ENVIRON 242 - Topics in Environmental Social Science
Section: 001 2.5 Million Years of Human Foods and Foodways: A Framework for Understanding Modern Diets
Term: FA 2017
Subject: Program in the Environment (ENVIRON)
Department: LSA Environment
Requirements & Distribution:
Waitlist Capacity:
May be repeated for a maximum of 12 credit(s). May be elected more than once in the same term.
Primary Instructor:

You sit down to dinner. Before you is a juicy steak (lean) done up just right, with a side of mashed potatoes (hold the gravy), some green beans (steamed), a small side salad (easy on the dressing), and a slice of whole wheat bread with just a little butter. All in moderation. You also have a glass of 2% milk. Healthy, right? This would seem to come pretty close to what nutritionists recommend as a balanced, healthy meal, with lots of high-quality protein, some complex carbohydrates, and not too much fat. And yet many of us have high blood pressure, strokes, and heart attacks in our future. On the other hand, traditional Eskimos who ate a diet that was almost 100% meat, with as much as 75% of their total calories coming from animal fat, almost never had high blood pressure, strokes, or heart attacks — the so-called “diseases of civilization”! Why?

Everything in our hypothetical steak dinner came from a domesticated plant or animal. These are humanly created products of the “agricultural revolution,” a tumultuous upheaval in human diets and foodways that began during what archaeologists call the “Neolithic,” about 12,000 years ago, a mere 0.5% of the total span of human existence on this planet. Wheat, barley, oats, rice, millet, corn, sorghum — the staples of modern humanity — these are all products of the Neolithic. Pottery is also a product of the Neolithic. What did we eat, and how did we prepare it, during the preceding 99.5% of our existence? What can the past tell us about our foods and foodways today? These are the core questions that we will be exploring in this course.

Through readings, discussion, and take-home exercises, students will explore many different facets of human diet and nutrition. We will start by looking at the way hunter-gatherers, peoples who still earn their living with little or no reliance on domesticated plants and animals, fulfill their food needs. We will also look at the diet of our closest living primate relative, the chimpanzee. We will then turn to the evolution of human food-processing technologies, beginning with the control of fire and the beginnings of cooking nearly 1.0 million years ago, followed much later by inventions such as stone-boiling in hide containers, pottery, seed-grinding technology, the ability to store foods for later use, and many others. This comparative and evolutionary perspective will provide students with a framework against which to compare their own diet, and better appreciate both the positive benefits and negative costs of our modern foodways.

Intended Audience:

The course is specifically designed to be accessible to students regardless of their previous backgrounds in archaeology, anthropology, biology, or nutrition.

Class Format:

Grades are based on attendance and active participation in discussions, completion of all assigned readings and submission in a timely manner of brief (approx. 1 page) synopses of each reading, three take-home exercises or projects, and one 10-page paper to be submitted at the end of the academic term (topic to be chosen by the student in consultation with the instructor).

ENVIRON 242 - Topics in Environmental Social Science
Schedule Listing
001 (LEC)
MW 2:30PM - 4:00PM
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