The Stonehenge Diet (Britain, ca. 3500 BCE)

 

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All photos are my own from a recent visit to the UK.

For the prehistoric people of the British Isles, the Neolithic Period (about 4000 to 2200 BCE) was a time of settling.

During the earlier Mesolithic (10,000 to 4,000 BCE) and for countless millennia before that, Britons had been semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers. Mushrooms and a variety of plants were harvested from the wild, many of them familiar to us today, such as nettle, crab apple, hazelnut, and sorrel. Fish were speared and various animals hunted, including waterfowl, boar, red deer and aurochs, the massive wild ancestor of modern cattle.

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The skulls of an aurochs and a domestic cow side-by-side. Cattle were domesticated from aurochs in the Ancient Near East and brought from there to prehistoric Britain, where the giant ancestor species already existed in the wild. Wild aurochs were extinct in Britain by the second millennium BCE, but survived elsewhere in Europe until 1627 CE: which means that Shakespeare, Michelangelo and Martin Luther were contemporaries of giant Ice Age cows.

During the Neolithic, foods associated with a more settled lifestyle enter the human diet for the first time in Britain. Especially notable is the arrival of cattle and sheep, traded west over millennia from their original points of domestication. And while archaeological findings reveal that Britons were eating wheat traded from continental Europe as far back as 6000 BCE, it wasn’t until two thousand years later that they actually started growing it themselves. The first-known bread in Britain dates to 3500 BCE. No leavening agent was used; instead, coarsely ground barley and wheat were pressed together into a flat cake and roasted over an open fire. The roasted flour maza of the earliest Greeks might be an apt comparison. Perhaps Neolithic Britons would have enjoyed bread with other newfangled food trends everyone was talking about: beer, butter and cheese.

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Food changes societies, and as prehistoric Britons transitioned from hunting and gathering to herding and agriculture, they began to live in permanent homes like the reconstructed one above, with a thatch roof and walls of wattle-and-daub, flexible woven branches covered in a layer of mud. Inside a home like this would be a single round chamber with a central fire-pit used for cooking and heating. The ceilings were high enough for smoke to dissipate safely without a smoke-hole in the roof (impractical anyway in the famously changeable English weather). Rising smoke was actually beneficial to the people inside, as it permeated the thatch roof and drove out any vermin that might be lurking there.

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Examples of reconstructed Neolithic-era tools inside a wattle-and-daub home, including cooking implements and a fire-pit. Construction materials included woven plant matter, wood, hide, antlers, bone, and stone (especially flint and jet). Cooking vessels were made from fired pottery.

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At the same time as these people were learning to raise cattle and sow wheat, and taking increasingly to a settled lifestyle instead of a nomadic one, they were dragging enormous stones to a place that would someday be known as Stonehenge. Today, the grassy, windswept hills around the stone formation look much the same as they did in prehistoric times, providing ample grazing area for herds of cattle. The presence of a natural stone or two may have inspired early humans to bring more of them, but we don’t know exactly why Stonehenge was constructed (leading theories include a tomb complex, a marketplace, a solar calendar, or some combination thereof. Or, you know, aliens). It was built up through successive waves between 3000 and 2000 BCE (the Great Pyramids of Egypt are around the same age, but only took a fraction of the building time).

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Lacking the wheel (not to mention the forklift), Neolithic Britons may have transported the great stones to Stonehenge by rolling them across logs. How far away the rocks came from is still under debate, though some place their origin at Carn Menyn in Wales, nearly 200 miles away.

Some of our great churches and other monuments today have been under continuous use for a thousand years or more, but how many have been under continuous construction? Whatever impulse inspired the builders of Stonehenge, it continued to inspire them for centuries. Could that impulse have some connection to the shift to a settled lifestyle which occurred around the same time? Were the people who settled down to take advantage of new foods driven to create monuments like themselves: not transient but permanent, tied to a single place? We can never really know for certain. The food, words and wisdom of the Neolithic Britons has disappeared, but Stonehenge has remained.

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Tilapia Stew with Barley (Egyptian, ca. 3500 BCE)

img_2848.jpg“I behold the tilapia in its true nature, guiding the speedy boat in its waters.”
~ From The Book of Coming Forth Into the Light, better known as The Book of the Dead, 2nd or 1st millennium BCE

In a prehistoric Egyptian tomb of the fourth millennium BCE, archaeologists unearthed a rare surprise. Unlike the carefully dissected mummies of later Egyptian history, whose innards were cleansed and removed to canopic jars, one of the bodies in this early tomb had its digestive system intact, complete with stomach contents. Analysis revealed the last meal of this early Egyptian: a simple soup of barley, green onion, and tilapia.

