Archive for November, 2009

Topic: Food Sharing

My Thoughts:

Even though this is a book review I found the topic fits right in.


Kate Colquhoun reviews Feast: Why Humans Share Food by Martin Jones

Sharing a meal, sometimes sitting face to face with strangers, is a curious act that sets humans apart from all other animals on the planet. So strange is this behaviour, yet so important to the development of society and communication, that plenty of scientists and philosophers have tried to decode the origins and history of the human meal.

Perhaps most famously, Claude Lévi-Strauss proclaimed that cooking marked the very origin of human cultural progress. More accessibly, Margaret Visser’s bestselling Much Depends on Dinner introduced the complex anthropology of the modern meal to a broad audience.

Taking his place among the loftier academics of food archaeology, Martin Jones, a professor of archaeology at Cambridge, considers quantities of new archaeo-botanical evidence to peer up to half a million years into our prehistory, questioning the origins of an event at which all the probabilities of conflict were converted into a drama of conviviality.

Jones’s view is of a world yielding its ancient truths in the strata of the earth. From the earliest known hearths, 30,000 years old, discovered in remote Moravian caves, to excavated latrines in Roman Britain, Jones and his contemporaries have removed and analysed thousands of bags of sieved sediment, the preserved stomach contents of bog bodies and the evidence of butchery on prehistoric bones.

He examines the atypical behaviour of a group of apes in Tanzania that feasted for more than nine hours in the “most socially complex episode of food sharing ever recorded in the animal world” and ponders fundamental questions such as whether society or biology exert a more powerful force on what and how we eat.

Neanderthal man could control fire and “cooked” food to add sweetness, make it more digestible and to reduce plant toxins. And since some foods – notably shellfish – are significantly more nutritious raw, these were also arguably acts of creativity, of experimentation with taste. With more of its work done for it by the fire, the human gut became smaller, allowing the brain to grow larger, propelled by the demands of a developing language.

Homo sapiens evolved, with a unique ability to spin and weave basketry, which itself widened the possibilities of food harvest. It is the absence of archaeological records that is revealing: lack of blood, faeces, insects or entrails around later hearths may reflect developing food conventions, and a more ordered society.

The world’s oldest kitchens, constructed 11,000 years ago in the Euphrates Valley in Syria, reveal evidence of the use of basins, of querns for grinding seeds and grain and of baked seed cakes whose blandness was transformed with the addition of mustard seed. Cooking appeared to be separating into a homely and informal basse cuisine and an haute cuisine of transformation and disguise.

Early man ranged more widely than before, taking his seeds, wheat and barley with him, forming societies in which foragers were transformed into farmers – communities with the ability to store food and with the desire both for competitive and ritual feasting and for self-defining food taboos. Once cooking became a method of expressing self, it would find its earliest zenith in the conspicuous culinary consumption of the Romans.

Surprisingly, the skeletal evidence from early hunter-gatherers shows little nutritional stress while prehistoric farming communities (in which we might have assumed food provision to be more stable) were caught up in cycles of poverty, hunger and malnutrition. Also odd is the fundamental dietary shift towards reliance on seeds and grains – particularly rice and wheat – and the development of bread into a cultural object so resonant with religious, cultural and social significance that it has affected the global ecosystem.

Jones opens his chapters with short fictional narratives based on meticulous research but designed to make ancient archaeological history immediate – the speculation necessarily involved in his scientific field marks it out as both fragile and alluring. Less convincing is his rapid closing survey of the past 2,000 years, settling on the drive-through diner and the TV dinner as the latest elements in “the age-old conversational cycle”, with information now drawn from the media rather than a community of fellow diners.

Despite its packaging, Feast is overtly academic in its arrangement and argument. But if non-specialists feel like working harder than usual, Jones offers much that is both fascinating and illuminating.

To mangle Brillat-Savarin, he dissects not just what early humans ate, but how they ate, in order to draw conclusions about who they were. In the process, he proves once again that food and the ways we have chosen to process and proffer it can be more revealing than any other historical or prehistoric artefact.

Original Article:


By Kate Colquhoun



Read Full Post »

Topic: Ancient Feasts

My thoughts:

First Happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate this feast of plenty. I am taking time between basting and turning my turkey to post a few thoughts.

