Posts Tagged ‘anthropology’

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Amsterdam, February 8, 2016 – 200,000 fish bones discovered in and around a pit in Sweden suggest that the people living in the area more than 9000 years ago were more settled and cultured than we previously thought. Research published in the Journal of Archaeological Science suggests people were storing large amounts of fermented food much earlier than experts thought.

The new paper reveals the earliest evidence of fermentation in Scandinavia, from the Early Mesolithic time period, about 9,200 years ago. The author of the study, from Lund University in Sweden, say the findings suggest that people who survived by foraging for food were actually more advanced than assumed.

The Mesolithic period, which spanned around 10,000-5,000 BC, marked the time before people started farming in Europe. At this time, researchers previously believed groups of people in Scandinavia caught fish from the sea, lakes and rivers and moved around following the sources of food they could find.

“This is a really exciting and surprising finding that gives us a completely new picture of how the group lived,” said Adam Boethius, author of the study and historical osteology PhD student at Lund University in Sweden. “We’d never seen a site like this with so many well preserved fish bones, so it was amazing to find.”

For the first time, the new research suggests the foraging people actually settled much earlier than previously thought. They stored huge amounts of fish in one place by fermenting them, suggesting the people had more advanced technology and a more sedentary life than we thought.

If the people were more sedentary, they would have been better able to develop culture. This, say the authors, makes the culture more comparable to the Neolithic people in the Middle East, who were traditionally thought to have settled much earlier than their northern European counterparts.

Boethius and his colleagues had been excavating a site at Norje Sunnansund to rescue any artifacts from Mesolithic settlements before a road was built. As they started to dig, they found lots of fish bones, which indicated people had lived there. They then uncovered an elongated pit or gutter surrounded by small stake holes and completely filled with fish bones.

“It was really strange, and because of all the fish bones in the area we knew something was going on even before we found the feature,” said Boethius. “At first we had no idea what it was so we rescued it from the area to investigate.”

The excavation involved 16 archaeologists during five months. Boethius analyzed the feature and the contents and discovered the fish bones were from freshwater fish. He also showed the fish had been fermented – a skillful way of preserving food without using salt.

The amount of fish they found could have supported a large community of people. Given the amount and type of fish found at the site, Boethius believes freshwater sources played a more important role in the development of culture in the area than we thought. He is now working on further research to find out exactly what people were eating, and how this knowledge impacts our understanding of these ancient societies.

Follows in the next post is the first article from Sci-News.com



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CAPTION An illustration of a giant flightless bird known as Genyornis newtoni, surprised on her nest by a 1 ton, predatory lizard named Megalania prisca in Australia roughly 50,000 thousand years ago. CREDIT Illustration by Peter Trusler, Monash University

An illustration of a giant flightless bird known as Genyornis newtoni, surprised on her nest by a 1 ton, predatory lizard named Megalania prisca in Australia roughly 50,000 thousand years ago.
Illustration by Peter Trusler, Monash University


Original Article:


January, 2016

Ancient extinction of giant Australian bird points to humans

The first direct evidence that humans played a substantial role in the extinction of the huge, wondrous beasts inhabiting Australia some 50,000 years ago — in this case a 500-pound bird — has been discovered by a University of Colorado Boulder-led team.

The flightless bird, known as Genyornis newtoni, was nearly 7 feet tall and appears to have lived in much of Australia prior to the establishment of humans on the continent 50,000 years ago, said CU-Boulder Professor Gifford Miller. The evidence consists of diagnostic burn patterns on Genyornis eggshell fragments that indicate humans were collecting and cooking its eggs, thereby reducing the birds’ reproductive success.

“We consider this the first and only secure evidence that humans were directly preying on now-extinct Australian megafauna,” said Miller, associate director of CU-Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. “We have documented these characteristically burned Genyornis eggshells at more than 200 sites across the continent.”

A paper on the subject appears online Jan. 29, in Nature Communications.

In analyzing unburned Genyornis eggshells from more than 2,000 localities across Australia, primarily from sand dunes where the ancient birds nested, several dating methods helped researchers determine that none were younger than about 45,000 years old. Burned eggshell fragments from more than 200 of those sites, some only partially blackened, suggest pieces were exposed to a wide range of temperatures, said Miller, a professor in CU-Boulder’s Department of Geological Sciences.

Optically stimulated luminescence dating, a method used to determine when quartz grains enclosing the eggshells were last exposed to sunlight, limits the time range of burned Genyornis eggshell to between 54,000 and 44,000 years ago. Radiocarbon dating indicated the burnt eggshell was no younger than about 47,000 years old.

The blackened fragments were likely burned in transient, human fires — presumably to cook the eggs — rather than in wildfires, he said.

