Ceramics, Seeds and Culinary Change in Prehistoric India

By Fuller, Dorian Q. | Antiquity, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Ceramics, Seeds and Culinary Change in Prehistoric India


Fuller, Dorian Q., Antiquity


Introduction

We all recognise that culinary practice, or cuisine, selected foods and the way they are prepared and flavoured is regionally and culturally distinctive. We have a sense of what to expect when we go to an Indian restaurant and we know that all the dishes there will have some commonalities of taste that differ from Italian or French cuisine. Thus regional cuisines are associated with cultural identities, and while these distinctive cuisines are in part a product of the available food resources of a given region, they also reinforce choices about what local populations will want to grow. For the purposes of this paper I will define culinary practice as the combination of foodstuffs (i.e. species) and the methods for preparing them, and I will attempt to look at the processes by which practices changed. Change might involve the adoption of new crops from adjacent regions, or changes in agricultural methods or in the technology of consumption. I will address how the processes of agricultural change have been affected by culinary choices, as well as ecological constraints. I aim to propose a framework for moving beyond evidence for the mere presence and absence of species, and the reconstruction of agricultural production, towards an archaeobotanically oriented perspective on culture-history and the dynamics of archaeological cultures.

While several archaeologists, such as Zvelebil (1986, 1996, 2000) and Bellwood (2001), have looked at interactive models for the spread of agriculture, I would like to focus both on the diffusion of materials (e.g. crops) and the potential cultural meanings attached to them (Hodder 1991: 93). The adoption of a food package involves the transfer of practices between individuals within a social context, and social acceptance is crucial (Kroeber 1948; Childe 1951; Trigger 1968: 28). Mufwene (2001) has made similar observations with regard to the spread and acceptance of linguistic practices, namely that there is a social and historical context in which variants of words or syntax are selected by individual speakers and by wider communities.

For foodstuffs, production and consumption are inseparably linked, and while production choices will constrain what is consumed, changing consumption practices and desires will necessarily affect decisions about production. Smith (1999) has argued that consumption, even of everyday products such as utility ceramics, plays an important role in enacting and signalling cultural affinities. Food consumption also plays an important material role in reinforcing and embodying cultural identities, and it is from this basis that cuisine can play an important role in signalling social distinctions (Douglas 1975: 249-75; Khare 1976; Dumont 1980: 83-90; Appadurai 1981; Goody 1982; Braudel 1981: 183-265; Chaudhuri 1990: 151-81). Thus a holistic understanding of change must link agricultural production and food consumption. Within archaeobotany, and indeed in archaeology in general, there is great emphasis placed on production--e.g. the origins of food production, the intensification of production--yet much of social history emphasises the importance of consumption (e.g. Mennell et al. 1992), promoted elegantly in archaeology by Sherratt (1995, 1999).

In order to link these two we can consider food as passing through a trajectory from procurement to consumption (Figure 1: see Goody 1982: 43ff), filled out by models developed from ethnoarchaeology (e.g. Hillman 1981; Jones 1984; Reddy 1997; Stevens 2003). While much palaeobotanical evidence provides indications of production, processing and storage practices, pottery may relate more directly to consumption. Certain cultural behaviours, especially those relating to the handling and consumption of foods, can be inferred from ceramic form (see Arnold 1985: 234; Rice 1987: 211-17, 236-42; Adams & Adams 1991: 285; Orton et al. 1993: 28-9; Dietler 1996), with potential confirmation through chemical residue analysis (Heron & Evershed 1993). …

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