Feasting is not new, most if not all cultures in the ancient world had their own feast/ festival days. Most of these days were tied to religion one way or another. In Ancient Egypt there were a number of feasts connected with the Gods and Goddesses. Since the Egyptian life revolved around their religion it is not surprising that feasts days were an important ways to honor and celebrate a good harvest, a plentiful( but not overly so) inundation of the Nile and a good growing season. 

There were of course other reasons for feast days but here I am interested in food and Egypt wasn’t the only culture for whom planting and harvest were important. Any culture in the ancient world, such as those who came out of the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia, ( Babylon,  the Akkadian kingdom, Third Dynasty of Ur, and Assyrian empire, Persia). All had feast days-all had reasons for thanksgiving. We are not alone in this so enjoy the day-your in good company!

I will write in more detail later of these various feasts but right now I have turn my turkey.

Joanna Linsley-Poe

Ancient Foods






Read Full Post »

Topic: Ancient Agricultural Practices

Massive burning of forests for agriculture thousands of years ago may have increased atmospheric carbon dioxide enough to alter global climate and usher in a warming trend that continues today, according to a new study that appears online Aug. 17 in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews.

Researchers at the University of Virginia and the University of Maryland-Baltimore County say that today’s 6 billion people use about 90 percent less land per person for growing food than was used by far smaller populations early in the development of civilization. Those early societies likely relied on slash-and-burn techniques to clear large tracts of land for relatively small levels of food production.

“They used more land for farming because they had little incentive to maximize yield from less land, and because there was plenty of forest to burn,” said William Ruddiman, the lead author and a professor emeritus of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia. “They may have inadvertently altered the climate.”

Ruddiman is a climate scientist who specializes in investigating ocean-sediment and ice-core records. In recent years he has searched across scientific disciplines – anthropology, archaeology, population dynamics, climatology – to gain insight into how humans may have affected climate over the millennia.

He said that early populations likely used a land-clearing method that involved burning forests, then planting crop seed among the dead stumps in the enriched soil. They would use a large plot until the yield began to decline, and then would burn off another area of forest for planting.

They would continue this form of rotation farming, ever expanding the cleared areas as their populations grew. They possibly cleared five or more times more land than they actually farmed at any given time. It was only as populations grew much larger, and less land was available for farming or for laying fallow, that societies adopted more intensive farming techniques and slowly gained more food yield from less land.

Ruddiman notes that with the highly efficient and intensive farming of today, growing populations are using less land per capita for agriculture. Forests are returning in many parts of the world, including the northeastern United States, Europe, Canada, Russia and even parts of China.

The positive environmental effects of this reforestation, however, are being canceled out by the large-scale burning of fossil fuels since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, which began about 150 years ago. Humans continue to add excessive levels of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, contributing to a global warming trend, Ruddiman said.

Five years ago, Ruddiman made headlines with a hypothesis that humans began altering global climate thousands of years ago, not just since the Industrial Revolution. That theory has since been criticized by some climate scientists who believe that early populations were too small to create enough carbon dioxide to alter climate.

According to projections from some models of past land use, large-scale land clearing and resulting carbon emissions have only occurred during the industrial era, as a result of huge increases in population.

But Ruddiman, and his co-author Erle Ellis, an ecologist at UMBC who specializes in land-use change, say these models are not accounting for the possibly large effects on climate likely caused by early farming methods.

“Many climate models assume that land use in the past was similar to land use today; and that the great population explosion of the past 150 years has increased land use proportionally,” Ellis said. “We are proposing that much smaller earlier populations used much more land per person, and may have more greatly affected climate than current models reflect.”

Ruddiman and Ellis based their finding on several studies by anthropologists, archaeologists and paleoecologists indicating that early civilizations used a great amount of land to grow relatively small amounts of food. The researchers compared what they found with the way most land-use models are designed, and found a disconnect between modeling and field-based studies.

“It was only as our populations grew larger over thousands of years, and needed more food, that we improved farming technologies enough to begin using less land for more yield,” Ruddiman said. “We suggest in this paper that climate modelers might consider how land use has changed over time, and how this may have affected the climate.”

