Archaeology of food

Speaking of conferences, there’s another one that’s worth keeping an eye on, which I learned about via Eurekalert. It’s called Food and Drink in Archaeology 2007 and will feature a keynote address by Professor Martin Jones of the Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge entitled “Feast: Why Humans Share Food.”

Why is this relevant to us here at the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog? Well…

Whilst the importance of nutrition for survival has long been recognised, recent studies have increasingly stressed the cultural significance of the production, distribution and consumption of foodstuffs through out all archaeological periods. An understanding of diet in past societies is therefore crucial to an understanding of daily life, and the relationships between different classes and societies throughout the world.

Of dung, mites and llamas

Researchers are counting fossilized dung-eating mites in the sediments of an Andean lake to get an idea of the size of llama herds in the surroundings, and thus “reconstruct the fluctuating fortunes of local (human) populations for an era from which no written records exist.” It turns out that “mite numbers rise and fall in concert with well-documented socio-economic changes in the postconquest period.” The paper is in the Journal of Archaeological Science, but you can read a summary here.


Michael’s post on water buffalo genetic diversity and domestication reminded me that I was intending to point you all in the direction of Dienekes’ Anthropology Blog. Although Dienekes mainly blogs about the genetic diversity and evolution of humans, he does occasionally link to papers on animal domestication and related issues. He has an RSS feed, which makes it easy to monitor his blog. In the past couple of years he has pointed to interesting papers on:

Incidentally, a great paper reviewing the use of genetics and archaeology to document domestication came out last year and you can see the abstract here. Now, what’s really needed is for someone to bring together the human, livestock and crop genetic data.

Replanting the Land of Milk and Honey

There’s a 250 hectare park between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in Israel that aims to recreate some of the agricultural landscapes of the Old Testament, pairing living exhibits with the appropriate texts. Started 35 years ago, Neot Kedumim features plants, animals and agricultural processes — olive presses, threshing floors — dating back 2000 years and more.

That’s very interesting, I imagine, but I can’t help thinking that what the region really needs is a “Cradle of (western) Agriculture” Museum. Attractions like the Potato Park in Peru give tourists a different taste of history, often literally. And they can raise more general awareness of the importance of agricultural biodiversity. I know I’m dreaming, but it would be nice to see the countries of the Middle East settle their differences for long enough to build such a museum, even deliberately located in three or four different countries.

Agro-tourism in general seems to be becoming more popular; maybe we should compile a global list of places where people can see local culture and the foods it produces? Send us your suggestions.

By the way, I was alerted to Neot Kedumim by this article, but don’t bother going there. It seems to be a blatant rip-off of this much longer and more interesting piece in the Jerusalem Post.

Ancient plant uses

Two stories on the archaeology of ancient plant use caught my eye today. One reports – unfortunately very briefly – on a 4,000 year old perfume factory from Cyprus, listing some of the plants used. The other describes the discovery of what could be, at 6,500 years old, the earliest evidence of wine-making, or at least the mashing up of grapes.