In late November of previous years, we have explored the traditional feast of Thanksgiving through a discussion of early American tableware and the analysis of foodways in both prehistoric and historic contexts. To revisit the theme of feasts, this year we will focus on some of the earliest evidence of ritual feasting in the archaeological record from eastern Pennsylvania and the greater Middle Atlantic region.
It is possible to infer from existing examples of egalitarian hunter-gather societies that the very first Pennsylvanians had rich ceremonial traditions to celebrate food abundance and to find security in social bonds during times of scarcity. Paleoindians arrived as early as 16,500 years ago following migratory herds of caribou, moose and elk in small family bands of 10 to 20 people. The archaeological record does not lend itself easily to the interpretation of complex social dynamics in situations of low population density and poor site preservation. Ice age climate conditions swept away, rather than encapsulated Paleoindian sites near lowland waterways. Further, the most ideal locations for resource exploitation by the very first bands of humans in upland settings, continued to be revisited by many different groups over time. Very little soil deposition in these environments over time has greatly diminished the ability of today’s archaeologist to distinguish distinct patterns of activity among any two prehistoric cultural groups because there has not been much vertical or horizontal spatial separation between what these early groups left behind.
With those limitations in mind, ritual feasting is a cross-cultural phenomenon and adaptative strategy found in both egalitarian and non-egalitarian societies to build relationships and relieve tension. However, archaeological conditions necessary to begin seeing patterns that could be considered feasting generally require higher population density and environmental conditions that favor stratigraphic site preservation.
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