Original Article:

William Ruddman

August 2009



Read Full Post »

Topic: Millet Noodles

A 4,000-year-old bowl of noodles unearthed in China is the earliest example ever found of one of the world’s most popular foods, scientists reported today. It also suggests an Asian—not Italian—origin for the staple dish.

The beautifully preserved, long, thin yellow noodles were found inside an overturned sealed bowl at the Lajia archaeological site in northwestern China. The bowl was buried under ten feet (three meters) of sediment

“This is the earliest empirical evidence of noodles ever found,” Houyuan Lu of the Institute of Geology and Geophysics at Beijing’s Chinese Academy of Sciences said in an e-mail interview.

Lu and colleagues report the find tomorrow in the science journal Nature.

The scientists determined the noodles were made from two kinds of millet, a grain indigenous to China and widely cultivated there 7,000 years ago. Modern North American and European noodles are usually made with wheat.

Archaeochemist Patrick McGovern at the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia said that if the date for the noodles is correct, the find is “quite amazing.”

Even today, he said, deft skills are required to make long, thin noodles like those found at Lajia.

“This shows a fairly high level of food processing and culinary sophistication,” he said.

Noodle History

Noodles have been a staple food in many parts of the world for at least 2,000 years, though whether the modern version of the stringy pasta was first invented by the Chinese, Italians, or Arabs is debatable.

Prior to the discovery of noodles at the Lajia archaeological site, the earliest record of noodles appears in a book written during China’s East Han Dynasty sometime between A.D. 25 and 220, Lu said.

Other theories suggest noodles were first made in the Middle East and introduced to Italy by the Arabs. Italians are widely credited for popularizing the food in Europe and spreading it around the world.

Additional evidence is needed to prove that the noodles found at Lajia are the ancestor of either Asian noodles or Italian pasta. “But in any case, the latter is only documented two millennia later,” Lu said.

Gary Crawford, an archaeologist at the University of Toronto at Mississauga in Canada, said finding 4,000-year-old noodles in China is not a surprise.

“It fits with what we’ve generally known—that noodles have a long and important history in China,” he said.

Ingredient Sleuthing

To determine what the noodles were made from, Lu and colleagues compared the shape and patterning of the starch grains and seed husks in the noodle bowl with modern crops.

The team concluded the noodles were made from two kinds of millet—broomcorn millet and foxtail millet. The grain was ground into flour to make dough, which was then likely pulled and stretched into shape.

Foxtail millet alone, the researchers say, lacks the stickiness required to allow the dough to be pulled and stretched into strings.

While archaeological evidence suggests wheat was present in China 4,000 years ago, it was not widely cultivated until the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618 to 907), Lu said.

According to Crawford, the fact that the noodles were made of millet is not surprising. His own research at a similarly dated site in northern China shows ample millet and rice but very little wheat.

However, he added, the discovery of well-preserved millet noodles helps explain the lack of grain seeds found at some archaeological sites.

“One suspicion is grain seeds were made into a type of food through boiling and flour production. That would not necessarily leave much in the way of grains to be … recovered,” he said. ” … and if they were making noodles, that would explain it.”

According to Lu, in poor, rural areas of northwestern China, millet is still used to make noodles.

“These modern millet noodles have a harder texture than the wheat noodles, so they are commonly called iron-wire noodles,” he said.

Original article:

October 12, 2005


Read Full Post »

Topic: Chilies

My Thoughts:

Here is an article I found on the ancient Zapotec and chilies in Sicence netlinks.

Some really old spice. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

If you could travel back in time to the Mexico of a thousand years ago, the food would probably have a familiar kick to it. This according to archaeo-botanist Linda Perry of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History.

She and her colleagues discovered well-preserved scraps of domesticated chili peppers in an ancient Mexican shelter cave. The peppers date back five to fifteen hundred years. Perry was struck by the variety: ten different kinds of peppers in all, including seven in a single location.

Because you’re not going to be growing seven different kinds of peppers if you’re not making some really interesting food.

What’s more, she says the peppers appear to have been used in both fresh and dried forms—providing a broad spectrum of spices that could fuel dishes similar to today’s Mexican specialties.

