Slaves cutting sugar cane. Island of Antigua (1823).

A history of sugar – the food nobody needs, but everyone craves

(Read the article on one page)

It seems as though no other substance occupies so much of the world’s land, for so little benefit to humanity, as sugar. According to the latest data,  sugarcane is  the world’s third most valuable crop after cereals and rice, and occupies 26,942,686 hectares of land across the globe. Its main output – apart from commercial profits – is a global public health crisis, which has been centuries in the making.

The obesity epidemic  – along with  related diseases  including cancer, dementia, heart disease and diabetes – has spread across every nation where sugar-based carbohydrates have come to dominate to the food economy.

So at this time, it pays to step back and consider the ancient origins of sugar, to understand how it has grown to present an imminent threat to our landscapes, our societies and our health.

Stepping back

Human physiology evolved on a diet containing  very little sugar  and virtually no refined carbohydrate. In fact, sugar probably entered into our diets by accident. It is likely that sugarcane was primarily a “fodder” crop, used to fatten pigs, though humans may have chewed on the stalks from time to time.

Evidence from plant remnants and DNA suggests that sugarcane evolved in South East Asia. Researchers are currently hunting for early evidence of sugarcane cultivation at the Kuk Swamp in Papua New Guinea, where the domestication of related crops such as taro and banana  dates back  to approximately 8,000BC. The crop spread around the Eastern Pacific and Indian Oceans around 3,500 years ago, carried by Austronesian and Polynesian seafarers.

The first chemically refined sugar appeared on the scene in India about 2,500 years ago. From there, the technique spread east towards China, and west towards Persia and the early Islamic worlds, eventually reaching the Mediterranean in the 13th century. Cyprus and Sicily became  important centres  for sugar production. Throughout the Middle Ages, it was considered a rare and expensive spice, rather than an everyday condiment.

The first place to cultivate sugarcane explicitly for large-scale refinement and trade was the Atlantic island of Madeira, during the late 15th century. Then, it was the Portuguese who realised that new and favourable conditions for sugar plantations existed in Brazil, where a slave-based plantation economy was established. When Brazilian sugarcane was introduced in the Caribbean, shortly before 1647, it led to the growth of the industry which came to feed the sugar craze of Western Europe.

Plantation of sugarcane in southeast Asia

Plantation of sugarcane in southeast Asia ( public domain )

Slave trade

This food – which nobody needed, but everyone craved – drove the formation of the modern of the world. There was a huge demand for labour to cultivate the massive sugar plantations in Brazil and the Caribbean. This need was met by a  transatlantic slave trade , which resulted in around 12,570,000 human beings being shipped from Africa to the Americas between 1501 and 1867. Mortality rates could reach as high as up to 25% on each voyage, and between 1m and 2m dead must have been thrown overboard.

And of course, goods such as copper and brass, rum, cloth, tobacco and guns were needed to purchase slaves from the African elites. These were secured through the expansion of industrial production, particularly in the English Midlands and South West. Modern-day banking and insurance can trace its origins to the 18th century Atlantic economy.

Meanwhile, the slaves working the plantations suffered miserable lives. When they were finally emancipated in 1834 in the British Empire, it was the slave owners who were fully compensated – not the slaves. Much of this money  was used  to build Victorian infrastructure, such as railways and factories.

Cutting Sugar Cane in Trinidad, 1836, lithograph

Cutting Sugar Cane in Trinidad, 1836, lithograph ( public domain )

Modern day scourges

In many ways, the story of sugar and tobacco are closely aligned. Both products were initially produced through slave labour, and were originally seen to be beneficial to health. And although both sugar and tobacco have ancient origins, it was their sudden, mass consumption from the mid-17th century onwards that created the health risks we associate with them today.

The idea of “industrial epidemics” of non-communicable diseases, being driven by the profit motives of major corporations, rings true for both. And while tobacco is widely acknowledged to be addictive, sugar can also  drive behavioural responses  that are indistinguishable from addiction.

But in the 21st century, the grip of sugar is stronger than comparable scourges like tobacco, or even alcohol. Sugar is not only ubiquitous – it is potentially responsible for  approximately 20%  of the caloric content of modern diets – but also central to the world’s economy and cultural heritage.

Comments

"Human physiology evolved on a diet containing very little sugar and virtually no refined carbohydrate."

Total BS. Humans crave sugar because humans evolved eating fruit and only fruit, foods replete with fructose. The who idea that the human brain became larger and more sophisticated after humans left the forest flies in the face of the evidence and logic.

The forest provides fantastic nutrition, while the savannah provides terrible nutrition. Humans began eating grasses about 10,000 years ago because of starvation and developed those grasses into our staple foods of today -- rice, wheat, and corn.

Grasses destroy our brains and make us stupid and violent. Humans should not eat rice or wheat, but almost everyone does.

If you want to live a healthy life, eat as much fruit as you can, especially tropical fruit. That will get rid of the cravings for extra sugar.

Tom Carberry

Believe me, those in the business know full well the addictive qualities of sugar. A large part of their resources are devoted to making sugar even more addictive. Take the different syrups for example, just highly concentrated forms of sugar.

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

Sealings from the archive of Doliche.
Classical scholars from the Cluster of Excellence "Religion and Politics" of the University of Münster discovered a large number of sealings in south-east Turkey. "This unique group of artifacts comprising more than 1,000 pieces from the municipal archive of the ancient city of Doliche gives many insights into the local Graeco-Roman pantheon -- from Zeus to Hera to Iuppiter Dolichenus

Myths & Legends

Detail, Chicomoztoc — the place of the seven caves.
Is Aztlan the ancient homeland of the great Aztec civilization, or is it just a mythical land described in legends? The Aztec people of Mexico created one of the greatest empires of the ancient...

Human Origins

Sumerian creation myth
Sumer , or the ‘land of civilized kings’, flourished in Mesopotamia, now modern-day Iraq, around 4500 BC. Sumerians created an advanced civilization with its own system of elaborate language and...

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article