images of corn, squash, and beans

Finding History through Food

At the intersection of food and history, prepare your students to use the tools of geography, archaeology, and chemistry to find out what people ate long ago.  And because it’s a fun scaffolding exercise: ask them what they think that diet was; it may be different than they assume!

Fans of the caveman-esque will extol the virtues of eating meat, but as this History.com article notes:

But critics claim that the Paleo diet dramatically oversimplifies what prehistoric man ate. While the Paleo diet emphasizes meat and fish, it’s not clear that proteins formed the majority of actual prehistoric diets. As with our modern eating habits, diets in the Paleolithic era would have varied wildly according to location.

For a longer examination of what prehistoric people ate, “Stone Soup,” by Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker has much more detail.   In other words, then as now people ate what was readily available in their environment. (Although Kolbert points out that occasionally what was available were other humans.  And no, the paleo diet does not include that.)  And that meant that what people ate mostly were plants.  True, plants before large-scale agriculture.  But pace paleo dieters, agriculture itself has been around long enough to have an evolutionary impact on humans, for which many of us can thank our ability to enjoy dairy products.

Moving forward in time, it is easier to find evidence from ancient societies.  From Harappa, we find the world’s oldest curry — a dish that is still familiar to the millions of people who eat it today.

Archaeologists Arunima Kashyap and Steve Webber of Vancouver’s Washington State University used the method of starch analysis to trace the world’s first-known or “oldest” proto-curry of aubergine, ginger and turmeric from the pot shard of a bulbous handi (pot).

(Note: aubergine = eggplant)  The (easy) recipe is in the article, which is part of a series on Indian food.  The original curry would have looked something like this, right down to the clay bowl:

The world's oldest curry
Eggplant (or aubergine in British English) curry

Imagine eating a dish whose recipe is thousands of years old!  And you can do that with many cultures around the world.  For an example from North America, check out the recipes in the Three Sisters Cookbook from the Oneida Indian Nation.  The “three sisters” in the title refer to corn, squash, and beans:

Modern day agriculturists know it as the genius of the Indians, who interplanted pole beans and squash with corn, using the strength of the sturdy corn stalks to support the twining beans and the shade of the spreading squash vines to trap moisture for the growing crop.

Take your students on a culinary field trip through history!  Start with the Internet Project: Columbian Exchange in WorldView Software’s American History I or World History A, which takes students on a curated tour of the processes put in motion by the contact between “old” and “new” worlds, and ends with making a feast.  Use the links in the project, from this post, or find ones from different areas — Oceania, anyone? — and make something tasty.


BulbgraphOnOffGraphical questions test students’ ability to analyze and interpret data visualizations in maps, graphs, charts, and tables.


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akamran2014

Dr. Annelies Kamran is Senior Editor at WorldView Software, Inc.

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