It’s 11:08 pm. Do you know where your vegetarian is?
That moment in time is highly symbolic, because if all of human history was compressed into a single year, the emergence of what we now know as vegetarianism and veganism would begin right around that time on the evening of December 31st.
Let’s walk through how we arrived at that destination.
Anthropologists now reckon that some 8 million years ago in the land mass of what is now Africa, the species Australopithecus first evolved from the genus of hominids, which is defined as bipedal primates and includes the ancestors of the great apes. More than 5 million years ago, the fossil record reveals that Homo habilis, a pre-human ancestor able to use primitive stone tools, began to roam the continent.
Fast forward to about 1.8 million years ago, when Homo erectus, who had larger brains, more complex tools and the use of fire, first emerged. From that species, scientists trace the direct descendants that migrated to Europe about a million years ago: Heidelbergs and Neanderthals, which we generically refer to as “cavemen.”
(By the way, DNA evidence now suggests that there are genotypes of Neanderthals among virtually all non-African populations, which means that when a woman characterizes a crude, overly aggressive man as a “Neanderthal,” she’s actually quite accurate, genetically speaking).
Fast Forward in Time
So let’s move on to the emergence of “modern” Homo sapiens, our true ancestors, who used sophisticated tools, had a cranium sufficient to contain a brain as large as contemporary humans, and who began the first attempts at domestication of animals and cultivation of plants. Scientists argue about when these first humans first arrived, but conservative estimates are somewhere around 400,000 years ago.
So let’s be even more conservative and peg the arrival of “humans,” and thus the beginning of human history, at 365,000 years ago.
Thus, if all of history were to be funneled into a single year, then one day would equal 1,000 years, and on hour would equal 41.6 years.
With that calculation, we can then begin to fix the emergence of vegetarianism on our one-year calendar.
To be generous, we can identify 1850 as the beginning of the vegetarian lifestyle. That was the year when the first American vegetarian society was founded, an organization that included such luminaries as Susan B. Anthony (“That’s Me On That Coin”), Amos Bronson Alcott, the father of Louisa May “Little Women” Alcott, and much later, Upton “The Jungle” Sinclair, an avowed Socialist whose epic novel was intended as a political polemic, but who captured such horrific scenes from Chicago’s slaughterhouses that it spurred Congress to enact the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.
That means the origins of vegetarianism 166 years ago would equal about 4 hours of time in our hypothetical calendar year of human history. Thus, the first serious veggies arrived around 8 pm on Dec. 31.
Now realistically, the contemporary version of what we now recognize as an entire spectrum of vegans, vegetarians, lacto-ovo-vegetarians, pescatarians, pseudo-vegetarians, veggie-wanna-bes, Meatless Monday adherents and all the other permutations of non-meat-eating people, began right around the time that PETA was first founded (1980). That’s when the marketing of meatless analog products — veggie “burgers” and tofurkey — began in earnest and the protests over animal rights moved from the fringe to the mainstream.
So using our 365-day scale, that means in all of human history, among all of the hundreds of population groups that settled in every habitable continent in every era where archaeological evidence allows scientists to determine what people ate to survive, the arrival of Veggie sapiens occurred 36 years ago, or 52 minutes.
So, despite all the hot air activists love spouting about the ancient origins of their cult, they and their philosophy stepped onto the stage of human history at 11:08 pm on New Year’s Eve: The countdown’s about to start, the champagne is flowing freely, and if you’ve decided to spend the occasion personally watching that giant ball descend in New York’s Times Square, as I did once upon a time, you’re crammed together with several hundred thousand of your close, personal acquaintances pushing, shoving and groping each other — because that’s such a terrific way to begin another year of your life.
To be kind, a lot could theoretically happen in the last 52 minutes of any year, but measured against everything else that takes place in a typical 12 months of time? It’s likely to be monumentally inconsequential.
Now, I’m not implying that vegetarianism isn’t consequential.
Only that the concept itself, and all of its contemporary disciples, only showed up — literally — during the last few minutes of our species’ long and lengthy history.
Welcome to the party, veggies, but understand reality: We were here long before any of you showed up.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.