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Butchery's Long History: From Carving Giant Sloths to Ancient Roman Hatchets

May 23, 2019 in History

By Sarah Pruitt

From the Ice Age to ancient Rome to Medieval England, humans have refined their butchery skills over thousands of years.

For thousands of years, starting with the earliest hunter-gatherer tribes, butchers have served as highly valued members of human societies. With the domestication of livestock and the improvement of tool-making techniques, butchery developed into a skilled and respected trade that would endure over the centuries.

As late as the 1920s, local butcher shops were a fixture in most communities in the meat-loving United States. Though the noble history of butchery took a hit after many Americans began buying their meat pre-cut and pre-packaged at the grocery store, the growing interest in high-quality meat in recent years means butchers have been making a comeback.

From our primitive ancestors to the most recent revival, these are just a few important milestones in the history of butchery.

3.4 Million Years Ago: Prehistoric Ancestors Butcher With Stone Tools

A display of Australopithecus’ eating meat.

Researchers in the Afar region of Ethiopia announced in 2010 that they had uncovered the bones of two ancient animals—one cow-sized and one goat-sized—dating to nearly 3.4 million years ago and bearing cut marks indicating both flesh removal and bone marrow extraction. , as white settlers pushed Native Americans ever deeper into the frontier.

1865: Chicago’s Union Stock Yard Opens

Livestock pens and workers herding sheep at the Chicago Union Stock Yard, circa 1910.

Though the earliest meatpacking plants had been established in New England during the colonial period, by the mid-19th century Midwestern cities had come to dominate the nation’s growing meat industry. In 1865, Chicago saw the opening of the vast Union Stock Yard, which processed 3 million cattle and hogs in 1870 and 12 million in 1890. With advances in refrigeration technology in the early 1900s, Chicago meatpackers were able to efficiently ship fresh-chilled beef and pork via railroad all the way to the East Coast.

Late 20th-early 21st centuries: Butchers Make a Comeback

A butcher working in a slaughterhouse at a small organic farm.

As late as the 1920s, most Americans continued to do their shopping as previous generations had, picking up their dry goods at one store, fruits and vegetables at another, and their meat at the local butcher shop. But with the rise of chain grocery stores like the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company (better known as A&P) and their …read more


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