Food is not only necessary for life, it is also associated with our social, political and cultural traditions. People like to eat together. Dinner at home is the gathering of the family. Friends meet for lunch or dinner. Some foods show class identity: wealthy people eat caviar or escargot, the poor eat hotdogs. Many cultures and religions forbid the consumption of certain foods: most Buddhists are vegetarians, Jewish law forbids consumption of pork and Americans will not eat dogs or horses. Specific foods are culture markers. For example, you can be “as American as apple pie.” English housewives still tear the loose tea leaves from teabags to make “proper” English tea. In Japan, the word for “meal” means “cooked rice”, the call to dinner in Thailand means “eat rice”, and the Chinese word for “rice” means “food”.
How does all of this relate to archaeology? Nutrition and the methods to obtain it were factors that drove history. Human teeth got smaller when we began cooking our food. The first permanent buildings were probably built to store grain. The first attempt at writing was to record food supplies. If a community could produce a surplus they became wealthy. The very productive towns that were built along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers developed into the first really big cities (the ancient city of Ur had a population of about 60,000). The surplus encouraged trade which led to the development of travel technologies, money, and the interchange of ideas that eventually spread all over the world. But the control of food was also the cause of war. The Romans annexed Egypt, a major producer of grain, to guarantee that Rome’s burgeoning population would be fed. In the 15th century, there was a war between Italian nobles over control of salt, and, more recently, there was a “Cod War” between the United Kingdom and Iceland from the 1950s to the 1970s for control of fishing rights in the North Atlantic (Tom Roston, A Brief History of Food & War, January 11, 2012).
What we eat is recorded in our bones, teeth and hair so food can tell archaeologists where people were born and grew up. The enamel of the teeth of Ȍtzi, the “ice man” who died in the Italian Alps 5300 years ago, indicate that he spent his entire life within a 37-mile range just south of where he died. But new studies on diet reveal that ancient people were often quite mobile. Bone fragments show that ancient societies of the Sahara were made up of many foreigners, debunking the classical theory that kingdoms were always formed by indigenous people (http://phys.org/news/2014-03-ancient-bone-fragments-diet-health.html#jCp
Well-fed people are productive. Roman gladiators ate lots of vegetables and drank a tonic made from ashes to keep essential minerals high (J. Howard, Huffport Science, 10/22/14). Herodotus said that the population of ancient Egypt was healthier than any other (Histories II, 20-39) and it was the ordinary people, not slaves that built the enormous pyramids. The ancient Chinese ate lots of rice and vegetables and developed many innovative technologies long before any other society. Elite men have always been better nourished than women and lower classes so they lived longer. Good leaders who were able to rule for a long time tended to produce stable governments. Rameses II ruled ancient Egypt for 66 years providing peace and prosperity.
So the old adage, “you are what you eat” (Concerning Spiritualism and Materialism, Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach, 1863) takes on new importance as another tool to enhance or possibly change what we already know about past civilizations.