Tenth Annual M.I. Rostovtzeff Lecture Series

This article appeared in ISAW Newsletter 23, Winter 2019. For up-to-date information on past and present Rostovtzeff lectures, please consult the Rostovtzeff Lectures page on the ISAW website.

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

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

Dorian Q. Fuller (Professor of Archaeobotany, University College London)

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.

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 the French anthropologist Lévi-Strauss in works such as Le Cru et le Cuit (1964), 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.

March 27, Lecture I:
Domestication, Demography, and Settlement: Alternative Mathematics for Early Agriculture

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.

April 3, Lecture II:
From Sustainability to Investment Agriculture: Logics of Productive Consumption and Disparity

Between the Neolithic origins of agriculture and the establishment of hierarchical, urban societies, key agricultural transformations took place. These included both the expanded production of staple grains, underpinned by innovations in agriculture, and the development of additional domesticated crops, especially perennial trees and shrubs. Innovations varied across Old World regions, but included the deployment of animal labour in tillage (in West Asia), control of water (in Yangtze China), new crop combinations and rotations that improved maintenance of soil fertility (in North China), but also interdependent specialization in pastoral versus crop production (in parts of Africa). Post-Neolithic agricultural innovation also included the domestication of perennial tree fruits and vines, from olives, grapes and dates in the West, to peaches and jujube in the East, to cotton, mango and citron in India. These new perennial crops required a new time perspective, investment for yields 5, 10 or 20 years in the future, and with nothing like the caloric return of grains. This only became possible through the development of secure, longer term land tenure, and made sense in terms of a logic of production for trade, as agricultural produce became part of the emerging commodification that was prevalent in early cities. This overall trajectory was one of a shift from a Neolithic emphasis on sustainability of food supply and landuse towards investment agriculture for longer-term wealth generation from the land. The varied potential of land to return investment contributed to disparity between landholders and across regions.

April 8, Lecture III:
Sticking with the Spirits: Eastern Cuisines, Grain Wines, and Civilization

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. In this lecture we explore 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.

April 17, Lecture IV: Baking up Western Civilization and Some African Alternatives

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.