Food fads and fashions

Body size and glaciation

So-called ‘Venus’ figurines are among the earliest examples of prehistoric art, and not the least remarkable aspect of these representations of the female body is the longevity of this form of figurative carving. Some 200 examples have been found in various parts of Europe and Asia. The oldest to date is the 35,000- to 40,000-year-old Venus of Hohle Fels, carved from a 60mm length of mammoth tusk and found as recently as 2008 in a cave near Schelklingen, in Baden-Württemberg, Germany. The most recent dates back to a mere 11,000 years ago: the Venus of Monruz, carved from jet, was found in 1991 during road construction work near Monruz in the Swiss municipality of Neuchâtel.

Writing in the journal Obesity in December 2020, Dr Richard Johnson, of the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, has come up with a new theory to explain the purpose of these figurines. He and his colleagues argue that the figurines are a response to climate change and diet, and are designed to promote fecundity.

The Venus of Hohle Fels is the oldest known example of a ‘Venus’ figurine: prehistoric carvings in the form of the female body. A new study suggests that these figurines may be related to climate change and diet.
The Venus of Hohle Fels is the oldest known example of a ‘Venus’ figurine: prehistoric carvings in the form of the female body. A new study suggests that these figurines may be related to climate change and diet.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Ramessos

Dr Johnson and his co-authors – Professor John Fox of the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates and Associate Professor of Medicine Miguel Lanaspa-Garcia of the University of Colorado School of Medicine – looked at a number of factors. They examined the distribution of the figurines and their dates, and measured the carvings themselves to calculate the degree of obesity: based on waist-to-hip and waist-to-shoulder ratio. They concluded that the most obese examples were found closest to known glaciers and ice sheets, and that the numbers of such figurines increase ‘in times of extreme nutritional stress when falling temperatures led to regional extinctions and a reduction in the population’.

At a time, then, of food scarcity, obesity was a desirable condition. Women with body fat were more likely to give birth than those suffering from malnutrition. The Venus figurines represented an ideal body type for those difficult times when plant-based foods were scarce and animals over-hunted. Women entering puberty or in the early stages of pregnancy may have been given figurines to show them what they should aim for in terms of body mass to ensure a successful birth and to protect them through pregnancy, birth, and nursing. That they were worn as talismans is shown by the number of carvings that display signs of having been threaded for use as an amulet.

Many of the figurines show signs of long use and wear. They may have been passed down from mother to daughter through many generations. It is possible too that the ownership of such a figurine was a signal to the rest of the community to give food priority to the mother-to-be. ‘Promoting obesity’, said Johnson, ‘ensured that the family would carry on for another generation in these most precarious of climatic conditions’.

The Oxford diet

Another dietary study published last year, this time in PLoS ONE (6 July 2020), looked at changes in eating habits over time through a study of human and animal bone remains from excavations in Oxford. That city was chosen because of the large number of well-dated bone and ceramic assemblages available to researchers as a result of several decades of developer-funded archaeology and numerous excavations at both elite and non-elite sites, allowing comparisons to be made of food consumption at different levels of society.

In reporting the conclusions of the study, many commentators focused on the increase in pork and chicken consumption after the Norman Conquest of 1066, as well as changes in cooking practices, choosing to illustrate their stories with that famous scene in the Bayeux Tapestry where William the Conqueror, having landed with his army at Pevensey, feasts on barbecued chicken on long skewers. In fact, the research shows not that there was a marked change in diet, from the English staples of beef, lamb, mutton, and goat, plus cabbage, grains, and dairy-based foods, to a more Frenchified diet, but that food associated with elite French diets, including domesticated pig, chicken and fowl, wild species, and fish, began to spread down the social ladder and to be available to many more people, so that the differences between urban and rural, upper-, middle-, and lower-class diets began to even out.

