History of the Vegan Diet + Famous Vegans in History

Veganism goes back a long way and it was first mentioned by the Ancient Greeks. Pythagoras was a vegetarian, so he may still have consumed eggs and dairy, but thousands of years ago chickens and cows were not crammed in factory farms and submitted to barbaric cruelties to obtain milk and eggs, so I would call a vegetarian diet in that era indeed cruelty-free.

What About Cavemen?

But what about the time before that? What about cavemen? Didn’t they “gorge themselves on meat”? Didn’t they have tons of mammoth flesh in their caves? Doesn’t the paleo diet advocate a lot of (grass-fed) meat? In reality, though, did cavemen really eat so much meat? I have been doing some research and I read some interesting theories by anthropologists, and they claimed quite the opposite.

History of the Vegan Diet + Famous Vegans in History

First of all, it wasn’t that easy to hunt those giant mammoths or other wild animals. It took time, stealth, and a lot of patience. Moreover, not all hunters always returned from their hunting trip; it was dangerous business.

Second, we find evidence of a meat eating diet in paleolithic times, because animal bones are easier to preserve over time. Vegetables are not. Men’s role was hunting, but women’s role was gathering fruits and other grown edibles. It makes sense that we do not find any berry fossils or any other remnants of a vegetable diet, because as we all know, vegetables just rot until nothing is left and will never last throughout centuries, let’s say, even a few weeks.

What do Experts Think?

Dr. Todd Surovel, an anthropologist professor at the University of Wyoming states the following:

“As for the Paleolithic diet, there was no single ‘Paleolithic Diet.’ Diet in the Paleolithic was based on hunted and gathered wild foodstuffs. We know a lot more about the hunted things than gathered because animal bones preserve well in archaeological sites, while plant remains do not. So, it is difficult to know exactly what proportion of the diet would have been made up of hunted vs. gathered foods.”

Source: kcet.org

from-a-to-v-a-complete-vegan-starter-kit

Dr. Jeanne E. Arnold at UCLA answers the question about loads of meat in a paleolithic diet as follows:

“Nope, not much merit at all. People ate probably more non-meat foods than meat foods in every era in human history. It’s just that plant foods don’t leave as clear of a record, and male-dominated sciences focus more on male food acquisition, which is more about meat than female food tasks. You might want to look up protein poisoning, also. It can kill you.”

How About the Middle Ages?

Vegetarianism in the Middle Ages

Let’s fast-forward to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance where meat was consumed in several dishes. Nonetheless, meat was a luxury item and mostly eaten by people of nobility or royalty. A common meal for the poor usually comprised cabbage, beans, eggs, oats, and brown bread. Chicken or bacon were rare luxury items.

Interesting fact: although they ate little to no meat, there did not seem to be a B12 deficiency. This is due to the fact that the B12 vitamin is originally found in soil, and since people did not wash and disinfect their greens as vigorously as we do nowadays, many vegetables still had soil on them, so people still ingested B12. Nowadays the soil’s quality is terrible, being ridden with pesticides and herbicides, it is hard to get any B12 from there.

soil

The Effect of the Industrial Revolution

vegan starter kitWhen did meat become such a frequent food staple in our diets? With the industrial revolution, food was now mass-produced and became cheaper and more available. Basically, the Industrial Revolution paved the way for industrialized animal farming.

Everything was automated, including animals that were turned into products, living beings that were – and still are – considered stock. Cows and horses and other animals that graze and are used for food are called “live stock”. That term always made me think and consider how human society has really labeled animals a step below us, for they are named “stock”.

Labels give excuses for certain actions and cruelties, and labels are not always easily removed.

An Anecdote from WWII

It is interesting to note that – although a few people in history have died of cancer, cancer really got an enormous increase with the sudden high intake of meats in the 20th Century. Due to its availability at grocery stores and supermarkets where the supply is constantly being replenished, making it available 7 days a week, 365 days a year, the consumption of meat has catapulted.

WWII

Let’s look at this example of Norway and Finland during WWII. The Second World War lasted from 1939 to 1945 and in the Northern countries Norway and Finland were combat zones, which led to scarcity of many food items. Due to rationing, the diet changed considerably, and the consumption of vegetables, fish, and potatoes increased. Tobacco and alcohol was also not that accessible anymore. In those years, rates of cancer and heart attacks decreased considerably.

After WWII ended, dietary habits returned to what it was before, giving rise to more fat, meat, and milk consumption and thus escalating cancer and heart attack rates again.

