Rostovtzeff Lecture Series: Feeding Civilizations: A Comparative Long-Term Consideration of Agricultural and Culinary Traditions across the Old World

Lecture 4: Baking up Western Civilization and Some African Alternatives

Dorian Q. Fuller

University College London

Note: Pre-registration for ISAW Friends and community members opens on February 15th; registration for the general public opens on February 22nd.

An activity that all humans and all societies share is the cooking, preparation and sharing of food. And while food is a biological necessity it is heavily framed by cultural traditions and social constructs. It is well-known that cooking separates Homo sapiens and its immediate ancestors from all other primates, and this involvement with easier to digest cooked foods afforded us larger brains, smaller guts, and a new focus for the evolution of technology and techniques—for getting, preparing, storing, and serving food. A subfield of archaeology, archaeobotany, has concerned itself with the recovery of material traces of plants, an essential component of all dietary diversity, providing evidence both of what people ate, where it came from—field or forest—but also how it was transformed into the artefacts we call prepared foods, drinks or meals. As recognized by Levi-Strauss, the raw, the cooked, and the rotten provide a potent framework through which to view cultural constructions of the social and natural world. These lectures will explore how agricultural production and cooking traditions both underpinned the possibility of civilization and also helped to characterize the regionally distinct forms that civilization took across the Old World, especially in China, Mesopotamia, Egypt, southern India, and parts of sub-Saharan Africa. In addition, the lecture series will explore how plants were transformed through domestication into the basis of agricultural economies and how plant products were turned into the food products that both supported large human populations and underpinned social differentiation. The term civilization is used in two senses: first, in the sense common in English anthropological literature as relating to cities, states, and hierarchical or complex societies; and, second, in a Francophone (Maussian) sense of defining regional constellations of cultural patterns that transcend individual polities but unite regional networks societies.

Baked bread is both basic to west Asian civilization and distinctive of it in the global context. The origins of cereal agriculture in Western Asia preceded the development of cooking pots, but instead processing focused on production of flour and breads. This is most obvious in the widespread archaeological distribution of ovens from southeastern Europe through the Indus and up the Nile to Nubia. It is also reflected in the relative prominence of querns for grinding, as well as new archaeobotanical techniques for identifying crumbs of bread or crusts of porridge. At first bread may have been the distinctive new cereal food, unlike anything that was easily cooked from wild gathered foods. But later bread lent itself to portability, and therefore to sharing among traders, travellers, and across the echelons of society. It complemented the cheeses and butters that pastoral producers might also make portable. Bread could be shared as offerings to distant gods alongside odours of incense and roast sacrificial meats. Meanwhile production of agricultural commodities, like grapes and wine, provided innovations that were to transform bread, namely yeast for leavening and from brewing beers—a process that relied on individual grain germination rather than whole grain cooking—but that resulted in an agricultural produce that could take its place within the urban economy, and social interaction.

In sub-Saharan Africa, alternatives to bread, often including malted bears and range of porridges, tended to be the norm. These shared aspects of production with those of western Asia, but they tended to take their place in more kin and ancestor-focused systems of consumption, communal eating, and sacrifice. Thus at the geographical scale we can define a few broad regions of civilization that developed differing cuisines and were built on the differing productive potential of their Neolithic crops (as outlined in the first lecture).

Dorian Fuller grew up in San Francisco, California. He took his  B.A. at Yale University, majoring in Anthropology and Organismal Biology (1995). He received a British Marshall scholarship to study for an M.Phil. in Archaeology at Cambridge University (1997). He then received his Ph.D. from Cambridge with a dissertation on “The Emergence of Agricultural Societies in South India: Botanical and Archaeological Perspectives” (2000). He became a Lecturer at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, in 2000, where he has taught on archaeobotany, environmental archaeology, Nubia, and Asia. He was promoted to Reader (2009) and then Professor of Archaeobotany (2012). He has carried out archaeological fieldwork in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, China, Turkey, Iraq, Morocco, Ethiopia, and Sudan and archaeobotanical laboratory analyses even more widely. He co-authored Trees and Woodlands in South India: Archaeological Perspectives (2008) and has published more than 300 articles and chapters. He received a European Research Council Advanced Investigator Grant on “comparative pathways to agriculture” (2013-2018) and several major grants from the UK Natural Environment Research Council.

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The Rostovtzeff Lectures are supported in part by a generous endowment fund given by Roger and Whitney Bagnall.

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