MIDWAY: Why humans share food

While the archaeologists of our imagination used once to dig up pots and pans, or hoards of coins and shimmering artifacts, today their work revolves around the almost forensic analysis of bones, plant remains and residues. It is breathtaking what they can learn from these investigations, whether about the vegetation current at one point in time, the ambient temperature over millennia, the likely diet of any creature (whether a human, or indeed his prey whose bones were discarded at the fireside), or the nutritional and medical history of any subject careless enough to leave his or her skeleton lying about.

In Martin Jones’ Feast: Why Humans Share Food, the Cambridge archaeologist picks a dozen archaeological sites from Europe and the Middle East as milestones in our progress to the contemporary world. Food is his business, however, and how man came to treat it so differently from the rest of the natural world. We share our food; we eat it in public; we make eye contact with strangers while stuffing ourselves; we sit round a hearth; we have likes and dislikes and use those preferences to mark affiliation — all human habits.

As in any study of big food, agriculture is a central concern. What was the impetus that caused us to move from a nutritionally (and medically) sound hunter-gathering strategy to domesticated beasts and plants in fields around fixed settlements? As Jones is at pains to observe, agricultural humans were of smaller stature and in worse health than their foraging ancestors. The only obvious evolutionary gain was an increase in population growth. His assessment of the transition from one state to the other leans towards a socio-political explanation, rather than one founded on nutritional imperatives.

It is refreshing that Jones is willing to bring into the argument concepts drawn from anthropologists such as Levi-Strauss and Mary Douglas as well as relying on mechanistic and bio-evolutionary theories. Not everything about our food choices was done because it was good for us. Look, he would say, at our overwhelming desire to eat white bread rather than wholemeal or black rye. He is happy to blame Christianity for this; I would suggest it was because it tasted better.