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Feast: Why Humans Share Food

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Feast: Why Humans Share Food (jacket cover)

Feast: Why Humans Share Food (jacket cover)

Oxford University Press / PhotoAlto/Punchstock
Jones, Martin. 2007. Feast: Why humans share food. Oxford University Press, Oxford. ISBN 978-0-19-920901-9. 303 pages, notes, bibliography, index.

A Social History of Dining

Feast: Why humans share food is a terrific new book from archaeologist Martin Jones, which uses the structure of a 12-course gourmet meal to present the evolutionary social history of people eating together.

After an introduction, each of the eleven subsequent chapters begins with an imagined meal, based on archaeological evidence from excavated sites. Then each chapter discusses social history, that is to say, the changes in behavior that developed over time and how those changes resonate in our meals today.

Throughout the book, Jones uses the ideas of anthropologists, especially Jack Goody, Mary Douglas, Claude Levi-Strauss and Marvin Harris, to provide insight and flavor to a discussion that also includes cut marks, lipids, and phytoliths.

Feasting through Time

The second chapter, "Are we so different? How apes eat", illuminates how we humans are different from our primate cousins, the chimpanzees. It opens with a description of a nuclear family meal in Gombe National Park, Tanzania, and a feast for the whole band some ten years earlier, in fascinating detail.

Other chapters cover a 500,000-year-old Homo erectus meal of a horse at Boxgrove, a Neanderthal meal at Abric Romaní (46,000 years ago), modern humans at Ohalo II (23,000 bp), and Neolithic farmers at Jerf-el-Ahmar (11,000 bp). Next we visit the Neolithic hillfort at Hambleton Hill (3500 BC), a feast at a Mycenaean palace at Pylos (1200 BC), a feast of the Roman Empire outpost at Colchester (AD 45) and a poor person's meal of the same era identified from the Huldre Fen bog body. Finally we see into a medieval monk's repast at Moreaucourt Abbey (AD 1372), and a family dining on TV dinners in a suburban living room (AD 1954).

Good Food and Good Company

Feast is more than a simple recounting of what and how people ate during our evolutionary path to today. Throughout, Jones highlights the interconnectedness of sharing food and our language, social customs and even physical systems. Sharing food in and out of the family circle is part of what keeps us connected to one another--perhaps the central part.

In the last analysis, Feast reminds me of using Google Earth to soar back and forth between different scales of reference. Jones examines a single event at a single site and then broadens out to reflect on human nature as a whole. In this manner, we gain insight into the patchwork planet that makes up human society today. It's a little technical in places, but you know what? Challenging is a good thing to be for the best of public archaeology. And that, in a nutshell, is what I consider Martin Jones' Feast.

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