Veganism in History

The history of vegetarianism and veganism is a neglected part of history, although it has always been there. Why has it been so neglected? What could be the cause of that? Perhaps this was due to us having lived in a male dominated society for so long, and men’s role has historically always been that of the hunter while women plowed the land or took care of their vegetables in the garden – if they had the luxury of such a garden …

berries

There could be several theories as to why this has been so neglected. Veganism is on the rise, though, and it is not only a diet, but it has grown into a social justice movement for animal rights.

Many vegetarians or vegans in history adopted the diet because they did not want to harm their animal brethren. Let’s look at this list of historical vegetarians / vegans and see why they chose to exclude meat from their diet.

Famous Vegans and Vegetarians in History

  • Pythagoras
    • He was not only a mathematician but also a philosopher, and he taught his followers that animals had souls, which meant that they could also be reborn in a different body after death. Since souls of humans could return in animal bodies upon rebirth, Pythagoras said that eating animals would damage the purity of one’s soul. He also claimed that eating meat made humans wage war against each other. Simply put, by eating misery and violent deaths, you place that energy withing you.

Ancient Greece

  • Plato
    • Plato is one of the Greek philosophers that is very much respected and recognized even today, after thousands of years. He spoke against the indulgence of flesh and  advocated a plant-based diet for health reasons, arguing that meat was an unnecessary luxury that drove to decadence and war.
  • Theophrastus
    • He was a student of Aristoteles. Although Aristoteles believed that animals were irrational beings and that humans had no ethical duty towards them because of that, Theophrastus was of a very different opinion. He believed that killing animals for food was wasteful and unprincipled.
      He also theorized that war must have driven humans to eating meat, since wars had destroyed all crops that should have been eaten instead.Theophrastus also opposed animal sacrifices, believing that they would not please, but enrage the gods.
      temple and offerings
      It’s interesting to see how these three men have used spiritual arguments for not killing animals and how they have related war to the consumption of meat. Even today, many animal advocates relate the world violence to the brutality that is done to animals for consumption, a violence that is finally ingested in human bodies.
  • Leonardo Da Vinci
    • Da Vinci was considered a true man of the Renaissance, a polymath, a painter, sculptor, scientist, philosopher, writer, engineer, inventor, musician, and poet; a man of high intelligence. He was a vegetarian. He loved animals, and he wrote that “he could not abide any suffering inflicted on animals or the horror of man inflicting any pain on them”.
  • Francis of Assisi
    • Although he was not a strict vegetarian, he strove to teach Christians the moral obligation to treat all animals with compassion and mercy.

      Voltaire
      Voltaire

  • Voltaire
    • This French philosopher called the practice of eating meat “men feeding upon carnage”. He published many written works in which he condemned mistreatment of animals.
    • “Men fed upon carnage, and drinking strong drinks, have all a poisoned and acrid blood which drives them mad in a hundred different ways.”
    • He wrote in the Philosophical Dictionary: “How pitiful, and what poverty of mind, to have said that the animals are machines deprived of understanding and feeling. . . “
      Frankenstein
  • Mary and Percy Shelley
    • Both were vegetarians and advocates for animal rights. Even Frankenstein’s “monster” was described as a vegetarian.
  • Albert Einstein
    • He became a vegetarian in the last year of his life, but he had been advocating and supporting vegetarianism for a long time. In his own words: “I have always eaten animal flesh with a somewhat guilty conscience”
      Albert Einstein

Final Thoughts

The list is much longer. I will continue this list of historical vegetarians / vegans in a follow up blog post. It is interesting to note that the mentioned people’s reasoning for following a vegetarian diet was not much different from the reasoning of vegans and vegetarians today. They all recognized animal cruelty and refused to participate in it. Some even advocated this peaceful lifestyle to others. Da Vinci, for example, was not only a vegetarian and a multi-talented individual, he was also an animal rights activist.

I believe that it is time to challenge this ever-present notion of cavemen having nourished themselves purely on meat when history shows that most people had diets that consisted of nuts, cereals, and fruits, with some fish or occasionally chicken.

When we think of Ancient Rome and Greece we imagine what the movies showed us, blood and gore in the Roman arena and Romans gorging themselves on meat. While it was certainly true that the rich ate more meat, the average Roman had a more plant-based diet.

gladiators

It is also important to note that gladiators were given a strictly vegetarian diet to keep them in top form. Unlike the common representation in movies, gladiators were meant to last several fights. If you ran a Ludus (a gladiator school) it was not convenient to get one of your fighters killed. A lot of money was invested in his training and upkeep. So, losing a gladiator was not great for business.

