Photographs by Matthieu Paley
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Scroll to the end of the article for a list of dishes and their origins.

Photographs by Matthieu Paley

A Photographer’s Quest for People Who Eat Like Their Ancestors

Matthieu Paley traveled to remote communities around the world in search of the origins of what we eat.

This article has been updated since its original publication on September 4, 2014.

These days, documenting our dinners for the Internet is a universal pastime: sharing your food means that you don’t dig into your plate until you’ve taken a picture of it with your phone and posted it to your social networks.

We embraced this form of photography for our story, “The Evolution of Diet” in the September 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine. Photographed by Matthieu Paley and written by Ann Gibbons, the story traces the food our ancestors ate to see what we could learn from them for feeding two billion more people by 2050.

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A Bajau fisherman clutches an octopus he speared after diving from his boat. A Bajau baby (right) naps by a pan of abalone that will be his family’s dinner.

What Matthieu and I learned in our story research is that early humans adapted to live off the land regardless of how harsh the environment they found themselves in. In our quest to find some of the oldest human diets that still exist today, Matthieu traveled through ice, jungle, savannah, mountains, sea and valley in order to show the inextricable link between the unique places we live, the resulting food we eat, and how diet shapes our culture. “Food is a great source of surprises. My stomach handled it all quite well,” he says. “The trouble was more dealing with the environment that comes with the food.”

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The Tsimane of Bolivia get most of their food from the river, the forest, or fields and gardens carved out of the forest.

In many of the communities we visited, obtaining enough food from the landscape to feed the family was still a matter of simple survival. Matthieu went foraging with the Tsimane people on the forest floor of the Bolivian Amazon, and he accompanied the Inuit in Greenland on seal hunts in ice-laden waters under the fading winter light. He went free-diving to spear hunt underwater with Bajau fishermen in Malaysia, and climbed trees with the Hadza people in Tanzania to harvest honeycombs and eat them on the spot, larvae and all.

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An Inuit girl feeds her brother (left) a bit of liver from a seal their father has just caught. What’s not eaten right away will stay frozen in outdoor sheds; one family’s “freezer” holds the meat, ribs, and jaw of a killer whale and a foreflipper of a bearded seal

“In Bolivia and Tanzania, the kitchen was everywhere and nowhere. And no plates in sight,” Matthieu recalls. “In other countries, the kitchen is a very intimate place – like walking in someone’s bedroom. In the sacred sense, it is the place where the family’s survival is ensured, where the bounty ends up.”

The resulting images that Matthieu brought back from his journey present a global story about how the human race learned to eat and survive in the most diverse corners of the world. We are what we eat—or at least what our ancestors ate.

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Wande and her husband, Mokoa, set out to find food together. The Hadza of Tanzania are the world’s last full-time hunter-gatherers.

Pamela Chen was senior photo editor for “The Evolution of Diet.” This story was part of National Geographic’s special eight-month “Future of Food” series. Follow Matthieu Paley on Twitter and Instagram.

Dishes photographed above, by row. Top: escargots, sardines, and fava beans (Crete); naan in salty yak-milk tea (Afghanistan); fried geranium leaves (Crete); boiled crab (Malaysia); raw beetroot and oranges (Crete); chapati, yak butter, and rock salt (Pakistan). Middle: dried-apricot soup (Pakistan); boiled plantains (Bolivia); fried coral reef fish (Malaysia); bulgur, boiled eggs, and parsley (Tajikistan); stewed-seaweed salad (Malaysia); boiled ptarmigan (Greenland). Bottom: grilled tuna (Malaysia); cooked potatoes, tomatoes, and fava beans in olive oil (Crete); rice with melted yak butter (Afghanistan); fried fish with tamarind (Malaysia); dried apricots (Pakistan); grilled impala (Tanzania; photographer’s utensils shown).