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Archaeology and Discovering the Food of the Past

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Martin Jones was the first George Pitt-Rivers Professor of Archaeological Science at the University of Cambridge. He works on archaeobotany and archaeogenetics, in the context of the broader archaeology of food. His current research interests include the spread of farming of both major and minor crops across Asia, most recently in the context of the Food Globalization in Prehistory Project. His latest project explores the co-evolution and Eurasian biogeography of crops and bees.

Jones books include Unlocking the Past: how archaeologists are rewriting history with ancient DNA (2016) and Feast: why humans share food (2007), winner of the Guild of Food Writers’ Food Book of the Year award

We look back to the past for many reasons; sometimes out of sheer curiosity, other times to see which way we be going, and to understand from whence we came. The last of these reasons often informs cultural approach to food. Many modern diners are keen to get back beyond modern meals to something more traditional, wholesome and harmonious. In the west we may aspire to reach back beyond fast food, beyond industrial food, or even further back beyond the dawn of agriculture to return to a diet closer to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. The last of these has generated a ‘palaeo-diet’ industry with a current annual turnover exceeding ten billion dollars.

But what is the basis of these imagined early diets? Traditionally concerned with more durable objects, archaeology now has a wide range of scientific techniques with which to analyse the fragile traces of foods we actually consumed in the past, and to illuminate how we consumed them. In this lecture, Martin Jones will review such evidence to explore what the food of our distance forebears was actually like, with particular reference to those questionable traits of modern dining that have driven our desire to reach closer to our beginnings, and return to a more ancient way of eating.

This talk is part of the Darwin College Lecture Series series.

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