A Bit About Physical Ancestry
Humans are almost literally siblings beneath the epidermis. We are genetically so close that we are, in that sense, one big family.
Until the use of genetic tests on a large scale, we really could not say much about the complex population history of Eurasia. The mix of peoples was too great. With genetics to help, things have become somewhat clearer (see, e.g., Cochran and Harpending 2009; Diamond 2005b; J. Li et al. 2008). Broadly speaking, humans came out of northeast Africa, starting perhaps 100,000 years ago, and continuing, with a great deal of back and forth movement, usually in slow trickles. The earliest ornaments and other symbolic items first appear in Africa about 70,000 years ago.
In Eurasia, modern humans mixed with Neanderthals, so that modern Eurasians are about 2-7 percent Neanderthal (Africans mixed with their own equivalent neighbors). Also, as modern humans moved east, they encountered a mysterious, newly discovered form of human being. This form was first found as fragments in Denisova Cave, Russian Siberia, just northeast of Kazakhstan and not far from China and Mongolia (Dalton 2010; Gibbons 2011b; Krause et al. 2010; Reich et al. 2010). These are about equally distant genetically from Neanderthals and modern humans. Modern Melanesians and Aboriginal Australians are about 5 percent Denisovan, and at least some Southeast Asians show some mixing also. By normal biological rules, all these should be subspecies: modern humans being Homo sapiens sapiens, Neanderthals Homo sapiens neanderthalis, and Denisovans another subspecies not yet named. Neanderthals are usually termed a different species (H. neanderthalis), but that should be changed now that substantial mixing is recognized. In spite of mixing genetically, modern humans seem to have largely outcompeted these other types and replaced them.
At some point in the Near East, the local population sustained a couple of mutations that dramatically lightened their skin, eyes, and hair, allowing them to get more vitamin D, which is produced in the skin under the action of UV radiation in sunlight. Tropical populations everywhere remained dark-skinned. The melanin protects from the excessive UV light in the tropics (and thus from melanoma). Also, too much vitamin D is a bad thing; it is toxic in overdose. But dark skin is a huge disadvantage in the temperate-zone winter, guaranteeing vitamin D shortage unless you are taking supplements or eating industrial quantities of fish (as did the rather dark peoples indigenous to western North America). Too little vitamin D means not only poor bone growth— rickets—but greatly increased susceptibility to multiple sclerosis and some cancers. So humans had to evolve light skin to cope with moving north. These mutations thus spread like wildfire, giving pale skin and often pale hair and eyes to people at the northwest end of the populated world. These are our modern "Europoids" or "Caucasians." The latter term has a rather charming origin: the physical anthropologist Blumenbach used it in regard to race because he thought the point of origin of a "race" would naturally have the most beautiful people of said race, and he thought the good people of the Caucasus were the most beautiful Europoids. One wonders how he came to these conclusions. Folklore among anthropologists holds that he was working with skulls and thought they had particularly lovely skulls. But he may also have been influenced by the reputation of the living population of the Caucasus.
Meanwhile, dark-skinned people spread through Arabia to India and onward to Southeast Asia and Oceania, where they sustained a whole range of other mutations—poorly known as of this writing. They reached Australia by 50,000-60,000 years ago. Better known is their career after they turned north in Southeast Asia (once past the Himalayan wall). Here they evolved light skin, but the mutation (one main one is known; there are evidently others to be considered) was a completely different one. It produced pale tan— "yellow"—skin instead of pale pinkish ("white"). It did not affect hair or eye color.
Later, farther north, further mutations gave northeastern Asians eye-folds, high cheekbones, padded cheeks, short noses, and nearly hairless faces. These are protective against cold; they reduce exposure of the face and its sensory organs. As the present writer, and any other bearded male who has been in really cold climates, know all too well, moisture freezes on mustaches and beards and becomes a real frostbite risk. Long noses are at risk of freezing.
With agriculture and settlement, northern and southeastern Asians spread out in all directions, leading to a wonderful mix in southern China. Typical extreme northeasterners survive on the very far north borders of China; fairly dark-skinned, short people survive in the far south. In between lies a vast gradient with a great deal of local diversity, variation, and remixing. The flow of people northward from Southeast Asia around 50,000 years ago was reversed about 8,000 years ago, and "Chinas march toward the tropics" (Wiens 1954) began. Meanwhile, in Siberia and central Asia, East Asians spread west and West Asians spread east. Siberia was an uninhabited void until sometime between 15,000 and 30,000 years ago. Central Asia became a meeting and blending ground where light-skinned, often red-haired or blond, Westerners met "yellow"-skinned and black-haired Easterners. At the dawn of history, most of central Asia was Western in general appearance. It is now substantially more Eastern-looking, thanks to massive migrations, especially of Turkic peoples. Afghanistan today is a wondrous mix of physical types—on a Kabul street or on a trip over the Hindu Kush, one can match individuals, as far as looks go, to Mongols, French, Arabs, or Chinese. To some extent this is still true in parts of Xinjiang, in spite of massive Chinese immigration during the last two millennia.
