Food and the Status Quest: An Interdisciplinary Perspective

By Polly Wiessner; Wulf Schiefenhövel | Go to book overview

8. FEASTING IN PREHISTORIC AND TRADITIONAL SOCIETIES

Brian Hayden

A lthough feasting has featured prominently in a number of anthropological monographs ( Codere 1950; Strathern 1971; Young 1971), it has not been an important focus of comparative or general theoretical interest either in anthropology or archaeology. Nor has feasting ever been accorded a particularly prominent role in evolutionary schemes. Yet, on the basis of work that I have conducted over the past ten years, I would like to explore the possibility that feasting, and particularly competitive feasting, may have played a pivotal role in cultural evolution. I suggest that competitive feasting was a critical mechanism in some societies whereby food surpluses were used to create debts, hierarchical and centralized political control, and increased production.

This system may have originated in favored locations during the Upper Paleolithic period; however, it appears to have become widespread only during the Mesolithic and subsequent food-producing periods. In fact, the competitive-feasting complex may have been the principal reason for the domestication of the first animals and plants. I suggest that economically-based competitive feasting occurred only under certain resource conditions, notably where resources were abundant and invulnerable to overexploitation. Individuals were induced to participate in competitive feasts on the basis of self-interest, i.e. the possibility of increasing their wealth, influence, or chances for survival.

In this paper, I will define competitive feasting, discuss the mechanics of feasting systems, identify the ways that such feasting systems can be recognized archaeologically, briefly note some pre-

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