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Jan 12, 2009 07:25 PM

studying food habits in archaeology?

I'm in high school and i'm really into both cooking (and eating) and archaeology, and want to know if there is a sub-field that deals with this which I could study in college. I'm most interested in mesoamerica, therefore all kinds of latino food, at the time if that helps. I first got into cooking as "culinary anthropolgy" (haha) because i wanted to see what different cultures ate, and then I started going to random hole int he wall places to try food. If there are any archaeologists in chowhound, and i bet there are, any input would be helpful. so yup.

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  1. When I was involved in with a few digs in South America it seemed that what people ate, or more so the middens that they left behind were our main sources of information.
    Take a look at this Archaeology becomes contemporary.

    1. Well, I'm a lapsed classical archaeologist and can tell you a few things about that area. One is that food is major in archaeology, but is not in itself a sub-discipline. A specialization in food-related subjects is something that would emerge in the course of a Ph.D. program or even much later. What you can do as an undergraduate or graduate student—besides getting a good foundation in the ancient languages, art, architecture, and excavation techniques—is to orient your research, wherever you can, toward such subjects as palaeobotany (for agriculture and food plants in general), palaeozoology (for animals, either eaten or used for traction), pottery (which has always been a mainstay of archaeology and was mainly used to contain, cook, serve, or transport food), and representations of food preparation and eating in art. In the early days of archaeology, animal bones, seeds, etc., were thrown away, but today they (and much else, such as pollen) are carefully preserved and studied. There are lots of books on the anthropology of food, and you're very much on the right track. Your timing is good too. For one thing, you're starting early. For another, these are areas now being taken seriously but that some decades ago might have been dismissed as frivolous.
      People often ask me how I got from archaeology to food writing, but to me it was a very seamless transition. I always liked archaeology because it covered so many aspects of how people lived in antiquity, and I like food for the same reason. Studying Italian food today takes me into many areas. And both give a picture of society as a whole.
      You've taken the first step toward a fascinating career and I wish you the best of luck.

      1. I took an Anthropology and Food grad seminar, which was mostly about contemporary food and culture, but did have some history and pre-history stuff as well.
        There was also a nutritional Archaeology class you could take that was far more science-oriented.

        Arky and anthro both focus quite a bit on food. Food is a tremendous part of man's history and culture. Most arky and anthro classes I took had some food components in them, to be truthful, including the ethnography of Latin America class.

        1. Mbfant is entirely correct about the progression of combining archaeology and food, however for undergrad it may also be interesting for you to find an archaeology program that also has an emphasis on cultural anthropology where you can start studying food ways far sooner. There are lots of popular and academic works looking at the cultural anthropology of food - and if you find an undergrad program that allows you to get your solid basics in archaeology, you may be able to pursue more of your food interests in cultural anthropology.

          2 Replies
          1. re: cresyd

            Thanks for all of the advice/info! this has been really helpful. cultural anthropology also interests me and I know there is some overlap between that and archaeology like cresyd said.

            1. re: kirinraj

              Don't know where you're looking for programs - but I got an undergrad degree in anthropology from the University of Wisconsin, Madison - and for undergrad they have a really comprehensive requirement of archaeology, biological anthro, and cultural anthro. While a lot of programs are designed to have you sample the disciplines that way, some let you pick an emphasis a lot earlier and don't offer as much sampling. So those are all things to look at.

              Also in my anthro program there was a guy double majoring in anthropology and chemistry since he wanted to be a forensic anthropologist. So taking biology and or chemistry classes also really helps in keeping you well rounded for archaeology. The fields of archaeology specifically are really competitive so either really being up on your languages or sciences can really help you in further education. I currently know guys applying for PhD programs that focus on archaeology related to biblical eras and they both have 4 ancient languages that they're able to translate. So depending on what interests you more - if archaeology is something you want to continue following through with, either pick the language side or the science side. I

          2. I'm currently working on my PhD in Near Eastern Archaeology and though my research doesn't really deal with food per se, it's still a major interest of mine. As a matter of fact, I just taught a class last semester called "The Archaeology of Food." We looked at food in Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Mayan, and Inka culture and how it can tell us a lot about aspects of ancient societies such as social order, religion, and politics. It's a fascinating topic that, as mbfant mentioned, incorporates lots of various disciplines. I published an article in the (now defunct) magazine 'Archaeology Odyssey' called "A Mesopotamian Feast: Ancient Recipes for Modern Cooks" that talks about incorporating my interest in both food and archaeology. And it has recipes. It's in Volume 9, Number 1 (January/February 2006) pp. 32-35. There's also an article in Archaeology Magazine called "The Trouble with Blood" (Volume 57 Number 6, November/December 2004) about cooking ancient recipes. If you go to and search the title you should find the article If your interested in Mesoamerica, then THE book is "America's First Cuisines" by Sophie Coe. It's a great book and well worth buying. Another good book is called "The Archaeology and Politics of Food and Feasting in Early States and Empires," edited by Tamara Bray. It's a collection of articles by various scholars on aspects of the archaeology of food from numerous cultures around the world. "Food in Antiquity: A Survey of the Diet of Early Peoples" by Don and Patricia Brothwell is a good reference on the topic. Closer to my field are the books "Textes Culinaires Mesopotamiens" and "The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia" both by Jean Bottero. Even though the first book has a french title, a lot of it (luckily the interesting bits) are in English. A good popular survey of food in history is called, aptly, "Food in History" by Reay Tannahill. Finally, a good cookbook, with lots of gorgeous pictures is "Spirit of the Earth: Native Cooking from Latin America" by Beverly Cox and Martin Jacobs. It's one of my favorites and I use it all the time. So, yeah, those are some good sources to look at off the top of my head. There's a lot more out there, especially about classical and medieval food and cooking. I hope this helps.