Topic: Food Sharing
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.
By Kate Colquhoun