What Do Barbarians Eat?

Food and Society at the Fringes of the Shang and Zhou World

Yitzchak Jaffe

ISAW Visiting Assistant Professor


The cultures inhabiting the Western fringes of the Shang and Zhou world are mostly seen as inferior and uncivilized. Archaeological work here has been limited to studying mortuary practices and the association of material styles with historically mentioned groups. The Siwa  culture 寺洼 (1400-700 BCE), inhabiting modern day Gansu, has been identified as the Qiang 羌 people -- prized captives who were sacrificed by the Shang -- or the Rong 戎 and Di 狄tribes, the marauding barbarian hoards who toppled the Western Zhou dynasty.

When they are mentioned in historical texts, food often plays an important role in their characterization as barbarians: They are those who consume more meat than grain and know little of ritual propriety, namely good dining etiquette. Even while little research has focused on foodways, Siwa people are reconstructed as practicing nomadic pastoralism. This paper presents the results of the first ever use wear study performed on the Siwa Ma’an jars 马鞍 from the site of Zhanqi, together with residue analysis of the carbonized food remains found in them. These findings provide novel data on the diet and cuisine of this community to present the culinary sophistication of the people living on the margins of the ancient Chinese world.

Yitzchak Jaffe is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at NYU. He received his PhD in Anthropology from Harvard University (2016) and has obtained a BA (2006) and MA (2009) from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Departments of Archaeology and East Asian Studies. As an anthropological archaeologist who studies the development of complex societies in Ancient China, his research investigates interaction among different social groups and the ways in which culture contact creates and shapes social identities. His work draws Inspiration from contemporary scholarship on culture contact, colonialism and globalization and how these engender new food-ways, mortuary practices and other social practices.

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