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 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.
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.”
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.
“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.
Documenting meals for this story was not a new project for Matthieu, who often did so along his previous journeys across central Asia. “In Tajikistan, people easily open their homes to you and feed you,” he says. “The tables are filled with colors and when seen from above, they look like a neatly organized tableau. I realized that as a series, these images would be meaningful, showing how people can be kind and generous.”
Later on, Paley was making a road trip across the United States when he became impressed by the portion sizes at the highway pit stops where he pulled over to eat. “It was at that time that I really started to collect images of what was going into my body—sort of like a visual food diary,” he says.
Matthieu continues his visual food diary over the coming weeks on PROOF, sharing a series of dispatches about each of the unique places he documented for this story.
Next, mutton, goat fat, and salty milk tea: The high altitude diet of Afghanistan’s Kyrgyz nomads
Pamela Chen was senior photo editor for “The Evolution of Diet,” in the September issue of National Geographic. This story is part of National Geographic‘s special eight-month "Future of Food" series. Follow Matthieu Paley on Twitter and Instagram.
Related video: The Evolution of Diet