When you think of ancient food, you probably … well, chances are you don’t think about ancient food very much. But you probably wouldn’t think it would be much like the food we eat today. This research suggests that Mexican food may be one of the world’s oldest surviving cuisines, and that its basic elements may be traced back thousands of years.

The ancient peppers—122 specimens in all—were found in a cave in Oaxaca, a region that remains influential in Mexican cooking today. The caves were used for shelter and storage by the ancient Zapotec people over the course of an entire millennium. The peppers there were by no means the oldest cultivated chili peppers ever found; Perry and her colleagues have found fossilized chili starch in Ecuador that dates back over 6,000 years.

In this case, it’s not the age of the peppers that matters most, but the fact that many different kinds of ancient cultivated chilis have been found in a single location. The peppers were actually discovered over forty years ago, but they were passed on to Perry only very recently. By closely examining the starch grains in the peppers, Perry was able to confirm that they were farmed, not wild, varieties, and to sort out the different varieties. She also found some whole stems, which were probably ripped from fresh peppers right in the cave, and torn-up fragments, which may have been dried, flaked peppers brought in from another location.

As Perry notes, you wouldn’t bother to keep so many different kinds of peppers in one place unless you needed them—most likely, for a variety of recipes that required slightly different flavors. The fact that other Mexican food staples were also found in the cave, including corn, beans, and squash, supports the possibility that these recipes were not so different from those of today. Of course, this doesn’t mean that recipes haven’t changed over time. But the basic elements of this popular cuisine appear to have all been there 1,500 years ago, and chances are, they were put to similar uses.

Original Article:

By Bob Hirshon

Science Netlinks



Read Full Post »

Topic: Ancient Beer

Patrick McGovern had just emerged from the ancient burial chamber in one of the most extensively excavated archaeological sites in China when a local scientist presented him with what he calls “the real treasure.”

It was a sealed bronze drinking vessel that resembled a teapot from 1200 B.C.

With liquid still inside.

“I just about dropped over – a liquid sample from 3,000 years ago,” said McGovern, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania.

He whisked a sample back to his lab in the basement of Penn’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. An analysis confirmed what he had suspected: a yellowish wine.

It was another eureka moment for McGovern, 64, who has spent the last two decades traversing the globe, from ancient capitals to remote villages, in a quest to uncover the secrets of ancient wine- and beer-making.

He has become internationally recognized as an authority on ancient potables. When he and other museum researchers were on the budget chopping block earlier this year, nearly 4,000 supporters signed a petition, among them archaeologists, curators, and government officials from countries around the world. Egypt’s director of antiquities was one of them.

“You find out who your friends are,” said McGovern, whose job was spared.

This month, he released a book, Uncorking the Past, which describes his research, including his collaboration with Delaware beer brewer Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head to re-create ancient beverages with recipes he found.

Last week, at an event at the University Museum, he and Calagione detailed their latest quirky foray: making an ancient Peruvian beer that required them to spend hours chewing purple corn – using their saliva as part of the fermentation process.

Two months ago, McGovern traveled to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley at the behest of a Syrian Lebanese winemaker who wants to open a wine museum there. He’ll be heading back this month for further consultation.

“My husband loves what he does,” McGovern’s wife, Doris, said during an interview in the couple’s woodsy Media home, where a wine magazine and a beer book sat atop a reading table. “It’s a consuming passion.”

His first experience with potables came on a student bicycle tour through the German Alps when he was 16. He drank Coca-Cola until he discovered beer was cheaper.

When he returned home to Upstate New York, he wanted more beer. So he dressed in lederhosen and a green hat, went to a bar and, pretending to be foreign, asked for a beer in German. He got it.

His first acquaintance with wine came in 1971 as he and his wife backpacked around Europe with little money. They visited towns along the Mosel River in Germany, seeking work at vineyards. The couple landed a three-week gig in Trittenheim.

“That’s where I really got the whole notion of vintage worked out,” McGovern said. “By the end, you knew 1959 was a superb year. Sixty-nine was awful. The year we worked there – 1971 – was like the vintage of the century.”

Born in Texas, McGovern – the son of an engineer and teacher – grew up in New York, earned a degree in chemistry from Cornell University, and considered becoming a neuroscientist. But his interest turned to archaeology, and in 1977, he began working at Penn, where he got his doctorate in 1980.

