Oracle Bones

Back in August, Edible Geography tried to imagine what other shapes meat might take, if it were freed from the deeply ingrained socio-cultural traditions of meat preparation. The ensuing comments expressed a nostalgia for lost meat diagrams, and also directed me to this article, from Science Daily, which reports on ancient butchering practices extrapolated from a 200,000 year-old bone.

qesem cave bone

IMAGE: A bone from the Qesem Cave showing irregular cutmarks (Photo by Dr. Mary Stiner)

The article describes the work of archaeologists from Tel Aviv University and the University of Arizona who have been studying cut marks on late Lower Paleolithic period animal bones from Qesem Cave in Israel. Their findings, recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, conclude that the number and placement of these cut marks offer archaeological evidence of an alternative, earlier, and less specialised form of meat preparation. According to Professor Avi Gopher of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Archaeology:

From 200,000 years ago to the present day, the patterns of meat-sharing and butchering run in a long clear line. But in the Qesem Cave, something different was happening.

The cut marks we are finding are both more abundant and more randomly oriented than those observed in later times, such as the Middle and Upper Paleolithic periods [...] suggesting that more (skilled and unskilled) individuals were directly involved in cutting meat from the bones at Qesem Cave.

For the past 200,000 years, in other words, the butchering of large animals has been done by one or two individuals in a community, who were specially trained to carry out a relatively ritualised series of tasks. Prior to that, the bones at Qesem seem to show, meat cutting was more of an ad-hoc free-for-all.

Samantha Tripodi

IMAGE: Butchery amateur Samantha Tripodi takes a class at Avedano’s Holly Park Market. (Photo by Claudine RL Co, for the New York Times)

What makes this report so interesting, though, is not just the particular evolution of butchering techniques, but rather the implications of those changes for human culture and social behaviour. As Dr. Gopher and his colleagues note, “butchering guides many of the formalities of meat distribution and sharing that follow.” As yet, no one knows exactly how the community at Qesem was organised – but these striated bones provide a tantalising indication of a quite different social structure.

The Qesem Cave bones, then, are the negative archaeological imprint of otherwise lost rituals, traditions, and social relations – they are the shadow left by an invisible anthropological history.

angus-beef-chart 460

IMAGE: Another meat diagram (we aim to please), found via @itweetmeat

As it turns out, meat archaeology is a thriving sub-field of the discipline, with animal bones providing what is in some cases our only guide to earlier economic and cultural practices. Faunal analysis, as the archaeological identification and interpretation of animal bones is technically known, can provides insights on topics as varied as the influence of climate change on hunting strategy, the socio-economic class stratification of ancient cities, or the belief systems of lost civilisations.

Slaughterhouse Machines

IMAGE: Slaughterhouse machines, manufactured by the Qingdao Chuanyi Diatomite Co., Ltd.

I can’t help but wonder what the faunal analysts of the future will make of our animal bone record. The vast majority of meat carcasses in the United States, for example, are processed industrially, and the bones are subsequently ground up to be used as fuel, fertiliser, cosmetics, china, and more, leaving no trace of their identical, machine-made cut marks. Meanwhile, the New York Times recently reported on the rising popularity of “D.I.Y. butchering” in foodie meccas such as San Francisco and Brooklyn, which will presumably result in isolated micro-middens of Qesem cave-like bones, scarred by amateur, random cuts.

The stories these bones (both absent and present) tell about our economic and cultural values are rich indeed.

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