An old joke exists that, a few minutes after discovering how to make fire, early humans also found out how tasty meat could be when cooked with it, and thus was born barbecue. Time Magazine suggests that what we now call barbecue has a slightly more modern origin.
When the Spanish first arrived on the islands of the Caribbean, they noticed that the Native Americans slow cooked meat over fires on wooden platforms, a technique that they adopted and called “barbacoa.”
By the 19th century, Southerners were cooking whole pigs low and slow, making pulled pork, which involved pulling apart the tender meat once it was finished. Southern barbecue was perfect for cooking an enormous amount of food at once for large gatherings. African Americans, as they migrated out of the South after the Civil War, brought barbecue with them and set up shop across the United States.
By the 20th century, four distinct styles of barbecue existed, Kansas City, Memphis, North Carolina, and Texas. Memphis barbecue uses pork shoulder doused in a sweet, tomato-based sauce. North Carolina uses ribs with a dry rub with the sauce served on the side. Texas barbecue involves beef brisket and arguments over whether a dry rub or a wet rub (i.e. using sauce) is better.
Truth to tell, almost every culture has its own form of barbecue, if we define it as meat cooked with fire. Koreans have their distinct version. People from India use a technique called tandoori, which involves hot coals and pungent spices. Argentina has a form called asado, in which meat is cooked in a smokeless pit. All of these forms have in common marrying meat with fire to produce something wonderful.