Vegan Diets Throughout History: A Brief Look

A common misconception among vegans is that plant-centric life is a recent trend, a product of 20th and 21st-century health consciousness. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

In this article, we will take a look at the long history of vegan and vegetarian lifestyles. We will journey back in time, tracing the roots of plant-based diets to their early beginnings, long before they were hashtagged on Instagram.

From the Paleolithic era through the ancient philosophers of Greece to religious communities in Asia and Renaissance thinkers, the plant-based lifestyle has left its mark in various corners of human history.

So, strap on your time-traveling boots and join us as we embark on an enlightening exploration of vegan diets throughout history – a tale that’s more varied and rich than you might have ever imagined!

Key Takeaways

  • Veganism and vegetarianism have deep historical roots, with plant-based diets traced back to the Paleolithic era.
  • Early human diets had a significant amount of plant-based foods, challenging the meat-centric narrative we often associate with our ancestors.
  • Ancient civilizations like Egypt and Greece, along with Indian emperors, showed signs of plant-based lifestyles, emphasizing non-violence and respect for all life forms.
  • Early religions like Hinduism and Buddhism played a significant role in promoting meat abstinence through their teachings on nonviolence and compassion towards all beings.
  • During the Renaissance period, figures like Leonardo da Vinci and Sir Francis Bacon advocated for plant-based diets due to ethical considerations and perceived health benefits.
  • Historic vegan recipes from different periods, such as the Cabbage Chowder, Mixed Pickles, and Piment, serve as a testament to the culinary creativity of our ancestors and provide insight into the plant-based ingredients favored at the time.

Understanding Veganism’s Origins

people digging soil

Human ancestors didn’t consciously decide to go vegan – their diets were determined by what was seasonal, safe, and available. Often, this meant a plant-based diet.

Contrary to popular belief, early humans did consume carbs, as evidenced by a 2020 study by researchers from the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa.

The team of scientists discovered charred root vegetable remains in 170,000-year-old ashes in a South African cave near the Swaziland border, indicating that vegetables were a staple in the Stone Age diet.

Fast forward to 2022, and you’ll find that our understanding of early human diets has been further refined.

As evidenced by a recent study, charred remains of a 70,000-year-old meal found in caves in northern Iraq revealed the use of pounded pulses as a common ingredient in cooked plant foods.

Neanderthals and early modern humans combined wild nuts, grasses, and lentils in their meals, creating dishes that we’d still find palatable today.

This paints a very different picture from the meat-centric narrative we often associate with our ancestors. Instead, it suggests that plants played an integral role in early human diets, providing a foundation for what would later develop into full-fledged vegetarianism and veganism. 

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Plant-Based Lifestyles in Ancient Civilizations

a picture of fruits and bread

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While digging deeper into the roots of veganism, we’ll find that plant-based lifestyles might have been prevalent and deeply ingrained in many ancient civilizations.

Egypt’s ‘heretic king’ Akhenaten, for instance, banned animal sacrifice in 1380–1362 BCE, considering it sinful to end a life gifted by his deity, Aten. This profound respect for life indirectly suggests a possible adherence to plant-based diets.

Moving toward Greece in 570 BCE, Pythagoras, the esteemed philosopher, advocated for a form of vegetarianism owing to his belief in the transmigration of souls. He argued that consuming meat tainted the soul and inhibited its union with a higher reality, therefore promoting a lifestyle free from animal products.

In his own words:

‘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.’

~ Pythagoras

Further east, Buddhist Emperor Ashoka of India (304–232 BCE) implemented laws protecting various species and abstained from animal sacrifice, reflecting an implicit endorsement of plant-based living. His efforts to discourage the unnecessary killing of animals indicate an early form of vegan ethics.

Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, has caused this Dhamma edict to be written. Here (in my domain), no living beings are to be slaughtered or offered in sacrifice. Formerly, in the kitchen of Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, hundreds of thousands of animals were killed every day to make curry. But now, with the writing of this Dhamma edict, only three creatures, two peacocks and a deer are killed, and the deer not always. And in time, not even these three creatures will be killed.’

~ Edicts of Ashoka

These instances from ancient civilizations illustrate that veganism isn’t a recent trend but rather a lifestyle rooted in historical ethos, varying from spiritual beliefs to ethical considerations.

Meat Abstinence in Early Religions

a picture of buddha under tree

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It’s fascinating to note that early religions’ teachings played a significant role in propagating meat abstinence. Hinduism and Buddhism, two of the world’s oldest religions, prominently advocated nonviolence and compassion towards all beings, which naturally extended to dietary practices.


