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The Power of Feasts: From Prehistory to Present

By Brian Hayden

June 2, 2016

Review By Deidre Cullon

In the Power of Feasts, Hayden, an SFU archaeologist, provides a “theoretical synthesis” of the history of feasting, explains the theory of its influence on human societies over time, and argues that feasting contributed to sociocultural and political complexity. He also offers direction for further research and considers how feasting is represented in the material record.

Hayden’s argument, defined in Chapter 1, is that feasting provides insight into social and political structures; context for prestige technologies, monumental projects, small-scale warfare, and political centralization; and an explanation for domestication, gender roles, and identity. Using “paleo-political ecology” he examines “how surplus… [is] used to promote the self-interests of the producers and manipulators of surpluses” (7) — people he calls “aggrandizers.” In this theory, aggrandizers push societal norms for self-gain. Left unchecked among early hunter-gatherers, aggrandizers created, through feasting, “transegalitarian” societies where private property and social stratification appeared.

The remaining eight chapters discuss the origins and acts of feasting among complex hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, pastoralists, and early states and empires. The first of these chapters (and the only one written by another author, Suzanne Villeneuve) situates the origin of feasting among our primate ancestors whose food sharing behaviour, she argues, laid the foundation for human feasting. Subsequent chapters discuss feasting and its role in complexity in each mode of subsistence, while Chapter 5 considers the role feasting may have played in domestication. Throughout, Hayden offers numerous ethnographic examples and suggests an archaeological context that exposes feasting and domestication in the material record.

Chapters 4 and 5 are of particular interest. In Chapter 4 Hayden uses the contact era potlatch to exemplify feasting among complex hunter-gatherers, an example used throughout to argue that feasting was the impetus for increasing sociocultural complexity. Generalizing for the Northwest Coast he describes different feasts and potlatches and examines associated economic arrangements such as tribute, loans, and debt. He also discusses hosts, guests, gift giving, secret societies, timing, and rank and status. He then provides examples of feasting among other complex hunter-gatherers and flags the presence of food production among them and Northwest Coast peoples, a topic visited again in Chapter 5 where rhizome and clam gardens are discussed. This information is timely given the recent interest these cultivation technologies have generated among other researchers. Finally, Hayden considers how complex hunter-gatherer feasting is recognized in the material record.

One critique of Hayden’s feasting theory is that relational ontology, a current anthropological theory promoted by the works of Descola, Viveiros de Castro, Bird-David, Ingold, and others, is not considered. In the relational world, human qualities exist in non-human entities that have agency and intentionality. This is a key concept among those peoples considered in Hayden’s book and, I would argue, is important when studying the intentions and actions behind feasting. Hayden presents feasts as economic and social tools that were “promotional” and used to “advertise” status (85). Here “aggrandizers” invoke spirits (63) to create favourable emotional states among guests and they elevate ancestors to “promote compliance” (168) and to mask ambition (71), knowing that “fear of the dead could be a powerful tool in promoting aggrandizer agendas” and easily manipulated “to serve one’s wishes” (170). This approach situates the relational world as a fabrication used to seize and legitimize power. It does not recognize relational world agency or how it affects one’s lived experience.

Overall, Hayden makes a compelling argument for a feasting theory that is valuable in larger ethnographic and archaeological discussion. His ideas on how to acknowledge feasting in the material record are useful. While the argument that feasts were the primary impetus behind sociocultural complexity is persuasive, the reality is probably more complex. Nevertheless, this is a must-read for anyone interested in surplus technologies, feasting, and how feasting may have contributed to sociocultural and political complexity.

The Power of Feasts: From Prehistory to Present
Brian Hayden
New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 435 pp. $42.95