Universiteit Leiden

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Faculty Lecture

Rotted Meat, Scurvy, and Late Pleistocene Foodways in Northern Latitudes

Wednesday 4 March 2020
Faculty Lectures
Van Steenis
Einsteinweg 2
2333 CC Leiden


I will discuss the importance of fermented (i.e., rotted or putrid) meat in the diet of modern hunter-gatherers throughout the northern latitudes. Putrefaction ‘pre-digests’ meat without the need for fire or fuel. Anaerobic bacteria rapidly colonize decomposing meat, inhibiting germination of pathogens such as Clostridium (botulism). Bacterial fermentation also prevents fats from becoming rancid (oxidized), and preserves vitamin C, greatly reducing the threat of scurvy.

Psychological studies indicate that the revulsion shown by Euroamericans toward putrid meat and maggots is learned, not hard-wired, and emerges surprisingly late in children (after age 5). Prior to that, children mistake the mother’s expressions of disgust as anger. Abundant ethnohistoric evidence shows that rotted meat was not a starvation food, but a prized and nutritionally vital component of forager diets in northern environments. I then suggest, by extension, that such practices would have been of similar importance to Eurasian Neanderthals and modern humans (including North American Paleoindians) occupying broadly similar environments and subsisting, at least seasonally, on heavily meat-based diets, and briefly explore the implications of these ideas for understanding the later Pleistocene archaeological and isotopic record in northern

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