve talked about the protein, iron and calcium. Plus, I think this is a really good way to incorporate new foods that we’re not used to,” Shelby Smith, a junior biological anthropology major, said. “I’ve always been very open-minded. So I’ve been open to the idea of eating insects; this has just really made me think about how to incorporate that into my own diet.”
Quinn said the talk did “a great job of connecting the past with the present, making information about the archaeological record and the paleoanthropological record meaningful and impactful in the modern world.”
Lesnik is continuing to study the hominid diet in south and east Africa, and is currently working on her book, “Edible Insects and Human Evolution.”
Story by: Ashley Goodman, A&E Reporter