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A brief history of beef jerky: From the ancient societies to today

Jerky is a great way to store meat for long periods and results in a high-protein, low-fat food. Picture Shutterstock
Jerky is a great way to store meat for long periods and results in a high-protein, low-fat food. Picture Shutterstock

There's a rich history to uncover behind beef jerky. It might be hard to believe, especially since it's so common all around us-in grocery stores and petrol stations-but the dried meat treat dates back thousands of years.

Before we get into how beef jerky made its way to Australian shores, we have to discuss the early variations of the dried meat and its roots back in Ancient Egypt. Ancient and modern cultures have all discovered different ways of preserving meat-and for good reason.

Jerky is a great way to store meat for long periods and results in a high-protein, low-fat food. Beef jerky especially is a great snack and is known to be a rich source of protein, zinc, iron, and vitamins. So, if you want a healthy snack, it might be a good time to search for bulk jerky in Australia and stock up your pantry.

Whether you're just a jerky enthusiast or you're enamoured by food archaeology, you're sure to love the history of jerky. For instance, the word "jerky" comes from "ch'arki" which is what the indigenous people in the Andes mountains would call the snack.

Jerky in ancient civilisations

Before we jump into the modern history of jerky and, specifically, beef jerky in Australia, it's time to open the history books to ancient civilisations. During ancient times, drying was essential, especially during harsh winters or whilst travelling.

Whilst we don't have an exact date for when humans started drying meat, there is evidence going as far back as Ancient Egypt and Ancient Rome. A recent study, however, in the Journal of Archaeology from researcher Bent Sorenson believes it could go even further back.

Sorenson believes that our close ancestors, the Neanderthals, had to dry hunks of big game meat due to their hunter-gatherer nomadic lifestyle. They would have made jerky to survive, from animals such as horses, woolly rhinoceros, bison, and even mammoths.

Ancient Egypt

Archaeologists have discovered dried food, including dried meat similar to jerky, in tombs. They believe that thousands of years ago, the ancient Egyptians may have dried mass amounts of meats by laying them out in strips in the sun.

Whilst the ancient Egyptians didn't use the same process or produce the same type of jerky we eat today, the basics were there. Instead, modern jerky is much closer to the process used by the Quechua Tribe of South Africa.

Ancient Rome

The ancient Romans had their own twist on preserved meat, known as "copiette". They typically used meat from animals like horses, donkeys, or sheep, and it would be considered a 'poverty' meal.

It's believed that the ancient Romans also used copiette as rations for their armies. This is because copiette could be stored for long periods without spoiling and was nutritious, making it perfect for long journeys.

Africa and beyond

Records tend to disagree and find it difficult to pinpoint when exactly the first beef jerky was. Drying and preserving meat in a jerky-like fashion has been a massive part of human history ever since we were living hunter-gatherer lifestyles.

From Ancient Egypt to China, Africa and even Native America, jerky can be found throughout history. However, it's important to understand that jerky back in those times would have been made from meat such as deer, elk, or buffalo, not beef.

The Quechua tribe-1500s

The Quechua, a South American tribe in the Andes mountains, is often attributed to the creation of the earliest versions of modern-day beef jerky. They referred to the dried meat as "ch'arki" which was then adapted to "charqui" by Spanish conquistadors.

When covering the history of jerky, it's important to remember whilst the Quechuan people are credited for the creation of jerky, it's more so the origins of the word jerky. Drying and preserving meat had been around before the 1500s, with research suggesting it was a common skill used by hunter-gatherers predating even modern humans.

Other Native American tribes outside The Quechua people were also making their own versions of jerky, with different techniques and meats. For example, "pemmican", was created by the indigenous peoples of North America.

Emperor Wan Li-1599

The history of dried meat is about to get more confusing with a Chinese document from 1599 AD. The text describes the journey of Emperor Wan Li through the southern provinces of China.

During his journey, the emperor is given gifts, including dried meats. It's one of the earliest known mentions of beef jerky in literature, and also sheds light on food archaeology outside the 'Western' world and how jerky-like food developed in Asia.

A history of modern beef jerky

The popularity of beef jerky in Australia can be traced back to the early days of European colonisation of the country. The first recorded instance of beef jerky in Australia was back in 1788 by British settlers, made from lean cuts of beef.

To understand the popularity of beef jerky in Australia and the rest of the world, it's important to look at it through the centuries. So, next time you're eating a piece of beef jerky-you can think about the rich flavours and history.

The 1900s

The 20th century-the 1900s-was a significant century for the growing popularity of jerky. In the 1920s, the first beef jerky factory was established in California, and then the dried meat was also included in soldier's rations in World War 2, becoming popular among the troops.

In the later 1900s, the 1960s and 70s especially, the popularity of jerky began to grow. It was marketed as a healthy and convenient snack in America, and its popularity as a mainstream food spread to other countries, including Australia.

The 2000s

In the early 2000s, a beef jerky evolution hit-and the product became healthier. Major beef jerky companies would add sodium nitrates and nitrites for longer shelf life, but consumers got more aware. Now, more natural and gluten-free beef jerky is on the market.

Whilst most people also think of beef jerky as an American snack, that isn't quite true. Now, a majority of the mass-produced brand-name jerky is created from beef from other countries, such as Australia because it's cheaper.

Statistics have also shown that the beef jerky industry in Australia is a behemoth, and the popular snack is only growing. Data published by Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) shows that the national market for jerky is at $40 million with high-growth opportunities.

Australia is currently home to a variety of different big-name beef jerky brands, as well as flavours. Other forms of dried meat are also on the rise here, including biltong-a dried, cured meat from Southern African countries.