In Hinduism, you’ll find a strong emphasis on vegetarianism or even veganism as a form of practicing nonviolence or ‘ahimsa’.

This ethical guideline is deeply rooted in the belief in interconnectedness among all beings and avoiding harm to any life form.

Here are some key points on this:

  • Ahimsa is the first moral principle in Raja’s path towards enlightenment.
  • A vegetarian or vegan diet is a practical application of the nonviolence principle.
  • Harming one being is considered harming all beings.
  • Not stealing and nonpossessiveness are also part of this moral guideline.
  • Many Hindus adopted this lifestyle not just for health but for spiritual purification.

This abstinence from meat is a testament to the profound respect for life in early religions.

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Just like in Hinduism, Buddhism also encourages a plant-based diet, advocating for compassion and nonviolence towards all living beings.

The first precept in Buddhism is to abstain from taking the lives of sentient beings, leading many followers to embrace vegetarianism or veganism.

It’s not merely about diet – it reflects the core Buddhist teachings of interdependence. This concept emphasizes the impact of human actions on the natural environment and other beings.

By choosing a vegan or vegetarian diet, early followers were not only expressing compassion for animals but also acknowledging their role in the interconnected web of life.

Renaissance Period and Plant-Based Diets

Italian renaissance cooking

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The Renaissance period was a time when plant-based diets became connected not just to religious devotion but also to individual health and ethical considerations.

Many Renaissance vegetarians were ascetically motivated, but unlike their medieval predecessors, they were more individualized and secular. Health and longevity became significant motivators.

One significant figure was Leonardo da Vinci, who, although never explicitly claiming to be vegetarian, refrained from consuming animals. He critiqued humans’ entitled treatment of animals, questioning the necessity of their consumption.

‘King of the animals – as thou hast described him – I should rather say king of the beasts, thou being the greatest – because thou doest only help them, in order that they give thee their children for the benefit of the gullet, of which thou hast attempted to make a sepulcher [grave/tomb] for all animals; and I would say still more, if I were allowed to speak the entire truth.’

~ Leonardo da Vinci

‘Does not nature produce enough simple food for thee to satisfy thyself?’

~ Leonardo da Vinci

His remarks on animal rights and ethical vegetarianism marked an important step in the evolution of vegan principles.

Another notable figure was Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626), whose vegetarian leanings were rooted in the belief of the diet’s health benefits. His ideas were continued by Thomas Bushell (1594–1674), who further advocated for vegetarianism.

Another figure of the period, medical pioneer Philippe Hecquet (1661-1737), defended the potency of plant-based diets, countering skeptics by referencing visible instances in nature that demonstrated how such diets could help maintain robust health and strength.

‘How, they say, can we be supported on Grains, which furnish but dry meal, fitter to cloy than to nourish; on Fruits, which are but condensed water? But this … condensed water is the same that has caused the Trees to attain so great bulk … Besides, how can men affect to fear failure in strength, in eating what nourishes even the most robust animals, who would become even formidable to us, if only they knew their own strength.’

~ Philippe Hecquet

Historic Vegan Recipes Worth Exploring

As we’ve seen, the early history of plant-based lifestyles is rich and varied. But what would be an article on vegan history without a taste of some historic plant-based recipes?

Let’s discover how our ancestors enjoyed their vegan meals, and maybe you’ll find inspiration for your next culinary creation!

Each of these dishes not only reflects the culinary creativity of their era but also provides a fascinating glimpse into the types of plant-based ingredients that were available and favored at the time.

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Cabbage Chowder

Cabbage Chowder

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Let’s dive into the intriguing world of historic vegan recipes with a classic: the Cabbage Chowder from the French Medieval household book Le Ménagier de Paris.

This recipe, originally served as a starter or a main course, can be easily veganized by removing the bacon component.

To prepare the Cabbage Chowder, you’ll need:

  • 600g firm-hearted cabbage 700g open-hearted cabbage, or spring greens
  • 225g onions, peeled and finely chopped
  • 225g white part of leeks, thinly sliced into rings
  • A tsp of dried saffron strands
  • 1⁄2 tsp of salt
  • 1⁄4 tsp each of ground coriander, cinnamon and sugar
  • 850ml of vegetable stock

Here’s how you can recreate this medieval dish:

  • Cut the cabbage into eight segments and remove the core if it’s a firm-hearted cabbage. For open-hearted cabbage or greens, cut off the stalks and the leaves into strips.
  • Prepare onions and leeks, and put them into a pan with the cabbage.
  • Stir saffron, salt, and spices into a stock. Adjust the level of salt to taste.
  • Pour the mixture over the vegetables and cook gently, covered, for about 20 minutes or until the cabbage is tender.

