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Amid debate on Harappan diet, a question: How do experts know what ancient peoples ate?

Plant remains from Harappan sites include cereals, lentils, fruits, vegetables, and spices. Burnt cereals survive well and sometimes leave marks on clay. Seeds of vegetables and fruits are often identifiable.

, Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
February 25, 2020 5:14:29 pm
Amid debate on Harappan diet, a question: How do experts know what ancient peoples ate? A promotional image for Historical Gastronomica.

The National Museum is hosting until Tuesday (February 25) an exhibition called ‘Historical Gastronomica’ focussed on the diet of the Indus Valley, or Harappan, people.

A planned “Indus dining experience”, which was supposed to have a “specially crafted menu that strictly includes ingredients that were identified by archaeologists & researchers from sites of the Indus-Saraswati Civilisation” was, however, moved out of the Museum premises after controversy over non-vegetarian dishes on the menu.

The diet of ancient peoples has been a contested sphere in India for long— rightwing conservatives have, for example, rejected the historical evidence for the consumption of meat by the Vedic Aryans, and targetted professional historians and academic specialists for their writings.

How, however, do archaeologists conclude what people who lived, say, 5,000 years ago, ate? (The Harappan civilisation is dated to a period between c. 3300 BC and c. 1300 BC)

Tools and pottery

To begin with, even after the passage of thousands of years, there are clues in archaeological remains.

Prof Nayanjot Lahiri, an archaeologist and historian, has written in The Indian Express that the “garbage of everyday life” found at archaeological sites includes material linked to the production and consumption of food — “vast quantities of broken and discarded pottery, chewed and charred animal bones, sundry cereals and seeds of fruits and implements used in producing and processing food”.

Plant remains from Harappan sites include cereals, lentils, fruits, vegetables, and spices. Burnt cereals survive well and sometimes leave marks on clay. Seeds of vegetables and fruits are often identifiable.

In her article for The Indian Express, Prof Lahiri mentioned the work of the archaeologist Arunima Kashyap, who has “recovered and identified at Harappan Farmana (in rural Haryana), starch granules from pots, grinding stones, and teeth, showing the processing, cooking and consumption of mangoes, bananas and garlic”.

The use of scientific techniques can indicate with a fair degree of certainty the use to which the stone tools found at a particular site were put — “to cut meat or wild grass, and whether grinding stones mashed mangoes or cereals”, Prof Lahiri has written.

Thus, hooks, fish spears, and nets are evidence that the people in question ate fish.

Microscopic wear patterns in cutting or butchering tools are cross-referenced with marks on bones to reach a conclusion on what kinds of meat were eaten. The presence of arrowheads at sites, or traces of hunting equipment buried in animal bones suggest dietary patterns.

Meals and funerary practices

Sometimes, remains of entire meals are found. Excavations in the Italian city of Pompeii, which was buried under ash after Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, have found laid out tables.

In some cases shops selling food can be identified, as can some of the goods in them.

Also, meals were an part of funerary offerings. In Egyptian tombs, remains of fish and fruit have been found, along with more sophisticated food such as wine, cheese, and cake. Han dynasty tombs in China (2nd century BC to 2nd century AD) are full of food, some of it labelled.

Bodies and excreta

Direct evidence of diets sometimes comes from the stomachs and excreta of ancient peoples. These, however, have not survived in Indian archaeological contexts, Prof Lahiri wrote.

In rare cases though, soft tissue does survive, for example in extremely dry or cold climate. In these cases, scientists are able at times to extract traces of food from the digestive tract.

Archaeologists have, for example, concluded that the mummified Tollund Man of Denmark (4th century BC) ate just plants in the days before his death.

And that China’s Xin Zhui or “Lady Dai” (2nd century BC) died in the summer because many seeds of the sweet melon, which is available in the summer, were found in her oesophagus and digestive tract.

The study of faecal matter — essentially ancient poo — is a specialised scientific field.

Chemical markers help distinguish between human and animal poo, and the faeces contain remains of pollen, plant fibres, seeds, bones, eggs, nuts, molluscs, insects, and hair — all of which indicate patterns of eating. For this reason, researchers often focus their studies on latrines and sewers at archeological sites.

Evidence from teeth

Food leaves marks on tooth enamel, which hold clues to diet. In general, meat diets tend to leave elongated vertical marks on lateral surfaces, while mainly vegetarian diets produce shorter vertical and horizontal marks.

Studying fossil teeth from the early Stone Age onward, experts have concluded that with time, ancestors of modern humans went from being reliant almost entirely on meat to consuming a more varied diet.

Diets also have an impact on the pace and manner of tooth decay. Sugary, starchy food leads to faster decay and specific patterns of diseases of teeth and loss of teeth.

Some anthropologists have studied the differences in the rate of tooth decay to theorise on when hunter-gatherers communities took to settled farming, and thus adopt a changed dietary pattern.

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