Skeletons, Disease, and the Dinner Table

I don’t like to get my hands dirty. Literally.

And that’s why I will never be an archaeologist. Grubbing around in the muck and peat and clay, no way.

So how come I was in Washington D.C. for the 2018 meetings of the American Archaeological Society (AAS), along with several thousands of other people? Many reasons brought me there, the most compelling being my ongoing digging into the questions of diet and its impact on humans throughout history. (See “What Mummies Tell Us about Food.”)

Let’s say I believe there should also be a contrary version of what Brillat-Savarin once wrote. Sometimes “You are what you DON’T eat” is truer than “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es” (“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are” or, as boiled down by many modern writers,”You are what you eat.”)

And, in the skeletons surfacing under the trowels and brushes of archaeologists, evidence piles up supporting that aphorism.

For example, diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis (DISH) is a fancy name for a condition that likely stems from obesity, commonly found in clerical circles. Astronomer Tycho Brahe suffered from it. Lest anyone believes that  people in the past ate fresh wholesome food in idyllic pastoral settings, consider the reality. Tooth decay, for example. Not only did tooth problems such as periodontal disease threaten a person’s health, the lack of teeth altogether could reduce nutritional intake, since chewing aids in the initial breakdown of food and the release of digestive enzymes crucial for proper digestion. Clark Spencer Larson, in Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behavior from the Human Skeleton (Cambridge Studies in Biological and Evolutionary Anthropology, Cambridge University Press, 2015, p. 5), sums up the importance of skeletal and dental remains. He quotes Stanley M. Garn, who described such remains as being “a rich storehouse of individual historical events.”

Most of the people whose skeletons end up being studied on stainless steel tables in labs around the world belonged to society in some form. Many, however, lived outside the pale (society) of the wealthy classes, their diets often bereft of meat and protein and calories. But, as mentioned above, even the rich succumbed to torments inflicted by diet.

I find all this fascinating. I would love to believe that life once approached the dreamy, bucolic vision of period paintings, say, those by Constable, Turner, and Gainesborough. But bones don’t lie. Teeth don’t lie. Thomas Hobbes hinted at what life was for people outside society, “And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” Skeletons are testimonials to this truth.

At the AAS meetings, I toured the “book room” or exhibits hall, my eyes skimming over the hundreds of books on offer, seeking answers to my questions about cuisine and history. Medieval Masterchef: Archaeological and Historical Perspectives on Eastern Cuisine and Western Foodways grabbed my attention. I nearly fainted at the price and started to walk away. The vendor reached out and tapped my shoulder.

“Look,” he said, “There’s a small imperfection in the book. You can have it for half price.” (The imperfection turned out to be an improperly cut page.)

Half price would still buy me a lovely, opulent lunch at a middling fancy restaurant, maybe even José Andres’s El Jaleo on 7th Street NW. With wine, too. But I caved and bought the book. As I write this, it’s opened to Claudia Vandepoel’s  chapter, “Blanc manger, cooking a historical recipe made for a Tudor king,” pages 311 – 322. While this chapter’s not based on the traditional archaeology of delving into dirt, it’s a form of archaeology, if you think about it. Vandepoel deconstructed three different recipes and compared the three for method and execution.

Pairing the recipe, especially its softness of texture, with the knowledge that most people in Tudor times probably suffered from some sort of dental problems, suggests examining other popular recipes over the centuries for texture and ease of chewing.

Maybe I could be an armchair archaeologist?


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