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Social Dimensions of Food in the Prehistoric Balkans

Social Dimensions of Food in the Prehistoric Balkans

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Social Dimensions of Food in the Prehistoric Balkans

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Oct 31, 2018


Ever since the definition of the Neolithic Revolution by Vere Gordon Childe, archaeologists have been aware of the crucial importance of food for the understanding of prehistoric developments. Numerous studies have classified and described cooking ware, hearths and ovens, have studied food residues and more recently also stable isotopes in skeletal material. However, we have not yet succeeded in integrating traditional, functional perspectives on nutrition and semiotic approaches (e.g. dietary practices as an identity marker) with current research in the fields of Food Studies and Material Culture Studies.

This volume brings together leading specialists in archaeobotany, economic zooarchaeology, and palaeoanthropology to discuss practices of food production and consumption in their social dimensions from the Mesolithic to the Early Iron Age in the Balkans, a region with intermediary position between and the Aegean Sea on one side and Central Europe and the Eurasian steppe regions on the other. The prehistoric inhabitants of the Balkans were repeatedly confronted with foreign knowledge and practices of food production and consumption which they integrated and thereby transformed into their life.

In a series of transdisciplinary studies, the contributors shed new light on the various social dimensions of food in a synchronous as well as diachronic perspective. Contributors present a series of case studies focused on themes of social interaction, communal food preparation and consumption, the role of feasting, and the importance and management of salt production.
Oct 31, 2018

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Social Dimensions of Food in the Prehistoric Balkans - Desislava Takorova


Chapter 1

‘Herd’ mentality

László Bartosiewicz and Clive Bonsall


Identifying animal remains and interpreting their potential meanings has been indispensable in reconstructing the socio-cultural dimensions of prehistoric life. Archaeozoology was born when Japetus Steenstrup, a member of a multidisciplinary research team, realised that shell banks along the Danish coast were not natural deposits, but ‘kitchen middens’ (køkkenmøddinger) accumulated by prehistoric human activity (Forchhammer et al. 1851–1856). Animal remains thus attained cultural meaning. Køkkenmødding, an internationally used technical term at the time (e.g. Wyman 1868; Steenstrup 1886) was an accurate definition long before the architectural concept of kitchen developed, as it expressed the primary aspect of such archaeological deposits: consumption. At the same time, studying later prehistoric animal remains from pile dwellings, Rütimeyer (1861) titled his pioneering study Die Fauna der Pfahlbauten der Schweiz. In doing so, he inadvertently introduced the far broader term ‘fauna’ into archaeozoology. Being suggestive of an all-encompassing capacity, this term has had a potential for over-interpretation only recognised well over a century later (Thomas 1996, 2).

Modern archaeozoology, emerging after World War II across Europe, continued as an applied discipline. Issues of domestication and the mediation of domesticates through demic diffusion dominated the agenda. Natural scientists, such as palaeontologists and veterinary anatomists were commissioned to identify animal bones from cultural contexts, i.e. archaeological sites, many of them eventually becoming full-time specialists in this area. They typically produced zoological chapters appended to site reports not particularly integrated within the archaeological discussion. There was a strong emphasis on the biological reconstruction of prehistoric animals that these professionals were best trained to carry out. References to food were seldom made.

By the 1960s, proponents of processual archaeology (formerly ‘New Archaeology’) began integrating this valuable information with bona fide archaeological observations in two ways: environmental archaeology treated animal remains among ecofacts (Schiffer 1987) as indicators of past environments, while economic archaeology attempted to include zoological ‘modules’ into complex subsistence models (Higgs 1972). From the viewpoint of post-Palaeolithic archaeology, it is noteworthy that both approaches considered domestic animals within a broad context. In much the same way as biostratigraphy in palaeontology has relied on the fauna reflecting long term climate change, environmental interpretations of domestic animal remains generally disregarded the capacity for animal adaptation as well as the arbitrary movement of domesticates by humans (Bartosiewicz 2013a). Archaeologists of economic orientation targeted herd management as a tenet in reconstructing the emergence of productive economies. What both schools of thought failed to emphasise was that over ninety percent of the archaeozoologists’ work revolves around the identification, analysis, and interpretation of food remains, leftovers of meat consumed under various circumstances and on various occasions. A minority of finds tend to be considered ‘ritual’ on the basis of patterns contradicting mundane utilisation for food (e.g. animal burials) or are recognised as the by-product of various stages in craft activity, such as bone manufacturing or tanning.

