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Feast on Food and Sex

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Martin Jones, author of Feast: Why Humans Share Food is the George Pitt-Rivers Professor of Archaeological Science at the University of Cambridge, and specializes in the study of the fragmentary archaeological remains of early food. Feast reconstructs the development of the meal from chimpanzees at a kill to university professors at a formal feast. Jones has a knack for explaining how food has affected both our society and ecology. In the excerpt below he shows how the instinct to share is more biological than we realize.

Food and sex
Parental care quite often displays features in common with courtship. It is as if the feast.jpgparental behaviour in caring for a young child is ‘borrowed’ by courting couples. This is certainly true of the meeting of mouths or beaks during food-sharing. A very wide range of birds, from ravens to parrots, herring gulls to woodpeckers, pass food from beak to beak, not just from parent to offspring, but between courting couples. In courtship, the actual transfer of food may have disappeared, and affection be communicated by the meeting of mouths alone. A sea lion will rub snouts with its young offspring, and employ the same behaviour during courtship. A female shrew will allow saliva to be licked from its mouth, by its young offspring, or alternatively by a courting male. In some human societies, the kiss-feeding of infants is known, and the behaviour may also occur without the actual transfer of food. In other human societies, mouth to mouth kissing becomes the sole reserve of courtship.

The intimate relationship between feeding and courtship may be understood in the evolutionary context of reproductive success, but sexual encounter is not invariably connected to courtship and mating. Food and sex may also come together in a more immediate way, through the sensual pleasure that each provides. Indeed, the one may be implicitly or explicitly traded for the other. We can observe this in our own species, and in another of our close relatives, a species in the same genus as the chimpanzee, and sometimes referred to as the ‘pygmy chimpanzee’. It is better known as the bonobo.

This diminutive primate, firrst mistaken for an immature chimp, was only recognized as an independent species in 1933. Since then, its study has revealed a number of similarities to humans in terms of sexual behaviour. Females are sexually receptive throughout their cycle. A number of sexual positions are adopted, involving both same-sex and mixed-sex unions, and are used pleasurably to relieve tension and generally socialize. Not surprisingly, many bonobo activities, including the sharing of food, involve some aspect of sex. Field researchers in the Lomako forest of central Zaire carried their dictaphone, camcorder, portable balance, and tape measure to the feeding grounds of the Eyengo community of bonobos. They watched closely and recorded as these animals sought out and then shared breadfruits, the occasional catch of squirrel or some other small prey, and charted the associated behaviour, which was frequently sexual. The most common behaviour was the rubbing of genitals between two females as a prelude to sharing the breadfruit’s tasty orange seeds. Copulation was also a recurrent element of negotiations over food, though not always on equal terms. One of their records describes the sustained sexual activity between a vigorously begging female, and a male in possession of food. After seven successive copulations, he still would not give her a bite of his breadfruit.

This may all seem a long way from the Cambridge college feast, but that meal too displays an intimate association with sex, not by way of its engagement, but conversely of its prohibition. Acts of sex are commonly excluded from contemporary human meals, and for several centuries Cambridge college meals placed certain limits on such possibilities by excluding one sex altogether. When in the 1960s Jane Goodall arrived in Cambridge to undertake her doctoral research, she was not eligible to enrol at the college of her supervisor, and certainly not to join him at the feasts of his own college. Had she lived half a century earlier, she would not have been eligible to join the Cambridge academic community at all. Half a century earlier still, the fellows dining at college feasts would have been expected to abstain from sex and matrimony altogether.

Meals that are as strictly bounded by moral code are by no means confined to these rather rarefied circumstances, but are widespread among human societies around the world. Indeed, human meals of all kinds are framed within moral codes about sex, age, rank, and ethnicity, and the diners do not typically sense that these rules are negotiable. They are set at some other time, by some other authority, part human and part divine. The rules of conduct are passed down from each generation to the next.

This seems to mark us apart from our closest relatives. Chimps and bonobos clearly have a social structure and a mutual sense of rank. They evidently move and feed in groups that are broadly single sex from time to time. Our general sense, nonetheless, is of a series of strategies that are negotiable, that can be constantly reassembled in different ways in different places. It may normally be the case that 3 year-olds feed with their mother, but the ‘lightly parented’ Pom may nonetheless wander off to join a ‘power feast’. It may generally be true that the males do the hunting, and share the kill widely, while the female chimps fish for termites and gather, eating in intimate groups of kin. However, such females as Passion also hunted occasionally, and some plant foods have been shared beyond the family. The lives of chimps and bonobos are framed by two interwoven strands of social norm and ecological reality. Within that Xuid frame, they inhabit their bounded ecosystems amply and Xexibly, and with far less instruction from the previous generation. Contemporary humans inhabit a much more open and global ecosystem, but through the bounds of a more rigid social ‘architecture’. The use of the word ‘architecture’ emphasizes that these bounds have a permanency, and a source beyond those who move within them, and passed down in detail from one generation to the next. The architectural spaces of the modern human world separate our activities into different types. In some spaces, we are social persons, listening to each other’s words and music, creating and consuming cultural artifacts. In other spaces, we are biological organisms, taking care of bodily needs sleeping, defecating, washing, and recovering from illness. Elsewhere we are economic beings, turning the soil, working the machine, creating the wealth that underpins our existence as social persons or biological organisms. However, some of our activities refuse to be thus compartmented, to be removed to separate realms of existence. These are activities in which person and organism remain intimately connected within a common whole. For all their social shaping and ritualization, they remain as gateways that interconnect our compartmented selves, points at which social person and biological organism inextricably combine.

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Recent Comments

  1. Martin R

    Cambridge meals are about sex because sex is prohibited there? Wow! That means that Cambridge meals are actually also about murder, wife-beating and bagpipe rehearsal! Who’d have thunk it?

  2. David Bradley

    I can vouch for the lack of sex at those Cambridge meals, thankfully I have not been forced to eat in college for many, many years ;-)

    db

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