Amino acids — the building blocks of proteins -decompose in a predictable fashion inside eggshells over time. In eggshell fragments burned at one end but not the other, there is a tell-tale “gradient” from total amino acid decomposition to minimal amino acid decomposition, he said. Such a gradient could only be produced by a localized heat source, likely an ember, and not from the sustained high heat produced regularly by wildfires on the continent both in the distant past and today.

Miller also said the researchers found many of the burnt Genyornis eggshell fragments in tight clusters less than 10 feet in diameter, with no other eggshell fragments nearby. Some individual fragments from the same clusters had heat gradient differences of nearly 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, conditions virtually impossible to reproduce with natural wildfires there, he said.

“We can’t come up with a scenario that a wildfire could produce those tremendous gradients in heat,” Miller said. “We instead argue that the conditions are consistent with early humans harvesting Genyornis eggs, cooking them over fires, and then randomly discarding the eggshell fragments in and around their cooking fires.”

Another line of evidence for early human predation on Genyornis eggs is the presence of ancient, burned eggshells of emus — flightless birds weighing only about 100 pounds and which still exist in Australia today — in the sand dunes. Emu eggshells exhibiting burn patterns similar to Genyornis eggshells first appear on the landscape about 50,000 years ago, signaling they most likely were scorched after humans arrived in Australia, and are found fairly consistently to modern times, Miller said.

The Genyornis eggs are thought to have been roughly the size of a cantaloupe and weighed about 3.5 pounds, Miller said.

Genyornis roamed the Australian outback with an astonishing menagerie of other now-extinct megafauna that included a 1,000-pound kangaroo, a 2-ton wombat, a 25-foot-long-lizard, a 300-pound marsupial lion and a Volkswagen-sized tortoise. More than 85 percent of Australia’s mammals, birds and reptiles weighing over 100 pounds went extinct shortly after the arrival of the first humans.

The demise of the ancient megafauna in Australia (and on other continents, including North America) has been hotly debated for more than a century, swaying between human predation, climate change and a combination of both, said Miller. While some still hold fast to the climate change scenario — specifically the continental drying in Australia from about 60,000 to 40,000 years ago — neither the rate nor magnitude of that change was as severe as earlier climate shifts in Australia during the Pleistocene epoch, which lacked the punch required to knock off the megafauna, said Miller.

Miller and others suspect Australia’s first inhabitants traveled to the northern coast of the continent on rafts launched from Indonesian islands several hundred miles away. “We will never know the exact time window humans arrived on the continent,” he said. “But there is reliable evidence they were widely dispersed across the continent before 47,000 years ago.”

Evidence of Australia megafauna hunting is very difficult to find, in part because the megafauna there are so much older than New World megafauna and in part because fossil bones are easily destroyed by the chemistry of Australian soils. said Miller.

“In the Americas, early human predation on the giant animals in clear — stone spear heads are found embedded in mammoth bones, for example,” said Miller. “The lack of clear evidence regarding human predation on the Australia megafauna had, until now, been used to suggest no human-megafauna interactions occurred, despite evidence that most of the giant animals still roamed Australia when humans colonized the continent.”


Co-authors on the new study include Research Professor Scott Lehman, doctoral student Christopher Florian and researcher Stephen DeVogel of CU-Boulder; Research Fellow John Magee of the Australian National University; and researchers from seven other Australian institutions. The study was funded in part by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Australian Research Council.



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Patricia Landa, an archaeological conservator, painstakingly cleans and untangles the khipus at her house in Lima.Credit William Neuman/The New York Times

Patricia Landa, an archaeological conservator, painstakingly cleans and untangles the khipus at her house in Lima.Credit William Neuman/The New York Times

Khipus before it has been cleaned and untangled. Credit William Neuman/The New York Times.

Khipus before it has been cleaned and untangled. Credit William Neuman/The New York Times.

Original Article:



LIMA, Peru — In a dry canyon strewn with the ruins of a long-dead city, archaeologists have made a discovery they hope will help unravel one of the most tenacious mysteries of ancient Peru: how to read the knotted string records, known as khipus, kept by the Incas.

At the site called Incahuasi, about 100 miles south of Lima, excavators have found, for the first time, several khipus in the place where they were used — in this case, a storage house for agricultural products where they appear to have been used as accounting books to record the amount of peanuts, chili peppers, beans, corn and other items that went in and out.

In some cases the khipus — the first ones were found at the site in 2013 — were buried under the remnants of centuries-old produce, which was preserved thanks to the extremely dry desert conditions.

That was a blockbuster discovery because archaeologists had previously found khipus only in graves, where they were often buried with the scribes who created and used the devices. Many others are in the possession of collectors or museums, stripped of information relating to their provenance.