Indirect reconstructions of meat consumption

Following domestication, most meat undeniably originated from herds and its consumption correlated with the combinations in which animals were husbanded. Notwithstanding this, excavated animal bones tend to represent cumulative primary evidence of simple meals, rather than ‘faunas’ or domestic ‘herds’. A logical leap between production and consumption has rarely been recognised. In contrast to lithic studies, mental re-fitting seems straightforward in the case of animal remains: the individual skeleton is a well-known biological entity in which even tiny identifiable fragments can be safely localised. On this basis, since the 1950s efforts have been made to estimate the minimum number of individuals (MNI) from commingled animal remains. The formula developed by Theodor White (1953) – a palaeontologist by training who closely cooperated with anthropologists in the USA (Lyman 2016) – began as an honest attempt to reconstruct meat consumption in an ethnographic setting. However, when adopted in archaeology, MNI calculations rapidly developed a life of their own. Disregarding the mathematical contradiction inherent in the use of a minimum that does not exclude any value above itself, the calculated numbers were mechanically multiplied with the likewise estimated average body mass of individuals in each animal species in question, dividing the results by the putative per capita meat consumption of humans. The results were then built into mechanistic subsistence models based on the optimisation of modes of production. Disregarding variability at each stage of such estimates results in exponentially increasing, uncontrollable cumulative bias. Some such functional models were aimed at estimating the sizes of animal and human populations, site catchment areas, and the like, based on meagre osteological evidence: refuse from meat consumption. While the logic of this reasoning was simple and clear, the equation had far too many unknowns. Moreover, archaeological sites can by no means be considered closed systems in which such calculations would be relevant. Recently, Marciniak (2014, 193) has directed attention to the fundamental difference between living and dead populations, noting that the latter could be used in reconstructing ‘herds’ only in cases of sudden, catastrophic deaths, when all individuals at a given time would be reliably represented in the resulting deposit.

The Early Modern Age example of Fort Ligonier in Pennsylvania (Guilday 1970) is well worth considering here. In contrast to prehistoric settlements, this site looked ideal, with a known history and documented numbers of inhabitants. Although Guilday’s analysis did not concern herding itself, the method followed was identical with the reconstruction of prehistoric meat diets through the calculation of the numbers of individuals.

There were over 4500 identifiable bones in an assemblage of 40,000 animal remains. Using MNI calculations, the estimated amount of meat consumed at the garrison was 4000 lb (Guilday 1970). Guilday then began dividing this amount by the documented c. 2364 days of occupancy of the garrison and the widely fluctuating numbers of personnel (8 to 4000) within this period. Calculating with a generous 1 lb per diem field ration of meat, Figure 1.1 shows for how many days the total of 4000 lb of meat would have lasted as a function of the number of occupants recorded at known dates during the fort’s written history. The estimated 4000 lb of meat would have covered only a fraction of dietary requirements during the fort’s history. The liquid results led Guilday (1970, 186) to conclude that, ‘calculations such as these are patently ridiculous.’ Instead he tried to direct attention to qualitative aspects of the material, such as the relative importance of various animals in the military diet. In spite of his early warning, similar calculations have persisted, using far less controllable prehistoric data where precise time boundaries or fluctuations in the human population could not even be guessed at.

Figure 1.1: Potential daily meat supplies covered by 4000 lb of meat (1 lb field rations) as a function of changing occupancy at Fort Ligonier. Dates of known personnel are shown in italics, 1759 data shaded (raw data: Guilday 1970).

