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

Lecture 3: Sticking with the Spirits: Eastern Cuisines, Grain Wines, and Civilization

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.

While regional variation in the production of food and farming systems underpinned trajectories towards civilization, these foodstuffs were transformed in distinctive ways that defined, or perhaps flavoured, regional civilization. In other words how the raw became the cooked constructed distinct regional styles of culinary civilization. This can be derived from the observation that the early Near East developed cereal farming in the absence of cooking ceramics, with an emphasis on flour and bread (a theme of the next lecture), whereas East Asian societies were making pots and boiling in them millennia before the first hint of cultivation. This lecture explores the patterns of cooking and brewing in East and South East through a triangulation that includes the archaeological tools of food processing, the genetic variations in crops that indicate past selection for aesthetic or culinary traits like stickiness, and ethnographic or historical sources on how foods were prepared, and understood as they were consumed routinely or ritually.

Boiling, steaming, and fermenting were integrated: porridges, stews, whole grains, and grain-based wines. Alcohol production followed a distinctive focus on grain ferment starters—in which cooked grains are allowed to mould to produce enzymes for both the transformation of starch to sugar and sugar to alcohol. This process differs from the fruit, sap, or malted-grain systems of brewing found elsewhere in Eurasia and most of Africa. The geographical and ethnolinguistic association of these traditions points to a distinctive regional civilization that can be traced through to Neolithic origins in East Asia. The resulting foods and liquors were often for spirits as well as living kin. There appear to be recurrent metaphorical links between the containered substances of the cooked food and fermented products, the shared substances of meals, and rituals that link living generations with ancestors. In other words, cooking, drinking, and ritual reinforced each other in a distinctively eastern Eurasian system.

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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