Thursday, March 10, 2011

World's Oldest Kitchen Tools in China

Professor Ofer Bar-Yosef
One of the many perks of my new job is that I have the opportunity to attend these great lectures across the university - on a variety of, what may seem like, very random topics. The first one was a talk with the Syrian Ambassador to the US about Syria's role in bringing peace to the Middle East - very interesting and has encouraged me to work on understanding the challenges in the Middle East better. The one I had the chance to attend today was titled, "The Origins of Village Life in China: From Hunting and Gathering to Early Farming," with Professor Ofer Bar-Yosef, an Isreali Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Harvard. At first glance this may not seem related to my cooking blog - but I was so surprised to arrive at the lecture and learn all about the first developments of agriculture, found in China over 10,000 years ago!

Considered a major revolution in human mankind, Professor Ofer explained that the climate changes in Northern China caused the "hunter-gatherers" to look to agriculture for more sustainable forms of survival. Because of the rich plant and animal resources in Southern China, this region of hunter gatherers didn't need to adopt agriculture - until of course they heard, through word of mouth essentially, that agriculture in the North worked so well! Professor Ofer spent a great deal of time in China, studying excavation sites and working closely with local organizations and Chinese academics to ultimately come up with this hypothesis:

"The transition from hunting and gathering caused changes in seasonal activities (invention of new tool types), domestic activities (new food preparation techniques), sedentism, building permanent houses, labor division among males as well as between males and females, and slow emergence of new forms of social organization."

Modern day Millet
 These "new tool types" he mentiones - are microblades, bone tools, grinding slabs and rollers - we're not talking about things like lemon zesters and garlic presses (amongst my favorites!). I sometimes forget just how young our modern society is - Imagine that 10,000 years ago a group of Chinese hunter gatherers had to come up with the idea to "cook." They've found what is considered the oldest pottery in the world there - what is our modern day pots and pans. Then imagine how much our society has accomplished in just the last 100 years and it's almost difficult to comprehend.

Early grinding slab
Professor Ofer shared with us pictures of the earliest cooking tools in the world - grinding slabs, rollers - all to grind acorns, wild beans and millet. When you compare Rachel Ray and her "30 minute meals" to the idea that these early Chinese farmers not only had to build their pots and pans, but also come up with the concept to grow the rice before they could start cooking - 30 minutes sounds A LOT faster! And I don't know about you - but ground up acorns does not sound appetizing to me after all of that work. I'm not even really sure if I eat anything with Millet in it - but it's considered the first food ever cultivated and it makes me more curious to try cooking with it!

They found evidence of rice in one of these "pots" and this helps them to determine who was the first group of people to cultivate rice! (This piece of pottery to the right is from an area called Yuchanyan, discovered in a cave in 2005, and they considered it an early cauldron) As hunter gatherers transitioned to become farmers they realized, why would I plant all of this and do all of this work and then move - which ultimately caused the development of villages, houses - and stopped migration in many areas.

Article on Professor Ofer's findings!

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