Khipus are made of a series of cotton or wool strings hanging from a main cord. Each string may have several knots, with the type and location of the knot conveying meaning. The color of the strands used to make the string and the way the strands are twisted together may also be part of the khipus’ system of storing and relaying information.

Researchers have long had a basic understanding of the numerical system incorporated in the khipus, where knots represent numbers and the relation between knots and strings can represent mathematical operations, like addition and subtraction.

But researchers have been unable to identify the meaning of any possible nonnumerical signifiers in khipus, and as a result they cannot read any nonmathematical words or phrases.

Now the Incahuasi researchers hope that by studying the khipus and comparing them with others in a large database, they may find that the khipus discovered with the peanuts contain a color, knot or other signifier for “peanut.” The same goes for those found with chili peppers, beans and corn.

“We can look at how the chili pepper khipu differs from the peanut khipu and from the corn khipu in terms of their color and other characteristics and we can build up a kind of sign vocabulary of how they were signifying this or that thing in their world,” said Gary Urton, a leading expert on khipus who is studying the new trove with Alejandro Chu, the archaeologist who led the excavation.

“It’s not the great Rosetta Stone but it’s quite an important new body of data to work with,” he said, adding, “It’s tremendously exciting.”

For now, the 29 khipus from Incahuasi, which are about 500 years old, are kept in an unassuming brick house in a residential neighborhood in Lima, along with a scattering of artifacts from other excavations, including two mummies (of a child and a dog), some bags of human bones, dozens of fragile textiles rolled up between layers of paper, and numerous pots meticulously reassembled from shards.

The house belongs to Patricia Landa, an archaeological conservator, who also keeps a menagerie of cats and dogs, including three hairless Peruvian dogs of the kind once raised by the Incas for food.

It is Ms. Landa who takes the Incahuasi khipus, some of which were found neatly rolled up and others in snarled jumbles, and painstakingly cleans and untangles them and prepares them for researchers to decipher.

“You have a very special relationship with the material,” Ms. Landa, 59, said. “I talk to them. I say, ‘Excuse me for disturbing your rest but you’re helping us to understand your ancestors.’ ”

Incahuasi, which means “house of the Inca emperor,” was a city used in the late 15th and early 16th centuries as the base of operations for the Inca invasion of Peru’s southern coast, after which it became a thriving administrative center, according to Mr. Chu, the archaeologist. It sat in the arid hills above the green valley of the Cañete River.

“There was probably lots of movement, with llama caravans bringing in farm produce,” he said.

The storehouse where the khipus were found was probably used to keep food needed to maintain the large number of troops deployed in the invasion.

The Incas, who were highly organized and governed a vast area, would have used khipus to keep track of provisions, and copies of the string records were probably sent to an administrative center, such as Cusco, the Inca capital, where they could be read, checked and perhaps filed. The Incahuasi excavation has even turned up what are essentially duplicate sets of khipus tied together, which the researchers believe could have been made when the same products were counted twice — perhaps to guarantee accurate bookkeeping.

One khipu found at the site had its knots untied, suggesting that the information stored there had been “erased” by the accountants so that the khipu could be reused, Ms. Landa said.

The khipus found at Incahuasi appear to be all about counting beans, literally. But colonial-era documents suggest that khipus had many uses in both the pre-Hispanic and colonial period that went beyond accounting, including to keep calendrical information and to tell historical narratives.

Colonial records show that in some cases, such as land disputes, indigenous litigants would bring khipus to court and use them to explain or justify claims of land ownership, Mr. Chu said. He said that scribes would read the khipus and a court clerk would enter the information into the trial record.

Mr. Urton has created a database of all known khipus, about 870 of them, with detailed information on two-thirds of them, recording their configurations, colors, numerical values and other information.

Because the Incahuasi khipus appear to be relatively simple inventories of agricultural products, it may be easier to decipher them than the more complex khipus that record historical information, Mr. Chu said.

And a breakthrough in deciphering the Incahuasi khipus could be a first step in reading more complex versions.

“If we can find the connection between the khipu and the product that it was found with we can contribute to the deciphering of the khipus,” Mr. Chu said.

Mr. Urton said that the difference between the accounting khipus at Incahuasi and more elaborate khipus, “is the difference between, let’s say, your tax form and a novel.” But they may also have key similarities: “They both use the same language, they both use the same numbers when they use numbers, and it’s in the same writing system.”

The excavations at Incahuasi have stopped because of a lack of financing. Much of the vast storeroom complex has yet to be excavated, and Mr. Chu hopes there could be more khipus there.

“It was very exciting to find them,” Mr. Chu said. “We started to find the storerooms and we didn’t think we would find any khipus. Then we started to clear away the dirt and we saw the knots.”



