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

Lecture 1: Domestication, Demography, and Settlement: Alternative Mathematics for Early Agriculture

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.

This lecture will reconsider the origins of agriculture based on recent empirical evidence that tells us both how grain crops were domesticated and how slowly this process unfolded, in West Asia, East Asia, parts of Africa, and India. Archaeobotany is providing a growing evidence base for the ways in which plants became adapted as crops through morphological changes, which were in turn tied to shifts in human practices. The co-evolution was slow, however, and it will be argued that the more revolutionary shift towards agricultural economies was substantially later (a few millennia) than the start of domestication itself. Agricultural economies can be defined as those systems in which wild foraging came to make a much reduced or even marginal caloric contribution to diet, and efforts at food production began to take place at a landscape scale. Different regional trajectories, however, differed in terms of the nature of landuse due to fundamental differences in the potential of crop yields, and the diversity of the initial crop package. This meant that some regions, such as West Asia based on wheat, barley, and pulses or the Yangtze based on flooded rice and fish, were able to sustain denser populations, while other regions, like savannas in Africa or India or the northern Chinese steppe were more prone to agricultural expansion through population dispersal and regional infilling. Thus from the starting point of domestication we can trace variations in productive capacity that underpinned the demographic processes that led to the emergence of cities across parts of the Old World.

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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