Who Invented Beef Jerky? The Ancient Origins and Evolution of Jerky

Beef jerky is one of the most popular savory snacks around, beloved for its intense flavor and portable protein punch. But who first invented this tasty dried meat treat? The origins of beef jerky stretch back thousands of years and across continents. From its inception as a basic meat preservation technique to its commercialization as an American snack food, jerky has come a long way.

The Ancestors of Beef Jerky

Although modern beef jerky has its roots in the Americas, the practice of meat preservation through drying goes back much further in history. Some of the earliest precursors to jerky include:

  • Egyptians – Archaeological evidence shows Egyptians preserved meat by drying it in the hot sun as early as 4000 BC.

  • Pemmican – North American tribes mixed dried meat with fat and berries to make highly portable “Pemmican.”

  • Biltong – In the 1600s, European settlers in South Africa preserved meat by drying it into strips to make “biltong.”

So the basic idea of extending meat’s shelf life through drying has clearly been around for millennia. But who first made what we recognize today as jerky?

The Incan Origins of Modern Beef Jerky

The creator of the earliest form of beef jerky as we know it today was the Quechua people of the Andes Mountains in modern-day Peru.

  • The Quechua were the original inhabitants of the Incan Empire.

  • As early as 1550 AD, they were making a meat product they called ch’arki, which meant “to burn meat.”

  • Ch’arki was made by drying meat in the sun during the day and freezing it at night.

  • Llamas, alpacas, guanacos and vicuñas were dried to make ch’arki.

  • The weather conditions in the high altitude Andes made this process possible.

  • Ch’arki was an efficient way to preserve meat for longer periods.

The Quechua technique of slowly drying meat using sun and freeze cycles was a breakthrough in making shelf-stable dried meat.

How Beef Jerky Got Its Name

When Spanish conquistadors arrived in Peru in the 1500s, they adapted the Quechua word ch’arki into their own language:

  • The Spanish used the word “charqui” to describe the dried meat product.

  • As charqui spread north into North America, the pronunciation shifted.

  • Jerky first appeared in English around 1600, derived from the Spanish charqui.

  • The Oxford English Dictionary cites the first recorded use of “jerky” in 1612.

So while native North American tribes smoked and dried meat, the name beef jerky comes from the Quechua roots of ch’arki.

Jerky Goes West: Cowboy Culture

As American settlers expanded West in the 1800s, jerky became an invaluable food for cowboys on the trail.

  • Cowboys dried buffalo, deer, pronghorn, and beef into portable jerky. This provided nutrients and calories on the go.

  • Jerky was central to cowboy culture and cuisine for its shelf stability and protein content.

  • Smoking and salting techniques were used to make jerky without refrigeration.

  • Jerky came from wild game as well as freshly butchered cattle being moved along the trail routes.

Cowboys helped popularize jerky in America as a tasty, sustaining food that fueled frontier exploration and life on the range.

The Rise of Commercial Beef Jerky

While jerky was originally a survival food, new mass production and packaging techniques in the 1900s allowed companies to commercialize jerky and market it across the US:

  • Improved food safety and distribution got jerky into stores coast to coast.

  • Jerky became a shelf-stable snack food rather than just a practical preserved meat.

  • Brands marketed jerky’s manly appeal to male consumers as an iron-rich, protein-packed nibble.

  • Portable packets made jerky even easier to take hiking, camping, fishing, hunting, or traveling.

  • New flavors like teriyaki and Sriracha increased jerky’s appeal.

Today jerky is a booming $2.5 billion snack market in the US, with gourmet small batch producers as well as large brands competing for obsessed jerky lovers.

Jerky’s Ancient Roots Continue to Branch Out

While dried meat techniques arose independently all over the world, Quechua ch’arki was the primary progenitor of modern jerky. Today’s commercial beef jerky retains the convenience and nutrition of its ancient ancestors while evolving new flavors and forms. Beef jerky has come a long way from its functional roots while still delivering the meaty punch of protein that has made it an irresistible snack for millennia. Wherever it goes next, jerky’s past is an essential part of its identity and appeal.

Beef Jerky, A History!


When was beef jerky first invented?

Most agree that jerky came about in the 1550s. It’s considered both North and South American as far as its origin. South American and North American tribes made jerky a little differently, both in the meat used and how they prepared and enjoyed it. But it coexisted through the Americas around the same time.

Who were the first people to make jerky?

History of Jerky Some say Native Americans made the first jerky (buffalo jerky) thousands of years ago, while others say an ancient Inca tribe called the Quechua made jerky as early as the 1500’s. Whatever the case, this time-tested recipe has been passed from generation to generation.

How did the Native Americans make jerky?

American Indians dried thin strips of game meats under the sun to make a product called “boppa,” which was preserved without salt or smoke.

Is jerky an American thing?

Despite roots spreading around the world, beef jerky today is a uniquely American product. It has reached a critical mass of popularity. Some would even argue we are living in a Jerky Renaissance. Teriyaki beef jerky in the wild.

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