Secondary products

A sophisticated approach to herd management developed with the interpretation of dental ages reflecting kill-off patterns of present-day sheep and goats, as documented by Payne (1973). Systematically slaughtering certain age cohorts is related to the ways herds are exploited: producing renewable resources such as milk, wool, or labour (‘secondary products’; Sherratt 1981) is conducive to longevity in livestock. Killing the young, on the other hand, may have a wide range of motivations, more complex than humans competing for milk with suckling animals, as has sometimes been hypothesised.¹

Payne himself also recognised a technical weakness of his models: ‘Unfortunately sheep and goat mandibles cannot at present be reliably distinguished … despite possible differences between man’s use of the two animals at the same site. (The same problem exists if data on epiphyseal fusion are used, as in most cases unfused sheep and goat bones cannot be reliably separated.).’ This problem deserves a brief review of the valuable efforts made to solve it. Early work on the distinction between sheep and goat bones by Cornevin and Lesbre (1891) was followed by studies in the Julius Kühn Sammlung (Jena, Germany) by Boessneck et al. (1964; Boessneck 1969). Prummel and Frisch (1986) tested the same criteria on 13 sheep and four goat skeletons. Clutton-Brock et al. (1990) compared bones of Soay sheep and feral goats. Zeder and Lapham (2010) studied several age cohorts of wild, domestic, and feral caprines from different regions in the world. Among the long bones, distinguishing between distal tibia fragments has remained problematic since an early study by Kratochvíl (1969). Given the key role dental ageing has played in reconstructing herd management, distinguishing between sheep and goat teeth began rather late (Payne 1985; Helmer 2000; Halstead et al. 2002; Balasse and Ambrose 2005). Using 121 mandibles from present-day sheep and goats, Zeder and Pilaar (2010, 237) confirmed that teeth were unreliable in species identification: only third deciduous [pre] molars (already pinpointed by Payne 1985) were of diagnostic value.

Aside from the taxonomic aspect, identifying the sex of young animals would be a key to understanding age-related culling. Sexing bone fragments is limited to a few dimorphic characters in sexually mature animals. Even these elements are difficult to tell apart before sexual hormones begin affecting growth in adolescent individuals, the possibility of early castration often further confusing metric differentiation between the bones of females and males (Bartosiewicz et al. 1997). The final methodological contradiction is that, when the relatively small fraction of ageable remains is broken down by conscientiously identified sex and (in the case of caprines) species, sample sizes tend to be drastically reduced. Nevertheless, calculating kill-off patterns has spread like wildfire among faunal analysts hard pressed to produce archaeologically tangible results. Recently, Greenfield (2014) has published a critical review of these problems.

Taphonomy and sample size

Taphonomic loss often remains undiscussed in reconstructions of herd management. Ancient human activity, however, further confounds ‘the passage from the biosphere into the lithosphere … a result of many interlaced geological and biological phenomena’ (Efremov 1940). The younger the individual slaughtered, the less resistant are its bones, as mineral content increases through maturity. Selective preservation thus stands in the way of realistically estimating ‘herd structure’ in far too many cases. Although teeth are more resistant to most taphonomic agents, small deciduous teeth instrumental in reconstructing age profiles are largely missed when retrieval is limited to hand collection, as has been the case at the overwhelming majority of excavations in the Balkans and adjacent areas.

Some of these nagging issues can be partially remedied by studying unusually large series of assemblages in which the law of large numbers somewhat compensates for such methodological shortcomings. In a comprehensive review of Early Neolithic data from our research area, Greenfield (2008) has shown that non-measurable taphonomic effects (including contemporary bias caused by partial recovery and scanty publication) result in a reduced and, thus, potentially non-representative subset of data for the purposes of herd reconstruction. Alternatively, critically biased variables (e.g. underrepresented animals, broad taxonomic categories) can be excluded from comparative studies. Thus, more numerous cases are available for study, but considerable detail is lost (Orton 2012). Meta-analyses of Neolithic archaeozoological data (e.g. Bartosiewicz 2005; Conolly et al. 2011; Bréhard and Bălăşescu 2012; Manning et al. 2013) have not only repeatedly exposed this dilemma, but also directed our attention to the effect of assemblage sizes. This key parameter is either largely ignored or simply conflated between several assemblages of widely varying sizes. The latter solution is less prone to bias, as individual sites contribute according to their actual size. Pooling percentages without consistently paying attention to underlying assemblage sizes, however, can be as misleading as publishing archaeological photographs without a scale. Having, thus, a bird’s eye view on regional details may lead to misinterpretations such as erroneously quoting ‘the evidence of a mixed-herding strategy with an emphasis on cattle herding at the Karanovo or Starčevo-Körös-Criş sites’ (Manning et al. 2013, 249). Broadly based analyses of, especially, the Körös culture in the Carpathian Basin (Vörös 1980; Bökönyi 1989; 1992; Bartosiewicz 2005) have long shown that the inhabitants of small and dispersed Early Neolithic (6000–5000 cal BC) settlements in this region focused on maintaining their subsistence on sheep and goats that had developed in a very different environment, in southwest Asia and southeast Europe (Whittle 2005, 68). Further south in the Balkans, this preference persists even in the Late Neolithic layers at Karanovo, Bulgaria (Bökönyi and Bartosiewicz 1998; Bartosiewicz 2005, 55, Fig. 6.4).