“I was really wondering what man’s place in the universe was, how we got here,” he said.

It was, at times, a hard life. On research trips, he sometimes slept in buildings with no mattresses or heat.

He hasn’t seen his face in 35 years. He gave up shaving after trips to spots lacking much hot water; his bushy beard and mustache have gone from black to white.

Over time, McGovern became interested in ancient pottery, then discovering what was inside the pottery.

A colleague presented him with a large jar from Iran from 3500 B.C. that had a reddish deposit. She sought his analysis. The vessel contained tartaric acid, a key ingredient found in grapes from the Middle East.

“That started us off on the wine odyssey,” he recalled.

In 1999, McGovern began studying residue collected from drinking and eating vessels that were excavated in 1957 from what was believed to be King Midas’ tomb in the ancient Turkish city of Gordion. There, researchers had found the largest Iron Age bronze drinking set to date.

The samples, brought back to the museum by Penn researchers, sat largely untouched until another researcher told McGovern.

One was the residue of a spicy, barbecued lamb or goat stew with lentils. Another was a drink with grape wine, barley beer, and honey mead. McGovern decided to re-create the dinner that the ancients must have had, but he needed beverage help.

After a beer-tasting at the museum in 2000, he invited 15 local brewers into his lab and issued a challenge: Here’s an ancient recipe. Brew it. Whoever does the best will make the drink for a forthcoming dinner.

One of the brewers was Calagione.

“I was immediately struck by his passion,” Calagione said. “It wasn’t just a pedantic academic suit. He, like me, is truly passionate about the history and the romance of the stories behind these beverages.”

Calagione added saffron to his brew; other brewers used coriander. McGovern preferred Calagione’s version.

“Midas Touch” – the first brew the pair collaborated on – was served. It was 9 percent alcohol.

Later, Calagione and McGovern re-created the dinner at the tomb site in Gordion, with locals dressed in period costumes taking part.

After McGovern made a trip to China, the pair next collaborated on Chateau Jiahu, a re-creation of the oldest confirmed alcoholic beverage in the world, dating to 7000 B.C. Named after the ancient city of Jiahu, it contained hawthorn fruit, rice, and honey.

That brew won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival last month in Denver. Calagione invited McGovern – whom he calls “Dr. Pat” – to accompany him to the dais and accept the medal. He gave it to McGovern to keep.

Dogfish donates part of the proceeds from the re-created ancient beverages to McGovern’s research, in recognition of his contribution. Most of the brews are available commercially from Dogfish.

The pair collaborated next on Theobroma, a chocolate-based ale from Central America. McGovern obtained the recipe from Honduras.

Last summer, they re-created their fourth ancient beer, the Peruvian Chicha, after McGovern made a trip to Peru earlier in the year. Colleague Clark Erickson, a Penn anthropology professor, joined McGovern and Calagione at the Rehoboth Beach, Del., brewery last summer to help chew the corn – saliva turns the corn into sugar – and make the concoction.

Both Erickson and McGovern wince when thinking of the six hours spent chewing brittle corn.

“The following day, your jaw is sore,” McGovern said.

But it was fun telling his 150 guests at the museum event about the raw research.

“It may not sound appetizing,” he told his guests, assuring them that a boiling process and alcohol killed off bacteria. “And it may add some special flavors.”

With dozens of beverages at the gathering to sample, the line for Chicha was one of the longest.

McGovern, meanwhile, said he preferred the powerful flavor of Chateau Jiahu as he ruminated on the larger significance of his passion, which has crossed continents and time.

“It has contributed to how culture around the Earth has developed,” he said of his research.

Original article:

Susan Snyder

Oct 13, 2009

Philadelphia Inquirer

Read Full Post »

Topic: Chocolate 

The beginning of chocolate is the cacao tree, known by ethnobotanists as “theobroma cacao.” According to the article, “Introduction: Chocolate’s History at a Glance,” chocolate in its raw state grows in a pod like a pea, but on trees 40-60 feet tall. Cacao is native to the tropics of America. Ancient Mayans called chocolate or cacao in its bitter, raw state “food of the spirits.” The caco tree has wide branches and grows wild in Central and South America, Africa, and in the tropical parts of Asia since prehistoric times.

