Andean Luxury Foods: Special Food for the Ancestors, Deities and the Elite

By Hastorf, Christine A. | Antiquity, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Andean Luxury Foods: Special Food for the Ancestors, Deities and the Elite


Hastorf, Christine A., Antiquity


Introduction

Luxury, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Luxury foods are traditionally identified in archaeology as edibles that are exotic, rare, expensive to procure or restricted from the bulk of the population. But it can be argued that this definition is elite-centred, and that luxury foods also existed for non-elites. Luxury foods could be defined as including those presented at ceremonies and feasts at any level. Even the regularly procured foodstuffs of the smallest communities can make a luxurious feast given the right setting, timing, preparation and accessories. There are feasts that are defined by the occasion or the quantity and/or quality of the foodstuffs, not just by the ingredients. Archaeologists can use context to define luxury and thus have a broader definition of luxury food.

Douglas (1988), Farb & Armelagous (1980), Goody (1982) and Levi-Strauss (1966) among others have demonstrated that food is good to think with, as well as to eat, and this is particularly true for special or luxury foods. These foods are not only linked to economic value but also to their associated ideological importance (Appadurai 1981; Miller 1985). How can archaeologists identify luxury foods in past societies? And in turn, how can foods inform us about luxury and hierarchy in the past?

There are some tastes that run deep in our species, like the desire for fat, sweetness, or spiciness (Farrington & Urry 1985; Richards 1939). We can look for these characteristics in the archaeological record and suggest that these foodstuffs, when they occur, were probably highly valued. But other foods will have to be defined as luxuries based on their cultural and economic settings, their spatial placement, associations and frequencies. Different groups of people have sought for new twists to make their food experiences and presentations interesting. Even the most common of a community's regularly procured foodstuffs can be part of a luxurious, opulent feast, given the right setting, timing, amounts, and accessories and opinions. The most usual form of feasting is either a lot of regular food for a long time or exotic or expensive items served in rare combinations (Dietler & Hayden 2001). It could be argued that all forms of feasting are socially or culturally special.

Discussions of luxury food should therefore include feasting defined at every social level. South America has the greatest plant diversity and number of ecological zones of any continent, and a complex food history. This paper presents evidence for past luxury foods in two cultural situations: foods for ancestral worship and foods used to create elites and power. The examples come from the Peruvian coast and the central highlands. I will illustrate each cultural situation first by using a traditional definition of luxury food--for example, food that is rare and/or exotic. I will then use a less traditional definition and consider food that is abundant and presented in a special feasting context. But first I want to introduce some aspects of the archaeology of the indigenous Andes to help put their luxury foods into context and to illustrate some of the rich complexity that past Andean societies reveal.

The cultural setting

The Andean region, spanning the western coast, the mountain spine, and the western part of the Amazon basin of South America, is extremely complex ecologically and socially. This area includes the modern countries of Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, northern Chile, and North-west Argentina. Over its 10 000 years of cultural history, there has been a diverse range and scale of societies from long-lived small fishing, gathering/hunting and farming communities to large cities with strong, stratified elites that ruled over vast territories for hundreds of years. Once people began populating the coasts, valleys and highland puna, they became sedentary, clustering around food resources. Different luxury foods were present in each time period.

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