Friday, October 10, 2014

Brian Hayden's "The Power of Feasts"

Brian Hayden is Professor Emeritus in the Archaeology Department at Simon Fraser University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Power of Feasts: From Prehistory to the Present, and reported the following:
From page 99:
In California, Hildebrandt and Rosenthal (2009) have shown that, beginning over 2,500 years ago, marine shellfish were transported more than 25 kilometers inland, probably reflecting feasting activities in interior areas. The unusually large and well-made stone bifaces such as those displayed as wealth items as part of the Hupa feasts may also provide archaeological indications of feasting contexts (Goldschmidt and Driver 1943). As already mentioned in the ethnographic section, the large stone bowls found in many parts of California were apparently used by the elites for feasting.

In the south of California,Maxwell (2003) and Fagan et al. (2006) have identified several feasting deposits on San Nicolas Island that are similar to other deposits in the region that were identified as feasting remains associated with mourning rituals or secret society ('antap) rituals. These deposits included hundreds of large abalone shells and thousands of animal bones. Hull et al. (2013:26-7,42-3) have expanded the number of identified mourning sites in Southern California but concentrated on the ritual rather than the feasting aspects at these sites. As is common, they attribute
Page 99 features one of the most important messages of The Power of Feasts, to wit: that large competitive feasts are part and parcel of complex hunting and gathering cultures like the ones ethnographically and archaeologically recorded on the Northwest Coast, and California. Feasts are important in traditional societies because they are means of converting surpluses into key benefits for hosts, including acquiring military allies, marriage partners, and political power. Feasts were probably also the driving force behind the domestication of plants and animals, the development of important new technologies such as pottery, and constituted a major technique used to create social and economic inequalities. A key point is that feasting does not seem to occur among simple hunters and gatherers who existed for the first 2.5 million years of human existence. Feasting only seems to occur among complex hunters and gatherers who first emerged in a few resource-rich areas in the Upper Paleolithic of Europe (c. 30,000-12,000 years ago) and subsequently became more widespread following technological innovations.

Because feasts provided important survival, reproductive, and life-quality benefits, and because they were based on the production of surpluses, feasts were generally competitive. Ambitious people tried to find ways of producing more and more surplus food in order to obtain more benefits and better benefits than others. This constituted a major new force for food production that had not existed before, a sociopolitical purpose for producing food, not only more food, but foods with more appeal: beer, bread, fat-rich meats, chocolates, tobacco, emulsified nut oil drinks, and many more delicacies of the time. The extra labor required to produce these foods was more than compensated for by the potential benefits that could be obtained. The key cultural watershed was not domestication per se, as most textbooks would have it, but the development of complex hunting and gathering cultures centered on feasts like the Northwest Coast potlatch. Over generations, as people constantly strove to improve crop yields through selecting seeds for planting with desired qualities, people were eventually able to increase surplus foods in favorable localities. Greater surpluses led to more and larger feasts, more benefits, and larger debt systems that resulted in more complex social and political organizations, ultimately leading to civilization. It is no accident that early civilizations such as the Incans, the Sumerians, and the Egyptians essentially ran on beer, bread, and feasts.
Learn more about The Power of Feasts at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue