How far back does the vegan lifestyle reach? Is veganism a modern-day invention? Were there vegans in ancient times? In this first edition of The History of Veganism series, we look back- way back- to ancient times
What is the history of veganism? Is it a creation of hippies and hipsters? A modern diet fad? Or does it reach back further? Well, today we’re going to go back–way back–okay not that far, to the ancient times to see where the philosophy of veganism took root. [tweet this]
This is the first in a series on the history of veganism. I actually started off intending to do a video on the history of veganism, but after days of being glued to my computer, I realized an all-encompassing video would be far more than nugget size.
The other caveat I’d like to throw out there in my obsessively thorough manner, is to state that I will most definitely leave out important people and important events in this series–it’s inevitable and happens in every historical account ever composed. And the farther back we go, the less comprehensive the information.
You’ll also see that hard and fast information on what exactly particular ancients ate isn’t always explicitly stated. There is undoubtedly more that we don’t know abut times past than we do. This video will attempt to be as linear and chronological as possible but there will be large gaps and a bit of jumping about.
You’ll also notice in today’s video post (getting tired of my pre-notes?) the striking complete and total lack of any women in this synopsis of ancient times. Is this because women were not important or influential? Not at all. But they were incredibly marginalized and in most societies seen and treated as inferior–not that that drastically changes in modern history–but that’s for another time.
So, all of that out of the way, onwards to: The History of Veganism!!! (part one) <– you really should watch the video for my dramatic delivery.
One of the many arguments against veganism is that it’s a relatively new phenomena and that humans have “always” eaten meat. now this video isn’t going to focus on the question of when we began eating meat nor whether we are meant to eat animals. However, I’ll just note that while historians, anthropologist and archeologists have difficulty agreeing when we started to consume animals, they do seem to agree that it’s something we started some time in our human ancestry, not something we’d always done.
Paleoanthropologist Briana Pobiner with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History focuses her research on the evolution of meat-eating in humans. She says,
“The meat-eating that we do, or that our ancestors did even back to the earliest time we were eating meat, is culturally mediated. You need some kind of processing technology in order to eat meat, and there’s an amazing amount of social diversity in the way that meat is used, cooked and eaten in the modern world. So I don’t necessarily think we are hardwired to eat meat, but it is an important part of our evolutionary history.”
And the man himself, Dr. Richard Leakey states:
“You can’t tear flesh by hand, you can’t tear hide by hand… We wouldn’t have been able to deal with food sources that required those large canines”
And Hillary Maywell of National Geographic posits that:
“Some early humans may have started eating meat as a way to survive within their own ecological niche.”
Now, Leakey and Pobiner, at least, put forth that eating meat is a very vital and important step in our evolution. Exactly when and how that happened, and how it has affected out biology, however, is an ongoing heated debate. But the consensus of the field remains that we did not always consume animals.
That preliminary aside, what we’re going to delve into is the question: Once humans started eating animals, when and how did some decide to speak out against this practice?
To find the origins of veganism, we must look to the history of vegetarianism, as the term “vegetarian” was used well into the 1900s to describe what we now refer to as a vegan diet, as well as other notable variations (lacto-vegetarian, ovo-vegetarian, etc.) So it’s often difficult to know what all the ancients were abstaining from.
Of course, in very ancient times, there wasn’t an overarching term for this way of life, though the Greeks did refer to it as “abstinence from beings with a soul.” The lack of a unifying term was mainly because the earliest forms of abstention from consuming and/or exploiting animals were linked to religious or spiritual practices, with the followers identifying by their denomination or practice rather than any unifying concept. And…there was no Internet.
Perhaps the earliest known potential evidence of at least vegetarianism goes back to 7000BCE, over 9,000 years ago, to a town called Mehrgarh, belonging to the Indus river civilization. It’s widely known that followers of the Hindu religion do not consume meat and while the exact beginning of Hinduism is vague, its philosophical foundation reaches back potentially as far as Mehrgarh, far before any written text or scripture was made. The term Hindu is etymologically linked to the Sanskrit Sindhu, which is the ancient name for the Indus river, and was a term the Persians used to identify the people living near river. [tweet this]
Ancient Hindu texts have many references to the practice of nonviolence towards non-human animals. The Bhagavad Gita states:
“One is dearest to god who has no enemies among the living beings, who is nonviolent to all creatures.”
And the Srimad-Bhagavatam:
“To be non-violent to human beings and to be a killer or enemy of the poor animals is Satan’s philosophy.”
