Written by: Katy Meyers Emery
Primary Source: Bones Don’t Lie
I’ve talked before about the close relationship between food and funerals, specifically in relationship to what Anthony Bourdain has taught me about the importance of food within cultures. The food served during a funeral is a final expression of a culture, the ultimate comfort food to ease the loss felt by the mourning community. Food is also important in another way- it can be a strong indicator of social status of the deceased and the mourning community. The type of funeral one had may be indicative of the type of diet one had during life due to the different social class one held in life.
Even today, one’s social class and culture has a strong influence of the type of diet one has during life (see Peter Menzel’s great photo diary of the global food disparity). Studies have shown that groups with higher socioeconomic status are more likely to consume whole grains, lean meats, fish, low-fat dairy products, and fresh vegetables and fruit, while those of lower socioeconomic status have higher consumption of refined grains and added fats due to the cost and caloric value of these foods (Hupkens, Knibbe, and Drop 1999, Darmon and Drewnowski 2008). This isn’t just a new phenomenon- differential access to food has been occurring throughout history. In prior posts, I’ve discussed the study by Privat, Connell and Richards (2002) that used archaeological data from a cemetery to determine wealth based on grave goods, and isotopic data to determine the diets of the buried individuals in an Anglo-Saxon cemetery. Another study, by Reitsema and Vercellotti (2012), used burials from Medieval Italy to determine differences in diet based on social class, age and sex.
A new study by Le Bras-Goudea, Herrscher and Vaquer (2013) examines the variation in funerary practices and diet. They argue that the type of burial one receives and grave goods found within is symbolic of one’s social or economic identity. Further, access to environmental resources and food is also indicative of social status, and can be determined through stable isotope analysis of diet. The sample is from the Languedoc region of France, and all individuals belong to the Chasséen culture, a Middle Neolithic group that dates from 4500–3500 BCE. The culture is characterized by an economy of farming and herding, focused on domestic sheep, goat and cattle, for meat and dairy products. The economic management of the period resulted in strong territorial control measures as well. There is also a wide diversity of funerary practices including deposit of human remains in domestic pits, funerary pits, chamber tombs, collective burials, and even some canines were afforded burial.
The sample used consists of 50 individuals, six at Najac, one at Coste Rouge, four at Les Plots and 39 at Le Crès and includes only adults and juveniles over 3 years old. Five individuals came from chamber graves, 19 from funerary pits, and 14 from domestic pits. For comparison, 28 samples of faunal remains were analyzed from Les Plots and Le Crès (n = 28) and includes sheep/goat, bovines, dogs, pigs, and deer. Stable isotope analysis included the assessment of Carbon 13 and Nitrogen 15. By assessing the ratios of these two isotopes, they can determine what types of foods were being consumed.
Based on the analysis, they found that two clusters of isotopic ratio similarities, the first are the individuals from Najac and Coste Rouge and the second is of individuals from Les Plots and Le Crès. The first group has significantly higher ratios of Nitrogen 15, suggesting that they had a diet high in domesticated animal meats, while the second group was more focused on plants. Further, the individuals buried at Najac and Coste Rouge had chamber tombs, whereas Les Plots and Le Cres were buried in funerary or domestic pits. Therefore, individuals buried in the chamber graves have a higher proportion of terrestrial meat in their diet, and those buried in pits had higher proportions of plant and legume proteins in their diet. This leads them to conclude that there are distinct dietary patterns associated with funerary practices. Based on this, they argue that “either (1) funerary practices could be linked to speciﬁc economy and/or to different social status, or (2) burial type and dietary patterns might be an expression of religious worship” (Le Bras-Goudea, Herrscher and Vaquer 2013).
I like that this study combines archaeological evidence of funerary practices with stable isotope studies, it shows careful attention to context that is always important. However, I found the final conclusion that these differences were due to either social structure or religion a little problematic. I think the one part of this study that is lacking is attention to the location of the burials. In order to determine what the differences mean between sites, we need to know the relationship between the different groups who were living at these sites. If a chamber grave site and funerary pit site are related to the same domestic site, it may indicate that they were different social classes burying in different locations. However, these may just be different groups who choose to eat different types of foods. Perhaps those which focus more on farming are in an area that is better for agriculture? If you look at the map, the two sites with chamber burials are fairly close to one another, whereas the pit burial sites are distant and both located on rivers. I think there are alternative explanations that need to be explored further, though this provides a great start for interpreting the differences.
Gwenaëlle Le Bras-Goudea, Estelle Herrscher, & Jean Vaquer (2013). Funeral practices and foodstuff behaviour: What does eat meat mean? Stable isotope analysis of Middle Neolithic populations in the Languedoc region (France)
Journal of Anthropological Archaeology DOI: 10.1016/j.jaa.2012.01.005
CHRISTIANNE L.H. HUPKENS, RONALD A. KNIBBE, & MARIA J. DROP (1999). Social class differences in food consumption. The explanatory value of permissiveness and health and cost considerations European Journal of Public Health DOI: 10.1093/eurpub/10.2.108
Darmon N, & Drewnowski A (2008). Does social class predict diet quality? The American journal of clinical nutrition, 87 (5), 1107-17 PMID: 18469226