Learning about the past through food
Keywords:foodways, archaeology, organic remains, food processing, taphonomy, archaeological methods
Food plays a central role in human life, both past and present. For much of human history, obtaining a sufficient amount of food was a daily priority. Eating not only engages the senses, but it is a vital form of social engagement, creating important and crucial social and familial bonds. The various steps and stages required in the procurement, production, preparation and consumption of food all leave their traces in the archaeological record. Much of the material culture we encounter at archaeological sites, from the macro to the micro, can in some way be connected to food. Archaeologists continue to develop new techniques and technologies that bring us closer to the ways in which people interacted with food, in its many variant forms, in the past. This thematic essay does not seek to provide a thorough review of archaeological food studies, but rather, in the words of Levi-Strauss, to provide something, like food, that is ‘good to think with’. The goal is to present some of the traditional research questions and methods surrounding food, along with explorations of some newer perspectives. It highlights the importance of environmental archaeology and archaeological sciences, and demonstrates how the integration of macro- and microremains, through microscopic techniques and the analysis of residues found on ceramics, can aid in our understanding of a wide range of foodways practices, from fermentation to storage, cooking and consumption. Now is the time to reorient both past and future research, to more clearly address the rich and engaging topic of what and how our ancestors ate, why they did so, and what every part of this great process might have meant to them.
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