“Meat cannot be obtained without injury to animals… He who does not eat meat becomes dear to men, and will not be tormented by diseases. There is no greater sinner than that man who seeks to increase the bulk of his own flesh by the flesh of other beings. … Thus having well considered the disgusting origin of meat and the cruelty of fettering and slaying of corporeal beings, let him entirely abstain from eating flesh.”
“I give you all plants that bear seed everywhere on earth, and every tree bearing fruit which yields seed: They shall be yours for food. All green plants I give for food to the wild animals, to all the birds of heaven, and to all reptiles on earth, every living creature, it shall be theirs for food.”
So in the utopian times of the garden of Eden, humans and animals were “created vegan”.
In Egypt from 1380–1362 BCE Akhenaten, known as “the heretic king” was an Egyptian Pharaoh and pacifist who banned animal sacrifice and traditional Egyptian religion and instituted a religion based on compassion and monotheism. Akhenaten believed it to be sinful to take away any life given by Aten, his monotheistic deity.
“No sacrifices were offered up in his temple; the fruits of the earth alone were laid on the alters” [tweet this]
In Psalm 36:6 of Hebrew scriptures, King David writes:
“Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your judgments are like the great deep; you save humans and animals alike, O lord”
While there is debate as to whether King David actually composed the psalms and no certainty on the date it was composed, he lived around 1040-970 BCE.
Around 950 BCE comes a quote attributed to King Solomon in Proverbs 12:10 in which he states:
“The righteous one regards the life of his animal but the heart of the wicked is without mercy.”
“I decided that God is testing us, to show us that we are no better than animals. After all, the same fate awaits man and animals alike. One dies just like the other. They are the same kind of creature. A human being is no better off than an animal… How can anyone be sure that a man’s spirit goes upward while an animal’s spirit goes down into the ground?”
Much like Hinduism, Jainism doesn’t have a set starting date. The earliest Tirthankara, or teacher, of Jainism to be accepted as a legitimate historical figure is Pārśva, who lived around 877–777 BCE.
However, as he was the twenty-third Tirthankara, Jainism certainly reaches back much further in time, with many of its practitioners believing there is no start date at all. one of the main tenants of Jainism, is Ahimsa: non-violence. This principle is applied to all living things, even plants.
Although they admit that plants must be destroyed for the sake of food, Jains accept such violence only inasmuch as it is indispensable for human survival. Strict Jains, including Jain monks and nuns, do not eat root vegetables such as potatoes, onions and garlic, because tiny organisms are injured when the plant is pulled up, and also because a bulb or tuber’s ability to sprout is seen as characteristic of a living being. They will also brush the ground in front of them before they walk to avoid crushing insects and wear masks over their mouths to avoid breathing them in.
Between 786-746 BCE, Hosea 2:18 from Hebrew Scripture was written stating:
“I will make for you a covenant on that day with the wild animals, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety.”
And in 740 BCE we have the proposed Isaiah 11:6 and 65:25 which states:
“The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together”
“The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.”
These quotes are in line with many Hebrew and biblical prophesies of peace between humans and animals which hold this relationship up as the ideal.
The Yogashastra (c500bce), a Jain scripture, states that:
“Non-injury to all living beings is the only religion…this is the quintessence of wisdom; not to kill anything. All breathing, existing, living sentient creatures should not be slain, nor treated with violence, nor abused, nor tormented, nor driven away. This is the pure unchangeable law. Therefore, cease to injure living things. All living things love their life, desire pleasure and do not like pain; they dislike any injury to themselves; everybody is desirous of life and to every being, his life is very dear.” [tweet this]
Sound familiar? Yes, well before your Facebook petition, people were advocating for animals over 2,500 years ago! [tweet this]
In the 8th century BCE, the 700s, we have the proposed writing of Homer’s The Odyssey, though it was verbally passed down before that. In The Odyssey, Homer speaks of the Lotophagi (the lotus eaters), an indigenous people on the North African coast who live off the lotus plant’s fruits and flowers, which also acted as a narcotic. Take that one with a grain of salt. Or a narcotic plant!
Around 600 BCE there is the estimated birth of Siddhārtha Gautama (The Buddha). There is ongoing debate as to his validity as a historical figure and his and his followers’ adherence to vegetarian diet, however Chinese Buddhism, and Taoism in the late 4th century, required that monks and nuns eat an egg free, onion free vegetarian diet. Since abbeys were usually self-sufficient, in practice, this meant they ate a vegan diet.
