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UNIT 16: Food, Demographics, and Culture



Food has always played a variety of complex roles in human societies. In the earliest societies, the desire to share food was one marker of humanity. As communities became more complex, food became invested with a wide variety of meanings that varied widely depending on the time, the place, and the particular food. For this reason, what was the well-to-do Englishman's exotic delicacy could well be another's taboo. Also for this reason, food conveyed what was unique to specific cultures: As one nineteenth-century French food pontiff rightly claimed, "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are." Yet while the history of food can reveal historical differences between societies, it also reveals a shared human need, and how all societies have mediated this need through the lenses of status, class, and culture.

This unit explores dramatic changes in the ways food was produced and consumed as a result of global connections after 1500. These changes were as obvious in the Caribbean as they were on the opposite side of the world in China. Indeed, both regions represent key places where the introduction of new foods produced extraordinary changes in culture, economy, and demography. After 1500, in fact, the histories of both regions cannot be understood without reference to the wider world.

In the three centuries after 1500, patterns of food production and consumption were the engines that drove global processes. Cultures of consumption could shape population movements, declines, or increases. They could also shape identity and express cultural values. Finally, they nearly always enriched some at the expense of many others. In recent centuries, changes in food production and consumption have only intensified, and have helped to shape the many flavors of our global community.


Time Period: 1450-1750

Connections and encounters among peoples and societies are a constant feature of world history, producing patterns of change and continuity. No culture is or was ever static; cultural change is a major feature of human adaptability to a changing environment. After about 1500, the pace of cultural change quickened and the impact of globalization on cultural realms seemed more startling as goods, ideas, and peoples moved rapidly around the globe. The period between 1450 and 1750 saw sweeping cultural and intellectual developments, including the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, Neoconfucianism, major exchanges between large empires (like the Mughal and Ottoman), and a new breed of world traveler. Maritime trade and technology brought about the globalization of labor and the creation of an African diaspora — and carried with it a wave of changing cultural patterns with economic, demographic and environmental consequences.

AP Themes:

  • Examines interactions in economy and politics by demonstrating that interactions between Europeans and peoples around the world went both ways, altering both invader and conquered.
  • Explores change and continuity because the introduction of new foodways altered cultural traditions, but were also reworked into existing traditions.
  • Discusses technology, demography, and environment by focusing on the ways the introduction of new foods was facilitated by technological developments, and by exploring the ways new foods could bring environmental and demographic opportunity as well as destruction.


  • Question 1: How were shifting patterns of food production and consumption related to the process of globalization?
  • Question 2: What effects did the introduction of new foods have on local and regional environments?
  • Question 3: What kinds of social and cultural changes resulted from the introduction of new foods to China, West Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries?
  • Question 4: How does the production of foods influence social organization?


How is this topic related to Increasing Integration?

After 1500, global trade led to the dispersal of regional foods around the world. This spread of foods helped integrate global cuisines, as more and more societies came to rely on similar staples — such as potatoes, corn, and sweet potatoes — to supplement their diets.

How is this topic related to Proliferating Difference?

The introduction of new foods had profound social, cultural, and economic consequences on most societies. These consequences were not uniform across time and space, however, and could lead to rapid population growth in one place and slavery in another. The results often exacerbated cultural and economic differences between the world's peoples.

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