Thursday, September 16, 2010

Global Gastronomes

        This week I have combined two of my greatest loves, anthropology and food, in a cross-cultural examination of modern dietary practices around the world. In the U.S., the land of plenty, we are fortunate enough to have moved beyond the hunter-gatherer experience of struggling to find and harvest our daily bread. The downside of this advancement is that many of us have forgone the practice of "eating to live" in favor of "living to eat."
        It is no secret that obesity is a major health concern in our country, or that Americans have some of the most unhealthy diets in the world. What is surprising is that it in a sampling published in the September 2010 issue of Marie Claire magazine recording the daily food intake of seven women in seven different countries, the woman from the U.S. actually ate less food and less calories than most of the others polled; caloric intake ranged from 1,500 in Namibia, to 4,000 in Venezuela and the 21 year old American woman consumed a total of 1,900. These calories came in the form of two fast food meals and a number of sugary snacks, a menu that many of us are guilty of following in an effort to save time in our hectic lives. The human body evolved to function best when receiving a slow and steady supply of fuel, in the form of a number of smaller meals and snacks throughout the day. Our 9-5 workdays prove counter-productive in that they can often force us to shovel food in our mouths during an hour-long lunch break.

Typical American Workday Lunch

        The woman who consumed the most daily calories was an 18 year old from Venezuela; she doubled the recommended number at a whopping 4,000. She snacked on potato chips and candy bars during the day, and many of the foods she ate were fried. Nevertheless, her diet was overall healthier than the American who ate less, in that she ate three somewhat balanced meals, consisting of grains, lean protein, and fruit.

Typical Venezuelan Meal of Black Beans, Shredded Beef, Fried Plantains, and Rice

        One of the healthiest diets was that of a 27 year old woman from Yemen. She consumed 2,700 daily calories, which, like those of the Venezuelan woman, were made up of three meals and a number of snacks throughout the day. However, the Yemenis woman's diet consisted mainly of fruits and vegetables, with a sprinkling of beans, flatbread, and lean meat. Rather than junk food, she snacked on mangoes, bananas, papayas, and other fruit throughout her day.

A Sampling of Yemenis Cuisine

          In recent years, our view of the Middle East has been less than favorable, yet their healthy dietary practices put ours, which are unnecessarily high in fat and sodium, to shame. The hunter-gatherer lifestyle of our ancestors required them to seek out foods high in fat and sodium when available in order to survive, but in our modern world of supermarkets and heated homes these foods should be eaten sparingly. Although our nation's view of different cultures is more ethnocentric than most, we have much to learn from others who we have hastily written off as less civilized or underdeveloped.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Snapshots in Time

(Photo: Remains of a Roman Camp in an English Field, yahoo)

       It seems that climate change does have its benefits after all! In an article published by Yahoo the other day, an abnormally dry season in the UK has allowed what are known as "crop marks" to become more visible. These marks occur when crops grow over disturbances in the soil caused by items buried in the archaeological record. Like the Nazca lines of Peru, they can only truly be seen from the air. To date, the crop marks have revealed camps, villages, roadways, and defensive structures, providing blueprints for a number of ancient settlements that have been preserved in time.  

(Photo: Body Casts in Pompeii, Picasa)
        The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79CE is one of the best examples of the environment working in archaeology's favor. The well-known casts of the final moments of Pompeii's residents are undeniably haunting; some shield themselves with their arms, others contort in agony as they struggle to breathe. The most heartbreaking of all, mothers cling to their children as they prepare for the inevitable. As unfortunate as the eruption was for the people of Pompeii and the surrounding areas, it is a treasure trove of information for students of history.

(Photo: Modern-Day View of Ruins of Pompeii, Picasa)
     The volcanic ash from the eruption perfectly preserved the city of Pompeii, creating a time capsule of Roman life in the first century CE. Even the delicate mosaics and frescoes in the villas of the upper class remained intact, such as the famous artwork depicting Alexander the Great in the Battle of Issus. 
(Photo: Battle of Issus, Wikimedia)
         These snapshots in time provided by the crop marks in the UK and the ash of Pompeii are invaluable due to the circumstances in which they were discovered. In both of these cases, artifacts and building footprints were found in their original context. Archaeologists do not have to assume the manner in which goods recovered from grave sites were used, or the layout of buildings in settlement sites. While the environmental factors contributing to the preservation of these sites can be less than favorable to those who experience them firsthand-- albeit dry spells are not nearly as devastating as volcanic eruptions-- they create a perfect storm that can be the archaeologist's best friend.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Media Mating

(Photo: Bebe Apparel)
        We like to think today that we have evolved beyond the desires of our prehistoric ancestors. We tell our children that "true beauty is on the inside," and ourselves that having a great personality is more important than a pretty face. However, there is still a shallow part of all of us that will pass quick judgment on someone based on their appearance. This is especially true with the faces that we encounter in the media. 
In every branch of media, the models chosen to advertise products are thought to represent what members of the opposite sex find the most attractive. Even in advertisements targeting women, the female models embody what is believed to be the ideal women in a male's eyes. In this advertisement for Bebe clothing, the woman displays several traits to which males are typically attracted.
Males look for symmetry and neoteny in the faces of their mates. Younger women are the most likely to be fertile and healthy, and have a longer period of time in which they are able to produce offspring. This Bebe model wears makeup to create the appearance of symmetry in her facial features, and to accentuate certain traits that make her look younger, just as many women do in their day to day lives. Eye liner makes eyes appear larger, lipstick makes lips seem fuller, and makeup can be used to cover up blemishes, wrinkles, and other imperfections. To males, the sum of  all of these facial features equates a young, healthy potential mate.
Males also look to a woman’s body for signs of reproductive fitness. The model in this advertisement possesses the body type males are most likely to find appealing; large breasts, a small waist, and wide hips are all signs of fertility. Low-cut necklines, tight fitting material, high heeled shoes, and short hemlines all emphasize a woman’s curves, and therefore announce that she is young, in good health, and getting enough nutrition to produce offspring.

(Photo: Marcus Schenkenberg)

        The same can also be said when dealing with male models. Bulging biceps, chiseled abs, narrow waists, and square jawlines denote health in these cases. Large muscle mass, low body fat, and defined jawlines are the results of high testosterone levels; the "V" in the so-desired V-shape is for virility, and virile males are more likely to give way to a fertile bloodline. Women are attracted to different types of men during different points in their menstrual cycle; women are attracted to more masculine men while they are ovulating, and more feminine-looking men during the rest of the month. This is believed to be due to the fact that masculine men have better genes to pass on to potential offspring during this fertile period. More feminine men would be better care-givers, even if the children were not their own, a trait that is more important during times when procreation is not likely. 
        It may be somewhat reassuring to learn that the physical traits to which we are traditionally attracted actually have a biological and evolutionary purpose. Males can defend their preference for dating young women with pretty faces and curvy bodies based on their age-old search for youthful, healthy, fertile females with whom to successfully mate and reproduce. The same can be said for women who prefer the lean, muscular men who grace the covers of romance novels and Calvin Klein billboards worldwide. The media takes advantage of the fact that “sex sells,” and fills advertisements on billboards, television screens, and magazine pages with models whose physical appearance will catch the eye of the target audience, in the hopes that this will better sell their product.