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Amanda Henry’s Leiden Experience: ‘I want to know why our ancestors made certain choices’

Two years ago, Amanda Henry joined the Faculty of Archaeology’s Archaeological Sciences department. She investigates diet and human evolution, with a specific focus on plant foods. ‘Most of the studies on the prehistoric diet focus on meat and hunting. This just didn’t make sense to me.’

Two-body problem

Amanda, originally from the US, has been working in Europe for 8 years. Before arriving at the Faculty of Archaeology, she was employed by the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, just like her husband. ‘It was a two-body problem. There are basically no permanent positions at the Max Planck, so we were looking for a place both for my research interests and for those of my husband, who is not an archaeologist.’

Amanda got an ERC grant, so they started planning their next move. ‘We had it narrowed down to Bordeaux and Leiden. In the end, Leiden seemed much more congenial and international. A comfortable place for both of us to live.’ Leiden and surroundings offered them the quality of research they were looking for. ‘Leiden had been on my radar for a long time.’

HARVEST project

With the ERC grant, Amanda started investigating diet and human evolution in the HARVEST project. ‘I started out to understand what our ancestors ate, with a focus on plants, for that is usually ignored.’ She explains that studies on  prehistoric diets usually focus on meat. ‘Aside from that it is great to know what is eaten, I also want to know why certain choices are made. This made the project branch out.’ The research project aims to answer a wide range of questions, for example what is driving the food decision making. Is it strictly economic costs to benefits? A calculation of calories in and out? What roles do culture and tradition play?

Amanda Henry and post-doc Sandrine Gallois in Cameroon testing equipment to measure oxygen consumption. Photo: Alain Hypolite Fezeu

Ethnographic study in Cameroon

Amanda gives an example. ‘One of my postdocs is doing an ethnographic study in Cameroon, investigating what people eat while transitioning to  a market economy. She works with the Baka people, who have an interesting relation with the agricultural Bantu.’ In addition to interviews and direct observation, they collect data on energetics, as well as fecal and dental calculus samples for microbiological analysis.

‘My lab is smelling nasty right now’

Another example is a PhD student currently investigating dental calculus on teeth from a population who may have used  opium and cannabis to treat long term disease. ‘He investigates skeletons to see if there is evidence of disease and to cross-reference this with their diet. He is also building a model calculus system.’ This, however, is not without its drawbacks. ‘My lab is smelling nasty right now, as his little vats sit there in the shaking incubator.’

Lines of evidence

The HARVEST project will run on for another 3 years. ‘The goal of the project is to tie the lines of evidence together to see if we can understand why certain foods were chosen, and whether an economic model is the only testable one in the archaeological record.’ Aside from this, the project explores what the information from modern samples and peoples can say about the archaeological record.

Prehistoric cooking

But Amanda is already exploring new avenues for research. ‘I am looking into the role of cooking and food processes, for that really changes the way people perceive and enjoy food, and the benefits they get.’ She is also interested in the costs  of cooking and processing. ‘And what did prehistoric cooking really look like? Is it cooking on a fire or is it natural or intentional fermenting.’ She laughs. ‘Mostly though, the Harvest project has just started, so we will go out there with that first.’ 

Pass on the trowel

In this series we ask a staff member to pick a colleague of whom they would like to know more. Amanda Henry passed on the proverbial trowel to Jason Laffoon. He will be interviewed for the newsletter of June 2019.

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