Many religious orders, like the Jains, also avoid hurting plant life by avoiding root vegetables. Chinese spirituality generally believes that animals have immortal souls, and that a diet of mostly grain is the healthiest for humans.
The Japanese Emperor Tenmu banned the use of livestock and the consumption of some wild animals due to the influence of Buddhism. This ban was renewed by succeeding emperors throughout the Asuka period classical civilization.
Now we’re going to move into Greco-Roman times and a slight shift from spiritual/religious-based objections into more philosophical ones, though spiritual matters still feature prominently.
The Greco-Roman diet was mainly composed of cereals, vegetables, and fruit, with ample research of ancient bones showing that the gladiators and warriors in ancient Rome were predominantly vegetarian. 
One of the most commonly cited ancient sources of pro-animal philosophy is Pythagoras, who lived from 570 BCE to 495 BCE, he taught that all animals, not just humans, had souls, which were immortal and reincarnated after death, a concept called transmigration. Since a human might become an animal at death, and an animal might become a human, Pythagoras believed that killing and eating non-human animals sullied the soul and prevented union with a higher form of reality. Additionally, he felt that eating meat was unhealthy and made humans wage war against one another. For these reasons, he abstained from meat and encouraged others to do likewise, perhaps making him one of the earliest campaigners for ethical vegetarianism.
Abstention from meat was a hallmark of the so-called Pythagorean way of life though it’s unclear as to how many of his followers practiced this strictly. Both Orphics, the followers of Orphism, a set of beliefs based on the mythical poet Orpheus, and strict Pythagoreans also avoided eggs and shunned the ritual offerings of meat to the gods which were an essential part of traditional religious sacrifice.
A famous statement attributed to Pythagoras is often cited as evidence of early animal-advocacy and a chilling prediction of what was to come:
“As long as man continues to be the ruthless destroyer of lower living beings he will never know health or peace. For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the seed of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love.”
Even among those not following Pythagoras, there was a widely held belief that in the beginning of human’s existence, our ancestors were strictly non-violent and that in this utopian state of the world hunting, livestock breeding, and meat-eating, as well as agriculture were unknown and unnecessary, as the earth spontaneously produced in abundance all the food its inhabitants needed. This is also evident in the garden of Eden as we saw in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.
In 490 BCE we have the birth of the philosopher Empedocles, who distinguished himself as a radical advocate of vegetarianism specifically and of respect for animals in general. Like Pythagoras, Empedocles believed in the transmigration of the soul, that souls can be reincarnated between humans, animals and even plants. For Empedocles, all living things were on the same spiritual plane.
Another prominent figure in history, vegan or not, is Plato who was born around 428 or 427 BCE. He was influenced by Pythagorean concepts but did not go as far as Pythagoras did. It is unclear exactly what his diet consisted of, but Plato’s teachings asserted only humans had immortal souls and that the universe was for human use.
Yet, in The Republic, Plato’s character, Socrates, argues against the slaughter and consumption of animals on the grounds of ethics, the prevention of disease in the body, the prevention of war and strife amongst humanity, and the overall hindrance of achieving happiness. (Sound familiar?)
Also, Plato is quoted as saying:
“The gods created certain kinds of being to replenish our bodies…they are the trees and the plants and the seeds.”
Thus, to Plato, abstention from flesh is warranted out of a desire for peace, happiness, and health, though he still believed humans to be superior.
In the Platonic Academy, the scholarchs (school heads), Xenocrates and (probably) Polemon, pleaded for vegetarianism. And in the Peripatetic school Theophrastus, Aristotle’s immediate successor (get to him soon) supported it as well.
Some of the prominent Platonists and Neo-Platonists in the age of the roman empire lived on a vegetarian diet. These included Plutarch, Apollonius of Tyana, Plotinus, and Porphyry. (More on him soon as well.)
Aristotle was Plato’s famous student who also believed that the universe was for human use and that only human souls were immortal. Aristotle argued non-human animals could not manage themselves without human aid in spite of all evidence to the contrary.
However, Theophrastus (around 372-287 BCE), a Greek biologist and philosopher and student of Aristotle, argued that killing animals for food was wasteful and morally wrong. He argued that war must have forced humans to eat meat by ruining the crops that they otherwise would have eaten, which is rather similar to the anthropological statement we opened with about humans turning to the consumption of animals out of necessity due to competition or shortage. Also unlike Aristotle, Theophrastus proclaimed that animal sacrifices angered the gods and turned humanity towards atheism.