The authors adopted a ‘multiproxy’ approach, looking at several different forms of evidence: fat residues in the fabric of porous ceramics, the different ratios of carbon and nitrogen isotopes in human and animal bones, the formation of tooth dentine as an indicator of dietary restriction, and the evidence from human skeletal remains of conditions associated with malnourishment, such as rickets, scurvy, or anaemia.

The study concluded that the Norman Conquest of 1066, which had profound effects on the language, architecture, laws, and administration of England in the late 11th century, was also marked by an intensification in farming and a more developed system for bringing food to market, resulting in a steadier food supply, greater choice, and greater homogeneity between urban and rural and elite and non-elite diets.

The research team, led by Elizabeth Craig-Atkins, Senior Lecturer in Human Osteology at the University of Sheffield, concluded that a major influence on food choice after the Conquest was an increase in the role of markets, as the number of towns granted market charters began to increase, at the same time as new manorial controls introduced by Norman overlords saw the intensification of agricultural production.

Interruptions in adolescent tooth development provided evidence for periods of famine and short-term dietary stress, not least the disruption to food supplies that followed in the wake of the Conquest itself, but the negative impacts of the Conquest on everyday life seem to have been limited. Evidence of increasing payments to the Crown and the building up of street frontages in the late 11th century suggest rising prosperity in Oxford, accompanied by an increasing range of economic activity and higher population density. A more developed urban economy with more regular access to resources for more people may well have reduced the experience of severe food shortages and the risk of starvation for most people after the Conquest.

Food or friends of the gods?

What would earlier generations have thought of the idea that chickens might be consumed as food? A team of researchers led by Naomi Sykes, Lawrence Professor of Archaeology at Exeter University, has been exploring the origins of our Easter traditions and, in particular, the folklore around bunnies, eggs, and newly hatched chicks. Though associated with saccharine greetings cards and modern-day Easter traditions, archaeological evidence shows that chickens and hares have long been associated with the supernatural, starting with their first introduction to Iron Age Britain between the 5th and 3rd centuries BC.

BELOW Researchers examining archaeological evidence for chickens and hares in the Iron Age have discovered that folklore surrounded these species long before the emergence of the Easter traditions with which they are now associated.
Researchers examining archaeological evidence for chickens and hares in the Iron Age have discovered that folklore surrounded these species long before the emergence of the Easter traditions with which they are now associated.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Tim Reckmann

According to Professor Sykes, the excavated remains of chickens and hares from this period show that they were buried with care and intact in the British Iron Age, rather than showing signs of butchery and disposal as food remains. We also have Julius Caesar’s word for it that they were not reared for food. In his Commentarii de Bello Gallico (‘Commentaries on the Gallic War’), he says that ‘Britons consider it contrary to divine law to eat the hare, the chicken, or the goose. They raise these for their own amusement or pleasure.’

The sheer number of chicken-decorated objects – not just in Britain but in Gaul as well – suggests some sort of association with an unknown Iron Age divinity that was later absorbed into a syncretic relationship with the Roman deity, Mercury, who is often depicted with a cockerel at his feet. To quote Caesar again, the Gauls ‘worship Mercury, in particular, as their god; they have many images of him and regard him as the inventor of all arts. They consider him the guide of their journeys and marches, and believe him to have great influence over the acquisition of gain and mercantile transactions.’

The faunal evidence shows that attitudes did change during the Romano-British period, and that hare and chicken were increasingly considered as ‘eatable’, their remains being found as food waste, while hares were even farmed as livestock. This does not mean they lost their symbolic potency. By the Norman period, the literary and archaeological evidence show a fascinating divergence. Hares, by then, were a sought-after culinary animal, well represented in food bone assemblages, and one of the key demands made by the followers of Wat Tyler during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was a relaxation of the forestry laws protecting hares in England from being hunted by all but the aristocracy. Yet the literature of the time continues to describe hare as troublesome and inedible: Gerald of Wales (1146-1223), for example, records the commonly held belief that hares are witches in disguise – perhaps a faint echo of the very ancient association between hares and an unknown Iron Age deity.