As a history lover, I thought that this was interesting research. Although I was aware of some facts, I have always wanted to explore the history of vegetarianism more in depth. History classes do not always teach us the whole picture.

Sources:

Thesis by Anahira Rahimi: The Impact of WWII on the Cancer Rates in Norway

Impact of Industrial Revolutions on Food Machinery

Food and Drink in Medieval Times (medievaltimes.com)

B12; Why it’s Not Just a Vegan Issue (riseofthevegan.com)

Did Cavemen Really Eat Tons of Meat, or is the Paleo Diet Accurate?

World History of Vegetarianism

The Hidden History of Greco-Roman Vegetarianism (Britannica.com)

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19 thoughts on “History of the Vegan Diet + Famous Vegans in History”

  1. Thank you for this rich history here an i will say this is great to see here. Honestly speaking, I cannot seem to grasp my head around how long veganism has existed but I know it is actually a great thing to see here. I just like the overview that has been given here and i like how it has been effective too. This is just perfect for me to see here. Thanks

    Reply
  2. Such an interesting read, Christine! Two thoughts came up while reading:

    * In my language (and yours 🙂 ) it’s not that obvious, but in English it is. History is HIS-story, not her-story. I don’t suppose it really is the etymological origin, but it has always struck me as typical.

    * In my younger years I attended folkmusic weeks. They were full board and we had to tell in advance whether we wanted to be in the ‘meat’-dining room or the vegetarian one. And we were always grinning to each other during lunch or dinner that those ‘meaties’ were really noisy people that couldn’t control themselves.

    Your list of famous vegetarians/vegans include a lot of my heroes. Might this be an unconscious “soort zoekt soort” (the same kind looking for each other, I am not sure exactly how to translate it right). 🙂

    Reply
    • Hi Hannie,

      I have actually heard that before, that history is HIS-story, and that has often been the case, hasn’t it? 😉
      It’s interesting what you write about the folkmusic weeks, how the “meaties” were the noisier people 😉
      The list also has many of my heroes. I have always admired Voltaire and now I do even more 🙂

      Reply
  3. Very interesting article. I am also a history lover and found this fascinating. It makes sense that ancient humans would have been vegetarian or vegan out of necessity. Hunting would have been very difficult and dangerous in those days. I have been considering the vegetarian diet and do grow most of my own vegetables. Living with a meat-eater definitely makes meal planning more difficult. Especially when the budget doesn’t allow for two separate meal plans. I have been gradually substituting some of our favorite dishes with a vegetarian version with some success. We have a type 1 diabetic grandson who is frequently here, would a vegetarian diet be suitable for him? He is only 6.

    Reply
    • Hi Deb,

      I understand that it is not easy to budget for two different meals when both follow a different diet. You could try to “cheat” 😉 your partner with Beyond Meat products. They have fooled many meat eaters. I shared some info in this article about vegan burgers here.
      The vegan diet has often been credited to being able to keep the blood sugar more stable. Whole grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruits have a lower glycemic impact on blood sugars.

      Reply
  4. I was not aware the vegan had a long history, and so many famous people were vegans! Which shows people even back then they knew the tremendous benefits of vegenism. This is reassuring that being vegan is after all very beneficial for your body and the planet.

    Thank you for sharing

    Reply
  5. As a Christian, I was always taught through the Bible that humans were vegetarians or vegan if you will until they disobeyed and ate from the forbidden tree. After that, they started consuming animals, and the practice continues until our days.

    Regarding cavemen, it’s logical they did not eat much meat since it was hard to get it. In fact, I remember reading that food was scarce back then, and that’s why human bodies adapted to preserve their fat. That’s why it’s inherently easier to gain weight rather than losing it.

    I did not know about all those famous philosophers. I had read about their works but didn’t know their position on veganism. That was an eye-opener.

    A particular thing that caught my attention was if people didn’t get sick in the Middle Ages for not washing their fruits and vegetables properly? There was a cholera pandemic in that age, wasn’t it? Please correct me if I’m wrong.

    Looking forward to your next post. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
    • Hi Enrique,

      It’s very interesting, I agree.
      Regarding your question, there was a cholera outbreak in the 19th Century which was caused by sewage dumped in a river and also because of people who handled food and did not wash their hands, that’s correct. The Middle Ages had other epidemics such as the Black and Bubonic Plagues.

      Reply
  6. Very interesting! So much I want to say, but where to start.

