The Origins of Human Diet and Medicine: Chemical Ecology

Front Cover
University of Arizona Press, Jan 1, 1996 - Social Science - 356 pages
People have always been attracted to foods rich in calories, fat, and protein; yet the biblical admonition that meat be eaten "with bitter herbs" suggests that unpalatable plants play an important role in our diet. So-called primitive peoples show a surprisingly sophisticated understanding of how their bodies interact with plant chemicals, which may allow us to rediscover the origins of diet by retracing the paths of biology and culture. The domestication of the potato serves as the focus of Timothy Johns's interdisciplinary study, which forges a bold synthesis of ethnobotany and chemical ecology. The Aymara of highland Bolivia have long used varieties of potato containing potentially toxic levels of glycoalkaloids, and Johns proposes that such plants can be eaten without harm owing to human genetic modification and cultural manipulation. Drawing on additional fieldwork in Africa, he considers the evolution of the human use of plants, the ways in which humans obtain foods from among the myriad poisonous and unpalatable plants in the environment, and the consequences of this history for understanding the basis of the human diet. A natural corollary to his investigation is the origin of medicine, since the properties of plants that make them unpalatable and toxic are the same properties that make them useful pharmacologically. As our species has adapted to the use of plants, plants have become an essential part of our internal ecology. Recovering the ancient wisdom regarding our interaction with the environment preserves a fundamental part of our human heritage.

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User Review  - IreneF - LibraryThing

Interesting but technical exposition of how people counteract the toxicity of plant foods, especially starchy staples, with a special focus on the potato. Read full review


A Model of Human Chemical Ecology
Biological Adaptations for Dealing with Plant Toxins
Technological Methods of Detoxification
Domestication as a Solution for Dealing with Plant
Human Perception Cognition and Behavior
Reconsidering the Model of Human Chemical Ecology
Plant Chemical Defenses as Determinants of
The Dietary Basis for the Origin of Human Medicine
Appendix 1

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About the author (1996)

Timothy Johns was appointed assistant professor of human nutrition at McGill University in 1987. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, with his doctoral dissertation receiving the Distinguished Dissertation Award of 1985 from the Council of Graduate Studies in the United States/University Microfilms International.

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