Today, tilapia has achieved fame for its versatility and economy as a food source. The fish breeds quickly in captivity, can tolerate cramped conditions, and eats almost anything plant-based, making it cheap and easy to farm. Its mild white flesh is inoffensive to palates unaccustomed to seafood and readily accepts a range of seasonings. After carp, tilapia is the world’s most-commonly farmed fish, riding a wave of popularity that took off in the 1980s and shows no sign of slowing down. But thousands of years ago in Egypt, the fish simply called in was already being raised in enclosed ponds and captured with nets and spears from the life-giving Nile River. The tilapia species most-commonly eaten today is still known, appropriately, as the Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus).

 

The Greek historian Herodotus remarked in 440 BCE how much the Egyptians cherished their animals. They let them sleep in their homes, mourned them when they died, and worshipped them as living gods. It’s no surprise then that the Nile tilapia was featured in Egyptian culture, art and religion as prominently as in the Egyptian diet. A popular shape for bottles and makeup palettes, tilapia was represented by its very own hieroglyphK1. The fish was believed to help guide the Boat of the Sun as it sailed across the sky, as in the above quote from The Book of the Dead, a compendium of magic spells for ushering spirits to the afterlife. Tilapia was also associated with Hathor, the goddess of love and women, and considered a symbol of fertility and renewal. Such lofty significance may have stemmed from a misinterpretation of tilapia behavior. When danger threatens, the tiny baby fish swim into their mother’s mouth for protection (a phenomenon called mouth-brooding, also observed in other fish species). Ancient people who saw tilapia fry emerging from mom’s mouth may have believed the adult fish was miraculously creating the babies.

Egyptians would not have recognized today’s supermarket tilapia, white, cleaned and vacuum-sealed. Not only did the Egyptians consume every part of the fish, they ate only the dark tilapia now referred to as “wild-type.” The color of a tilapia has no effect on its flavor, but because many modern consumers prefer white fish, commercial fisheries now rely on pinkish “red tilapia.” These fish have been selectively bred for a genetic lack of pigment called leucism, the same mutation which produces white tigers. And the modification of farmed tilapia doesn’t stop with their genes. Keeping these ancient symbols of fertility in mixed-sex groups leads to unmanageable population growth, so today’s farmers give the sexless baby tilapia food laced with hormones, causing most of them to develop into males.

THE RECIPE

IMG_2855This recipe is modified from Cooking in Ancient Civilizations by Cathy Kaufman (2006), one of my favorite sources for reconstructed ancient recipes. The original Egyptian stew this recipe was based on contained bones, fins and scales, but for the pictures above I was only able to obtain cleaned tilapia fillets. If you can find yourself a whole tilapia or a similarly mild white fish like catfish or sea bream, use it. As a wise woman (Maangchi) once said, don’t be afraid of fishbones, especially in soup! They add extra flavor, and when fish is properly cooked the meat falls off the bone easily.

Fish farms contribute to water pollution and the spread of fish diseases, but some have less of an impact than others. Tilapia farmed in the USA, Canada and Ecuador are the most ecologically friendly choice.

-1/2 cup barley
-3 cups water
-4 scallions/green onions, washed and sliced (use the entire scallion, including the root. The roots will give more flavor to the soup and will be removed before serving, taking another page from Maangchi’s book.)
-2 tilapia fillets or 1 whole, cleaned tilapia (or similar white fish)
-salt to taste

Rinse the barley and place in a saucepan with the water. Bring to a boil, add just the roots of the scallions, and simmer for 30 minutes. Use a spoon to skim off any foam that rises to the top (excess starch from the barley).

Remove the scallion roots. Cut the tilapia into chunks (if you’re using a whole fish, keep the skin, bones and fins). Add the fish to the water and cook for about 10 minutes over medium heat. Lower the heat, add the rest of the scallions and cook for 5 minutes more.

Taste and add salt as needed. Serve hot.

THE VERDICT

The fish releases some oil into the soup, and I find that it doesn’t need much seasoning to taste delicious, though you could also add garlic, butter or spices. It’s a simple, hearty meal that will have you landing solidly in Ancient Egypt.