In India and South Asia, peoples from the Near East and Central Asia have been spreading down from the northwest for thousands of years, but the gradient from African to southeast Asian genetics is still quite visible in the southern part of the subcontinent (Reich et al. 2009).
It follows that standard racial terms are inadequate at best. The people of Europe do represent a fairly tight and genetically unified Caucasian or Europoid population, but they have mixed enthusiastically with everyone else along very broad contact zones. Also, their fondness for importing slaves and, more charitably, for welcoming immigrants has guaranteed that Europe itself is no homogeneous refuge. Similarly, in the East, vast migrations, largely but not only from north to south and northwest to southeast, have blended populations completely. Unsurprisingly, the differences in "intelligence" and "personality" that used to be claimed for different "races" disappear on inspection. Where people (of any origin) get an equal shake in the schools, they all perform pretty much the same. Given their long histories of mixing, this is no surprise.
Variation does not stop with visible adaptations. People evolved to tolerate milk in the West, but not in the East (see below). People throughout the Old World, but not the New, evolved some ability to survive common epidemic diseases—with the result that disease had more to do with conquering the Native Americans than superior armaments did (Diamond 1997). The differences that matter are not the trivial visible ones—which are mere simple adaptations to vitamin D intake, cold winters, and the like—but the invisible ones that convey resistance to smallpox, measles, plague, malaria, and so on. Southeast Asians widely share antimalarial adaptations; Chinese who ventured into that region usually died, in the old days. They often do today, as malaria evolves resistance to common drugs.
A final note of physical relevance to foodways and food anthropology is the existence of human taste abilities and taste preferences. Humans notoriously like meat, sweet, and fat—far too much for their own good, now that all those three things are easy to obtain. But humans also love a wide range of vegetable tastes, fruit flavors, and textures ranging from crisp to soft.
Humans everywhere also like certain spicy and herbal tastes (Billing and Sherman 1998). This might seem strange, since spices feel hot or even burning and are not major nutrition sources, but Billig and Sherman showed that most (if not all) of them are powerful antiseptic and antifungal agents and have other medicinal values. Many primates seek out such medicinal agents for food and for external application, and humans are clearly part of this pattern (E. Anderson 2005a). The Chinese fondness for things like peppers, cinnamon, rose, fennel, and other spices and herbs fits the world pattern perfectly, and the spiciness of much southern Chinese and Korean food tracks the high incidence of disease and contagion in these areas. Also, chiles are extremely rich in vitamins and minerals, and—like their Chinese relative the goji berry (goujizi or Chinese wolfthorn, Lycium chinense)—they take on a function as poor families' vitamin pills. Worldwide, chile consumption tracks rural population density, since both its antiseptic and its nutritional values tend to be recognized. It is commonly used as a food preservative in China as elsewhere.
One odd food preference is for mustard-family plants, including the Chinese cabbages and kales, cresses, mustards, and radishes. These plants are second only to chiles and wolfthorn, and in many cases even better than chiles, in nutritional value. The flavorful ingredients are glucosinolates, which the plant produces to kill insects but which are not only harmless to humans but beneficial—we have evolved not only tolerance to them but also the ability to benefit medically from them. Worldwide, many people are repelled by an extremely bitter taste caused by phenylthiosulfates in cabbage-family plants. However, about a third of people worldwide cannot taste the bitterness, because of a genetic difference (E. Anderson 2005a). The Chinese seem to be much more prone to like cabbage-family greens than Westerners are and thus must often be nontasters or mild tasters, but data on this are inadequate.
Yet another important aspect of taste in Asia is the recent discovery of the umami taste receptors. Previously, human taste had been considered to consist only of salt, sweet, sour, bitter, and—if it is counted a taste rather than a burning sensation—hotness or piquancy. Umami, which was not recognized by either Western or Eastern sages, was discovered only in recent decades. It is the savory taste of soy sauce and other ferments. It is found in some other products, largely as a fermentation product. In spite of not being identified earlier, it was extremely important in the development of East Asian food, since fermentation has been a major way of preparing and preserving food, and the umami taste has been a major goal of food preparation for gourmet taste (H. Huang 2000).
All these cases show the importance of the relationship between physical tasting ability and food culture. It is impossible to understand Chinese food-ways without a solid awareness of these complex and detailed genetically guided human abilities.