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Tasting Beer

Tasting Beer

125 year old beer

125 year old beer

Original Article:


By Amanda Jackson, CNN, January 2016

(CNN)A scuba diver, a researcher and a beer enthusiast walked into a lab and uncorked the mystery of an antique bottle of beer.

Jon Crouse, an amateur scuba diver and treasure hunter from Nova Scotia, found the bottle of beer at the bottom of Halifax Harbor in November. He kept the bottle, wondering what was inside it and if it was drinkable. The bottle seemed to be well-sealed, and it had a cork inscribed with “A. Keith & Son Brewery.”
On Wednesday, the mysterious, murky liquid was identified.

Crouse enlisted the help of Christopher Reynolds, co-owner of Stillwell Beer Bar in Halifax, and Andrew MacIntosh of Dalhousie University, who specializes in fermentation research. The team tested the bottle to make sure there was beer inside, and not seawater, before daring to take a swig.
“It tasted surprisingly good, and surprisingly like beer,” Reynolds told CNN affiliate CTV.
MacIntosh felt differently. He said he tried the beer “for the sake of science.”

“You wouldn’t want to drink any of it,” he said.

Researchers will continue to analyze the beer to determine what chemicals were used to make it.

“This will give us insight into how it was brewed in the 1800s,” said MacIntosh.

CNN’s Jennifer Moore contributed to this report.


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By Emily Hedges | Published 12/01/15 8:00am

Archaeologists at the UA School of Anthropology and the Arizona State Museum are cooking up something big for their next project. Researchers are using utility-ware pottery and cookware to learn more about migration patterns at the Homol’ovi Hopi pueblo sites.

The Homol’ovi Research Program began in 1985 as a collaboration between the UA School of Anthropology and the Arizona State Museum. Originally, the project involved working on Hopi pueblos at Homol’ovi State Park near Winslow, Arizona. The project later shifted to focus on the Chevelon Pueblo, the third largest pueblo of the Homol’ovi villages, which are believed to have been occupied from about 1280 to 1380.

According to UA anthropology Professor E. Charles Adams, the UA School of Anthropology is currently working on Rock Art Ranch, a petroglyph site located near Homol’ovi. The UA School of Anthropology hosts an archaeology field school at Rock Art Ranch every summer that is open to undergraduates and graduate students. The field school teaches students archaeological excavation techniques including survey techniques, excavation procedures and artifact identification and analysis.

“I really like the social part of it,” Adams said. “The thing I most enjoy about it is being out … with a whole group of people and getting to know each other and then being able to work together collaboratively to accomplish really great things like, you know, doing excavations and surveys.”

One of the problems encountered at the Homol’ovi site is looting of artifacts, according to Adams. Pottery hunters, whether intentionally or unintentionally, will remove artifacts from archaeological sites without documentation.

When it comes to archaeology, “context is really everything,” Claire Barker, an anthropology graduate student and research assistant, said. Without context, it is difficult for an archaeologist to analyze an artifact and determine its significance.

“Archaeology done properly is not exciting and it’s not sexy. I mean, people don’t care and that’s unfortunate,” she said. “I think that there’s a lack of understanding, and if people really knew, less people would do it.”

Barker uses utility-ware pottery from the Homol’ovi site to study social identity. According to Barker, studying utility ware is a more stable way to look at social identity.

“Your cooking pots — like what you actually cook with — are not something that you really think of as part of who you are, but that’s also fundamental to who you are,” Barker said.

In a time before pre-made pots and pans, prehistoric peoples used different pottery recipes to make their own cooking ware, according to Barker. Generally, people of the same family groups used similar recipes.

“So by looking at these recipes … you can look at relationships between people, and you can see uniformity or diversity,” Barker said.

One of the questions Barker said she seeks to answer with her research is: where did people move to Homol’ovi from? By looking at the composition of the pottery, researchers can determine whether it was locally produced or not. Barker uses the composition of utility-ware recipes from local groups of immigrants to see how many immigrants there were, where they migrated from and if they maintained a diversity of traditions after the migration.

“The moment you get into a new social climate, there may be pressure to adjust the way you decorate pottery,” Barker said. “But this stuff, the frying pan you use, is still probably not going to change.”

According to Barker, after she has finished analyzing the pottery, she will use the statistics from the analysis to look at diversity between sites and see if there is a disjunction between the decorated pottery and utility-ware pottery analyses.

“That’s when things get really interesting,” she said.

Meanwhile, Barker will be working on her new Blockbuster hit: “Indiana Jones Discusses Archaeological Context.”

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game of thrones  (Credit: HBO/Helen Sloan)

game of thrones
(Credit: HBO/Helen Sloan)

Original Article:



Give thanks that “Red Deer testicles” and “living eels in roasted pig” aren’t on the menu today.

Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday, blessedly devoid of spirituality and denominational religion, just piles of food, family and football (followed by napping). But if the idea of another turkey, flanked by cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, sounds ho-hum, consider what constituted the feasts of yore. Our ancestors used to eat some pretty crazy shit. It’s only a matter of time before a renegade chef opens a pop-up medieval food truck. But whether hipster consumers of wagyu and kale tacos are ready for Roasted Swan Legs, Deer Antler Soup and Porpoise in Aspic is a fair question.

What are the socio-political repercussions of eating Grilled Womb (which is unlikely to appear on menus in red states, at least not in the months leading up to an election)? Even a passionate carnivore like Anthony Bourdain might have some moral qualms about dipping into a plate of Living Eels in a Roasted Pig. If you’ve got leftover deer testicles in the back of your fridge, then maybe it’s time to inject a bit of the Middle Ages into your Thanksgiving menu.

Yes, some six centuries ago, these dishes were considered delicacies worth preserving in medieval cookbooks. Doubtless grandmothers, huddled around their soot-blackened kitchens, perhaps cackling maniacally out of their whisker-strewn maws, would lovingly instruct their granddaughters in the finer methods of preparing Roast Cat, or a cauldron full of boiling Garbage (the evocative appellation for chicken gizzard stew).

Curious as to what was on the menu during those pesky Bubonic Plague epidemics, I began to research medieval and Renaissance cooking. It all began with a nice little book review assignment. I was to review “The Medieval Cookbook” by Maggie Black (Getty Publications, 2012) for the academic journal Gastronomica. The book takes authentic medieval recipes and updates them for the modern kitchen. The book is a fine one, but it did not satisfy my curiosity. To be frank, it was too normal. OK, even Getty Publications can’t expect Mary Jane from Minnesota to prepare Roasted Peacock. And so, the book contains recipes that are as close to what we, today, consider normal as possible. Sure, there are pottages (the old-fashioned word for a thick soup), buknades (an even thicker pottage, more like a stew), piment (spiced, sweetened wine), and civey (uh…also a stew). Some dishes and spice combos from the Middle Ages would be most welcome in the modern kitchen, and their preparation will almost certainly not result in incarceration (the same cannot be said for some of our other examples—I’m looking at you, Grilled Womb). Saffron and ginger play a far more central role in spicing medieval savory dishes than we would consider today, outside of Asian cuisine. Much of this was down to masking the taste of not-so-fresh meat, necessary before the invention of the Frigidaire. Likewise mace, cardamom, cinnamon and sugar were common additions to savory main courses, sweetness being broadly valued over other flavors. But two medieval staple spice mixes would find a home in any creative kitchen. Powder Forte is a mixture of ground cumin, black pepper and ginger, while Powder Douce combines ground coriander, cinnamon and brown sugar. Aside from unusual terms for things, many of the recipes from “The Medieval Cookbook” sound, well, normal. I mean, I can’t get too excited about cheese lasagna and roast pork, both of which are featured. I’m sure they are perfectly good, but when dipping into the foods of an exotic age, and in looking for historically accurate ways to spice up my Thanksgiving, I was hoping for more shock value.

Beware what you wish for. My further research uncovered all manner of dishes that are either unadvisable, or in some cases illegal, to prepare today. Hold onto your dormouse stew…

Before we begin, a word about diet in the pre-modern period. There was a widely accepted belief in pre-modern Europe that you had to eat according to the social class into which you were born. Eating above (or below) your station would make you ill, or even kill you. Aristocrats consumed creatures and vegetables associated with the air, the sky, lightness and whiteness. Their preferred proteins were fowl and white-fleshed fish. Nobles drank white wine, ate white bread and tree-growing fruit, chose veggies that grew aboveground, avoided root vegetables. Peasants, by contrast, ate things that were dark in color and associated with the earth: black bread (the old term for rye), black wine (the old term for red), root vegetables, beans, red meat, shellfish, porridges and stews thickened with grains.

I’d take the peasant menu any day. While there is, of course, no genetic reason why Count von Frupingstein should only eat roasted swan legs and figs, while Fritz the Goat-Herd must dine on roast potatoes and mutton, there may have been a biological reason why the nobility stuck to its airy, white diet. If generations ate only within their dictated confines, then the aristocrats might have lost their enzymes to break down red meat, and therefore might well have felt ill, if they consumed what they were not used to. For the peasants, the question would be less about illness and more about cost. White wine was far more expensive than red, pure white bread more expensive than rye, and nice white fish pricier than lobster, mussels and eel. Eel, in fact, appears in medieval cooking with a frequency alarming to us moderns, because it was an inexpensive source of good protein. As a stock fish, eel could be farmed, and was often used in stews or other dishes in place of beef, which was pricey and harder to come by. Eel can be delicious when properly prepared (for example, in my favorite Japanese dish, unagi), but how about a platter of Living Eels in a Roast Pig? I’m not sure if that would be more traumatic for the diner or the eels, but either way, I’d steer clear of it.

