Camp Fire

Close scrutiny of the ancient remains of our ancestors’ meals gives us some sense of the development and rationale behind our strange food-sharing behaviour.

Imagine a small circle of great apes looking each other in the eye from a distance of less than a metre. They are making a fair bit of noise and showing their teeth. Between them are some items of food. It all sounds pretty nasty – encounters of this kind can get bloody and lethal. In this instance, however, the mood is quite different, it is convivial. We are observing one particular species of ape that has done something very odd with these age-old signals of threat and hostility. It has turned them on their head, moulding them into a pattern of behaviour repeated daily throughout their lives. We are looking at a human meal.

For many animals, eating is a reasonably solitary activity, and a rather continuous one that absorbs a significant portion of the day. Our meals by contrast are discrete events that punctuate the day, and are social rather than solitary. Even when we do eat alone, we do our best to invent a social discourse in a virtual world, by opening a book, a newspaper, or tuning in a radio or TV. How did this unusual and unique behaviour come about, and what is it for?

As an archaeologist, that is a question Professor Martin Jones in the Department of Archaeology asks by looking back in time, by seeking out its origins. It’s no straightforward task, as it involves tracking down transitory events, which by their nature involve bio-degradable materials. Nonetheless, the methods we have available to detect the remains of ancient food have grown dramatically in recent decades.

Meals under the microscope

We are now able to recover in sieves very small pieces of animal and plant food, so as to discern food remains under the high-power microscope even after they have been dispersed into cellular and sub-cellular fragments. New advances in science mean we can even detect molecular traces in miniscule quantities.

It’s now possible to analyse ‘last meals’ within the guts of well-preserved bodies, their fossil faeces in latrines, and isotopic signatures of dietary history in various parts of the preserved skeleton. If we are lucky, these various fragments can be trapped quickly by fast-accumulating sediments, such as coastal muds or wind-blown silts. When this happens, we may even be able to track the ‘choreography’ of the food quest, and estimate how many people came together and in what way around their meal. Through looking closely at a series of such ancient meals, some sense of the development and rationale of our strange food-sharing behaviour comes to light.

A new, food-sharing, hominid emerges

Take, for example, the consumption of a wild horse, half a million years ago on the coast of southern England. All that remains of a full day’s intensive activity – spearing, dismembering, filleting, bone cracking and marrow sucking – are a few of the heavily fragmented bones and many of the cracked flints used to take the horse apart. Yet the rapid burial by coastal muds captured enough of the spatial patterning of food-sharing debris for the meticulous work of archaeologists to reveal a remarkably detailed story half a million years later.

The Palaeolithic excavations and research at this site, known as the Boxgrove project, showed a different species of Homo at work, with a different cognitive capacity. These early European colonisers would have had some ‘language’, although were probably not sustaining prolonged eye contact or engaging in ‘conversation’. This food-sharing scene might instead have displayed resonances with meat sharing among chimpanzees, with a succession of sharing transactions, bargaining for power and sexual favours. However, one aspect would be very different: members of our own genus Homo bring down some very large animals, with 20 times the meat yield of the monkeys and bushbucks that chimps hunt. This implies a lot of individuals and food shared on an unprecedented scale in social terms.

Learning to cook

Our closest relatives may well be the Neanderthals, who shared food and had some essentially human attributes at mealtimes, including another very odd feature of the human food quest – cooking. We are not alone in exploiting natural fires; several types of foraging animals are known to take advantage of forest burns. But the Neanderthals left clear evidence that they were able to initiate fires within their rockshelters.

One such shelter, at Abric Romani near Capellades in Spain, had around 30 hearths within a single level, trapped and engulfed by lime accumulation from the dripping shelter’s roof. Neanderthals camped at this site around 70,000 to 32,000 years ago. From Neanderthal hearths around Europe, we can tell that they were placing meat, shellfish and legume pods in the fire. Their meals, however, didn’t display all the signs of ‘home cooking’.

The phrase ‘home cooking’ brings to mind an intimate and familiar group, sitting around the hearth, looking across to each other while they share food. Yet this does not quite describe the Neanderthal hearths. They are not typically centrally placed within their shelters and do not give an impression of a conversational circle assembled around them. For hearths of that kind, we need to look to the early habitations of our own species, Homo sapiens sapiens, and when we find such hearths, we find much else besides: the first characteristics of a ‘home’.

Hearth and home

Together with Czech colleagues, a group of Cambridge archaeologists have in recent years been excavating some early traces of hearths. In the East of the Czech Republic, deep deposits of wind-blown earth have buried and conserved human settlements that are 25–30,000 years old. As the sediments are removed, the final remnants of the oldest recorded built spaces come to light – circular or oval structures erected from skin, branch and mammoth bone. At the heart of these built spaces is a hearth, with a space around it where people sat. The archaeologists are collecting and studying the animal and plant fragments from the meals they shared. They are also rebuilding whole food webs from an isotopic study of the bones, and employing novel methods of microstratigraphy to work out how often, and at what intervals, they returned to the hearth.

These hearths are also the sources of a range of small objects, fashioned into the form of the people and animals encountered in the landscapes around them. They were probably both made and used around the same hearths, perhaps as props for the telling of stories – stories of journeys into the bleak unknown, to encounter and capture hostile beasts and to find food. The flint blades found alongside retain a geological signature of such journeys. The stone from those blades has travelled distances up to 300 km, an incredible 600 km round trip through hostile and wintry terrain.

There are other finds around those ancient hearths that add detail to this picture. Clay impressions of the world’s earliest recorded weaving, and a few pierced beads of tooth and shell, alongside scatters of red ochre, allude to the adornment of bodies.

And so we begin to see the elements of our strange modern human feeding behaviour falling into place. An intimate group returns repeatedly to a home or hearth, they dress to demarcate age and gender, they share food and, looking eye to eye, converse and tell stories. Their words place things and beings into categories, and their stories put their world in order. Those stories also equip their young to set out on elaborate journeys – journeys that are intimately connected with their food quest and the meals shared around the hearth at the journeys’ ends, journeys that in turn will eventually take our species to the ends of the Earth.

For more information, please contact the author Professor Martin Jones ( at the Department of Archeology. Feast: Why Humans Share Food by Martin Jones is published by Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-920901-9.

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