As a rule of thumb, Bökönyi (personal communication to Bartosiewicz) suggested that animal bone assemblages could be considered representative only when they exceed five hundred identifiable bones. However, even smaller samples need to be documented and may carry invaluable information. Quite often, this is the only information available, as was the case in the Early Neolithic cave sites in Dalmatia and several others in the Karst along the Adriatic, where the focus was similarly on exploiting caprines (Bonsall et al. 2013; McClure and Podrug 2016). In Figure 1.2b, these assemblages were combined with Körös culture samples from the Great Hungarian Plain to demonstrate the effect of assemblage size on the relative contribution of caprines to meat diets during the early Neolithisation of Europe. Starčevo assemblages from the Iron Gates region are also shown in Figure 1.2. Bones of birds and fish, however, have not been included, as their skeletal anatomy and fragmentation strongly differ from those of mammals (Bartosiewicz and Gál 2007; Lyman 2015).

Figure 1.2: The percentual composition of assemblages as a function of sample size. The number of identifiable specimens (NISP) 500 threshold is marked by shading. Diagonals in the graphs are used to visualise the inverse relationship between assemblage size and the contribution of game to the diet (2a) and the main trend of increasing caprine contribution to large samples (2b).

To ease the mental transformation of herds into diet, a terminological distinction between ‘meals’ and middens was used at the limit of number of identifiable specimens (NISP) ≥ 500. Even if not literally the remains of single meals, small assemblages have the potential of reflecting only occasional meat consumption. After all, the number of bones exceeds one hundred in a single mammalian skeleton, prior to fragmentation. Owing to considerable differences between assemblage sizes encompassing several orders of magnitude, decimal logarithms of NISP were used in Figure 1.2 to aid visual comprehension.

Figure 1.2a puts the recurring topos that hunting played a major role in meat provisioning at Early Neolithic sites (Bökönyi 1989; Orton 2012) in perspective: bones from game exceed 50 % almost exclusively in small cave assemblages from the Trieste Karst, also characterised by a minimal contribution of caprine remains (Bonsall et al. 2013, 157). The taxonomic compositions of these assemblages of around two hundred identifiable bones are more prone to random bias than the evidence of thousands of animal remains. In addition, when expressed in percentages, rare species attain a disproportionately large share in very small assemblages. Undeniably, however, such deposits may in fact represent rare opportunistic hunting at a time when eating meat from domesticates was far more typical at open-air settlements. Of the latter, only two assemblages stand out in the Great Hungarian Plain. At the unique site of Nosa-Biserna Obala, Serbia, bones of wild ass contributed heavily to the game count (Bökönyi 1984), while Ibrány-Nagyerdő, on the northernmost edge of the Körös culture area, yielded an assemblage of only 113 mammalian bones, including those of game. In addition, there were osteological signs of active fishing at this site in the form of unusually large pike bones (Bartosiewicz 2013a). Most sites in the Iron Gates gorge form a separate cluster, based on the significant contribution of game to diets even in midden-size assemblages, indicative of the more than occasional consumption of wild animals. This falls in line with the very special character of this microregion during the Early Neolithic.

Figure 1.2b shows a less clear trend, although middens of statistically more reliable size (NISP ≥ 500) tend to be consistently dominated by the remains of caprines. Analyses of Körös culture sites in Hungary have shown a statistically significant, positive correlation between assemblage size and the percentage of caprine remains (Spearman rank correlation: Rs = 0.596, P = 0.032; Bartosiewicz 2012, 201) and numerous assemblages from open-air sites in Dalmatia (where the warmer and drier environment is better suited to raising both sheep and goats compared to the wetlands of the Great Hungarian Plain) reflect the same trend, as shown in Figure 1.2b.

