Sunday, July 05, 2009

Food Architecture before Agriculture

One of the most interesting chapters in Mesolithic archaeology is the Early Natufian period (ca. 12,500-10,800 BCE) when humans stopped being hunter gatherers and settled down for the first time. Human settlement is integrally connected to the domestication of cereals in the Neolithic period. The agricultural revolution is the single most important event in the history of mankind. Another agricultural revolution occurred in the 1970s, when we began to alter the genetic make-up of food itself. My favorite article on the latter is John Seabrook, "Sowing for Apocalypse," New Yorker (August 27, 2007).

David Mithen's book After the Ice Age: A Global Human History 20,000-5000 BC (2003) is my favorite
introduction to prehistoric archaeology. Mithen writes the following about the domestication of grain: "Recall that the principal difference is the brittleness of the [grain's] ear -- the wild strains spontaneously fall apart when ripe, scattering their seed on the ground while the domestic strains remain intact, 'waiting for the harvester'." (p. 37) Although sedentary, the Natufians were eating wild grain. In his coverage of Early Natufian culture, Mithen discusses the site of Ain Mallaha excavated in 1954, where we have evidence for decorated sickles and stone mortars. In one tomb, a puppy was also buried affectionately embraced by an old woman.

What makes the Natufian people complicated is that they returned to nomadism during the Late Natufian period, possibly due to a climatic drought; this was at the end of the Ice Age when weather was highly unstable. It was not until the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A period (ca. 9000 BCE) that permanent settlement was tried again and the agricultural revolution took off the ground in the Fertile Crescent. This is of particular importance to architectural historians because agriculture is a prerequisite for fixed settlement. Agriculture, in other words, presupposes the formation of states and permanent dwellings.

An excavation by
Ian Kuijt and Bill Finlayson has produced fascinating new evidence for the existence of granaries in an Early Natufian period before the actual domestication of cereal. The excavation at Dhra' (near the Dead Sea) was published last week,"Evidence for Food Storage and Predomestication: Granaries 11,000 Years Ago in the Jordan Valley," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Early Edition, June 22, 2009). It was considered ground-breaking enough to be announced in the Economist a few days later (June 27, 2009, p. 86). Kuijt and Finlayson have unearthed the earliest known granaries located between houses and areas of vegetable processing. The granaries are circular (3 m diameter, 3 m height) and they stored wild forms of grain. They had elevated floors (to protect the grain from rodents) and holes for air circulation.

I look forward to including Dhra' in my survey of architectural history next semester at Franklin and Marshall. The granary fits well with the discussion of Catal Huyuk,the Neolithic settlement (excavated by Ian Hodder) that I cover in the first week of class. Lancaster has a wonderful community of locavores and food activists
. Members of F&M's art history department are leaders in community action and I'll be honored to join them this Fall. Lancaster County has some beautiful old silos, the descendents of the Natufian granaries. On the topic of food and architecture, I should briefly note a 2007 book, The Architect, the Cook and Good Taste published in Basel, Germany. Petra Hagen and Rolf Toyka have collected an eclectic set of essays. Although in English, the book is a German project and was not widely distributed in the U.S. It's worth requesting through Interlibrary Loan. I thank my student Katherine Chabla for recommending the book during our seminar on domestic architecture.

The abandonment of settlements and the return to nomadism during the Late Natufian period resonates with the recent phenomenon of eco-migration, the displacement of peoples as a result of global warming. The International Organization for Migration predicts that by 2050, some 200 million will become migrant in search of water. The United Nations University, CARE and Columbia University have produced a new study on eco-migration,
"In Search of Shelter: Mapping the Effects of Climate Change on Displacement and Migration." In the same issue reporting the Dhra' excavations, the Economist also published an article discussing this grave global problem, "A New (Under) Class of Travellers" (June 27, 2009, pp. 67-68). Sadly, the Natufians are becoming relevant today.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States