Another day another diet, it sometimes seems. But do we need to look for new ways to feed ourselves when there is so much evidence for what our forebears consumed?

Many Kiwis will be tucking into their chocolate eggs this weekend for Easter, which marks the resurrection of Jesus but the man himself will have never tried a modern chocolate bar. It is thought to have been created several hundreds of years after his death in 1847 when Englishman Joseph Fry discovered that he could make a moldable chocolate paste by adding melted cacao butter back into Dutch cocoa.

Herewith our guide to 10 historic diets with contemporary comment from nutritionist Nikki Hart.



Our prehistoric close relatives ate meat, and lots of it. Those living near the sea around Spain incorporated shellfish in their diet, but they still preferred to feast on large herbivore mammals - especially reindeer, horses, rhinoceroses and possibly mammoths.


There's evidence that, without the benefit of food-preservation technology, they would eat meat even if it was putrid. Current estimates are that they ate 80 per cent meat and 20 per cent vegetables including berries and nuts. They also weaned their young late, possibly continuing to breast feed until between 4 and 8 years of age.

Nikki Hart: Primitive humans ate meat in times of plenty but must have experienced famine due to bad winters and the lack of preserving techniques.

Nikki Hart.
Nikki Hart.

Weaning means the sterile nature of whole breastfeeding is interrupted, so the young are vulnerable to protein/energy malnutrition. Child mortality is high in those just weaned.

Evolution also has an impact here. The mouth has changed since the Neanderthals. We grind our food more and have incisors for biting, so we are omnivores.


Jesus consumed bread and wine, obviously, but he and his contemporaries had a more varied supper menu than that. He would have eaten a lot of fish – tilapia, carp and catfish all flourished in the Sea of Galilee. It could be eaten with leeks, sometimes battered, dried, smoked, salted or cooked over charcoal.

Meat was expensive, with fatted calves and sacrificial lambs being eaten only on special occasions. But you could always fill up on locusts - the Bible describes Jesus's cousin, John the Baptist, eating these.

For the vegetable course, Jesus could choose from miqpeh – a lentil or bean stew left to harden into a cake, or cabbage dressed up with the likes of garlic, mint, dill, cumin and mustard.

Nikki Hart: This was frugal eating. Grain was sown and harvested in times of plenty. Barley provided carbohydrate and there was plant-based protein in the form of the lentil stews.



Russell Crowe in Gladiator.
Russell Crowe in Gladiator.

The popular image of pre-match gladiators ripping into huge hunks of bleeding meat turns out to be highly misleading.

Research on bodies found in a gladiator's grave site shows they carbo-loaded on the likes of barley, wheat, millet and beans and didn't eat much meat at all. This was no secret at the time. The historian Pliny described the fighters as "barley-eaters".

The researchers believe the weight-gaining foods were popular because the layer of fat provided better protection in the ring. They could incur a cut, bleed and keep fighting, which would have made for a much better show. They most likely got their animal protein from fish, and ancient records also describe a plant ash beverage.

This "gladiatorade" was made of vinegar, water and ash from charred plants and would account for the higher than normal level of calcium that has been found in the fighters' remains.

Nikki Hart: Carbohydrate is the predominant source of fuel for brain, muscle and heart. A gladiator must be quick and cognitive to combat his aggressor – but he also needs protein, just as a modern-day athlete does, to recover and repair (but because animal protein was so valued and limited, he used vegetable-based protein beans to boost his recovery).

Attila the Hun

Attila the Hun.
Attila the Hun.

Sure, he was a nomadic mass murderer, but he still had to eat and occasionally stayed still long enough to throw a banquet. A Roman envoy describes one at which Attila "just had some meat on a wooden platter, for this was one aspect of his self-discipline".

The Huns kept and probably ate cattle, goats, horses and small camels, but the meat most commonly eaten was mutton. They consumed sheep's milk and sheep's milk cheese and are known to have drunk horses' blood as well as kumis (fermented mare's milk).

Much of Attila's time was spent on the move with his army, and his soldiers were meat-preservation pioneers. They put meat under their saddles when they went out marauding so that the action of galloping squeezed the moisture out of it. It also mixed with the horses' salty sweat to further dehydrate it.

Nikki Hart: These are modern preserving techniques, or the start of it, but there would have been some upset stomachs on the way. They wouldn't have had time to forage so had to eat cattle. Drinking their horses' blood would have given them iron, but they were low on carbs.

Pre-contact Māori

Māori brought kumara, yam and taro with them when they migrated here. These were eaten along with numerous indigenous vegetables.

According to Te Ara, "wild ferns, vines, palms, fungi, berries, fruit and seeds" became important foods.

Also along for the voyage were the Polynesian rat and dog, both of which were eaten.

As for poultry, there was an enormous range of edible birdlife that had evolved here and was ripe for the plucking, including the moa – for a while, anyway. Te Ara also lists "whitebait, the seaweed karengo, huhu grubs, pikopiko (fern shoots), karaka berries and toroi – a dish of fresh mussels with puha juice" - all part of a rich and varied diet that was supplemented with shellfish such as paua, pipi, tuatua and mussels.

