Anthropology and Food

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ANTHROPOLOGY AND FOOD. What distinguishes the anthropological study of food from that of other disciplines is its focus on food within a cultural and often cross-cultural context. Anthropologists study humans and human culture across space and evolutionary time; this includes the study of their own culture and social institutions. Subfields of the anthropological study of food include cultural, linguistic, biological, and archaeological anthropology. Research in nutritional anthropology cuts across these subfields. Food requires hunting, gathering, growing, storage, distribution, preparation, display, serving, and disposal, all of which are social activities. Topics for the anthropological study of food within a cultural system include economy, inequality, gender, status, hunter-gatherers, and food as a symbol.

Of basic interest to archaeologists is the diet or subsistence pattern of the peoples they study. Since seasonal patterns of movement are often linked to subsistence regimes, archaeologists frequently study the overall settlement-subsistence pattern. Other major topics of study related to food are the origins of agriculture, the process of plant and animal domestication, and the study of foodways (food in a social and cultural setting). With the help of interdisciplinary teams of specialists, archaeologists examine a variety of evidence such as animal bones (faunal analysis or zooarchaeology), plant remains (paleoethnobotany or archaeobotany), human bones (osteology), residues (chemistry), and the settlement system. Faunal and paleoethnobotanical analyses are able to determine diet (which animals and plants were eaten) as well as hunting, gathering, butchering, and preparation techniques, the identity of preferred or high-status foods, the seasonality of site occupation and diet items, and whether the animals/plants were domesticated. The phrase "You are what you eat" is true in that what you eat forms the bones and organs in your body, leaving behind chemical signatures. Human bones reflect the general health and nutrition of the individual, and may be chemically analyzed to reveal diet through isotopic (heavy element) or chemical signatures.

Biological Anthropology

Topics in biological anthropology range from biological and nutritional questions about humans and primates (e.g., questions of nutrition, health, and evolution of human and primate physiology and diet ) to cultural practices and choices that affect biology and nutrition (e.g., dietary strategies and food selection choices). Cross-disciplinary themes include the process of human adaptation, population variation, and health. In many societies, medicine is not distinguished from food. Human digestive systems, the substances upon which humans feed, and medicinal natural substances are closely intertwined and are the result of a co-evolution.

Linguistic Anthropology

Linguistic anthropologists study human perception and communication, finding a close connection between how people perceive their world and the structure of their language. The field of folk taxonomy recognizes regularities in how humans perceive and categorize their natural world. A society's closeness to nature and sources of food will be reflected in how finely they are able to categorize plants and animals, and more salient plants and animals will be marked linguistically. Linguists who study folk taxonomy usually consider themselves ethnobotanists or ethnobiologists (see below).

Cultural Anthropology

Cultural anthropologists pioneered the method of ethnographic data collection wherein the anthropologist lives among and participates in the daily life of the native culture over a period of months or years. Ethnographers attempt to situate the study of food within a community or culture, seeking to explain the interrelation between food systems and human behavior. Frameworks for the study of food include but are not limited to economy, political economy, cultural ecology, inequality, gender, ethnicity, households, policy formulation, biodiversity, hunter-gatherers, urbanization, and food as symbol. Cross-cultural research compares food and food systems in different cultures, most recently through multisited studies.

Ethnobotany and Ethnobiology

Ethnobotany (study of the relationships between plants and peoples) and ethnobiology (study of the relationships between living organisms and humans) draw on the resources of each of the subdisciplines of anthropology as well as from other fields such as chemistry, botany, pharmacology, zoology, entomology, engineering, and so on. A major concern of these disciplines is intellectual property rightswho should be compensated, and how they should be compensated, for sharing their traditional knowledge about plants and animals or for sharing the results of breeding plants or animals.

See also Agriculture, Origins of; Ethnobotany; Ethnopharmacology; Food Production, History of; Foodways; Nutritional Anthropology; Paleonutrition, Methods of; Prehistoric Societies .


Berlin, Brent. Ethnobiological Classification: Principles of Categorization of Plants and Animals in Traditional Societies. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Counihan, Carole. The Anthropology of Food and Body: Gender, Meaning, and Power. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Counihan, Carole, and Penny van Esterik, eds. Food and Culture: A Reader. New York and London: Routledge, 1997.

Douglas, Mary. "Deciphering a Meal." Daedalus 10 (1972): 6181.

Douglas, Mary, ed. Food in the Social Order: Studies of Food and Festivities in Three American Communities. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1984.

Etkin, Nina L., ed. Plants in Indigenous Medicine and Diet: Biobehavioral Approaches. Bedford Hills, N.Y.: Redgrave, 1986.

Goody, Jack. Cooking, Cuisine, and Class: A Study in Comparative Sociology. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Gosden, Chris, and Jon Hather, eds. The Prehistory of Food: Appetites for Change. One World Archaeology, vol. 32. London: Routledge, 1999.

Harris, Marvin, and Eric B. Ross, eds. Food and Evolution: Toward a Theory of Human Food Habits. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987.

Johannessen, Sissel. "Food, Dishes, and Society in the Mississippi Valley." In Foraging and Farming in the Eastern Woodlands, edited by C. Margaret Scarry, pp. 182205. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Raw and the Cooked: From Honey to Ashes, the Origin of Table Manners. Translated from the French by John and Doreen Weightman. New York: Harper and Row, 1969.

Messer, Ellen. "Anthropological Perspectives on Diet." Annual Review of Anthropology 13 (1984): 205249.

Stinson, Sara. "Nutritional Adaptation." Annual Review of Anthropology 21 (1992): 143170.

Welch, Paul D., and C. Margaret Scarry. "Status-Related Variation in Foodways in the Moundville Chiefdom." American Antiquity 60 (1995): 397419.

Gail E. Wagner

Archaeological Foodways

Foodways is a subdiscipline of cultural anthropology that studies food in its social and cultural setting. Foodways studies were pioneered in the 1990s by archaeologists who study hierarchical, stratified societies in the southeastern United States. A foodways approach combines studies of food remains, the ceramic vessels used to prepare and serve food, and other aspects of the food system with settlement patterns to answer questions about cultural change and the production, storage, distribution, preparation, and serving of food within social contexts. Two examples illustrate the cultural richness that such research may provide. In her study of the people who lived in the central Mississippi River Valley between 500 and 1100 C.E., Sissel Johannessen examined multiple lines of evidence to understand the relationship between shifts in diet and social changes. Her work combines summaries of internal community patterning, food storage facilities, paleoethnobotanical remains, and ratios of different types of ceramic vessels and sets them within the six-hundred-year period during which this farming society adopted maize agriculture. Johannessen documented how change in diet, accompanied by changes in food production, distribution, storage, and consumption, reflected a basic shift in social interaction and people's perception of their place in the world. They went from living as isolated families in the sixth century to group solidarity and affiliation with mound centers. As the locus of power shifted from household to center, food storage shifted from household pits to above-ground granaries, and greater variation arose in the ways food was cooked and served.

Another example is the study by Paul D. Welch and C. Margaret Scarry, who used a foodways approach to examine the intricacies of the social relationships within a chiefdom in the southeastern United States dating between 1050 and 1550 C.E. The ratios of food processing by-products (maize cobs and nutshells) and food consumption evidence (maize kernels) differ between low-status (farmstead) and high-status (civic/ceremonial mound center) locations, as do the types and cuts of meat and the ratios of cooking to storage or serving vessels. Furthermore, analysis of the ceramic vessel ratios from the various locations allowed distinction between types of high-status activities.