Food and the Status Quest: An Interdisciplinary Perspective

By Polly Wiessner; Wulf Schiefenhövel | Go to book overview

9. FOOD PRODUCTION AND SOCIAL STATUS AS DOCUMENTED IN PROTO-CUNEIFORM TEXTS

Peter Damerow

I n this chapter I shall present findings on a transitional stage of human development that seems crucial for the emergence of civilization. These findings, on the ancient Uruk civilization, indicate that food rations were deliberately scaled to rank, and that rationing had economic and power dimensions. The stage of cultural development to be discussed is the historical transition from life in rural communities to an urban civilization. There is an obvious gap in our knowledge about this stage of development of human culture. We know much about the so-called primitive peoples of today because these people and their culture can still be studied directly. We also know something about early civilizations because an abundance of written sources and archeological remains is available to us in sites as diverse as Mesoamerica, China, Egypt, and -- of interest here -- Mesopotamia, or, more generally the Near East. But the transition from band and village societies to urbanism is poorly understood.

Sociocultural mechanisms of food production and distribution differ profoundly among cultures such as, for example, Australian aborigines on the one hand and the Old Kingdom of Egypt on the other. The same is true for social status. Egalitarian hunter-gatherer communities seem a world apart from a society where the social strata extended from slaves to pharaoh. How did the tremendous bureaucracies controlling food production and distribution in early civi

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