BMCR 1998.05.23

98.5.23, Food in Antiquity: A Survey of the Diet of Early Peoples

, , Food in antiquity : a survey of the diet of early peoples. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. 283 pages : illustrations, maps ; 22 cm. ISBN 9780801857409. $15.95.

An interest in what our early ancestors ate and drank goes back to antiquity. While fashions in thinking about this as about any other historical question changed, two opposing views could often be discerned, one seeing early humans as peaceful vegetarians, the other, contrary to this, claiming them to be savage meat-eaters. Who took which position usually depended on the writer’s political, moral or religious aims, and, needless to say, neither position was anchored in objective evidence.

Today, coupled with the general interest in diet there is a fast-increasing body of research concerning the role diet plays not only in health and disease, but also in the history and culture of human groups. Archaeology has been acquiring increasingly sensitive scientific methods and tools for the analysis of ancient remains, including, in addition to the wide range of artifacts, human remains as elusive as stomach contents of mummies and faecal matter left behind by peoples of long bygone ages. This expanding research provides ample material for a good ‘state of the art’ survey of the diet of ancient peoples, a book that would enable the reader to form a more objective view of the food ways of our human ancestors. D. and P. Brothwell wrote such a survey in the 1960s and instead of writing a new book that would take into account research findings of the past thirty years, in 1998 they decided to bring out a paperback edition of their 1969 book, with the addition of a final chapter, to bring it up to date.

Food in Antiquity is a survey that covers a rather enormous time span, ranging from the Pleistocene to late historical times, and includes evidence from both the Old and the New World. In the introductory chapter the authors discuss the scope of the work, define food, speculate on the role of food, especially meat, in population growth, and the importance of fire and cooking in social development. They list the variety of sources of information used, together with some of the problems inherent in these. The major sources for early diets are: 1. Artistic representations of plants and animals in caves, rock-shelters, tombs, monuments, etc.; 2. Direct evidence of food remains on living floors, and in refuse pits, middens, and habitation sites; 3. Written evidence; 4. Analyses of ‘stomach’ contents in mummies and bog bodies, or coprolites (dried faeces); 5. Study of modern aboriginal populations (by inference) (p.18).

The next two chapters discuss food derived from animals, both vertebrates and invertebrates, indicating that early humans at various times and in diverse places resorted to eating all available or obtainable meat, ranging from human flesh to that of carnivores, herbivores, molluscs and insects. The authors discuss the history of domestication of animals, with a table showing a tentative scheme of domestication periods for the emergence of various mammals used as a food resource. Next, the reader learns about the enormous importance of honey for peoples in antiquity as almost the only available sweetener for ancient diets, since both cane and beet sugar were fairly late additions (at least to the European diet; cane sugar was known much earlier in India where it is believed to have originated). A chapter on fungi demonstrates the wide variety of mushrooms used by early peoples, some for their food value, others for their intoxicating potency.

Chapter Six treats cereal crops, the carbohydrate-rich and particularly durable foodstuffs that in the shape of porridge, grits or bread and cakes provided the staple food for ever-increasing human populations. The chapter on vegetables lists a wide variety of pulses, roots and tubers, green vegetables, salad plants, gourds, melons and squashes, attempting to trace their cultivation from archaeological and written sources. Fruits and nuts are treated next. From the earliest evidence of berry-picking, showing that the Chinese variety of Homo erectus made much use of the hack-berry, the chapter proceeds to sketch what is known about the history of cultivation of fruits and nuts, including citrus fruits and the fruits and nuts of the New World. Space here is devoted to the discussion of viticulture and wine production, the origins of which can be traced farther back than the ancient Hittites and Assyrians, who produced wine, as did the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, while the Bible provides a large number of references to wine and vineyards. Olives, which for large areas of Europe provided not only fruit but dietary fat, are treated together with oils, herbs and condiments. Where the olive was not cultivated, other seeds, like sesame, flax or even radish seeds, were pressed for their oil, to supplement animal fat in the diet. None of the other oil-producing seeds, however, was valued also as a food as highly as was the olive. The olive seems to have been cultivated in Syria and Palestine as early as the fourth millennium BC.

