Food of the ancestors — still tasty today

There are so many times and lives before written records, or if the people and places are described by long-ago observers, then details appear only incidentally. These proto-history and prehistory experiences can sometimes be glimpsed in artifacts recovered by archaeological investigation, or in visible traces of working the land, as in these photos from the flickr.com search term “hillfort” from the Iron Age. Leaving aside object-based social inquiry and the deposition of material culture, another approach to understanding people who are separated from self by time or by language/society is to confine the contemplation to universal components to a person’s day and life course. Food is particularly vivid, since the recurring effort to obtain, prepare, share, and clean up takes place one or more times per day normally.

Anthropologists and other experts who wrestle with the workings of culture and relationships talk about “de-familiarizing” and “de-exoticizing” people different to oneself, whether it is ancestors living long ago (indeed, taking self as ancestor to distant future descendants, too) or it is contemporaries who are geographically distant, or if physically not far away, then separated by language and world view. De-exoticizing means to come to view the strange customs as having a logic of their own that makes sense in the particular natural and social environment they occupy. What initially seemed to be illogical, wacky, abnormal, or inefficient now comes to be normal and common-sensical. To complete the circle that links “them” to “us” there is the process of de-familiarizing one’s own normality. By looking at habits and meanings from a distance or contrasted to what other societies do, then some of one’s own customs and expectations begin to seem less obvious, automatic, or necessarily to be desirable.

Coming to grips with the foodways of people, perhaps even comprising one’s own ancestors in some distant way, from 80 generations ago (about 2000 years ago) at first seems impossible. One approach is additive: begin to add up the food traces that archaeologists have sieved from their excavations (shells, seeds, grains, bones identified for particular fish, birds, and animals small and large). By comparing those food stuffs to today’s grocery store shelves, an imperfect layer of commonality can be sketched. They ate pike, (sometimes) some of us eat pike, too. (Wild) horses were on the menu then, (some) people today eat the modern version of horse today. Barley, peas, pine nuts then; also today. Flowers, herbs, soft vegetables or fruits that leave little archaeological trace tend to be left out of the additive approach.

Another approach is subtractive: remove the foods of today that would not have been tasted 2000 years ago. All the spices from the East Indies, the many sorts of tea and coffee as well as the New World foods (tomato, chocolate, avocado, potato, some squashes, many capsium species, tobacco, and so on) can be excluded from this pool of long-ago staples and special occasion foods.

Even with a small number of foods that can be seen then and now with great confidence, the manner of preparation, preservation, serving, and status may well be different to today. So this attempt to identify tastes available to them and to us will be imperfect, but will provide a vivid bond that crosses the centuries and feeds one’s imagination in order to close the distance between ancestors and people today. Extending this thought experiment further, it would be eye-opening with augmented reality (AR) to highlight the many facets, features, and other tangible experiences of today in such a way that the AR-equipped person would see the time depth of all the things that form the social fabric and cultural landscape now lived in.

For instance, the all-you-can-eat buffet serving table would light up in differently colored halos to show the diner the foods present in some form 2000 or 600 or 100 or 10 years ago. And the AR-equipped person could stroll through a flower garden to display the plants present in some form at the several phases of the past 2000 years of change, trade, and manipulations. Proceeding to the department store and still wearing the AR equipment, articles of clothing would be similar marked in color coding to show the person the things that might have been worn by a person 10 or 100 or 600 or 2000 years ago. Similarly of the topography: features dating back 100 years ago would display in the AR-view different to ones present 600 or 2000 years ago. That way the person could be fairly confident in knowing that a distant ancestor could well have gazed on the same river course, stand of mature trees, or heap of (glacial) stone.

Thanks to the magic of AR displays, or the slower approach of learning by books the time depth of each part of one’s physical and social ecosystem, one’s consciousness of the abiding presence of earlier times and lives grows stronger. Projecting into the future, long after one’s own breath ceases, the same person could exert a bit more imagination and expand this wide-angle “time consciousness” from hindsight to foresight, picturing which parts of today could well be expected to persist in some form in the lives of descendants 100 or 1000 years from now.