A notable exception from caprine dominance is the group of assemblages representing the broader Iron Gates region. Of these, only the site of Mihajlovac-Knjepiste stands out, with over 50 % caprine remains, because it is actually located in the Danube floodplain in Serbia, over 40 km downstream from the Iron Gates gorge. Two other Early Neolithic assemblages from the region – the eponymous site of Starčevo, Serbia, some 120 km upriver from the Iron Gates gorge, and Schela Cladovei, 7 km downstream from the gorge – also show slightly higher (15–20 %) contributions of sheep and goat to meat diets than middens located within the gorge.

Alternatives to direct ‘herd reconstruction’ in archaeozoology

The unsurprising assertion that primary archaeozoological evidence represents dead stock rather than livestock, and should be approached accordingly, is not discouraging. With herds in the background, interpreting meat consumption today has a fertile interdisciplinary research environment in which a variety of observations can be fine-tuned in combination with traditional osteomorphological information.

Dietary stable isotopes show the direct impact of nutrition on the skeleton. While the osseous remains of different vertebrate classes (fish, birds, mammals) are difficult to compare quantitatively to each other, owing to differences in their taphonomic properties, the imprint of aquatic and terrestrial resources of meat in human bone collagen is a reliable indicator of main trends in the diet. Although, at this point, relatively coarse-grained distinctions are possible between terrestrial and aquatic sources of meat, these not only correlate with archaeozoological observations, but also offer an opportunity to integrate general information on the effects of plant and animal-based diets. At Schela Cladovei in the Iron Gates gorge, Late Mesolithic and Early Neolithic (Starčevo-Criş culture) occupation was dated to c. 7100–5600 cal BC (Bonsall 2008). Carbon and nitrogen isotopic compositions of Mesolithic human bone collagen resulted in δ¹³C and δ¹⁵N values significantly higher than expected for a terrestrial-based animal and plant diet, indicating that much of the animal protein was derived from aquatic resources (Bonsall et al. 1997; 2000).² Zoological finds from the 1992 and 1996 excavations showed a massive contribution of fish remains to the assemblage (Bartosiewicz et al. 2001). This research is also related to studying reservoir effects on radiocarbon dating caused by the consumption of aquatic diets, including anadromous great sturgeon. Osteological evidence suggests that these fish were specifically targeted during the Late Mesolithic of the Iron Gates (Bartosiewicz et al. 2008). With the onset of Neolithisation, however, the intake of aquatic food resources declined, but was still significant.

The necessity of collating complementary research results between isotopic techniques and hands-on osteology is mutual. Although increasingly refined kill-off models may be indicative of a slight shift in focus toward milk production through the later Neolithic (e.g. Vigne and Helmer 2007), only the direct evidence of milk residue is a reliable indicator of dairying. Remains of bovid milk have now been identified on pottery sherds from the very beginning of the European Neolithic (Craig et al. 2005; Evershed et al. 2008), although chemical distinction between sheep, goat and cattle milk is often unreliable, possibly due to the use of the same vessel for all three. Precise ageing data for domesticates, highly refined in an effort to investigate herd management strategies, will not be wasted, either. They can be profitably used in reconstructing seasonal cycles in Neolithic diets in relation to complementary sources of animal protein (Pike-Tay et al. 2004; Helmer et al. 2005).

As for archaeological interpretations, an important social aspect of slaughtering livestock is communal consumption, necessitated by the sheer size of cattle and even pigs, unless large-scale meat preservation can be proven. It is reasonable to assume that, along with meat from large game, beef and pork were routinely consumed by communities above the household level (Halstead 2007). Special cases may indicate prestige expressed through conspicuous communal consumption (Vörös 1987; Russell 1998). These phenomena seem like plausible explanations for stark differences between small, short-lived settlements consisting of clusters of pits of the earliest Neolithic in the Balkans and Carpathian Basin (presented in Fig. 1.2) and long-term settlements in subsequent periods, best represented by tell sites and surrounding settlement, including loci for periodic congregations that may have involved feasting on large stock. The meaning of young animal bone in middens is also significant, as, depending on the situation, eating the meat of immature individuals may be considered alternatively a luxury or contingency. Between these extremes, it is also possible that some peoples simply preferred eating tender meat. It must also be remembered that meat from different animal species has very different odours and flavours. As these are largely carried by fat, they will become stronger in older, fattier individuals. Aromas, such as the strong flavour of mutton, were more than likely to have played a role in reinforcing culturally determined tastes rarely ruled by rational considerations (Bartosiewicz 1997). Long-term insistence on subsisting on sheep may be an indication of an acquired taste that persisted among prehistoric immigrant populations. It still remains a question as to what extent our ancestors cared about optimising the sources of their caloric intake in the form of animal protein.

