3.6 Ma-10 000 BCE
The dawn of humanity
Nomadic humans settled and began domesticating species around 10 000 BCE. Thousands of years prior to that though, some peoples of the first humans and of their Australopithecus ancestors, including the well-known Lucy, are thought to have fed mainly on the plants available on their land. Meat was highly likely a commodity of circumstance. Nonetheless, scientists have linked the increase in hominids’ brain size with an increase in meat consumption.
Ahimsa, avoidance of violence
Parshavanatha, one of the masters of Jainism on the Indian continent, taught his followers the principle of ahimsa, the respect for all living things and avoidance of violence towards others.
We owe this famous geometry theorem to Pythagoras of Samos. If he were alive today, he would probably have been called a vegan. However, this Greek religious reformer, philosopher and mathematician never wrote anything, so his life remains something of a mystery. His followers called abstention from eating meat products “the Pythagoras diet”. This term persisted in the 19th century as it was used by the Romantic poet Percy Shelley.
Maat and cosmic balance
Herodotus is often referred to as the “Father of History”. In his work The Histories, he wrote that, in Ancient Egypt, anyone who killed a sacred animal would be sentenced to death. A large part of the population observed religious ‘vegetarianism’ because, according to their belief, animals could complain to Maat, the goddess of justice and cosmic balance, about misdeeds inflicted on them by humans.
Ovid and the horror of meat
In Book XV of his Metamorphoses, the Roman poet Ovid presented the injustice of consuming animal flesh by staging a character from Samos, perhaps reminiscent of the Greek mathematician Pythagoras: “Oh! Impious custom! To bury bowels in bowels; to fatten a craving body by cramming it with the fat of its fellow, and maintain the life of one creature, by the death and murder of another. [...] Whence have men this thirst after forbidden food; Dare you then to eat it, O ye of mortal race? Be prevailed on to abstain, and listen with attention to my precepts and, when you sit down to feast on the well-deserving steer, think and reflect, that you devour the labourer of your fields”.
1st century of our era
In his 108th Letter to Lucilius, the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger affirmed his vegetarianism by explaining that death would cause transmigration and that the souls of men could end up in the bodies of animals: If the theory is true, it is a mark of purity to refrain from eating flesh; if it be false, it is economy “If the theory is true, it is a mark of purity to refrain from eating flesh; if it be false, it is economy.”
Thou shall not kill.
One of the basic beliefs of Mahayana Buddhism is the refusal to harm, kill or eat animals. Monks applied it to the letter, to the point of refusing to drink water that might contain insect larvae.
The Roman Empire
“I am Spartacus!”
Archaeologists recently discovered that gladiators’ diet under the Roman Empire was mostly vegan. They catered to their corpulence, as a layer of fat was to serve as an additional shield against severe wounds. Since they fed on beans and cereals, they were nicknamed Hordarii, which means ‘barley eaters’.
The misanthropic vegan
Abu al-’Ala’ al-Ma’arri, one of the great Arab poets, was a blind reclusive and known for his pessimism. He adopted an ascetic lifestyle and became a vegan at the age of thirty. One of his poems refers to this choice, in beseeching readers to stop consuming meat and all products of animal origin as he considered eating them as an abuse of authority and a crime.
The Middle Ages
A matter of penance
In the Middle Ages, animals were thought to have been created to serve mankind, so meat was a highly desirable foodstuff. However, as a form of penance, certain monastic orders and mystical ascetics excluded meat from their diet. Peasants rarely ate meat, but this was more likely due to the scarcity of meat and their limited means of subsistence than as a moral choice.
The Age of Enlightenment
The thinkers of the Enlightenment explored the question of the role of animals as food, from both hygienic and moral standpoints. Some doctors advocated a plant-based diet, said to be easier to digest and to prolong life, while anatomists endeavoured to demonstrate that the human body was not designed to process meat. Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, wrote in his Histoire naturelle that humans can live by eating plants alone. As for moral well-being, Voltaire called meat “a corpse in disguise”, while Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that eating meat goes against our compassionate nature.
