The Lingering Taste of Colonialism

Flavour and Status in a South American Archaeological Context

Guy S. Duke


Studies of the foods consumed by lower status peoples in a variety of stratified societies around the world often are rooted in a presumption of utilitarianism – food was by and large a functional part of everyday life that was necessarily limited in variety and seasonings, mainly due to circumscribed levels of access to a wider variety of foodstuffs as a result of elite control over the food supply. From this assumption, the average farmer or labourer is pictured as subsisting primarily on gruels or porridges: generally flavourless mushes, perhaps flavoured with a bit of meat or fat on special occasions. While this may be true to some extent in various parts of the world during particular points in history, applying this assumption as a universal element of lower status foods erases much of the diversity of flavours present in the daily foods of non-elite people. In this paper, I discuss the application of this assumption in the South American context, highlighting the prominent use of chilli peppers by both elites and non-elites in the Late Moche Period (AD 600-850) in the coastal Jequetepeque Valley. My research counters the long-standing belief that chilli peppers were restricted to elite and religious use, instead identifying their presence in archaeological contexts associated with members of society across a wide range socioeconomic positions. While a single case study, this indicates that it is important to more critically investigate the long-held presumptions of a limited flavour palette for non-elite members of societies. Further, this case study highlights the continuation of problematic issue in archaeology: unconscious ethnocentrism. What I emphasize in this paper is that this presumption that non-elite meals were bland, uniform, and unadorned, is rooted in historical understandings of peasant food in Medieval and Early Industrial Europe which have been uncritically projected onto archaeological cultures throughout the world as a consequence of continued colonialism of thought that began with the first conquest of the Americas and elsewhere. In short, assuming that non-elites did not have access to or use non-staple flavourings in their food further entrenches a Eurocentric understanding of the world, both past and present, and erases the vibrancy of foods consumed across socioeconomic status lines, which in turn serves to promote a view of the past that places primacy on elite studies.