Sadie L. Weber is a Ph.D. candidate in the Harvard Department of Anthropology and has worked in Peru since 2009. She is interested in traditional foodways and environmental archaeology. Sadie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
History with All the Fixings
By Sadie Weber
On a chilly July day in the small town of Yauli, in Huancavelica, Peru, I was walking back from a day of excavations at the site of Atalla, a 3,000-year-old temple and settlement that I was studying for my dissertation. The winter sun was just setting, which in the Andean highlands means that it’s about to get very cold. Our neighbor, Juana, a cantankerous but kind, eighty-something-year-old woman, shouted for me.
“SADIE! Ven!” “SADIE! Come here.” “Ya almorzaste?” “Did you eat lunch already?” “Juana, son las cinco de la tarde….sí, hace tiempo ya.” “Juana, it’s 5 p.m. Yeah, a while ago.” “Bueno pé, ven pa’ almorzar conmigo.” “Well, good! Come eat lunch with me.” You don’t say no to Juana. “Gracias, que preparó?” “Thank you, what did you make?” “Calditu, pé.” “Soup.” Juana’s first language, like many people of rural Huancavelica, is Quechua, not Spanish. Her
speech is marked with a distinctly andino rhythm and pronunciation. Calditu – caldito – soup. A completely innocuous dish. Safe.
I followed her inside and took a seat. She gave me my dish—soup as promised—although it had one conspicuous addition. A jaw bone. This was caldo de cabeza—head soup, not something that I had ever tried before. Other additions to the caldito were familiar—potatoes, carrots, onions, herbs, and choclo, a type of corn typical to Peru. Did I like it? Not my favorite. Did I eat all of it? Of course. You don’t say no to Juana.
The jaw bone told me a lot about Juana. I’m a zooarchaeologist – I study animal remains from archaeological sites to better understand the past and culture. Specifically, that jaw bone was the lower right mandible of a nine-month-old sheep or goat, but, given the modern agricultural patterns of the area, this was likely a sheep. Juana purchased a younger, tenderer cut of meat. She wasn’t going to make soup out of just any old animal. Juana was kind enough to share her meal with me and flamboyantly garnished it— la yapita, something extra.
This dish, like many other dishes of contemporary Peru, reflects Peru’s storied past that includes Indigenous, European, African and Asian peoples. The diet and cuisine of Prehistoric Peru, too, contains an immense diversity of products produced across the region. My work as an archaeologist, one who studies microscopic plant remains and animal bones, allows me to examine how people lived, moved across the landscape and interacted with one another.
Specifically, my research focuses on camelid—llama, alpaca, vicuña, guanaco—husbandry 3,000 years ago and how it facilitated peoples’ long-distance movements and spread a religion across what is today Peru. In my dissertation, I aim to answer the question: how did llama caravans affect communication and the spread of the Chavín religion? Llamas are the only large-bodied beasts of burden to be domesticated in the New World, and they would remain important for thousands of years. Although the practice is dwindling, llama caravans are still organized to transport goods in the Central Andes. To answer my question, I analyze what is essentially trash—left-overs from peoples’ daily meals to ritual feasting events. This comes in the form of ceramic fragments and animal bones.
These fragments that were cast aside millennia ago, but they still hold clues about the past. Ceramic fragments can contain both chemical and microscopic residues of what was held in the original vessel. Bones tell a somewhat different story beyond the body part and species. “You are what you eat” is a common phrase we hear, but in the case of archaeology, more specifically stable isotope analysis, it is true. Your bones, teeth, and hair, and therefore, an animal’s as well, store information about where you grew up and broad trends in your diet. If I analyzed the stable isotopes from the sheep’s teeth in Juana’s soup, I would likely see that the animal was raised locally and was probably eating a mix of the native ichu grasses as well as silage from agricultural fields.
When I analyzed the animal bones and teeth at Atalla, I found that camelids were the most frequently used animals, and they were used in a variety of ways. Some were raised for their fleece, an industry that remains important today, while others were used on trading excursions to the Pacific Coast and Amazonian lowlands. Moreover, the animals weren’t just property; they were integral parts of Andean life that were cared for by their owners. Some of the animals lived to the impressive age of 14 years old, anomalously old for these animals. Others, still, exhibited arthritis in their feet, suggesting old age or even intensive use.
The microscopic plant remains, in this case starches, reflected long-distance trade as well. In addition to traditional highland plants like potatoes, olluco, mashua, and beans, I found that the ceramic vessels also contained manioc, chili pepper, maize, algarrobo, and yam, that is, plants that cannot grow in the frigid highlands and must be acquired through exchange. Some of the maize and algarrobo starches showed evidence of having been fermented, which suggests that people at Atalla produced and shared something similar to chicha de jora, or corn beer.
The trade journeys that brought these goods to the highlands would have been no small feat. Llamas navigate the high-relief of the Andes with ease, but long-distance trips can take weeks. During this time, the animals and their caretakers—llameros—are passing through different groups’ territories and must navigate the relationships that come with these interactions. Food and drink are perfect for breaking the ice between unfamiliar groups, and this is what likely happened in the past.
By looking at what is essentially trash, archeologists can tell the stories of how past peoples lived. My time working in Peru is marked with serendipitous moments of altruism and food. Much like the soup that Juana so generously shared with me, food is the lingua franca that possessed and continues to bring people together over vast distances.