A delectable glimpse into the past, this dish is as tasty as it is nutritious.

Mixed Pickles

Mixed Pickles in jars

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After exploring the comforting Cabbage Chowder, it’s time to visit the next recipe from the Le Ménagier de Paris. Mixed Pickles dish is a flavorful blend of root vegetables and fruits that’s worth trying.

To prepare this historic treat, make sure to prepare:

900g mixed parsley roots, carrots, radishes and turnips

  • 450g white cabbage
  • 450g hard-eating pears
  • 6 tbsp salt
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1⁄2 tsp dried saffron strands
  • 425ml white wine vinegar
  • 50g currants
  • 575ml fruity vegan white wine
  • 1 tsp of French mustard
  • 1⁄8 tsp each of ground cinnamon and black pepper
  • 1⁄4 tsp each of anise and fennel seeds
  • 50g white sugar

Preparing mixed pickles the medieval way isn’t terribly hard to do:

  • Start with rinsing, peeling, and slicing your root vegetables into thin pieces. Next, take the cabbage, and after removing its core, shred it finely. Transfer these prepared vegetables into a sizable pan filled with water and let it heat gently until it reaches boiling point.
  • Meanwhile, peel, core, and chop your pears, and then add them to the simmering mix. Allow everything to cook until you notice the ingredients starting to soften. Once this happens, drain the pan’s contents and evenly distribute them in a shallow, non-metallic dish. Over this, sprinkle salt, ginger, saffron, and about four tablespoons of vinegar.
  • Now, cover the dish and leave it alone for around 12 hours. After the time has elapsed, rinse well before adding in currants. Transfer this mixture into sterilized jars, ensuring you leave at least 2.5cm of space at the top.
  • Now, it’s time to prepare the sweet syrup. Combine vegan wine and sugar in a separate pan. Let this mixture reach a simmering point and skim off any impurities that float to the top. Add in the remaining vinegar along with all other spices and additional sugar.
  • Lower your heat and stir until the sugar is completely dissolved without letting it boil. Bring this syrup back to a boil before pouring it over your jarred vegetables, ensuring there’s about 1cm of liquid covering them.
  • To finish off, cover each jar with vinegar-proof seals and store them away for future use.

This recipe’s detail-oriented procedure ensures a delightful pickle, a testament to the culinary wisdom of medieval cooks and gourmands who created it.


Piment in glass

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Piment is a sweetened, spiced wine from the Middle Ages, often used as a refreshing drink during feasts and celebrations.

Made from red wine, sugar, and a mix of spices like cinnamon, ginger, and cloves, this vegan-friendly alcoholic beverage offers a warming and exciting taste sensation that can take you back to Old Europe.

To make Piment, you’ll need:

  • 2 liters of vegan red wine
  • 175g of white sugar
  • 1 tbsp of ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tbsp of ground ginger
  • 1 tsp each of ground cloves, grated nutmeg, marjoram, ground cardamom, ground black pepper, and a pinch of grated galingale

Once you have all of the ingredients, getting the Piment is a fairly easy process:

  • Begin by gently heating the wine until you notice a soft steam start to rise. Next, stir in the sugar, giving it time to completely dissolve.
  • Combine all your spices and herbs into one fragrant blend. Gradually incorporate about half of this spice mix into the wine, tasting as you go. Add more to suit your palate, but remember, you’ll likely use up most or even all of your spice blend.
  • Let the concoction simmer at a low heat for about 10 minutes. After that, pour it through a jelly bag – a process that might take several hours.
  • Once cooled, transfer your delightful brew into bottles and secure them with corks. For optimal flavor, make sure to consume within a week.


Plant-based diets have a much longer history than most of us might assume. From early human ancestors munching on roots and pulses to the philosophical and religious advocates of ancient times, the journey of veganism is deeply ingrained within our past.

From Akhenaten to Pythagoras, from Ashoka to da Vinci, many great minds of the past embraced plant-based lifestyles for various reasons – spiritual, ethical, or health-motivated. Their beliefs and practices laid the groundwork for modern vegetarianism and veganism.

Early religions like Hinduism and Buddhism also played a significant role in promoting non-violence towards all beings, which naturally extended to dietary practices. 

The Renaissance period saw a shift in motivations for plant-based diets, with individual health and ethical considerations coming into focus. Figures from this era, like Leonardo da Vinci and Sir Francis Bacon, voiced powerful arguments for animal rights and the health benefits of a plant-based diet. 

This rich history serves as a reminder that choosing a plant-based lifestyle isn’t just about following a trend; it’s about being part of a long-standing tradition that respects life in all its forms.

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