The Original Jerky Method of Preserving Meat

A strip of ch'arki or charqui
Gary Sergraves / Getty Images

The word jerky, referring to a dried, salted and pounded form of all kinds of animal meat, has its origins in the South American Andes, perhaps about the same time as the llama and alpaca were domesticated. Jerky is from "ch'arki", a Quechua word for a specific type of dried and deboned camelid (alpaca and llama) meat, perhaps produced by South American cultures for some eight or so thousands of years.

Jerky is one of a multitude of meat preservation techniques which were no doubt used by historic and prehistoric peoples, and like many of them, it is a technique for which archaeological evidence must be supplemented by ethnographic studies.

Benefits of Jerky

Jerky is a form of meat preservation in which fresh meat is dried to prevent it from spoiling. The principal purpose and outcome of the process of drying meat is to reduce water content, which inhibits microbial growth, decreases overall bulk and weight, and causes a proportionate increase in salt, protein, ash and fat content by weight.

Salted and fully dried jerky can have an effective shelf life of at least 3-4 months, but under the right conditions can be much longer. The dried product can have over twice the caloric yield of fresh meat, based on weight. For example, the ratio of fresh meat to ch'arki varies between 2:1 and 4:1 by weight, but the protein and nutritive value remain equivalent.

Preserved jerky can be later rehydrated through prolonged water soaking, and in South America, ch'arki is most commonly consumed as reconstituted chips or small pieces in soups and stews.

Easily transportable, nutritious and boasting a prolonged shelf life: no wonder ch'arki was an important pre-Columbian Andian subsistence resource.

A luxury food to the Incas, ch'arki was made available to the common folk as during ceremonial occasions and military service. Ch'arki was demanded as a tax, and deposited in was used as a form of tax to be deposited in state storehouses along the Inca road system to provision imperial armies.

Making Ch'arki

Pinning down when ch'arki was first made is tricky. Archaeologists have used historical and ethnographic sources to discover how ch'arki was made, and from that developed a theory about what archaeological remains can be expected from that process. The earliest written record we have comes from the Spanish friar and conquistador Bernabé Cobo. Writing in 1653, Cobo wrote that Peruvian people prepared ch'arki by cutting it into slices, putting the slices on ice for a time and then pounding it thin.

More recent information from modern day butchers in Cuzco support this method. They make strips of deboned meat of uniform thickness, no more than 5 mm (1 inch), to control the consistency and timing of the drying process. These strips are exposed to the elements in high altitudes during the driest and coldest months between May and August. There the strips are hung on lines, specially constructed poles, or simply placed on rooftops to keep them out of reach of scavenging animals.

After between 4-5 (or as many as 25 days, recipes vary), the strips are removed from the are pounded between two stones to make them thinner still.

Ch'arki is made by different methods in different parts of South America: for example, in Bolivia, what is called ch'arki is dried meat with fragments of foot and skulls left, and in the Ayucucho region, meat simply dried on the bone is called ch'arki. Meat dried at higher elevations can be done with cold temperatures alone; meat dried at lower elevations is done by smoking or salting.

Identifying Meat Preservation

The primary way that archaeologists identify the likelihood of some form of meat preservation having occurred is by the "schlep effect": identifying meat butchering and processing areas by the types of bones left in each type of spot. The "schlep effect" argues that, especially for larger animals, it is not efficient to lug around the entire animal, but instead, you would butcher the animal at or near the point of kill and take the meat-bearing parts back to camp.

The Andean highlands gives an excellent example of that.

From ethnographic studies, traditional camelid butchers in Peru slaughtered animals near the pastures high in the Andes, then divided the animal into seven or eight parts. The head and lower limbs were discarded at the slaughter site, and the major meat-bearing portions were then moved to a lower elevation production site where they were further broken down. Finally, the processed meat was brought into market. Since the traditional method of processing ch'arki required that it be done at relatively high elevations during the dry part of the winters, theoretically an archaeologist could identify butchering sites by finding an over-representation of head and distal limb bones, and identify processing site by an over-representation of proximal limb bones at lower-elevation (but not too lower) processing sites.

Two problems exist with that (as with traditional schlep effect). First, identifying body parts after the bones have been processed is difficult because bones which are exposed to weathering and animal scavenging are difficult to identify the body part with confidence. Stahl (1999) among others addressed that by examining bone densities in different bones in the skeleton and applying them to tiny fragments left at sites, but his results were varied. Secondly, even if bone preservation was ideal, you could really only say you've identified butchering patterns, and not necessarily how the meat was processed.

Bottom Line: How Old is Jerky?

Nevertheless, it would be foolhardy to argue that the meat from animals slaughtered in cold climates and transported to warmer climates was not preserved for the trip in some manner. No doubt some form of jerky was made at least at the time of camelid domestication and perhaps before. The real story might be that all we've traced here is the origins of the word jerky, and making jerky (or pemmican or kavurmeh or some other form of preserved meat) by freezing, salting, smoking or some other method might well have been a skill developed by complex hunter-gatherers everywhere some 12,000 or better years ago.


This glossary entry is a part of the guide to the Ancient Foods, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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