Unsurprisingly, it was the dishes of the aristocracy that were the most bizarre and fanciful, part nourishment and part entertainment. Medieval banquets were long-form affairs (the predecessors of the Slow Food Movement), often hours long. You would be given a number of courses relative to your social status, and might have to sit and watch the king eat his 13th exotic plate, while you’d only be given two. While writing a book on the great Flemish painter Jan van Eyck, I learned that van Eyck was responsible for the design of banquets at the 15th century court of Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy, creating dishes that were first thought of in terms of drama and aesthetics, with taste being a secondary concern. On the other hand, peasant food, which inevitably sounds far more appetizing, was about making the most of what was available, without the least concern for presentation. Peasants were satisfied with soups and stews, often thickened with grain and including whatever was available, from vegetables to scraps of meat: one-pot dishes that could gently bubble in a cauldron for hours on end, while a family went about their daily labors. Aristocrats, on the other hand, employed full-time cooks as well as occasional artists, like van Eyck, who would collaborate in the design of elaborate feasts to awe and delight important guests. Exotic ingredients and a heavy hand with spices were signs of wealth and erudition. Minimalist cooking it ain’t. If you could use 10 spices, why, that was five times better than using two. Ostentatious displays of wealth seem to have been prized over deliciousness. This makes reading about medieval cooking a good deal more fun than eating it.

For many, the thought of medieval dining recalls “four and 20 blackbirds baked in a pie,” from the popular 18th century English nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence.” Fowl baked in a pie (with their feathers removed, but not deboned) was indeed a common banquet recipe. But according to the nursery rhyme, “When the pie was opened/The birds began to sing/Wasn’t that a dainty dish/To set before a king?” This, too, is on the money. Jan van Eyck was responsible for the design of a pie that housed a compartment for a live dove to hole up, so that the dove would fly out when the pie was (carefully) sliced open. The nursery rhyme describes a real recipe. You can imagine the macabre fun at medieval dinner parties, when live birds escape from their lightly browned crusty coffins, just before you slice the cooked portion of the pie and serve the birds’ less-fortunate cousins. In fact, the word “coffin” appears in medieval recipes as a synonym for pie crust. As Gervase Markham wrote in “The English Hous-wife” (1615): “that it may stand well for rising, your coffin must ever be deep.” That could mean so many things … This morbid undertone may be found throughout medieval cookery. Consider that the original lyrics for “Sing a Song of Sixpence,” in the 1740 first edition, read: “Sing a Song of Sixpence/A bagful of Rye/Four and twenty Naughty Boys/Baked in a Pye.” Hmm. There’s nothing quite so creepy as a traditional nursery rhyme, the lyrics of which we sing to sleepy babies, without stopping to think what we are saying. I mean, “Rock-a-bye baby on a tree top/When the wind blows the cradle will rock/When the bough breaks the cradle will fall/And down will come baby, cradle and all.” Huh? WTF?!

Alas, the juxtaposition of cooked and living critters was considered enormously diverting by our ancestors. One book in particular rides the thin line between magic tricks and dinner (as well as nourishment and horrible taste). Giambattista della Porta’s 1660 tome, “Magia Naturalis (The Secrets of Nature)” contains a number of highly disconcerting recipes that, we can only hope, were largely theoretical. I quote from his description under the heading “To Cook a Live Goose” (skip this paragraph if you are faint of heart, or a member of the ASPCA):

Take the goose, pull off the feathers, make a fire about her, not too close for smoke to choke her, or burn her too soon, not too far off so she may escape. Put small cups of water with salt and honey … also dishes of apple sauce. Baste goose with butter. She will drink water to relieve thirst, eat apples to cleanse and empty her of dung. Keep her head and heart wet with a sponge. When she gets giddy from running and begins to stumble, she is roasted enough. Take her up, set her before the guests; she will cry as you cut off any part and will be almost eaten before she is dead … It is mighty pleasant to behold.

I think that old Giambattista and I have rather different opinions of what is “mighty pleasant to behold,” but reproduce his dish and you’re guaranteed to throw a Thanksgiving feast that your guests will remember forever. Perhaps waking up to the thought in a cold sweat, or rocking slowly back and forth on a therapist’s couch while recalling it. And to think of the fuss folks make these days about foie gras …

Giambattista was also fond of illusionism, and offers us a recipe for a Roasted Peacock that looks alive (he’s assuming that this is somehow a bonus), and also appears to breathe fire.