Animal rights and moral vegetarianism
Joseph Ritson, an antique dealer to whom we owe the compiled legends of Robin Hood, was a fervent advocate of the ideals of the French Revolution. He published an essay on abstaining from eating animal products, which he saw as a moral duty. This text influenced English Romanticists, such as Lord Byron, Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley.
The English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote A Vindication of Natural Diet when he was 21 years old. After having been expelled from Oxford University, he was keen to become a surgeon. He became interested in vegetarianism when he took part in a debate on ‘vitality’ as the essence of life. His stance became more radical as he refused to take part in oppressive systems and practices. His text links moral health with physical health, and a meat-based diet with alcoholism, which he saw as one of the worst scourges of his time.
The monster that fed on... berries
Born the daughter of the renowned feminist Mary Wollestonecraft, Mary Shelley was married to Percy Bysshe Shelley. She wrote Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus from the shores of Lake Geneva. In her novel, she depicts the monster’s diet as vegan. He tells his creator Victor Frankenstein: “My food is not that of man. I do not destroy the lamb and the kid to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment.”
The Vegetarian Society
The first association for vegetarians was founded in the United Kingdom in 1847. France followed suit a few decades later, in 1882.
Early 20th century
Bircher muesli and crudivorism
Maximilien Bircher-Benner, a Swiss physician and nutritionist, believed in the theory of vitalism and promoted a raw-food diet based on cereals, fruit and vegetables. His Bircher muesli, made with raw oats, apples and hazelnuts, is his most prominent legacy to contemporary Western food.
The first all-vegetarian restaurant
The German tailor Ambrosius Hiltl, a fan of the diet Bircher-Benner promoted, moved to Zurich in 1898. A few years later, he took over the vegetarian restaurant the Vegetarierheim und Abstinenz-Café and changed its name to the Hiltl.
The Hill of Truth
The Monte Verità colony was founded in Ascona, Ticino in 1900 by the German pianist Ida Hofmann, the Belgian Henri Oedenkoven and the Austrian officer Karl Gräser. They lived in self-built houses and fed on the produce of their garden. Besides strict vegetarianism, they also practised naturism and abhorred the concept of private property. To boost their finances, they opened a sanatorium offering heliotherapy, and vegetarian diets. The colony attracted visits from intellectuals, artists and anarchists, such as Carl Jung, Hermann Hesse, Sophie Täuber-Arp and Erich Mühsam. In 1920, the founders left Ascona to embark on a new venture in Brazil.
“You will be vegan!”
Sophie Zaïkowska, a prominent figure of French anarchism, founded the Foyer végétalien restaurant and meeting place on Rue Mathis in Paris. She co-wrote Tu seras végétalien ! a manifesto promoting a diet free from all animal products. The title page instantly impels readers: “Pour conquérir la santé, l'affranchissement individuel et social, remplace l'habitude par l'application des lois physiologiques. (To conquer health, individual and social emancipation, change your habits by applying laws of physiology.)”
Did you say “veegan”?!
Donald Watson, an English woodworker, contended that, since vegetarians eat eggs and dairy products, he would create a new term for those people who do not eat these. He did this by shortening the word ‘vegetarian’ to ‘vegan’. He also founded The Vegan Society and specified in its newsletter, which had 25 subscribers at that time, that vegan was to be pronounced “veegan” and not “veejan”. According to him, veganism is “the beginning and end of vegetarian.”
Meat Is Murder – Music serves the movement
Meat Is Murder, the second studio album by the British band ‘The Smiths’, became part of the animal-welfare movement that had been growing beyond simple eating habits.
Vegan cuisine earns coveted award
ONA became the first vegan restaurant to be awarded a star in the Michelin guide. The name of the restaurant is the abbreviation for Origine Non-Animale (Non-Animal Origin). It is run by Claire Vallée, a former archaeologist and self-taught chef.
This figure represents the approximate number of vegans worldwide. As a comparison, it is more than nine times the population of Switzerland, and 1% of the world population of 7.8 billion.
Will cows become extinct?
Some predict that, by 2040, only 40% of the world population will still be eating meat of animal origin, while 35% will consume lab-grown meat and 25% vegan meat substitutes.