Jerky is, quite frankly, the perfect snack. Low (practically zero, actually) in added carbs, high in protein, and never light on zesty, meaty flavor, jerkies of all types can make the perfect addition to your snack routine. Better yet, it holds onto all that flavor without the need to refrigerate it and comes ready to eat in snack-sized portions.
We’ve been promoting the benefits of jerkies of all types since 1996—but, sadly, we weren’t the first to discover its virtues. That’s an honor that’s more accurately bestowed on people that lived thousands of years ago.
The Ancient Origins of Jerky
While nobody truly knows who was the first person to dry meat to be eaten later, evidence suggests that the earliest versions of modern humans living in caves in Borneo’s tropical rainforests enjoyed dried meats. The assessment comes as researchers assess the condition of multiple jawbones dated to as many as 30,000 years ago—based on wear and tear, the assumption is that these humans dried and preserved meats.
Many of the most ancient societies on Earth—including the ancient Chinese and Egyptians—were believed to have dried meats. Without the modern conveniences we enjoy today, such as a fridge or freezer, drying was the only way people could preserve meats to eat later. It’s a tradition that resurfaced several hundred years ago with peoples much closer to home.
Ch’arki and Pemmican
While there’s plenty we don’t know about ancient dried meats, we have a well-documented picture of the first varieties to appear in the Americas. During the Incan empire (about the 12th century in South America’s Andes mountains), this large Native American tribe produced a product they called ch’arki—meat dried during the day in the hot sun and then frozen in the cold mountain air. Ch’arki is the Inca Quechuan word for “dried meat” and is thought by many to be a direct predecessor of modern jerkies.
During the same period, North American tribes were producing pemmican—a combination of dried meats, fats, and dried berries. These early buffalo jerkies had much in common with the Incan ch’arki in that both lasted much longer than fresh meats and were easy to transport over long distances. It’s a practice that lent itself well to the lifestyle of both Native American cultures—and to that of the European explorers and colonists who would come later.
The American West—Then and Now
By the time Europeans had explored (and colonized) large chunks of the Americas, they’d learned a valuable lesson from the Native Americans—how to dry and preserve meats. Spanish explorers took samples of ch’arki back to the homeland with them, and American pioneers and cowboys alike utilized jerky as one of a few popular ways to preserve meats to eat on the trail. Overall, jerkies lent themselves well to the cowboy lifestyle, allowing people to travel further from home than ever before with a supply of lightweight, hearty, and nutrient-rich food that wouldn’t spoil.
Today, some of the best jerkies in the world are still produced in the American West, from many of the same meats used by early settlers. Here at Big Country Smokehouse, we’re proud of the origins of our favorite food in the world—so proud, in fact, that we’ve hung onto many of the old-school methods to produce our Cowboy jerky. The next time you’re out on the trail (or hungry at the office), chew a piece of jerky and send up a salute to the ancient jerky aficionados that came before you —without them, we’d all be lacking the world’s most serious snack.