Kill a peacock, either by thrusting a quill into his brain from above, or else cut his throat, as you do for young kids [author’s note: I’m hoping that Giambattista meant baby goats], that the blood may come forth. Then cut his skin gently from his throat unto his tail and, being cut, pull it off with his feathers from his whole body to his head. Cut off that with the skin and legs, and keep it. Roast the peacock on a spit. His body being stuffed with spices and sweet herbs, sticking first cloves on his breast, and wrapping his neck in a white linen cloth. Wet it always with water, that it may never dry. When the peacock is roasted, and taken from the spit, put him into his own skin again, and that he may seem to stand upon his feet, you shall thrust small iron wires, made on purpose, through his legs, and set fast on a board, that they may not be discerned, and through his body to his head and tail. Some put camphire [a fragrant wood from which henna is derived] in his mouth, and when he is set upon the table, they cast in fire. Platina shows that the same may be done with pheasants, geese, capons, and other birds. And we observe these things among our guests.

I also found a reference to the aforementioned Living Eels in a Roasted Pig (in a 1598 book by presumed mental patient Frantz de Rontzier), but have not located the recipe…as you may be relieved to hear.

One thing you’ll find about reading medieval cookbooks is that our ancestors were without spell-check. Some of the recipes read as if someone decided against typing, and instead just banged his head on the keyboard. “Hagws of a schepe” is sheep stomach pudding—this becomes clearer if you sound out the words (“haggis of a sheep”). As spelling was not codified until after the 18th century, it’s a good bet to read medieval texts aloud, in order to understand what the heck they’re talking about. Another mouthful of a recipe, the preparation of which is certainly illegal and likely against the Geneva Convention, is “Purpays yn galanteyn.” That’s right, “porpoise in aspic.” If you read this aloud, you just might be able to follow it:

Take purpays: do away the skyn; cutt hit yn smal lechys no more then a fynger, or les. Take bred drawen wyth red wyne; put therto powder of canell, powdyr of pepyr. Boil hit; seson hit up with powder of gynger, venegre, & salt.

The recipes are Spartan, to say the least, and require much imagination to see how they come together, although they do tend to be explicit about how to kill the main ingredient. Take this one, for Jungen hirs horn, or Deer Antler Soup:

If you wish to prepare a good meal, take the antlers of a young stag, singe them until they are clean, boil them, chop them up, and add wine, honey, and gingerbread, and boil all the ingredients. Only the antler extract is important, and that is good.

Julia Child, eat your heart out. I’m also particularly partial to the last line of this recipe. From the original medieval German, I can’t tell if “that is good” is in praise of the dish, or a sigh of relief for the fact that “only the antler extract is important.”

Another dish I found, but without a recipe, comes from a 1370 book called Viandier of Taillevent: Red Deer Testicles in Hunting Season. Were you to try to prepare this at home, delicious as it sounds, I’m not sure where I’d suggest you shop for ingredients. Does Trader Joe’s have a testicles aisle?

Finally, there are also recipes that, while they may not involve hard-to-come-by ingredients, we might wish that they were harder to come by. Take Rupert de Nola’s 1529 recipe, from “Libro de Cozina,” for…oh dear, I can’t believe I’m writing this… Roasted Cat.

Take a cat that should be plump and cut its throat, and once it is dead cut off its head, and throw it away, for this is not to be eaten; for it is said that he who eats the brains will lose his own sense and judgment. Then skin it very cleanly, and open it and clean it well, and then wrap it in a clean linen cloth and bury it in the earth, where it should remain for a day and a night. Then take it out and put it on a spit and roast it over the fire, and when beginning to roast, baste it with good garlic and oil, and when you are finished basting it, beat it well with a green branch; and this should be done until it is well roasted, basting and beating. And when it is roasted, carve it as if it were rabbit or kid [author’s note: once more, I’m hoping that Rupert de Nola refers to a baby goat not…well, you know…] and put it on a large plate. Take the garlic with oil mixed with good broth, so that it is coarse, and pour it over the cat, and you can eat it, for it is a good dish.

I like how it is dis-recommended to eat the cat’s head, but the rest makes for fine dining, particularly after it’s been buried underground for 24 hours. (Is that for flavor?) How about beating the roast with a green branch? I don’t remember any mention of that in “Jacques Pepin’s Cooking Techniques.”

I suppose we can’t blame our ancestors for eating what was available, when a quick trip to Whole Foods was not an option. Whether these recipes-by-necessity tasted good is another matter. Logic and morality have kept me from testing the majority of them. I have tried out some medieval recipes, those that did not involve cats, living eels or swan legs. They tend to be too sweet for modern tastes, and too muddled: that habit of throwing in more spices for the sake of show means that the main ingredients of a dish are hardly discernible. But of those I’ve tried, the peasant foods are the best, and the simplest: braised meat, stews, beans, potatoes, rye bread and red wine. The aristocracy can keep their recipes, like To Make a Chicken Sing When It is Dead and Roasted—a recipe that involves mercury, by the way, which is not part of the Food Pyramid.

