Recent publications have indicated that voluntary self-starvation is not a recently developed syndrome and that it has been reported throughout history. These prior forms of inedia are summarized and related to their historical and cultural contexts. On the basis of these data, some hypotheses are proposed regarding social influences on the vulnerability to eating disorders. Objective: To document and describe forms of eating disorders occurring prior to the formal medical description of anorexia nervosa in the late 19th century. Method: Review of historical references to self-starvation, of recent publications on the history of eating disorders, and of articles describing cases of eating disorders occurring in the past. Results: Forms of eating disorders have existed since ancient times varying in frequency, manifestations, and possible motivation. Discussion: Certain sociocultural factors appear to foster or inhibit the frequency and type of eating disorders. © 1996 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.