 Archaeologists have dated cacao as chocolate being eaten by the Mayan Indians of Mexico as early as 600 CE. The cocoa bean had been worshipped by the Mayans as a heavenly gift. The beans were put on a pedestal and worshipped as an idol. In its raw form, chocolate is more addictive than heroin. Scientists currently study how chocolate addiction changes the brain, and which chemicals are released by the brain by eating chocolate. 

Those powers in cacao beans were said to be magical by the Maya. The beans played a distinctive role in rituals, healings, and religious worship. Today scientists study the healing powers of chocolate or cacao nibs and its powers as a stimulant.

Cacao beans were used historically for their medicinal powers to heal fevers, coughs, and pregnancy discomforts such as morning sickness.

The patron deity of cacao (and coco) merchants is the Maya spirit-god called Ykchaua. How the Mayans prepared cocoa as a healing medicinal was to drink hot cocoa in its bitter state without adding sweeteners. The bitter stimulant was made of crushed, ground cacao pods, beans, and nibs with added spices native to the tropics in the local area. An example would be chili peppers and chocolate drank as a bitter hot beverage. 

In the northern part of Mexico, Aztecs began to sweeten chocolate with vanilla beans and thick, raw, creamed, unfiltered honey. The sweetened chocolate drink had the name xocoati, which they pronounced chocolatel. The translation is “bitter water.” The Aztec’s explanation is that Questzalcoatl, their deity reining over farming, floated down to Earth with coco trees from the nether world because chocolate brings wisdom and power over nature as a healing medicinal drink. Latter, the cacao beans (coco beans) became the Aztec form of currency with gold dust. Sometimes very thin shavings of gold or gold dust was floated on top of the chocolate drink.

If you want to read all about the history of chocolate with the Aztecs, there’s a book, The Florentine Codex that describes Aztec life with chocolate. The drink, according to the book is “the chocolate drink of nobles.” There are many references to the powerful medicinal nature of chocolate. See “Amazon.com: Early Modern Ecostudies: From the Florentine Codex.” Also see, “The Florentine Codex Project.” You might be interested n reading more about how chocolate was used among pre-Columbian native Mexicans from this open source community. 

Columbus returned to Europe with the first cocoa beans. At that time in Europe, the beans were put on the back burner. Europeans were introduced once more to hot chocolate as a beverage when native Mexican Emperor Moctezuma met the explorer Cortes and his army. The cups of coco were served to the conquistadors with foaming honey and spices on top of the hot beverages.

By 1528 Cortes returned to Spain carrying the equipment needed to brew the Aztec king’s chocolate drink. At that time in Spain, the beans had a reputation for being addictive which they were, and powerful medicine. At that point, monks hid the beans in monasteries. The only persons in Europe with access to the beans were the highest nobility. The beans also had a reputation for altering feelings as well as healing pregnancy mood swings.

Then in the 17th century, Italian explorer, Antonio Carletti made sure cacao beans became available to the mass populations all over Europe. A century later,  “Chocolate Houses” like today’s coffee houses became popular in the 1700s. Even the English king, Charles 11 tried to get rid of the chocolate houses for being a place where people met to discuss politics over hot cocoa beverages. 

In France, chocolate was declared a dangerous drug around the time of the French revolution. By the late 1700s, a new idea, mixing chocolate with milk became popular as a medical drink meant to heal. Sir Hans Sloane, personal doctor to Queen Anne, mixed chocolate with milk as a healing medicine and then sold his secret milk and chocolate recipe and later sold it to the Cadbury brothers who made a fortune with their Cadbury candies made from milk and chocolate. The combination grew popular in Europe.

In the next century, the Dutch chemist, Johannes Van Houten, produced cocoa powder to make the chocolate drink so you wouldn’t have to pulverize the cacoa beans and nibs. He developed a hydraulic press that crushed the cocoa beans, grinding them into a fine cocoa powder.  At this point, candy companies made fortunes by mass producing chocolate in the form of candy as well as cocoa powder for beverages.

Original article:

Anne Hart

November 6, 2009

Ground report.com

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: