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
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 reported by Scientific American, the discovery suggested that meat-eating and the use of stone tools began some 800,000 years earlier than previously thought. These ancient butchers weren’t even members of the Homo genus, but the more primitive Australopithecus, relatives of the famed “Lucy” skeleton discovered in Ethiopia in 1974.
13,500-10,500 Years Ago: Ice Age Humans Butcher Giant Sloths
Bones discovered as far afield as Argentina and Ohio suggest that during the last Ice Age, prehistoric humans butchered giant sloths and other massive mammals, driving them toward extinction. Near a swamp in Patagonia, archaeologists found more than 280 bones belonging to a giant sloth and ancestors of today’s armadillos. Cut marks on the sloth’s rib indicated it had been defleshed by a stone tool. In Ohio, researchers from the University of Manitoba confirmed that stone tools likely made the 41 cuts found on the femur bone of a Megalonyx jeffersonii (a species of giant ground sloth named in honor of Thomas Jefferson) dating to around 13,500 years ago.
2nd Century A.D.: Butchery Thrives in Ancient Rome
In ancient Rome, where butchery practices were refined and standardized, hatchets, cleavers and chopping blocks became the standard butcher’s tools. A relief panel from a funerary monument dating to the second century A.D. shows a classic scene from a Roman butcher shop: the butcher standing at his table with his cleaver, surrounded by cuts of meat hanging from the walls.
A.D. 975: Roman Butchers Export Trade to Britain
Roman butchers exported the tricks of their trade to Britain, where as early as A.D. 975, butchers in London began meeting at a place called “Butchers’ Hall,” paving the way for the founding of the Worshipful Company of Butchers in the 14th century. It is one of London’s oldest livery companies, organizations descended from the medieval trade guilds that still play an important role in the workings of city government.
1272: Medieval Butchers Registered in England
In York, England, two citizens registered as “Freemen Butchers” joined the 36 members listed on the Freemen’s Rolls, the city’s first reference to a guild structure. Butchers were important fixtures in medieval York: One of its oldest and most famous streets, the Shambles, was lined with butchers’ shops and houses, many of which featured slaughterhouses in the back. (The word “shambles,” now meaning disorder or confusion, was once used to refer to the table in the butcher’s shop used to display meat.) The pavements along the narrow street were raised on either side, forming a channel where medieval butchers would wash away the offal and blood produced by their trade.
17th-19th Century America: Hunting Makes Way for Cattle
Throughout their long history, Native Americans from the Great Plains hunted animals such as deer, elk, grizzly bears and bison using spears, darts, stones and—starting around 2,000 years ago—bows and arrows. The average mature bison weighed 700-800 pounds and yielded as much as 400 pounds of meat; Native Americans offered a prayer to the animals before slaughtering them, and used nearly every part of the bison, including bones, skin, flesh and fat.
Meanwhile, European settlers in North America initially relied on hunting, trapping and fishing, eating local meats like venison, squirrel and possum, along with pigeon and lobster. But they soon began raising domestic livestock (imported from their native lands) in order to satisfy their voracious desire for beef, mutton and pork. Migrating west to make room for their livestock brought the colonists more directly into conflict with Native Americans, writes Maureen Ogle in In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America, as white settlers pushed Native Americans ever deeper into the frontier.
1865: Chicago's Union Stock Yard Opens
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
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 successors, supermarkets, many specialized butchers’ shops disappeared. Butchery suffered another significant blow in the 1960s, when supermarkets began selling their meat precut and boxed, leaving little for butchers to do.
In more recent years, a renewed interest in local, sustainably raised meat and more unusual cuts (like short ribs or pork belly) has created a demand for skilled butchers, as smaller farms resist sending their meat to large processing plants. With thousands of trained butchers reaching retirement age over the country, and the demand for high-quality meat only increasing, some are predicting a revival of the butcher-shop tradition, and a return to the methods that define this age-old profession.
Watch the new HISTORY series, The Butcher. New Episodes Wednesdays at 10/9c.