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3 Surprising Discoveries From the Archaeology of Food

Deep in the pit, a thin cloud of dust and dirt makes visible the shaft of light shining down from the setting sun. The top of the tomb is opened. Images of the ancient objects inside reflect in the wide eyes of the excavators. Boy, I hope they find some charred millet grains. The archaeology...

Agricultural China
The domestication of grains is richly preserved in the archaeological record of China and elsewhere, in the landscape, in preserved grains, and in the genetic stories hidden inside. (Photo by Jodi Cobb)

Deep in the pit, a thin cloud of dust and dirt makes visible the shaft of light shining down from the setting sun. The top of the tomb is opened. Images of the ancient objects inside reflect in the wide eyes of the excavators.

Boy, I hope they find some charred millet grains.

The archaeology of food is filling in the gaps between all the grand monuments and intricately crafted objects that occupied researchers and the public for generations.

This week at the 2015 Dialogue of Civilizations in Beijing, top archaeologists working at sites around the world have gathered to see what more they can discover about each civilization by learning more about them all.

Here are some of the surprising ways food is spicing up the conversation.

1. You Are What You Eat (and Drink)

The teeth of this skull from the Roman city of Herculaneum contain strontium isotopes that could help researchers pinpoint the person’s location of birth. (Photo by Luis Mazzatenta)

As water percolates through the ground and runs over the landscape, it picks up a sample of elements from that area’s rocks and soils. Once you slake your thirst, a sample of those elements—with their distinct proportion of isotopes—are incorporated into your body. The same can happen from eating animals or plants that consumed the water.

Tang Jigen of Peking University made use of this to show that humans sacrificed to be buried with Bronze Age Shang dynasty rulers had been born far away and had continued to live in those regions at least until shortly before their death.

Earlier researchers had seen these sacrifices as evidence that Shang society was based on oppressive slavery. Thanks to a sophisticated analysis of what victims of sacrifice ingested in their lifetimes, Tang was able to prove this wrong. It took 3,500-year-old meals to correct a fundamental error in interpretations of the society.

2. Every Meal Is a Map

Michael Rowlands is an emeritus professor of Material Culture Studies at University College London. Many of the other archaeologists at the Dialogue of Civilizations studied his work when they were in school.

Professor Rowlands’s presentation focused on identifying the underacknowledged impact of populations outside of the best known centers of civilization. One of his major illustrations was the extensive use and trade of African grains and vegetables in Southeast Asia, across the Indian Ocean.

On the dry plains of Yemen in 1964 villagers still made use of wheat and cotton in remarkably unchanged ways. (Photo by Thomas Abercrombie)

These people may not have built large, permanent structures or left records in writing of their beliefs and actions, but the food items they harvested and traded left behind virtually invisible traces that modern analysis is finally bringing to light.

Genetic evidence can help us pinpoint the location for domestication of a particular plant or animal species, and beyond that, microscopic remnants of grains and other items can show just how far away things were traded.

Using these techniques, remnants of an ancient meal can help draw for us a web of imports and exports, connecting any culture with almost any other.

3. Feasts Leave a Footprint

The first time a kid eats dinner over at a friend’s house, he’s likely in for a bit of a shock. Even in such standardized cultural practices as dinner with the family, local and individual differences can create very different experiences—food-based ones in particular.

CHARLES H KRAGH  transplanting rice
In this vintage photo, rice is being transplanted by hand a century ago—just as it is today and was thousands of years ago. (Photo by Charles H. Kragh)

Such distinctions can show up in the archaeological record as well, as Zhang Chi from Peking University showed this week.

Roughly 4,000 years ago, in the northeastern region of what is today China, people of both the Dawenkou and Liangzhu cultures were burying their dead in double coffins. In the cemeteries of Liangzhu, the pit is otherwise empty (as is the outer coffin), and the inner coffin contains just the highly esteemed deceased and some personal prestige items like ceremonial jade axe blades.

What’s that got to do with food, you say?

Oxen Thresh
In another vintage view, a timeless landscape stretches beyond a man and his oxen, threshing wheat in Pakistan. (Photo by J. Baylor Roberts)

People in the Dawenkou burials are surrounded not just by personal belongings, but also by pairs of small drinking vessels. Back between the sides of the two coffins there are more drinking vessels in pairs and groups, as well as the bones of animals, especially pigs.

Zhang discussed the number of pigs and calculated how much meat would be represented by the several jaw bones in a particular burial. It was, to say the least, more than someone could eat even on his way to the afterlife.

With all that beer and all that pig meat, and the symbolic leftovers of the meal making it back into the ground, it’s clear that Dawenkou burial ceremonies were fairly large, social events that incorporated people directly into the action. You can almost hear the attendants saying, “I’ll drink to her!”

Burials of Liangzhu, however, appear much more business-focused: “Behold so-and-so. He had an awful lot of wealth and prestige.”

Once again, the artifacts or the layout of the burials alone could only reveal so much. It’s the remnants of the feasting that show what a different cultural experience was had in the two early cities, and that really helps bring the past to life.


Kurdish Barley Harvest
A giant scythe and metallic clawed glove might make this Kurdish man look intimidating, but he’s just a farmer, doing his job. (Photo by J. Baylor Roberts)

The Dialogue of Civilizations is an annual conference organized by the National Geographic Society and partners in a host country bringing together top archaeologists focused on different ancient civilizations from around the world. In public presentations they discuss what they can learn by better understanding each other’s sites and how those lessons can help us better understand and navigate the world today.

Join the discussion in Chinese by following National Geographic magazine: Simplified Chinese Edition on WeChat, and in English on the Explorers Journal blog and @NatGeoExplorers on Twitter.

Read All Posts About the Dialogue of Civilizations

To organize the 2015 Dialogue of Civilizations, the National Geographic Society partnered with the International Center on Chinese Heritage and Archaeology, the School of Archaeology and Museology and Center for the Study of Chinese Archaeology at Peking University, and the Institute of Archaeology at University College London, with support from the Research Group of the Project “In Search of the Origins of Chinese Civilization.”

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Andrew Howley
Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley. Learn more at