The History of Beef Jerky
February 04, 2022 | Blog: The Range

The History of Beef Jerky

There are few snacks more classic (or tasty) than beef jerky. Especially Country Archer grass-fed-and-finished beef jerky While standing in front of the ever-expanding and intense beef jerky aisle of the grocery store, have you ever thought to yourself: What is the origin of beef jerky?  Well, consider this your go-to guide on the history of beef jerky.  We’ll talk about ancient beef jerky, its gradual changes and adaptations, and what makes it so popular from historical times to today.

What was the original beef jerky?

Ancient beef jerky wasn’t made from beef, like most of today’s modern jerky is.  Depending on where its makers lived, the most popular choices for the actual meat content of jerky include bison or buffalo, deer, elk, moose, and goose.

Origin-of-Beef-Jerky-History

Where was the first beef jerky?

Records tend to disagree on this since it’s hard to pinpoint where each tribe of each civilization began and when.  Most agree that jerky came about in the 1550s.  It’s considered both North and South American as far as its origin.  

South American and North American tribes made jerky a little differently, both in the meat used and how they prepared and enjoyed it.  But it coexisted through the Americas around the same time.

Research suggests that it was also present in Ancient Egypt, Ancient Rome, and West and South Africa.  As far as who had it first, both Ancient Egypt and Ancient Rome would, of course, be first on the timeline.  There is still a lot of confusion on how it eventually became a Native American practice.

 ancient Egyptian beef jerky meat

So why say that the 1550s were the start?  This is the first time it was documented and seen as a main dish, rather than archaeological finds later.  While many historical experts disagree, the modern commercial world sees the 1550s and the Native Americans as the actual start of today’s beef jerky, albeit in its ancient form. 

Where did the name beef jerky come from?

The history of beef jerky wouldn’t be complete without understanding its name, right?  Using the commercial form, as explained above, the name “jerky” comes from the Quechuan word “charqui.”  The word translates to “dried meat”  or “burned meat,” depending on how you interpret it.

 Quechuan word charqui for dried meat or jerky

Colloquialized from Quechan to Spanish to English, with the arrival of settlers, this anglicized to “jerky.”  Today, “beef” is used in front of it since today’s jerky is mostly beef jerky!

What is the reason for beef jerky?

Seen today as a healthy high-protein snack that we enjoy, jerky originally was an essential part of a Native American diet.  Since they lived Nomadic lifestyles, they would need long-lasting, nutritious food sources that would keep them healthy and satiated even when food was scarce.  The meat was dried using spices and salt and then easily tucked into pouches and general belongings that they could snack on when traveling.

Even at the best of times, Nomadic Native Americans knew that a new food source was never a sure thing, so they would always have some form of food storage on hand with jerky.

 dried beef jerky meat in the sun historical origins of jerky

How beef jerky was originally made

While the actual production process has become industrialized, the process of the “classic jerky recipe” itself is much the same.  Why mess with a good thing, right?  The steps include: 

  • Remove the meat from the bones and slice out the fat
  • Slice into uniform pieces for portioning
  • Cover in salt and/or spices
  • Smoke over the fire/Dry in the sun

Depending on where they lived, and the time of year, smoking on the fire was faster and easier.  Both were used when they would put together a pantry of it.  They used salt and spices interchangeably based on what they had the most of.

Historical jerky variations

Yes!  Even back in the days of traditional jerky, there were many variations depending on which tribe was making it, what they had available to them, and what other food sources they would rely on in addition to it.

 ancient Rome beef jerky meat history

Ancient Rome, for example, had “Copiette.”  This would use horse, donkey, or sheep and goat meat blended with salt, fennel, pepper flakes, and so on.  It would be formed into rounded strips of meat over a fire.  They would sit in the fireplace tied in couples for 60 days.  While considered a poverty meal, it would be served in taverns with crusty bread.

 North American tribes often made what was called “Pemmican.”  This blended together dried meat (burnt to a crisp, then pounded into tiny shards or even powdered form) with berries, fat from the meat, and whatever else they had.

They would use these on especially long journeys through harsh climates.  Think of it as the earliest version of a protein bar!  These dense and easily sized and portioned cakes were popular in Native American tribes, pioneers, settlers, and more.

 indian pemmican beef jerky history

Ancient Jerky vs. Modern Jerky

We no longer require jerky to keep use nutrient-rich and properly fed in times of scarcity.  As such, it’s migrated from a dietary staple to “bad” snacks similar to corndogs and chips.  Interestingly, the passing years make jerky (now known as beef jerky) more and more popular.

Many will consider this to be a delicacy, too, since there is a true art form to making it authentically and then flavoring it just so to enjoy as a treat in the afternoon.  Homemade beef jerky is the topic of many online blogs and recipes!

Commercially, there are thousands of brands and many different flavors, combinations, and types to enjoy.  From classic salted beef jerky to flavors such as spicy, sour cream and onion, and more, there is no shortage of ways to play around with this ancient recipe.

It’s interesting to see the evolution of jerky, even if you didn’t realize it was as in-depth as it was. Do you keep it classic with your choice in that grocery store aisle or take advantage of the modern-day variations with a delicious spicy snack that will hit the spot on the drive home from the store? Regardless, you’ll now have a better appreciation for the well-stocked aisle and its essential roots in our world’s history!

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