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Why do some cultures shun pork?

Pigs are not eaten in various parts of the world, often for religious reasons. What might have caused this aversion?

Travelling all around the world to learn about pig production worldwide, there is a relatively large zone where my planes never touch the ground. This roughly extends from Istanbul to Kolkata and from the Sahara until the Caucasus – Northern Africa, the Middle East and what is defined as South Asia.

Preference for other types of meat

In India, often vegetarian meals are preferred. Muslims and Jews, however, do consume poultry, mutton, beef – but no pork, as laws in their respective religions declare pork not 'halal' or 'kosher'. Hence a tradition of pig farming, let alone well-developed pig business chains can often not be found in countries where these religions are prevalent.

It's safe to assume, however, that centuries ago it was different in these regions. On the basis of social historical research, it seems likely that circumstances led to pork getting a bad name, echoing nowadays in religious laws.

Intensification of pig cultivation

In general, pig cultivation came into existence when mankind actually started settling, which is often believed to have occurred about 11,000 to 9,000 years ago. Keeping pigs ensured a steady supply of proteins – but also required the presence of ample feed and water.

Archaeological evidence often shows that substantial amounts of pig bones have been found in excavation sites in Northern Africa and the Middle East. They often date back various thousands of years. Just for example, the builders of the pyramids at Giza, Egypt (2560 BC) had a diverse diet which included pork.

Change of attitude to pork consumption

Somewhere in history, this attitude towards pork must have changed. 2 recently published books made me think of this again. Carel van Schaik, a Dutch biologist at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, had the idea of interpreting the Bible through the eyes of a biologist. Key of his book is that the Bible can be read as 'the diary of audacious attempts of humanity to learn to deal with the challenges life had to offer'.

He refers to the enormous development mankind endured when societies based on hunters-gatherers gradually evolved into becoming early agricultural societies. Often, the benefits of being no longer nomads but cultivating the land came with enormous new dynamics, new challenges and new responsibilities. In that social and economical context parts of the Bible came into existence, according to the book.

Photo: Shutterstock | Matyas Rehak
Photo: Shutterstock | Matyas Rehak

Taboo on eating pork

Interestingly, when the scientist was interviewed on the radio, he also gave his opinion about the 'why' that has grown around the taboo on eating pork in certain parts of the world. He mentioned that at some point illnesses related to consumption of pork might have played a role as they were thought to be divine intervention instead of caused by pathogens.

Diving into the history books, part of this holds true, as for instance the roundworm species Trichinella or the tapeworm species Taenia solium are more often quoted as a reason for pork being considered unhealthy, even resulting in a more institutionalised ban or discouragement.

Pork getting a dirty image

It doesn't stop there, however. There are more reasons for the disappearance of pork from the menu, however.

Only last year, British author Mark Essig wrote a book on pigs, called 'Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig'. Although at times critical to the pig industry, his analysis of what happened over the years to the pigs, and especially in the Near East, is as informative as it is insightful. He paints a picture of pigs being meat for the poor masses, not for the elite; as pig keeping not always being ideal in relatively dry areas. And what's more – pigs' strength as omnivores, hence rubbish bins, also gave them a dirty image.

Why pork was rejected

Essig writes about the situation in the 'Near East' just over 3000 years ago, saying:

"Many people, for many different reasons, rejected pork in the ancient Near East. Largely arid, it was a land of sheep, goats, and cattle. Nomads didn't keep pigs because they couldn't herd them through the desert. Villages in very dry areas didn't keep pigs because the animals needed a reliable source of water. Priests, rulers, and bureaucrats didn't eat pork because they had access to sheep and goats from the state-focused central distributing system and considered pigs filthy. Pigs remained important in only one place: nonelite areas of cities, where they ate waste and served as a subsistence food supply for people living on the margins." (Excerpt from Lesser Beasts on Longreads.com)

From there, it wasn't such a big step to the disappearance altogether from the menu. Pigs and the Near East: it sounds like it was a matter of wrong place, wrong time.

4 comments

  • Dr. Tamas Kecskes

    Trichinella is a worm, not a bacteria.

  • Vincent ter Beek

    Well spotted, thanks! It's been changed!

  • Very interesting topic Vincent, I will certainly read the books you mentioned.

  • Bassy F Idodo

    Nice points but I expect you to talk about the advantages of eating pork meat too.

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