How BBQ Actually Was Started In New Mexico

I always get questions about the origins of barbeque and have done my fair share of research on the subject. While there are a few different variations on its beginning, it is the consensus that the most plausible theory states that the word "barbecue" is a derivative of the West Indian term "barbacoa," which denotes a method of slow-cooking meat over hot coals. So we know the etymology of barbeque, but what about the actual process? When did man first start to cook large pieces of meat over open coals using smoke? We already know that mankind has been cooking meat over fire long before Columbus’ voyages to the new world, but where did the process begin and how? Did early cavemen come out of the cave and see lightning strike a tree and set it afire? Did somehow the smell of burning wood tempt early man to combine that with the raw meat of his recently speared prey for something that did not tug on his assuredly fragile teeth? Most likely he scavenged a dead or dying carcass from a forest fire and said (or grunted) to himself, “Hmm, tasty, not so chewy, does not spoil as fast, yum!”

Sure it seems like a bit of a stretch, but what if it’s not? Being a fairly open minded guy and taking on this task like a dog with a bone, I decided to do some of my own research and hypothesize like the others. What I did not know was how close to home the research would be. I had always thought that mankind’s first use of fire in cooking meats started in Asia or Africa and later, after nomadic migrations became common, worldwide. As I delved into the history and etymology of barbeque it led me to a discovery of some unique information that made me wonder about where and how barbeque actually started.

To do this we need to understand a few circumstances which would make it plausible to consider “open fire cooking” as an original act. We know mankind has been an omnivore during all of its existence. After all, it’s not like we were all Vegans and suddenly one day, a man thought to himself, “I think these berries would be a nice accompaniment to a porterhouse.” So, when did man start hunting animals for food? When did man start cooking these animals over the open flame and where? And most importantly, when did man start to cook large pieces of meat over an open flame and smoked hardwood, (also known as BBQ)? To be convinced, I would need proof man hunted these larger animals which meant tools. There would have to be evidence of these tools being used in conjunction with these large animals and most importantly there would have to be evidence of cooking these animals over an open fire or pit.

Although there is evidence of mankind’s’ use of fire found from 1.9 million years ago, fire was not used in a controlled fashion until 400,000 years ago1, and then it was used primarily for heat during colder periods. Determining when mankind first started to cook meats with fire has led to a number of theories but do to the age and lack of evidence no date or time period can be claimed as the actual first neighborhood cookout. What little cooking evidence has been found does not indicate cooking large pieces of meat but rather scraps and some anthropologists believe it was only used to clean the bones for tools and drying hides(What can I say, early Homo Sapiens were not too bright).

Now how can one determine where barbeque originated when we can’t even determine when cooking with fire started. We would need to first determine a window of probable opportunity. For a starting point, it would make sense that man started to cook with fire after he started to control fire 400,000 years ago. Then we would need to discover when man started to kill larger animals. Before I go any further, I want everyone who is thinking mankind hunted dinosaurs and that was the first real barbeque to go back to school and hang out a few years. You are obviously too caught up in the tales of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (The Lost World), Edgar Rice Burroughs (The Land That Time forgot), and Hanna Barbera (The Flintstones). As tempting as a rack of ribs from a stegosaurus would be to smoke (Can you imagine that smoker pit), the dinosaurs were extinct 65 million years before the existence of man2.

To determine this we need to study what tools mankind used for hunting. Mankind used tools as far back as 2.5 million years ago in what is known today as Ethiopia but what about tools for hunting and more importantly, hunting large game? There is evidence of mankind’s use of rocks, clubs as tools in the Paleolithic age 300,000 years ago3, but use of tools as weapons for hunting (bow and arrows, and spears) is not prevalent until after the last ice age 10,000 years ago3. Mankind still gathered in tribes, clans, packs and it would be necessary to kill a larger prey in order to feed the collective. In order to kill a larger animal man learned that it would take a larger and heavier spear to take down the larger beasts. These finds are all over the planet in areas that are within 35 – 40 degrees of the equator. North or south of these regions was covered by ice for 95,000 years prior to the end of the last Ice age. This is where it gets interesting. While the indigenous inhabitants of North American were first thought to have come from India and labeled as Indians, it was only because the 15th century Spanish and Portuguese explorers initially thought America was India. However, as we know better today, it was perhaps premature for science to call them all 'Paleo-Indians'. These 'Indians' are actually of Asian descent, not from India (it isn't known for certain whether all the indigenous peoples of North America were of Asian descent or closely related enough to be lumped together).

Considered by most anthropologists as the first group of arrivals, it is believed the 'Clovis people' came across from Asia at the end of the last glacial period or Ice Age about 11,500 years ago4 (circa 9,500 B.C.) and their culture lasted for about 500-1000 years. The Clovis People are associated with the large fluted spear-points which were first found; wait for it, near Clovis, New Mexico in 1932. The area is at the bottom of Tornado Alley which was carved into the North American landscape by the start of the ice age and was a fertile valley supporting life near the end of the last Ice Age. It is in these finds that anthropologists also found fossilized remains of Mammoths next to evidence of fire pits leading me to believe that they had one heck of a cookout from time to time back then (Someone pass me a couple gallons of my dry–rub and a chord of mesquite).

Now there is evidence of mankind in Egypt laying out food in the hot sun or using salt to dry out and preserve it dating further back then this and there are many assumptions that mankind has cooked over fire but this the oldest evidence of both weapons used to kill large animals and fire used to cook it. It may not have been called barbeque but I think it had that wonderful smoked flavor, was enjoyed by the clan, and that gave birth to America’s iconic cooking style.

I am sure that there are plenty of people who would enjoy disproving my theory and they can have at it. What I can say for sure, is that mankind was barbequing here in New Mexico for over 10,000 years and that leads me to my next question. On that big old mammoth, did they use dry rub or was there some Paleolithic version of BBQ Sauce used?