Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Au Revoir Levi-Strauss

This blog returns, with a start, at the news that Claude Levi-Strauss died today. Startling because I hadn't even realized he was still alive! Although he probably hasn't influenced too many archaeobotanists, he certainly changed the way we think anthropologically about food, what is classed as edible, defined as cooked or rotten and how we refract much of what we mean to be cultural through a lens of cooking. In a general way, his brand linking cooking traditions to cultural cosmologies does run through the recently published (preliminary) study I wrote with Mike Rowlands on a "Macrogeography of Substances: Food & Sacrifice Traditions in East, West and South Asia" [pdf]. Levi-Strauss also plays the role of one of the characters (alongside the late Mary Douglas who lived and wrote to the ripe age of 86, less than Levi-Strauss' 100) interpreting archaeological feasts and human food sociality in Martin Jones' book Feast. As my tribute to Levi-Strauss I can think only to quote from one the myths he recounts on the origins of agriculture according to the Brazilian Munduruku:

In former times, game and cultivated plants were unknown to the Mundurucu.
They fed on wild tubers and tree fungi.
It was then that Karuebak, the mother of manoic, arrived and taught men the art of preparing it.
One day, she ordered her nephew to clear an area of forest, and she announced that soon bananas,
cotton, caras (Dioscorea), maize, the three varieties of manioc, watermelons, tobacco and cane
sugar would grow there. She ordered a ditch to be dug in the newly cleared area,
and asked to be buried in it. Care should be taken not to walk over her.
A few days later, Karuebak's nephew found that the plants listed by his aunt were growing on
the place where she lay; however, he inadvertantly walked on the hallowed ground, and
the plants at once stopped growing. This determined the size to which they have grown ever since.
A sorcerer, displeased at not having been informed of the miracle, caused the old woman to perish
in the hole where she lay. Since she was no longer there to advise them, the Indians
ate manikuera [manoic] raw, not knowing that this particular variety of manioc is poisonous
and emetic in that form. They all died, and next morning went up into the sky where they
became stars. Other Indians, who had eaten manikuera first raw and then cooked,
were transformed to honey flies. And those who licked the remains of the cooked manikuera
became the kind of bees which produce bitter, emetic honey..."

-- From Honey to Ashes, p. 56 (Levi-Strauss 1966)

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