Among herbs and spices, which are ever important to enliven the flavor of food, the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians, according to the authors, grew cumin, sesame, mint, basil, coriander, anise, thyme, asafoetida, bay, fennel, rocket, saffron and sage, together with mustard and capers, leeks, onions and garlic. The taste for spices and seasoning resulted in the opening of trade routes between East and West in the ancient world, reaching its peak during the Roman empire. Similarly, the taste for seasoning stimulated the development of large-scale manufacture of the fish sauce known as garum or liquamen. Two interesting maps included here show the salt industry in northern Europe, one in Neolithic times, the other during Gallo-Roman and Romano-British times. Salt was not only a condiment but a most important preservative of food as well. The maps, seen together, illustrate well the expansion of salt-mining through time. The chapter ends with a short mention of the best-known spice that originated in the New World, the chili pepper, the use of which goes back to at least 7000 BC in Mexico.

After the various components of food, the authors turn their attention to the need for liquids. The evidence strongly attests that people from earliest times were not content to simply satisfy their thirst with water, but that they searched for and developed skills to produce fermented drinks. The authors speculate that the fermented drinks of the Old and the New Worlds represent independent discoveries, as do the rice-based fermented drinks of Asia. Natural fermentation requires high sugar content. Honey, being pure sugar, may have been the basis of the oldest fermented drink, mead. Beer brewing must have followed closely the production of cereal crops. Viticulture, discussed earlier in the chapter on fruit, is expanded here, and beer-drinking areas are contrasted with wine-producing ones. In addition to grapes, grains and honey a large and varied crop of fruits and vegetables figure as ingredients in the production of fermented drinks; “it seems as if at some time or another almost every type of plant has been turned into some kind of alcoholic brew” (p. 171). Not all drinks concocted by humans were alcoholic, but most had stimulant properties. To end the chapter on drinks, the authors discuss the early histories of tea, coffee and cocoa.

The Brothwells’ 1969 book ends with a chapter on diet and disease. They point out that the prevalence of malnutrition in the world today suggests that malnutrition and periodic famines were frequent in the ancient world too, despite the fact that societies dependent on hunting and collecting economies usually possess far more knowledge of edible resources than do settled agricultural groups or city dwellers. “Indeed, it seems likely”, the authors point out, “that one of the results of increasing cultural complexity is a correlated lack of dietary flexibility” (p. 176).

Malnutrition and diseases associated with deficient diets resulted from famines that may have been brought on by detrimental climates, soil deficiencies, political strife, or wars, which led to neglect of food production or distribution. Famines may also be caused by plant and animal diseases. Rust and other fungal diseases on cereal crops have been amply documented in ancient written sources. In addition to general malnutrition there is evidence in ancient medical writing of vitamin and other trace element deficiency diseases. Using modern evidence from Ugandan villages, the authors speculate on the possible incidence of protein malnutrition (kwashiorkor) in infants who after weaning are fed a protein-poor, high-starch, solid diet. Finally, diet-related diseases may result from poisoning with adulterated food. “The temptation to adulterate food is no doubt as old as the work of specialized food production” (p. 192). Both flour and wine have been known to be adulterated at various times and for various purposes.

This concludes the 1969 version of Food in Antiquity. The added last chapter entitled Afterword: A Progress Report on the Archaeology of Food is there to summarize research in the field since the 1960s.

The book as a whole is interesting reading, showing the importance of the topic for an understanding of the development of human cultures and societies. It is not a very useful book for historians, archaeologists or other specialists having a scholarly interest in the archaeology and history of food, for the simple and constantly irritating reason that the authors do not provide specific references to their statements, the sources for most of which would be immensely difficult to track down. Even in the case where a fairly accessible author is cited, it is hardly helpful to say: “Pliny says “, or “Columella includes ” Where prehistoric or archaeological evidence is discussed, the reader who would like to follow up the claim is left entirely without guidance. The last chapter, the Afterword, attempts to remedy this shortcoming by giving a rapid overview of recent developments in the archaeology of food, this time with references. This is helpful and enlightening, but does not make up for what the other eleven chapters lack. The work of the Brothwells amply demonstrates that the archaeology and history of food and diet of ancient peoples is a fast-expanding research enterprise which has important implications for our views of ancient and contemporary societies. Those with any serious interest in the field would be better served by a new, well-referenced survey to this reissue of an old book, even with the short updating.