Semantics of ancient meat consumption

The realistic reconstruction of herding strategies is stonewalled by talking in terms of individuals and populations while such results are frequently calculated from handfuls of teeth and disarticulated bone fragments, meagre leftovers of meat consumption. Why should we be lost in a jargon pegged down to herding, too frequently having to read between the lines the actual meaning of animal remains from archaeological sites? Focusing on meat consumption and its taphonomic as well as social implications would help directly in answering research questions. The resulting better understanding of the social dimensions of meat in prehistory would also be of help in clarifying more hidden aspects of animal-human relationships beyond issues of diet.

While evolving herding strategies became inseparably entangled with social and cultural issues during prehistory, it needs to be recognised that such strategies can only be seen through the strong cultural filter of meat consumption. No major western language is better equipped to articulate this important dilemma than English, increasingly the lingua franca of scholarly communication. With the notable exception of horse, under the influence of Old French, many meat names in English have diverged from the terms denoting the animal itself. The term ‘meal’ used for small assemblages in Figure 1.2 is metaphoric. However, speaking of beef, pork, or mutton instead of cattle, pig, or sheep, when appropriate, would conceptually distance our data – food refuse – from the ‘herds’ that, beginning with the Neolithic, indisputably served as the main source of meat. Whenever possible, careful wording should express this fundamental distinction in scholarly narrative.


Production-driven terminology has dominated the discourse in archaeozoology. Relieving ourselves from the pressure of having to envision herds (as suggested by expressions such as ‘animal keeping’, ‘herd management’, and ‘husbandry’), even small numbers of animal remains can be reliably interpreted as food refuse, while theoretical reconstructions of ‘management systems’ can only be attempted on the basis of animal bone assemblages numbering at least several thousands of carefully collected identifiable remains. It is these large bodies of data in which numbers can be broken down not only by species and body part, but also by age cohorts, and even the rare sexable bones occur in numbers that can be meaningfully interpreted.

Even limiting the discussion of herding to special cases, the one-by-one identification of animal remains retains importance and has new perspectives. However, the main emphasis needs to be shifted from production to consumption directly reflected by the primary evidence of animal remains. In combination with sophisticated laboratory analyses, traditional archaeozoology does provide invaluable information on diet in household archaeology and in the evaluation of complex phenomena such as feasting.

This is a historic review of methods, interpretations and arguments, which is by no means a criticism of works in their own time. Ground-breaking efforts to study herd management strategies have contributed to a better knowledge of how the expert analysis of animal bones can aid the solution of major archaeological problems. The picture needs to be continually refined, including the consistent use of a more precise terminology.


1The visual and tactile presence of the young is a stimulus in the dam’s milk let-down mechanism, a reflex that has only recently been manipulated in animal breeding.

2In principle, the regular consumption of animals that subsist on quantities of fish or shellfish (e.g. waterfowl, otter, dog, or domestic pig) could increase δ ¹³ C and δ ¹⁵ N values in human bone collagen. The effect of weaning on the isotope signatures of suckling animals in relation to their contribution to the diet is still to be understood.


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Chapter 2

Neolithic taboos in Anatolia and southeast Europe

Nerissa Russell


Taboo is a classic topic in anthropology, and the concept of religious and social prohibitions is widespread. Here I focus on food taboos, specifically those aimed at animals. Plant foods can be subject to taboo, but meat is particularly likely to attract prohibitions (Halverson 1976; Ross 1978; Harris 1985).