    His-Story…. I haven’t come accross this before, but it is a real eye opener. History is always written by the ‘good” victors to show how wonderful they are and how clever they were to defeat the ‘bad’ enemy. Really, both sides are just stupid men on ego trips trying to assert their strength over everyone else so they can take whatever they want from those who are not able to defend themselves…… unfortunately, not much has changed, has it?

    Eating meat causes acidity in the body and acidic bodies are ‘sick’ bodies. II also believe, but cannot prove it, that those who are acidic, or toxic, have a lower vibration. Their cells are not able to function as nature/god/universal intelligence intended and so become weaker every time they replicate.
    It becomes obvious when our bodies are degenerating at a faster than normal rate that we should turn our attention to our diet, as our cells use what we are consuming to repair and replace themselves. If they are not doing a good job (if we are sick) then we are not feeding our cells with the right ingredients that they need to be healthy.

    It’s interesting that in the movies about times long past, that bands of men are often shown gorging on meat before going to battle or when celebrating afterward. I have to agree with Voltaire and Plato that consuming a diet based on meat tends to alter our mindset so that we become more agressive.
    We just need to look at nature to see this in action. It is by necessity that the animals who hunt, kill, and consume, others are naturally more agressive and sneaky. However, many of the largest animals who are vegetarian, like the elephant and blue whale, while being incredibly strong are not agressive, unless attacked or threatened.

    I went too university and studied agriculture in the early 80’s in New Zealand. Although I completed my degree, I never put the knowledge I learned into practice. I Went because I loved animals…. but all that I learned was about exploitation of the land, plants and animals. I was young and idealistic at the time and really had no idea how the world operated…… lets just say, it was a real eye opening experience, and luckly it changed my life forever……..

    Thank you for sharing this important post. The main message I got out of it is that the world is not always as it seems, and we should not always believe what we are taught by our institutions, because, they are just following an agenda that has been set by the victors. And the agenda is for their benefit, not for the benefit of all humanity!

    Reply
  7. Hi Andrew,

    If agriculture includes teaching about exploitation of animals – which is very clearly being put into practice everywhere – then I believe that universities must update their programs’ contents. The world must learn to become more compassionate. If we can’t show compassion to our fellow beings, then how can we show it to ourselves, right?
    Thank you for your valuable comment! I am grateful for your wonderful input to this topic!

    Reply
  8. Thank you so much for this highly informative article, Christine! It’s fascinating to think about the true origins of veganism/vegetarianism. As someone who is attempting to adopt a vegan diet (it’s proving to be more difficult than I expected it to be. Please pray for me. Haha), I like to know the history of the diet, its’ health benefits, and the best ways to adopt and maintain it. I will definitely be back with questions (and hopefully, updates. Haha). God bless you!

    Reply
  9. Wow, when you read some of the names you mentioned above here…

    it makes you think about how they were really on to something. I dont think you could have made a more impressive list through the ages.

    You cant fail to be impressed. I recently read that the romans did indeed have more of a plant based diet than we are led to believe.

    The thing I have found recently is that more people than ever are turning plant based (myself included) and it makes you realise that we dont need to eat the amounts of meat that is consumed by many.

    very interesting read, wonderful thanks.

    Reply
  10. Hi Christine,

    What a remarkable piece. I very much agree that animal brutality is horrible and has to be stopped. I can see how veganism is progressive and allows you to live with more intentionality while also improving your overall health; whether it’s avoiding toxins or finding healthier food options.

    It’s really fascinating to learn about its history and of these great people whose stamp of approval only goes to show why we should have more conversation about it.

    Thanks
    Femi

    Reply
  11. Thank you for this great article on the history of the vegan diet. I find this so interesting! I think I fit in with the poor persons diet. I will definitely be trying the vegan starter kit and recommending to my friends. The price is great for all that you get! What is recommended after the 2 weeks?

    Reply
    • Hi Alyse,

      I also find the history of the vegan diet very interesting, and I enjoyed writing this article.
      After your two weeks with the vegan starter kit you should be ready to continue with a vegan diet. The starter kit sets you up with many delicious recipes, tips and advice, meal plans, and even recommendations when you’re going to a non-vegan restaurant and want vegan meals. This kit is very complete.

      Reply
  12. This is another great article, Christine.

    it is interesting reading about the Vegan Diet. it reminds me of my Biology teacher when I was in high school. He was a vegetarian.

    I wish Vegan Diet is something that I can practice but honestly, I don’t trust myself in that area.

    But in all, you have great content here for those who need it.
    well done.

    Reply

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