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The history of gathering food

The gathering of food, also known as foraging, was practised by the nomadic hunter-gatherer populations to enable them to meet their food needs. With agriculture, gathering was transformed into a systematic task: the harvest. Nonetheless, gathering food in the wild was still a useful way for the underprivileged classes to supplement their diet. Later, as standards of living increased in the industrial era, gathering food in the wild turned into a leisure activity.
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© André Houot, mise en couleurs Jocelyne Charrance / Musée cantonal d’archéologie et d’histoire, Lausanne ; Musées cantonaux, Sion et Musée d’art - Picking blueberries, Mesolithic

Eternal gathering

Alongside hunting and fishing, gathering food in the wild remained anchored in people’s eating habits, even after the advent of agriculture. Nonetheless, it persisted in societies that had not developed any systematic cultures and also among poor peasant populations that have supplemented their diet this way for centuries.

In prehistoric times, populations picked wild, edible plants in order to provide for their food needs. According to the season, nuts and roots were gathered to be preserved while fresh fruit and vegetables were consumed immediately.

During the Neolithic Revolution, nomadic tribes settled and began to domesticate plants and animals. Agriculture arose with the dawn of the first human civilisations and ‘foraging’ (or gathering food in the wild) was transformed into a regulated and systematic task, i.e. the harvest.

The development of merchant society during Antiquity saw the cultivation area turned into a territory and the harvest become an economic activity. In the vegetable gardens that first appeared in Antiquity, then throughout the Middle Ages and beyond the Industrial Revolution, the regulated gathering of food, or the harvest, became one of many practices in the broader field of arboriculture and market gardening.

In the West, gathering food became an urban practice in the 19th century, with the appearance of allotments and an increasing number of private gardens in cities. Botany developed and many specialist publications on the subject of plants and their benefits popularised gathering food. It then became a leisure activity enjoyed by city-dwellers when visiting the countryside. However, the practice was restricted by the fact that harvesting was prohibited in some protected areas.

There existed many ways of gathering food in the 20th century. With the ‘hippie’ movement of the 1960s, for example, it symbolised a return to nature and social engagement, contributing to the emergence of new attitudes towards consumption. An example of this social engagement then resurfaced in the United Kingdom in 2008, with the peas & love movement that started in Yorkshire. Hit by the recession, the town of Todmorden initiated Incredible Edible whereby citizens joined forces to create orchards and urban vegetable gardens for everyone to use free of charge on a self-service basis. The idea reflected a desire for collaborative consumption and mutual support. The concept gradually spread and today there are around 700 other such sites around the world. Meanwhile, gathering food in the wild, is still practised as a leisure activity. The feeling of achievement experienced after finding an edible plant, and the search for a rare item are driving more and more people to pick mushrooms, herbs and berries in wild areas and to rediscover forgotten varieties.

Fruit, vegetables, gastropods?

The term ‘gathering’ is not solely reserved for products from the vegetable kingdom. It also refers to collecting small edible animals such as snails and seafood.