Food in the Prehistoric World

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Food in the Palaeolithic World

Early art might tell us something about the importance of food; we can try to interpret cave paintings, small sculptures, patterns scratched on tools, in an attempt to find out about what people ate and how they sourced and prepared it.

Cave Art-Pantry or Pantheon?

Early man hunted, gathered and ate without leaving much of a trace. Nothing is known about the artists who drew animals and signs on the walls of caves in the Palaeolithic era. Some of their pigments can be carbon dated, their techniques deduced, and most of their subjects easily recognized, but we are not certain why they produced these amazing works of art, or for what purpose. The images do provide evidence of the presence of certain animals, and might give us an idea of how men felt about them. Spirits to be propitiated and worshipped, food to be caught and eaten, interior decoration, or the graffiti of testosterone-troubled young adult males. Theories abound. Pantry or pantheon? Bestiary or bande dessinée? How the artists learnt the skills and techniques to achieve what they did is a mystery, their ability to convey the appearance and essence of an animal with a few painted or engraved outlines and colour masses is miraculous. The sophisticated skills involved must have been taught and finely honed by Palaeolithic man for approximately 20,000 years, and a cave art was produced during this huge time span by intelligent, gifted members of a civilization that taught and passed down skills and beliefs over the generations. This was a time when animals ruled the earth, enormous numbers of them, and man was a puny creature, hunting them for food and hide and fur, but awed by their strength and size and beauty and fecundity.

Man loved and may have worshipped them, and as a hunter he observed them closely, learnt their ways, how to read their tracks, and how and when to kill for food. His life followed their movements, and his survival depended on a deep understanding of their ways. Caves, especially those in the cliffs on either side of the Pyrenees, were not ideal for living in, but were a good place to make and preserve art. Their overhang provided shelter for huts and protection from attack, and from the top of the cliff there was a good view of approaching animals. Bulges and curves in the walls and ceilings suggested humps and bellies, fault lines in rock became outlines or dividing lines. The artists were conjuring up beings that were already there in the rock, like Michelangelo’s statues, liberated by the artist’s skills and intellect.


Edible Art?

Artefacts surviving from the Ice Age are hard to interpret: an engraved bone could have been a tool, or an ornament, or an object of worship. A horse, carved on a horse’s jaw-bone, could be just a decorative pattern, or it might have been a symbol of the power and intelligence and wisdom invoked to guide the tool and its user. The bison grooming its flank is a beautiful, tenderly observed creature, drawn on a piece of a reindeer antler. It shows more affection than the distorted little statuettes or pendants of blowsy pregnant women, ugly in their fecundity. These figurines may have been a way of celebrating birth and renewal, or a dread of too many mouths to feed. We can only guess. And we know nothing at all about these gifted artists and how they lived and thought, or the social organization  that required and made possible their achievements. Proponents of deep history perceive a `modern mind’ improbably lurking somewhere in the Ice Age, but this cannot explain the mystery of the art. Not all the animals represented in cave art were edible, and very few are shown dead or being cut up, and there are no images of cooking, as vital an activity as hunting. This is where the multi-disciplinary approach helps. Gregory Curtis explains how archaeologists have found some signs of human activity, preparing and storing food, in or near the cave, and these `culinary samples’, bones and fragments of cooked animals, might illuminate the relationship between food and art. But a survey using statistical methods shows that there is no correlation between the animals eaten and the animals represented in cave art or on artefacts found close to each other. These artefacts were sometimes decorated with animal images, but reindeer, who were eaten most, were not depicted as frequently. One theory is that their predictable migratory patterns made them easy prey, that and their stupidity, which meant that humans had no need of divine intervention when hunting deer. They could harvest them as they munched away at wild grasses, like plucking ripe fruit from a branch. The image of deer swimming across a river, heads held high, in the Lascaux caves, gives some idea of their predictability.

Hunter’s Magic or Politics?

Aurochs and bison were both ancestors of domesticated cattle, and there are other kinds of deer, horses and wild boar, all of which were eaten. Some of them seem to be hunted, some driven, some confronting each other, others attacked by predatory wild cats and leopards, some engaged in affectionate greeting, but the majority are in calm, static postures, without a base line or background. Groupings of creatures might indicate legends or stories, known to the artists, but lost to us, and so could have been read as illustrations of these stories, with the indecipherable symbols and marks perhaps as captions. Or the animals could have been symbols of powers and principalities that we have lost all knowledge of. Early theories about cave art, based on the great erudition and insights of the historian Abbé Breuil, became fixed certainties. His conviction that the art was hunting magic, supernatural help in getting food, was universally accepted. Half a century after the discovery of Lascaux in the 1940s historians began to pursue other interpretations. The awe and wonder experienced in the caves, the impact  of the numinous animals forms glimpsed in a flickering light, painted on uneven surfaces, seen from different angles with changing perspectives, is so moving that the intuitive emotional response got the way of critical analysis.

