Biltong is a tasty South African dried meat snack, but who discovered Biltong? It’s an Afrikaans word, originated from the Dutch language and translates as a strip of meat.
The story of biltong is long, you could say it dates back 14,000 years but I’m not going to take you on that journey here. Instead, I’m going to give you a snapshot of the origins of biltong with a few interesting facts. If you’d like more in-depth info into the history of biltong, check out our ultimate biltong guide.
South African dried meat, the facts
It was the ancient Egyptians who were the first to preserve meat as early as 12,000 B.C. This was done in a variety of ways including drying, salting (dry and wet), smoking, fat, honey and even beer were used for curing. Preserving meat provided a supply of protein for leaner times and before fridges were around. The astonishing fact about South African dried meat and food preservation is that it has evolved and become more refined over time. Find out more about Historical Origins of Food Preservation.
When it comes to South African dried meat, the European settlers are credited with introducing it to South African culture. But not as we know it today. The Dutch discovered Table Bay, Cape Town in the 17th century as they were discovering new spice routes around the world.
The natural assumption is that with their newly discovered spice routes they would’ve been the first to use exotic spices to fully flavour their meat. This is not the case, in fact, South African dried meat didn’t become biltong until much later on. It is widely thought that adding coriander and other more ‘exotic’ spice mixes came later on in the 19th century.
African Bushmen vs the Dutch settlers, who discovered Biltong?
South African dried meat has evolved over the years and we know the early Dutch settlers helped introduce it, but they were not the only ones with this inventive idea. But who discovered Biltong?
The African Hottentots and Bushmen are the indigenous people of Southern Africa, and have lived there for tens of thousands of years originating from Botswana. They are hunter-gatherers and are traditionally semi-nomadic. Their diet mostly consisted of berries, nuts and roots. Only around 20-30% was wild game (mostly antelopes), hunted by the men using poisoned arrows and spears on hunts lasting several days.
So it’s fair to say that the African Bushmen can also be credited with who discovered biltong. They are also known to have air-dried meat, but not salted as they didn’t have access to this. But, is air-dried meat actually biltong or just South African dried meat?
How South African dried meat evolved into Biltong
South Africa has changed radically over the last few decades, it has been through the dark times of apartheid and become more united as a Rainbow Nation, a term coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. A term used to describe post-apartheid South Africa in 1994.
South Africa has a rich and diverse cultural background that has shaped a massively diverse array of food types and styles all influencing each other. African, English, Dutch and mixed cultures all influencing what South Africa is today. I’m often asked ‘What do South Africans think of the Dutch, and why?’ I can only answer for myself by saying ‘I love the Dutch!’ Not for what they did in the past, but for the positive cultural influences they have had on South Africa…especially Biltong!
I grew up in South Africa in the 70’s, and when speaking to my South African family they reflected an interesting fact. From 1940 to 1960 biltong was mostly preserved just with salt, maybe some pepper, but not the same spices used today.
It is thought that it wasn’t until the 1960’s that more exotic spices were used for biltong. Gradually spices such as coriander were introduced to be used in biltong, transforming it from a plain South African dried meat into the much-loved biltong that we love today.