Updated: Mar 18
Food is central to our daily existence, and essentially defines the parameters for how we operate as a species. As hunter-gatherers, we spent most of our time hunting and gathering. As agrarians, we spend most of our time farming. In the industrial era, we trade our time working for other people to earn money to buy food. In the digital age, we’re creating meat in labs. Lord help us.
But food may have played an even deeper role in forming our culture. While none of what follows has been definitively proven -- or come anywhere close -- there are some fascinating food theories that attempt to explain major aspects of our development as a species, ranging from the trippy to the blasphemous. Let’s take a look.
Stoned ape hypothesis
Human evolution is a hotly debated subject, ranging from people who don’t believe it at all to people who track specific moments that were critical to evolving into the beings we are today. While most people agree that today’s humans evolved from some form of primate, how we made the leap is still up for debate.
About 200,000 years ago, the size of the human brain mysteriously doubled. While nobody is really sure how or why, mushroom experts have a hypothesis: apes discovered magic mushrooms and it kicked our brains into hyperdrive.
The hypothesis was first put forth by psychedelic advocate and ethnobotanist Terrence McKenna in the 1990s. "Homo sapiens ate our way to a higher consciousness," said McKenna. "It was at this time that religious ritual, calendar making, and natural magic came into their own."
While this hypothesis was largely discarded at the time, it was given new life by psilocybin mycologist Paul Stamets. “These magic mushrooms open up the amount of information you receive,” Stamets said in the film Fantastic Fungi. “Basically, you can think of it as a contact fluid between synapsis in the brain. Wow, what a competitive advantage. Especially if you’re working with the geometry of weapons or having to put something together that will give you a better chance of survival.”
Although the jury’s still out, it’s certainly an interesting hypothesis. Consciousness is one of the most difficult things to define or study, yet it seems to separate us from other beings on the planet.
Rotten bread caused the Salem Witch Trials
The Salem Witch trials were a scary time in American history, and can be linked to various other inquisitions around the world in which innocent people were accused of being witches and murdered. Once accused of being a witch, there was almost no coming back from it.
In Salem, the witch trials began after young girls Betty Parris and Abigail Williams exhibited severe convulsions and other strange symptoms. Shortly after, several other people in Salem experienced similar symptoms, which prompted a witch hunt to determine who was putting the hex on the townspeople. By the end of the trials in May 1693, 19 people had been hanged, one had been crushed by stones, and four had died in prison—all accused of being witches. Over 300 years later, there still hasn’t been an answer to what exactly happened in Salem.
But the cause may be more logical than mythological. In 1972, Dr. Linnda Caporael of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute posited the hypothesis that rye bread was actually the cause of all the madness. Caporael’s hypothesis is that the brief and intense illnesses were not bewitchment but rather ergotism, a disease commonly contracted by rye. Ergotism forms in rye after a severe winter and a damp spring—conditions that Caporael and other historians claim were present in 1691 and therefore affected the rye harvested for consumption in 1692.
Symptoms of ergotism include convulsions and delusions. In fact, the acid produced by rotting rye is used to make LSD. Safe to say, these young women would have had a wild reaction to a loaf of bread.
To top it off, the witch trials ended in the spring, right after the bread would have all been consumed. Although we’ll never know for sure, rotting bread seems like the most likely cause of the symptoms that prompted the Salem Witch Trials.
How Holy Basil got its name
Ever wonder why Holy Basil is called Holy Basil? While I can’t say for sure, I do have a hypothesis, and it traces back to one of the most famous people in the world: Jesus.
Reza Azlan is a religious scholar who wrote a book called Zealot, a historical account of the human being we know as Jesus Christ. He writes from the perspective of Jesus as a political revolutionary instead of a religious one, citing historic documents as well as religious texts.
Two particular aspects of this book stood out to me. One is that Jesus came from a town called Nazareth, which was a sustainable farming community. There, Jesus would have learned how to be self sufficient and live in harmony with nature. It’s likely also where he would have learned carpentry, which is well cited in religious texts.
The second is Azlan’s interpretation of the time Jesus spent with John the Baptist, who spent a significant amount of his time living in the wild.
...“he went “out into the wilderness” of Judea; that is, Jesus went directly into the place whence John had just emerged. And he stayed in the wilderness for a while, not to be "tempted by Satan,” as the evangelists imagine it, but to learn from John and to commune with his followers.”
By Azlan’s logic, Jesus grew up in a small farming community and spent a significant amount of time in the wilderness. Therefore, he would therefore have intimate knowledge of plants, herbs, trees, and generally the power of mother nature.
Which brings me back to Holy Basil. Jesus performed many miracles on his way to becoming a deity, one of the most famous being that he healed the blind. The most common reason for blindness is a lack of vitamin A. Basil has the highest concentration of vitamin A of any culinary herb. Additionally, basil practically grows wildly in the Mediterranean region of the world where Jesus performed his miracles.
While I don’t have an explanation for how he walked on water, using Holy Basil to cure blindness strikes me as a reasonable explanation for something we describe as a miracle.