These later historians set to work with computer images and rigorous statistical methodology, pursuing the how and when, not the why of the art. André Leroi-Gourhan and others worked on a rational examination of the groupings of animals, their location in the overall scheme of a cave, the different postures and behavior, their colouring and the accompanying signs and marks, to postulate underlying intentions by the artists, who in various sites tended to place static hierarchical creatures in a central group surrounded by animals in movement, and peripheral activities happening round the edges. Deep questioning and rigorous observation led leroi-Gourhan to the conclusion that the images of animals represented perceptions of fertility and male/female duality, expressed in stories and myths now lost to us. Fertility was both a blessing and a problem, in man and the animals world; high infant mortality meant a need for fecund females, but too many mouths to feed was a threat to survival, so fertility and its control was important. Other interpretations see the animals as symbolic of clans and groups of people, and the groupings as historical narratives, full of genealogy like the Icelandic sagas. A later view postulates the presence of shamans, high on hallucinatory visions due to poor air quality, fasting, the ingestion of possibly mind-bending substances, and the flickering effect of torchlight, producing these skilled images in trance-like states, to impress for all time an amazed and probably cowed populace. Interdisciplinary studies also help in attempts to understand the paintings. Dale Guthrie in Alaska writes of Palaeolithic art from the point of view of a zoologist and hunter, claiming that the images were created by hunters for hunters, in a macho rather than a mystical frame of mind. Living hunting lore casts light on Stone Age behavior, to some extent, though female politicians shooting endangered species from a helicopter might not be helpful example. The male pleasure in the chase, its rituals and outcome(lots of crudely cooked meat, boasting and competitiveness) might be the mainspring of cave art, which Dale Guthrie sees in the graffiti and decorated objects associated with the caves. The obese female statuettes are soft porn, not fertility symbols, the engravings scratched on bones and stones could be casual jottings, like graffiti at bus stops. Cave art shows a pleasure in beauty that might have been found in other Palaeolithic things that have perished, like textiles and decorative clothing, jewellery and soft furnishings. But there is no way of knowing if this highly sophisticated appreciation of good things applied to food and cooking. We can only speculate, and try and deduce a little from these amazing and mysterious images of animals. It is strange that these hunter-gatherers never painted the vegetation that was so important to them, not just the nuts and seeds and grain from wild plants that they ate themselves, but the all-important grazing of the wild beasts on whose movements all life depended. The climate of the late Ice Age favoured vast steppes and pasture lands where the ruminant animals and their predators roamed. When climate change brought changes in vegetation and its distribution this way of life ceased to exist, and the cave artists painted no more.

