Critique of Archaeological Reason
7. Themes

Food Component of Identity

Stefania Ermidoro – October 2014

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The notion of tradition itself implies a shared sense of identity. Different features contribute to the establishment and strengthening of the sense of community: for example language, religion, art and customs which, in turn, subsume a variety of further elements.

Eating customs are fundamental in transmitting a sense of identity, in the practical sense that any human is constructed, both biologically and psychologically, by the food he decides to incorporate. In ancient societies, which heavily relied on local harvest and livestock, foods particularly contributed to the creation of a sense of identity. Everyday meals involved a strong connection with the fields where the various ingredients grew or were grown, that is to say the “ancestral land”. Therefore, edibles gave the people a sense of inherited community and of belonging to an established land.

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Modern anthropological perspectives on ‘ethnicity’ stress that the term relates not to static, ‘natural’ phenomena which are readily identifiable by characteristic features, but rather that ‘ethnicity’ labels dynamic, relational, historically embedded sets of social relations which undergo constant renegotiation. Such a theoretical perspective demands a complementary scientific method: archaeologists, thus, should not look for ‘index fossils’ amongst the bones found in their excavations but should explore instead the ‘contexts’ in which animals were deployed, not only alive, but as carcasses, parts of meals, and discarded remains.

If cultures and ethnic groups are no longer considered as objective entities but as dynamic sets of relations constantly being produced through social practice, then two questions arise: can this new theoretical paradigm incorporate archaeological evidence? If so, how?

I will start with a brief overview on the issues of food habits as markers of social identity and a discussion of the role of dietary laws with regards to the topic of ethnicity, and I will propose then a few practical examples taken from archaeological excavations.

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Linguistics and classification

At a basic biological level, nutrient selection is governed by the five senses: not only taste and smell (the most immediately involved in eating), but also sight (color, or other visual characteristics as well: a food can be mouth-watering by its appearance), touch (texture in particular is fundamental for the appreciation of a dish) and sound (for example the “crunchiness”). The most immediate result of this fact is a first classification of ingredients as edible and non-edible, which, in addition, presents more gradation depending on likes/dislikes and on the possible favorite combinations.

Linguistics also intervenes in the nutritional field, since it mirrors the ways in which social life is shaped, exploring among other things how people perceive and categorize the world they live in. The accuracy of the taxonomy and linguistic categorization of plants and animals reflect the proximity to nature and the comprehension of the environment that each cultural group has reached during its history. Linguistics comes into play also because, as a vehicle of many cultural and implied messages, food itself has on several occasions been considered as, or associated to, a code.

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The Grammar of food

The analysis of eating may be considered similar to a grammatical analysis.

A meal is, thus, as complex as a sentence or paragraph: its smaller individual elements, its “words”, are the essential ingredients which have on their own a peculiar provenance and that carry one or more tastes. Just like words, these basic elements can be taken singularly, and yet they are enhanced and give much more sense, when they are mixed in a potentially unlimited number of ways, acquiring a whole new meaning every time.

Setting up a meal is never, in fact, just an answer to a physical necessity, but it serves very specific and different purposes of communication. Food conveys meanings in much the same way as a text, and in the same manner it might thus be read and understood, once the language it speaks is known.

If food is a code that conveys one or more messages, the senders and addressees of such messages must share a common culture that allows the involved parties to decode them: communications among social groups with different cultural roots through the medium of food could reveal itself as a failure. Montanari pushed the argument even further, by identifying a proper grammar of food, in which the products are the lexicon, the way to process them represent the morphology, the meal with its ordering the syntax, and the manners in which they are displayed, served and consumed constitute the rhetoric.

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Hermeneutics of food

We can ask ourselves how can we pretend to know the taste of people who lived in a time chronologically so far away from us: Montanari gave an appropriate answer to this question.

The issue refers to two different concepts of taste. The first considers it as flavor, an individual sensation of tongue and palate: this experience is subjective, receding, and incommunicable - from this point of view, the historical experience of food is irreparably lost. But if taste is also knowledge, sensorial estimation of what is good and what is bad, of what is pleasing and what is not; and if this evaluation comes from the brain more than from the tongue, taste is, then, a collective and communicable reality. As such, modern scholars can try to trace back the processes that brought to its formation, starting from the original products (known through textual and visual representations), through the mechanism that contributed to their establishment, until their consumption.

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An instrument of self-identification

The deep mental associations usually linked with foods, their specific ability to attract or repel people (just by mentioning it, the same foodstuff can be mouth-watering, or it might cause a reaction of total disgust), represent convincing evidence of the unique role of memory in human consumption, and of the importance of culture in the way men conceive the world.

As a result, single types of food eaten only or primarily by a specific ethnic or social group can become a symbol and a metonymy for denoting the group itself. Such food associations are polysemic: they can be declared as a marker of national pride, or used to demean and deride. A few edibles can also assume, in reference to their specific characteristics (cost, provenience, appearance, effects, etc.), particular symbolic meanings and end up representing luxury, exoticism, wealth or roughness, poorness, strangeness, etc. Along this process, some stereotypes can be built up that are difficult (if not impossible) to ignore, but that are mostly specific for the different social groups: the same food item can thus be accepted, requested, sought after, rejected, or expelled.