Foods available all year fresh or seasonal ones preserved, traded or locally produced, is one way to establish experiential common bonds of self to society of prehistory and protohistory, such as the diverse settlements and livelihoods around the British Isles in the Iron Age around 600 B.C.E. until 1400, for example. Letting the imagination run free and stretching beyond the theme of edibles, there are other parts of a person’s life today that would have analogous functions during that 2000 year duration of many changes. In the course of a full life a person passes several developmental steps to adulthood; courtship and marriage (or functional equivalents leading to children); middle-age softening body and mind; generational expansion into grandparenthood; bouts of illness and healing; decline and death (as well as handling the demise of kith and kin before one’s own time ends).

Doubtless there would be emotional highs and lows long ago and also today. The context and causes that produce the various emotional responses alone or in combination depend on the person and historical particulars, but the root surge in cortisol (during stress actual or anticipated) or its relief (dopamine, oxytocin, and so on) seems reasonably universal and eternal, allowing a person to connect to others of a faraway time or place.

People of another time or place share other elements recognizable to our modern-day life, as well, in the form of social dynamics and processes. The details differ, but the functional presence seems reasonably universal and eternal. Things like peer pressure to conform, status to improve one’s relative standing, competitiveness, appetite for respect in the eyes of parent or peer or other reference group, keepers of specialist knowledge or skills, and the overarching logic of neg-entropy to establish and preserve social order (how ever they define it of their time and place).

Screenplay writers of Star Trek weave together many forms of familiarity and exoticness to make their worlds and plot lines both recognizable and viewers and partly dumbfounding, too. Consciousness of differing mental worlds in disparate locations or points of history can be seen in the Outlander TV series, in which the protagonist of the 1940s Scotland travels back to the 1740s on the same ground. Before that adaptation of the book series there was the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain in which the protagonist is dumbfounded by the world he finds himself in. It is a little bit like the disorientation suffered by a lifelong indigenous person of the Amazon who traveled to USA with a field researcher to New York City: high speed transportation, high rise buildings with humans inhabiting places far from the ground level, food sold for money not bartered or grown, and the strange written markings visible on all kinds of surfaces which could speak meanings to those whose secret knowledge allowed them to hear the messages.

By extension to the an ancestor rooted in the years before 1400, or indeed back to 600 B.C.E., things made of wood, stone, bronze or iron might be kind of familiar, but plastic would be a head-scratcher. Knowing where to get food, where to perform bodily functions, the proper way to greet a person or to take one’s leave, who to go to for illness or conflict resolution or spiritual guidance. All these things might be disorienting or unhinged altogether from that person’s own field of reference. The reverse dislocation would come to the modern were she or he to appear on site as a guest to iron-age ancestors: calling home is out of the question, a cold fizzy drink is a non-starter, how to identify and prepare wild foods would be a mystery. Modern clothing with button and holes would be common to the ancients, but zippers or Velcro would raise eyebrows. The fabric and colors likely would be a marvel, along with the precision of machine stitched seams. And so, the juxtaposition of one historical period’s people onto the cultural space of another group of people leads initially to an impression of irreconcilable separateness. But with a little effort and imagination some of the common thread can be identified and grasped to keep from falling down, figuratively.

So the next time you eat a walnut, taste a roasted fish, or bite into a spoonful of berries, consider the tasty experience as an echo to the lives of people — possibly one’s own ancestral line — long, long ago. Undeniably, there are many parts of the landscape, perhaps a little of the vocabulary, and things on the dinner table that hearken back 80 generations ago and more. By acknowledging the pieces of other times and distant cultures that form elements of today, the bubble of presentism can be burst and the strands that run from past through the moment we inhabit and on into the future can be seen and wondered at.

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outreach science

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