Nikki Hart: Māori are linked to the land and water. Protecting whenua and katao means the food system is safe. It's not about specific kai, it's about protection of the food system and the environment it thrives in.

Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great.
Catherine the Great.

Being Empress of Russia meant you got to eat considerably better than the serfs who kept your empire running, but Catherine was known for her modest appetite.

Her favourite meal was beef served with pickled cucumbers and venison tongue sauce, with fruit for dessert.

However, when it came to entertaining she didn't stint, and her guests were likely to face a table laden with up to 100 dishes.

One report describes a menu consisting of "a dozen soups, poularde [chicken that's at least four months old] and quail with truffles, pheasants with pistachio nuts, bass with ham, teal with olives, tortoise meat, lamb roast, etc".

Nikki Hart: The wealthy were prone to excessive weight gain and health complications, such as gout, due to excessive energy intake, high-fat and high-protein meals, and low levels of wholesome carbohydrates or hydration.

New Zealand colonists

The first Europeans to settle here brought British cooking traditions with them. Genuinely New Zealand culinary innovations and practices were some years in the future, although the more adventurous colonists roasted the likes of weka and kereru, as described by David Veart in his New Zealand culinary history First Catch Your Weka.

Typical of the local diet at the time are the recipes in a popular household cookbook by Eliza Acton called Modern Cookery for Private Families. It was first published in 1847 and its contents give an insight into dietary priorities of the time.

According to Veart, along with recipes for hare and mutton it was big on baking and treats with 48 pages of puddings, 48 pages of sweet dishes and 36 pages of cakes.

Nikki Hart: The early Europeans in New Zealand were still adapting to their environment. They followed a British pattern of eating that wouldn't necessarily work here, such as having hot dinners in the middle of the day in a warmer climate.

It took a lot of time for them to adapt to that. Food is a comfort on many levels, so eating familiar foods would have helped ease their feelings of separation from their home country.

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens. Photo /Getty Images
Charles Dickens. Photo /Getty Images

His books are full of descriptions of food – from Oliver Twist's gruel to Ebenezer Scrooge's Christmas turkey.

But we also have a clear idea of what the famously hospitable novelist ate because his wife, Catherine Dickens, published a volume entitled What Shall We Have for Dinner?Satisfactorily Answered by Numerous Bills of Fare for from Two to Eighteen Persons, under the pseudonym Lady Maria Clutterbuck.

A suggested summer "bill of fare" for eight to 10 persons comprised: spring soup, Palestine soup, salmon, lobster sauce, mackerel a la maitre d'hotel, cucumber, oyster patties, lobster curry, sweetbreads, veal olives, forequarter of lamb. Boiled chickens, tongue, new potatoes, asparagus, ducklings, peas, currant and raspberry tart, custards, lemon jelly, charlotte russe and fondue.

Nikki Hart: People romanticise going back to how we used to eat. We had some high statistics of death from poor food hygiene when we couldn't preserve things. The wealthy ate huge amounts of food but poor people's diet was abysmal.


Before World War II the Nazis began measures to make the country nutritionally self-supporting.

"One pot one people" was almost the kitchen rallying cry, with Germans encouraged to replace the traditional Sunday roast with a one-pot stew and donate the money saved to the Winter Relief Agency.

Erbseneintopf was a typical one-pot dish, a split pea soup made with dried peas, bacon cubes and potatoes, sometimes served with sausages. Quark – made from soured milk – was used as a substitute for butter or margarine.

Rationing started in 1939, a few days before the invasion of Poland. A standard weekly allowance for one person was 700g meat, 350g fat, 280g sugar, 110g jam, 63g coffee, 150g cereal products and 60g milk products. In 1941 everyone got 125g marzipan for Christmas.

Nikki Hart: It is interesting to note that rations due to war could make a county more healthy. Denmark's heart disease risk plummeted from 1939-1945 because the Nazis confiscated all livestock and farm animals and as a result the people ate a plant-based diet.


Astronauts require a special diet.
Astronauts require a special diet.

John Glenn was not only the first American to orbit the earth, he was also the first to eat successfully in a weightless environment, consuming a tube of apple sauce.

Until then, no one knew for sure what the digestive implications would be but it all passed without incident.

Apollo astronauts – the ones who went to the moon – ate mainly freeze-dried foods which were rehydrated with water guns that could use either hot or cold water. Typical dehydrated items included pineapple fruitcake, peaches, beef with vegetables, chocolate pudding and tea with lemon and sugar and freeze-dried ice-cream. Fruit cereal and brownies could be eaten directly from the bag.

Nikki Hart: Astronauts are amazing humans. They have to re-learn how to weight-bear post-flight, their bones could be compromised due to weightlessness and their bowels are not optimised due to not bearing weight while in space.

I assume a Nasa diet would be low-residue (undigested) food, optimised to hydration, low in fat, low in spice, and focused on carbs for mental function and immunity.