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Diet rules and taboos

Food consumption, then, constitutes at the same time both a form of self-identification and of communication. The link between locality and food, typical of the first communities of hunters/gatherers, underwent quite a change when men learned how to domesticate plants and animals, transforming their food systems and creating new species. From this historical moment onward, the choice between edible/non-edible became wider and in a sense also more complicated: men could in a way “create” their own food.

For food is not inherently “good” or “bad”: humans learn how to recognize it as such through their own experience, or because someone taught them. As Montanari stated, the organ that controls taste is not the tongue, but the brain: an organ culturally determined, through which it is possible to learn and transmit valuation standards, which are variable in space and time. The main result of such an attempt to organize the edible world is not a sharp distinction between “fit” or “unfit” for human consumption: at least three different levels of gradation can be detected, instead. Above all are the proper edibles, part of the normal diet; then there are foodstuffs that are theoretically edible, but prohibited or allowed only in some special situations; thirdly, the edible substances that are, however, not recognized as food, at all.

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The importance of absence in archaeology

The identification of evidences of food taboos and dietary laws on archaeological excavations have always been problematic, since arguments from absence can be considered as disputable. The absence of a specific taxon from an archaeological site might be attributed to different causes: an imperfect understanding of the ancient environment, a limited seasonal assemblage, hunting technology that is not suited to its capture, etc. Moreover, in human societies most taboos are partial, applicable to only some people, or at some times, or only to some body parts of different animals. Such a subtle patterning is certainly difficult to detect, but at the same time these kinds of taboos are likely to shape the assemblages of animal bones coming from one specific site. Detecting them is important because of their role in marking social categories: total taboos on a taxon may reveal ethnicity in a broader sense, while partial taboos tend to mark internal divisions according to gender, age, reproductive status, etc.

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Taboos and archaeological evidences

Politis and Saunders‘ ethnoarchaeological study represents a good case-study, being attentive to the zooarchaeological signatures of the avoidances they could document among the Nukak of the Colombian Amazon. They discovered that both hunting decisions and faunal assemblages in the archaeological context analyzed are heavily shaped by taboos. Even in the case of certain total avoidances, however, forbidden taxa are never completely absent in the animal bone assemblage. In such cases however, only limited body parts are attested, and they are directed to specific uses.

For example, while the Nukak never kill or eat deer or jaguar, they will scavenge deer tibiae and jaguar humeri for use as flutes at initiations and other liminal ceremonies, and jaguar teeth are collected for necklaces, which are buried with their owners. Thus, Politis and Saunders suggest that small numbers of limited body parts used as artifacts or deposited in special contexts may indicate a tabooed and symbolically important animal.

They also note that some animals are not eaten by the Nukak but are hunted for their feathers or other specific body parts; in this case, one must pay careful attention to the presence or absence of butchery and cooking traces.

Still other animals, such as the peccary, are subject to partial taboos, often permitted to men but forbidden to women and children: these animals are processed and eaten on the edge of the camp, with few bones entering the settlement. On the contrary, animals that are eaten by everyone are processed and consumed within the households and the remains can be found discarded everywhere on site. Thus, also the spatial distribution can become a key indication of partial taboo.

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Ancient iconographies and food habits

Ethnicity can be detected on an archaeological level not only by considering the “eminent absentees” from the record (with reference to diet regulations and taboos, mostly thanks to the contribution of archaeozoology) - but also in a positive sense, looking for cooking techniques and even recipes with the aid of archaeological evidence and in particular iconography (see Buccellati 2013).

In Urkesh, two seals (h3 and h5) belonging to the cook of the royal Palace, Tuli, were found. They share a similar iconography: one of them shows a butcher who leads a sheep to the block while a woman makes butter in a churm, and the other has the butcher with a kid and the woman who instead prepares a loaf of bread. Tuli must have played a leading role within the royal court, being in charge of banquets and other ceremonial meals: it is likely that the choice of depicting such a scene on the seals was conscious and meaningful, and that these activities represented the main duties of the cook of the Palace. We can deduce, thus, that the meat of a lamb or a kid was a fundamental ingredient for a royal banquet (a fact that is confirmed also by contemporary textual record), that meat was prepared with cream or served with butter, and that the meal was accompanied by bread.

The use of butter in itself, rather than oil, can be considered as a peculiarity of the northern diet as well as the combination of meat and dairy products, which is unusual for most of the Near Eastern region (and even prohibited in the Bible).

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Relevant sections in CAR

  • 14.6.4: Distributional Analysis.
  • 16.1: The Question of Meaning.
  • 16.4.3: The Structural Trigger.
  • 16.6.3: Hermeneutics of broken traditions.
  • 16.6: The Two Hermeneutics.

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