A few weeks ago, I presented the keynote lecture at the annual conference of the Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland. My lecture was entitled "Food ‘facts’: new findings and emerging challenges in the investigation of ancient foodways". It was a very enjoyable conference, and I received good feedback on my lecture.
My aim was to showcase the fantastic new techniques that we use in archaeology to investigate food and some of our recent discoveries. I also wanted to highlight the growing public interest in learning from the past to develop healthier eating habits in a modern context. Archaeologists can engage in myth-busting, explaining how there is good archaeological evidence for carbohydrate-rich foods in hunter-gatherer societies, even though the modern “Paleo diet” might suggest otherwise. Ancient DNA analyses have revealed a remarkably high incidence of lactose tolerance in Ireland – we have a very long history of humans producing the lactase enzyme during adulthood, which enables us to drink milk – and lipid analyses highlight the production of dairy products over thousands of years.
We are on trickier ground, however, if we attempt to advise modern societies how they should eat now. Best practice in public health and community nutrition is developed by teams comprising professionals in dietetics, epidemiology, immunology, cardiovascular disease and other specialities. We as archaeologists can provide valuable insights into the ‘deep history’ of ancient foodways. But if we want to draw upon this evidence to help develop future nutrition strategies, we should do so as part of a team-based approach, including established professionals in public health and community nutrition. Archaeologists can play an important role here – and indeed we should be more explicit in the public arena about our expertise and fascinating findings – but as professionals, we must develop a careful, considered and, most importantly, collaborative approach if we want to tackle modern health issues.