Maybe turkey and cranberry sauce is for the best, after all …

Selected Bibliography

Apicius “The Roman Cookery Book” (6th century)

Black, Maggie “The Medieval Cookbook” Getty Publications, 2012

De Nola, Ruperto “Libro de Cozina” (1529)

Markham, Gervase “The English Hous-wife” (1615)

Scully, Terence “The Vivendier” (Devon: Prospect Books, 1997)

Porta, Giambattista and Alessio Piemontese, “Magia Naturalis (Secrets of Nature,” 1660)

“The Viandier of Taillevent” (1370)

“The Ambras Recipe” (Collection of Cod. Vind. 5486)

(“Harleian MS 279,” 15th century)

(“MS Beinecke 163,” 15th century)

(“Curye on Inglysch,” 14th century)



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Variety of pumpkins and squash Image: George Perry / Penn State

Variety of pumpkins and squash Image: George Perry / Penn State

Original Article:


By A’ndrea Elyse Messer
November 20, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — If Pleistocene megafauna — mastodons, mammoths, giant sloths and others — had not become extinct, humans might not be eating pumpkin pie and squash for the holidays, according to an international team of anthropologists.

“It’s been suggested before and I think it’s a very reasonable hypothesis, that wild species of pumpkin and squash weren’t used for food early in the domestication process,” said Logan Kistler, NERC Independent Research Fellow, University of Warwick, U.K. and recent Penn State postdoctoral fellow. “Rather, they might have been useful for a variety of other purposes like the bottle gourd, as containers, tools, fishnet floats, etc. At some point, as a symbiotic relationship developed, palatability evolved, but the details of that process aren’t known at the present.”

Researchers believe that initially humans did not eat wild pumpkin and squash — members of the cucurbita family — because the wild fruit is not only bitter but also toxic to humans and smaller animals. However, clear evidence exists that very large animals — megafauna — that lived 12,000 years ago did eat these fruit.

“Lee Newsom (associate professor of anthropology, Penn State and study co-author) has recovered many wild gourd/squash seeds from ancient Mastodon dung, suggesting that large herbivores may have been an important feature in the natural history of these wild plants,” said Kistler.

The researchers looked at varieties of modern domestic cucurbits, modern wild cucurbits and archaeological specimens. They believe that changes in distribution of the wild plants are directly related to the disappearance of the large animals.

“We performed an ancient DNA study of cucurbita including modern wild plants, domesticated plants and archaeological samples from multiple locations,” said George Perry, assistant professor of anthropology and biology. “The results suggest, or confirm, that some lineages domesticated by humans are now extinct in the wild.”

Without elephant-sized animals to distribute seeds, wild plants will grow only where the fruit drops — as far as the pumpkin rolls. At the same time, the disappearance of megafauna altered the landscape from one of a patchwork of environments to something more uniform. Cucurbita are weedy plants that liked the disturbed landscape created by the megafauna, but fared less well in the new landscape of the Holocene.

The researchers also looked at bitter taste receptors in animals and found that smaller animals with more diverse dietary patterns posses many more bitter taste receptors than large animals that ate only a few things.

“We compared bitter taste receptor genes in about 40 living mammals and found that body sizes and dietary breadth were important,” said Perry. “The greater the size, the fewer receptors. The greater the dietary depth, the more receptors.”

If humans initially used cucurbita for nonfood applications, they somehow eventually managed to find those plants that mutated and lost their toxicity. According to Kistler, cucurbita may have been domesticated at least six different times in six different places.

“There is a huge amount of diversity in some of the domestic species and between them as well,” said Kistler. “Cucurbita pepo is probably the most variable, with jack-o-lantern pumpkins, acorn squash, zucchinis and others. Cucurbita moschata contains the butternut squashes and the kind of pumpkin that goes into the cans that a lot of folks will be baking into pies in a few weeks.”

Also working on this project were Timothy M. Ryan, associate professor of anthropology and information sciences and technology, Penn State; Andrew C. Clarke, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge; and Bruce D. Smith, curator, North American Archaeology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.

The Wenner-Gren Foundation, Natural Environment Research Council and the Smithsonian Institution supported this work.


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Bronze Age wine cellar found.


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Ancient shellfish remains rewrite 10,000-year history of El Nino cycles.

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‘Revolutionary’ Site Unearthed Near Mesa Verde – Archaeology Magazine.




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