The History of Meat: Butchering

Last time we were here we talked about the history of meat and the way it works as a part of humanity and as a portion of the human condition.  Having touched on that, we are now going to go further by quite a span of time.  Doing this we are moving forward to go beyond just hunting and eating, and we are going to get into the topic of butchering meat as a profession and a necessity.

A great tradesman, plying his trade!

A great tradesman, plying his trade!

We spoke last time about how we, humans, would not be here if it was not for our burning need to survive.  To phrase that properly, climbing down from the trees to eat meat changed our biochemistry, it changed our brains, and the end result was that we became able to digest fatty acids that made us smarter.

            The previous paragraph is an oversimplification of the matter at hand – to fully understand it, you should go back and read about it here

            We will wait for you to read it…


            OK, are you back?

            Then we are ready to move forward and talk about the importance of the butcher throughout human history. 

Butchering… here since the beginning

            One article states that butchering has been around since the dawn of time.  I guess that depends on your definition of time; if you consider this in “time as we know it” as related to the start of civilizations, then this is accurate.

            So, to avoid semantic arguments, we are going to say that is what was meant by that statement.  So, yes, butchering has been around, and a pivotal part of human survival, since the dawn of time.

The Dawn of Time – Ancient Butchering

            Ancient butchering is an interesting thing – many of us have probably watched television programs where medieval warriors or cavemen butchered meat.  For a long time, many people knew that meat was butchered in the Middle Ages, but the idea of ancient man being sophisticated enough and clever enough to butcher meat, cut through sinew, and crack animal bones at the joints seemed far-fetched.

            Not to mention… it was thought that the tools needed for proper butchering might have been too advanced for the early man.

            Well… there have been newer discoveries in more recent years, and the new anthropological studies have demonstrated that not only are these old mentalities incorrect, but butchering was absolutely vital to the survival of mankind in those times.  The incidents are not isolated, and in fact are seen in many different parts of the world:

            Florida, USA.  Dating back to pre-history, there has been evidence found in Florida that ancient man had the necessary forethought to craft wooden and stone tools to properly butcher animals for food.  Paintings, tools, and remains that date back to around 12,000 years ago show that ancient civilizations in Florida butchered giant tortoises and sloths for food.  There is even evidence that ancient man had set up shop to trade properly cut and prepared meat as a part of this 12,000-year-old civilization!

            The Middle East.  The Middle East has shown a number of different instances of butchering being a part of the lifestyle for centuries.  One of the biggest indications of this is in the Bible itself. 

            If you are religious, then you clearly believe what is said in the Bible; if you are not, then you should acknowledge that parts of the Bible have been proven accurate, and these parts could be considered a mash-up history book.

            Bearing this in mind, the book says “My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet”.  Consider that oxen and cattle, which likely included yaks, cows, and possibly even horses and donkeys, were slaughtered and properly butchered for the purpose of a great feast. 

            Ancient Rome.  There are numerous references to texts in ancient Rome that demonstrate that butchers were quite prized; they knew that it took a lot of skill, strength, and practice to break bones, to remove unwanted fat, and to carve meat into suitable amounts for people.  Further, this is about when (roughly 2nd Century AD) many people began to demonstrate a deeper understanding of a specific cut of meat being more or less flavorful, more or less textured, and more of less easy to prepare.

            London and York.  Around 500 AD to 975 AD butchering began to show up in different parts of what is now the United Kingdom.  Just like in Rome centuries before, those who were able to be butchers were often considered to be important.  In fact, in London and York in this time those that were butchers had to apprentice, learn, grow, and train to be the equivalent of a journeyman tradesman.  Not only in the United Kingdom, but in the rest of Europe, people began to understand the important of hygiene in food preparation, and as such butchers were as regarded as any crafter, any doctor, and any other tradesman.

The Second Age – Medieval Butchering

            While the time frame mentioned about could technically be considered medieval, we decided to present the medieval era as that from the year 1000 AD to the year 1700 AD.  This is not a perfect demonstration of how the timelines break down, but in our case, this meets our purpose.

            That being said, the medieval age of butchering brought on tremendous advancements in preparing and butchering meat. 

            Guilds.  In the Middle Ages, guilds were formed, and one of the most important guilds (because people needed to eat) were the butcher guilds.  This took the idea of apprenticeship to a new level, and many young men took up the trade to ensure that European nations would be well fed, despite any other war, malady, or natural disaster that would befall them. 

            Sanitation.  Building upon the idea of food hygiene, an understanding of germs and sanitation came about.  Butchers began to know as much about food safety, proper preparation and storage, how to cure and protect meat, and often times they knew more about food poisoning prevention and treatment then the physicians of the time.  Ensuring that meat, which was the highest energy food available, was available and safe to eat was critical to the ongoing development of human civilization.

            Pricing.  Meat was the be available to everyone in the Middle Ages to ensure that all people in an empire were strong, healthy, and able to take up arms as needed.  However, meat being available often meant organs, skin, scraps, intestines, or very tough cuts of meat for those without money.

            Butchers in this age figured out how to ensure that poor cuts of meat were sold as such, and they also were able to start really understanding supply and demand in relation to what was offered – There is far less center-cut steak (higher quality) than there is sirloin (lesser quality) on one animal carcass.  This drove constant improvement in the care and feeding of animals to ensure that more of the quality meat was available to turn higher profits.

The NOW – Modern Butchering

            The modern butcher… while not often as revered as the butchers in ages past, the modern butcher is a master of many different tools of his or her trade, and they still have to have a strong understanding of protection of meat, preparation of meat, storage of meat, and they now know much more about the science behind meat.  This has allowed for changes to be made to meat; changes to taste, texture, quality, and availability are all pushed by the modern butcher, whether the butcher works in their own shop, learned it via trade, or got their training at a supermarket.

            Regardless of the station butchers have in the modern world, the fact is that the modern butcher is still an important part of our food chain, and those of us that are meat eats need to be thankful for the work that is done in the background.  Butchers should be honored, as they do hard work that requires tremendous strength, knowledge, skill, and desire to provide the best meat possible to each person he or she serves.

            It might not seem difficult, but what does it take to be a butcher in this day and age?  Well, being a butcher normally takes schooling and an apprenticeship – often 3 years minimum to become a practicing butcher, and often 5 years to become a journeyman-level butcher.  These butchers are highly sought after by supermarkets, meat markets, and farms to ensure that the meat that is sold is safe, presentable, and priced appropriately for the quality that is given.

            Not to mention… the modern butcher is a part of a very long and proud line of those who have ensured that quality meat is available to the rest of us… that alone is deserving of respect!


            In the 1960s butchers began to disappear as packaging plants became more common in the world as a whole.  However, with the rise of online ordering, with the determination and skill of the remaining butchers, and the desire for people to be more aware of what it is they are eating (and where it is coming from), butchering as an art, as a science, as an apprenticeship, and as a noble profession began to make a comeback.  As recent as 2009, many people began casting aside the cast offs that are often sold in supermarkets, and they have gone back to the old ways of enjoying butchered meat, prepared by skilled hands. 

            There has also been a rise in new butchering apprentices… which proves one thing…

            Butchers, butchering, and the quality that they bring are here to stay.