Food Archaeology

As part of my Indology course a decade back, I studied Archaeology as one of the subjects. I also attended couple of field trips to excavation sites, and did participate in the process to certain extent. It is very exciting process where in historical/prehistorical artifacts unfold in front of your eyes. I keep visiting Deccan College in Pune where one of friends teaches archaeological subjects and also researcher himself. It helps me get to know more about his latest finds and latest projects.

In the newspapers, the other day I read about Dr Kurush Dalal’s presentation in Pune on archaeology of food. I had never heard of this term. The closest I had gone was to historical studies of food, especially Indian food, as described in book by K T Achaya(Indian Food: A Historical Companion). During my course, we had discussed findings of barley seeds in Harappan civilization and few other food related items, in fossilized form and trying to understand them by performing various kinds of analysis including chemical analysis. Though, I could not attend the the presentation, it was covered in Indian Express(could not grab the link to the report). Here are some excerpts from the clipping:

“It’s recreating the foods that made us who we are today. So we first need to know how do archaeologists reconstruct the food of the past?….For last 5,500 years we have been eating ‘ber'(Indian jujube) as a snack. This is Indian superfood because of richness in iron, calcium and minerals….Event the predominant grains we eat today are different. Millet which was major staple food until recently are losing to wheat and rice. ”

So, it seems that the talk was about mainly on history, evolution of food habits, and also more importantly preservation or revival of bygone food habits. This revival(and as he said archaeological reconstruction which is important) is based on interdisciplinary studies such as for example including anthropological data. The other related subject is paleobotany which, of course, covers plants and vegetation aspects. He also covered, as per the report again, some well known facts such as we borrowed potatoes, mangoes from Portuguese. Tomatoes are also not native to India. It is also well known that India was exporter of spices since thousands of years.

For all of us with gastronomical affection, I guess in this world of globalization and global village, it does not matter now as to where did certain food item originate or what is native of any specific region. But it is certainly entertaining to know more about evolution of our own food habits historically and native food items which is part of our heritage.

Since we are talking of food heritage and culture, let me conclude by providing another reference for those curious minds. There is a Sanskrit work called ‘Abhilashitartha Chintamani’ alias ‘Manasollasa’ which is 12th century encyclopedic work by King Someswara III in today’s Karnataka region. It contains two chapters on food and water. This throws light on the food culture in 12th century. One more Sanskrit work titled ‘Bhojankutuhalam’ attributed to Tanjore Bhosale king of 11th century(the period is debatable) also talks of food preparations for over 400 food items.


One thought on “Food Archaeology

  1. raj says:

    Small note : Potatos, chillies and tomatos came to us from the Columbian exchange mediated by the Portuguese. Mangos are actually native to south and southeast asia


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