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An empirical study of cultural evolution: the development of European cooking from medieval to modern times

  • Author(s): Lindenfors, Patrik;
  • Envall, Ida;
  • Isaksson, Sven;
  • Enquist, Magnus
  • et al.

We have carried out an empirical study of long-term change in European cookery to test if the development of this cultural phenomenon matches a general hypothesis about cultural evolution: that human cultural change is characterized by cumulativity. Data from seven cookery books, evenly spaced across time, the oldest one written in medieval times (~1200) and the most recent one dating from late modernity (1999), were compared. Ten recipes from each of the categories “poultry recipes”, “fish recipes” and “meat recipes” were arbitrarily selected from each cookery book by selecting the first ten recipes in each category, and the numbers (per recipe) of steps, separate partial processes, methods, ingredients, semi-manufactured ingredients, compound semi-manufactured ingredients (defined as semi-manufactured ingredients containing no less than two raw products), and self-made semi-manufactured ingredients were counted. Regression analyses were used to quantitatively compare the cookery from different ages. We found a significant increase in the numbers (per recipe) of steps, separate partial processes, methods, ingredients and semi-manufactured ingredients. These significant increases enabled us to identify the development of cookery as an example of the general trend of cumulativity in long-term cultural evolution. The number of self-made semi-manufactured ingredients per recipe, however, may have decreased somewhat over time, something which may reflect the cumulative characteristics of cultural evolution at the level of society, considering the accumulation of knowledge that is required to industrialize food production.

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