Researching the Stone Age Diet

Stone Age diet survived in the Arctic where, from 1908 to 1919, Vilhjálmur Stefánsson, an explorer and adventurer as well as an anthropologist, lived first among the Inuit of the Mackenzie Delta, learned their language and its many dialects, and adopted their lifestyle with enthusiasm, and then moved eastwards to search for the Copper Inuit who had had no previous encounter with white men. They were living in the same state as their Stone Age ancestors, and Stefánsson realized that to survive he would have to do the same as them, hunting and fishing the way they did, and he did not just survive on their food, he grew to love it. Back in New York he embarked on an experimental all-meat diet, lots of lightly cooked fatty meat, and `by the end of January 1928, I was convinced that I was healthier on the Stone Age regimen than I had ever before been on any diet or in any way of life. I already liked the same things the Eskimos liked about their food, and I had never liked any food better’. Nutritionally the absence of vegetables, grains and fruit was compensated for by the vitamin C in the meat and fat, along with certain vital amino acids. So much for the Mediterranean diet. Stefánsson threw to his dogs the parts we most esteem. His Inuit friends loved the chewy fatty cuts, and the tasty meats that clung to cooked bones; the tenderloin or fillet went straight to the dogs, along with the saddle, haunch and rump. Stefánsson describes how caribou meat was divided between a family and its dogs: `The children get the kidneys and the leg marrows nearest the hoof. All Eskimos known to me thing the sweetest meat is nearest the bone; they boil the hams and round shoulder bones and the children pick from these the cooked lean that goes so pleasantly with the uncooked fat of the raw lower marrows. Perhaps the whole family and any visitors will share the boiled caribou head. The Eskimo likes the tongue well enough, and the brains; but what he prefers from the head is the jowl, and after that, the pads of fat behind the eyes. His next preference is brisket, then ribs, then pelvis. From the hams and shoulders he will peel off the outside meat as dog food, but will keep some of the inside meat for his family’. This gives us some idea of the way the cave artists might have enjoyed their meat. Archaeologists have found evidence of venison prepared and eaten near to painted caves, and bones from meat eaten in them, probably by the artists as they worked. This diet seems to have kept them healthy, tall and strong, with a life span of about fifty years. But unlike the cave artists, modern Inuit beliefs about the animals-seals, caribou and fish, on which their existence depended-are well documented. Stefánsson learnt the language and collected legends and information that help us understand their way of life and their art in a way that can never be done for the Stone Age artists. But Stefánsson was recording the last remnants of a threatened civilization, while the cave artists of Spain and France had enjoyed over a thousand generations of sameness and stability, time to evolve a rich artistic culture. Surviving Inuit artefacts from the Dorset period, 500 bc-ad 1500, are mainly tools and implements, and some small figurines to hold in the hand, toys for children or ritual objects for shamans, all connected with the task of finding food.

Fine Dining in the Neolithic Age

Other artists did leave indirect evidence of attitudes to food and eating. Over 9,000 years ago, the Neolithic inhabitants of a large urban development at Çatalhoyuk near today’s Konya, in Anatolia, Turkey, created a complex cluster about 300 houses and huts, with at times up to 8,000 inhabitants living and working together, on a site of 32 acres, possibly even before mankind had evolved from hunter-gatherer to farmer. For thousands of years they inhabited the site, surrounded by a river and some stagnant marshland, far from possible crops, and not suitable for husbandry. As house walls crumbled, they were pulled down, smashed to bits, and a fresh new home built on top. A mound or tell was formed from these layers of occupation, rising above the surrounding plain. The people seemed content to commute, hunting wild animals and game, gathering seeds and plants, and eventually farming. It is debatable whether there was architecture before agriculture; but there is certainly architecture and interior decoration in Çatalhoyuk, sophisticated murals and patterned walls, and the heads of wild bulls mounted on pillars, or displayed as adjuncts to furniture. While agriculture was still in its infancy husbandry and the pursuit of wild meat co-existed with the gathering of wild plants and the manipulation of crops. It has been argued that the mental and spiritual evolution that created the social skills needed to live together in a dense urban community, while resisting the forces of nature, were prerequisite for the evolution of the farmer. The inhabitants of Çatalhoyuk seem to have got it right. Excavations reveal storage systems in the houses for grains and seeds from wild and cultivated crops, pots and pestles and mortars for preparation, and hearths and ovens to cook in. The murals showing the hunt of aurochs and red deer seem frolicsome and daredevil, with puny men taunting these huge fierce beasts, and the analysis of kitchen and midden remains sees to show that their meat was the main ingredient of feasts and banquets, while domesticated sheep and goats were eaten for everyday meals. So the horned heads of the wild bull could have been the trophies of festive feasts rather than mystic symbols of fertility gods and powerful earth mothers; they were displayed as visible signs valour and social superiority, reminders that he who killed the auroch earned the prestige of hosting a celebratory banquet. An auroch was an awful lot of meat, which would not keep, but could be shared, so the social organization that planned the hunt would plan the celebratory banquet. Guests saw these horns and skulls as they climbed down the ladder from the rooftop entrance to marvel at the cool, calm interior beneath, freshly plastered walls and cleanly swept floors, and patterned rugs echoing the decorative murals, Examination of bones associated with cooking show how meat was butchered and processed, cooked and served. The meat could have been stewed or roasted in ovens, some indoors, some up on the roof.

While the art in Çatalhoyuk supplements what archaeology tells us of Neolithic food and feasting, some aspects of the Stone Age diet can be found in other societies, especially attitudes to meat, and how it was eaten. Meanwhile the kebabs of hunter heroes, the slabs of meat from spit-roasted cattle, remains and elusive aroma wafting through poetry and legend, with hardly any visible evidence.


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