Such prohibitions may proscribe killing an animal, touching it, consuming its meat in general, consuming certain body parts, or consuming it under specific circumstances. It may be forbidden to everyone, or only to certain categories of people, or only for limited periods. Special relationships with spirit helpers or totem animals may make the species in question taboo, although this is not always the case. The force of the prohibition also varies, ranging from strict enforcement to frequently-ignored suggestion.

Much ink has been spilt debating the function of food taboos. Some scholars see them as codifications of folk knowledge concerning unsafe foods, or animals that are more valuable alive than as meat, or as conservation measures to maintain game populations (Ross 1978; Harris 1985). Others focus on the symbolic aspects of taboos, which may mark identity for those practicing avoidance, or forbid animals that stand out as anomalous in terms of local classifications (Lévi-Strauss 1963; Leach 1964; Douglas 1966; Tambiah 1969; Taylor 1974). Food taboos have likely served many purposes, so it may not be possible to reduce them to a single function.

When meat taboos are selective in their application, they very often target women, and particularly pregnant and nursing women, who presumably have the greatest need for protein and fat. In at least some cases, those animals or body parts most closely associated with men, masculinity, and male honor and purity are forbidden to women (Kahn 1986; Parkes 1987; Spielmann 1989; Speth 1990; Brightman 1993; Morris 1998; Zvelebil 2000).

Taboos in the past

Zooarchaeology has added nuance to our understanding of some historically documented animal taboos (e.g. Serjeantson 2000), but prehistoric taboos have understandably received less attention than more recent examples (but see e.g. Zvelebil 2000; Thomas 2003; Fiore and Zangrando 2006). Arguments from absence are always challenging. The absence of a taxon might indicate our imperfect understanding of the ancient environment, a limited seasonal assemblage, prehistoric hunting technology unsuited to its capture, etc. Moreover, ethnography suggests that most taboos are partial, applying only to some people, or at some times, or only to some body parts. This kind of subtle patterning will be difficult to identify, but such taboos are likely to shape assemblages. Detecting taboos is important because they often mark social categories. Total taboos on a taxon may mark ethnicity or religion (as with Middle Eastern pig bans, or Hindu sacred cows), while partial taboos tend to mark internal divisions according to gender, age, reproductive status, kinship, etc. (e.g. Lévi-Strauss 1963; Taylor 1974).

The ethnographic literature on food taboos is voluminous, illustrating their ubiquity and variety. Politis and Saunders’ (2002) ethnoarchaeological study is particularly useful, as they are attentive to the zooarchaeological signatures of the avoidances they document among the Nukak of the Colombian Amazon. They find that taboos powerfully shape both hunting decisions and faunal assemblages. Crucially, however, even totally forbidden taxa are not absent in the animal bone assemblage; rather, only limited body parts occur, with specific uses. While the Nukak never kill or eat deer or jaguar, they scavenge deer tibiae and jaguar humeri to make flutes for initiations and other liminal ceremonies, and jaguar teeth for necklaces, which are buried with their owners at death. So, small numbers of limited body parts used as artifacts or deposited in special contexts may indicate a tabooed and symbolically important animal, not simply one hunted occasionally far from the settlement. Also, some animals are not eaten by the Nukak but are hunted for feathers or other specific body parts; here we must pay careful attention to the presence or absence of butchery and cooking traces. Still other animals, such as the peccary, are subject to partial taboos, often permitted to men but forbidden to women and children. These animals are processed and eaten on the edge of the camp, with few bones entering the settlement. Animals eaten by everyone are processed and consumed within the households and the remains discarded on site. Thus, spatial distribution is a key indicator for partial taboo.

Drawing on these insights, I will explore evidence of Neolithic meat taboos through two case studies from Anatolia and the Balkans.


Çatalhöyük is a large Neolithic site in central Anatolia, occupied from approximately 7100–6000 cal BC. James Mellaart first excavated the site in the 1960s and, since 1993, Ian Hodder has directed a major new project there (Hodder 1996; 2005a, b; 2006a, b; 2007; 2013a, b; 2014; Mellaart 1967). With a population in the low thousands, Çatalhöyük is a tell site formed by superimposed, closely-packed mudbrick houses. Public buildings are lacking, and there is little sign of status differentiation in grave goods and burial treatment, storage capacity, or health. Çatalhöyük is located on an alluvial fan on the

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