Banquets in the Ruins: Archaeologists Hunger for a Better Understanding of Feasts

Article excerpt

For the Aka, who number about 500,000 people living in villages built along mountain ridges in northern Thailand, life teems with feasts.

Families hold feasts on occasions as diverse as the naming of babies, the completion of new houses, the honoring of women entering menopause, and the presentation of offerings to deceased ancestors. Villagewide feasts take place to celebrate special holy days, strengthen community ties, and seek divine protection from natural calamities. Villages also hold joint feasts, often to encourage marriages between the offspring of politically powerful individuals.

Aka funerals evoke elaborate communal banquets that run from a few days to several weeks. Those attending a funeral feast partake of alcoholic beverages and special delicacies, including meat from chickens, goats, and water buffalo raised solely to be eaten at such events.

Despite their consuming passions, the Aka hardly qualify as affluent party animals or jaded gluttons. Villagers eke out a living by growing and selling rice, ginger, and a few other crops, as well as by gathering edible wild plants.

Feasts act as an all-purpose ritual oil that lubricates Aka society's interconnected parts, from struggling nuclear families to powerful coalitions of village chiefs, according to archaeologist Michael Clarke of Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia. Clarke has worked among the Aka for the past 2 years.

Not everyone shares the Aka's extreme fondness for feasting, but many populations throughout the world consume food and drink in public ceremonies and have done so for centuries. Some archaeologists now argue that a more concerted effort to pick out the material leftovers of feasting will yield a heaping portion of insights into prehistoric and modern societies.

"Feasts may serve as valuable keys to understanding how ancient rituals and social life produced changes in political structures," contends archaeologist Michael Dietler of the University of Chicago. "Feasts have long been a fundamental theater of human relations."

Dietler and Brian Hayden, also of Simon Fraser, organized a session at the March meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Seattle to highlight some of the latest research on feasts past and present.

Decisions to hold feasts depend largely on the existence of a food surplus, Hayden says. Groups that generally operate without copious food reserves, such as the !Kung in southern Africa and other modern hunter-gatherers, rarely hold feasts.

Hunter-gatherers also tend to abide by an ethic of regular food sharing among all group members, which probably discourages the stockpiling of goodies for special occasions, Hayden adds.

Still, feasting ceremonies have arisen in a variety of locales since the dawn of farming communities around 10,000 years ago, he asserts. Moreover, feasts may have occurred in the Stone Age as well (see sidebar). The challenge facing archaeologists is to identify signs of particular kinds of feasts in the ruins of defunct groups.

Prehistoric earthen mounds built by inhabitants of the southeastern United States--dating to between 100 B.C. and A.D. 700--may have been sites of ritual feasts designed to strengthen local communities, proposes Vernon James Knight Jr. of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Investigators usually view these massive protrusions from the landscape as the remains of seasonal camps (SN: 9/20/97, p. 180).

Many mound sites contain signs of having hosted public ceremonies that included feasting, Knight says. Clusters of postholes dot the tops of many mounds; large wooden poles or scaffolds were probably inserted in the holes and would have created an impressive setting for ritual activities, he maintains.

Mound excavations have also unearthed dense accumulations of pottery and animal bones, along with the remains of ample hearths--all of which may derive from feasts, according to Knight. …