From 304 BCE–232 BCE lived the Buddhist Emperor Ashoka who was vegetarian and a determined promoter of nonviolence to animals. He disseminated detailed laws aimed of the protection of many species, abolished animal sacrifice at his court, and admonished the population to avoid all kinds of unnecessary killing and injury.
Sometime between 206 BCE–220 CE the Han Dynasty in China creates tofu. (And vegans around the world celebrated.) [tweet this]
Between 60 BCE and 30 BCE Diodorus of Sicily, a Greek historian, writes his epic 40-book, Universal History or Bibliotheca Historica, in which he transmits tales of vegetarian peoples or tribes in Ethiopia.
Moving on to 43 BCE, when Ovid is born. He was a Pythagorean-influenced Stoic who, in his poem Metamorphoses, pled for people to abandon animal sacrifice and abstain from eating flesh.
Influenced by Pythagoras and Epicurus, the Roman philosopher Seneca (c.4 BCE-65 CE) adopted a vegetarian diet. Seneca denounced the cruelty of the games used by Rome to distract the citizenry.
In 46 CE we come back to Plutarch, the Neo-Platonist whom I mentioned earlier. He adopted a vegetarian diet and wrote several essays in favor of vegetarianism as well as arguing that animals were rational and deserving of consideration. Of particular note is his essay, On the Eating of Flesh, in which he relays anatomical arguments inline with today’s vegans and vegetarians, like the inefficiency of the human digestive system to handle flesh and fact that humans lack the claws and fangs necessary for to the satisfaction of a carnivorous appetite.
Yes, we’ve been answering the canine question for at least over 2,000 years. [tweet this]
Jump ahead to 205 CE and the birth of Greek philosopher Plotinus who taught that all animals too feel pain and pleasure, which is the first time that we’re hearing this since the ancient Jain scriptures. Plotinus even avoided medicine made from animals. Unfortunately, he allowed for the wearing of wool and the use of animals for farm labor while mandating humane treatment. So close, Plotinus. Getting there, though!
Another religious-based abstention came from Manichaeism, founded by Prophet Mani (216–276 CE). among the Manichaeists, there was an elite group called Electi, or the chosen, who were lacto-vegetarians and adhered to the strict commandment of nonviolence while the common Manichaeists, known as Auditores (hearers) obeyed looser rules of nonviolence. 
Now back Porphyry, yet another Neo-Platonists philosopher I spoke of earlier, who lived from 234- 305 CE. porphyry wrote a treatise entitled On Abstinence from Beings with a Soul, which is apparently the most elaborate known ancient pro-vegetarian text. He also wrote on the impropriety of killing living beings for food. Porphyry argued, much like many we’ve heard from before, that meat eating encouraged violence. However, he went where others had not thus far and demonstrated the ability of animals to reason as well as and argued that justice should be extended to them. We’re getting pretty close to animal rights at this point.
Unfortunately, Porphyry didn’t quite bring it home, but his writing may show evidence that someone, somewhere did. In On Abstinence from Beings with a Soul, he recounts an argument raised to him:
“If, however, someone should think it is unjust to destroy brutes, such a one should neither use milk, nor wool, nor sheep, nor honey. For as you injure a man by taking from him his garments, thus also, you injure a sheep by shearing it. . . . milk, likewise was not produced for you, but for the young of the animal that has it. The bee also collects honey as food for itself; which you, by taking away, administer to your own pleasure.”
Sounds about right and rather vegan-ny, no? Sadly, Porphyry rejected these arguments, stating that the animals and bees benefited from humans caring for them, a counter-argument very familiar today. Thus, he said, it was a fair exchange to use these products while abstaining from consuming their flesh.
Porphyry himself didn’t quite make it to our modern definition of veganism, but this exchange is incredibly fascinating and rather exceptional to see occurring over 2,200 years ago. And while the individual or individuals who made the argument for the abstention from milk, wool, and honey to Porphyry may have been meat-eaters trying to poke holes in vegetarian inconsistencies, it just as well may have been ancient “vegans” advocating for the logical conclusion of Porphyry’s ethics. It’s important to note, as well that this is an ethical discussion outside of any religious influence as almost all the examples thus far.
So, that about rounds out this ancient history of veganism!
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I’d love to hear your thoughts on this–did you know pro-vegan ideals reached so far back? What are your thoughts on the primarily spiritual and religious origins of much of these practices? What, if any, instance we went over surprised you the most? Let me know in the comments!
And stay tuned to my channel for the remaining videos in this series as we move into the middle ages.
— Emily Moran Barwick