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Deliberately Rotted Meat and Fish in the Eurasian Middle and Upper Paleolithic: Are We Missing a Key Part of Neanderthal and Modern Human Diet?

Dr. John D. Speth, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, University of Michigan
Thursday, September 21, 2017
12:00-1:00 PM
Room 2009 Ruthven Museums Building Map
I will discuss the role of deliberately rotted (putrid) meat and fish in the diet of modern hunters and gatherers throughout the arctic and subarctic. These practices effectively ‘pre-digest’ the high protein and fat content typical of northern forager diets without the need for cooking. Because of the peculiar properties of lactobacilli and other lactic acid bacteria (LAB) which rapidly colonize decomposing meat and fish, the food can be preserved in earth-covered pits, or cached in bogs, rivers, or lakes, free of pathogens (including botulism) for months and remain completely safe to eat. These bacteria also produce important B-vitamins, inhibit formation of potentially toxic autoxidation byproducts of rancid fats, and preserve vitamin C, a critical but scarce micronutrient in heavily meat-based northern diets. Psychological studies indicate that the widespread revulsion shown by Euroamericans to the sight and smell of putrid meat and maggots is not a universal hard-wired response, but a culturally learned reaction that does not emerge in young children until the age of five or later, too late to protect an infant from ingesting pathogens during the vulnerable immediate-post-weaning period. I will present ethnohistoric evidence to show that rotted meat, fish, and maggots are not starvation foods, but normal, highly desired, and nutritionally vital components of forager diets in northern environments. I will then suggest, by extension, that such practices likely would have been of similar importance to the lifeways and adaptations of Eurasian Neanderthals and their Upper Paleolithic (and Paleoindian) successors occupying similar environments. If such food practices were in fact commonplace during the Pleistocene, they may help account for a number of aspects of the archaeological record that are presently difficult to understand, such as the curious ‘on again, off again’ nature of evidence for fire use during the Eurasian Middle Paleolithic and the unusually high 15N levels in Neanderthals. I will also discuss a few of the more obvious taphonomic implications of a diet based heavily on rotted meat.
Building: Ruthven Museums Building
Event Type: Lecture / Discussion
Tags: Anthropology, Archaeology
Source: Happening @ Michigan from Museum of Anthropological Archaeology