Comidas de la Tierra: an ethnoarchaeology of earth ovens

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Stark, Richard Thompson

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Earth ovens are one of the most common cooking features encountered by archaeologists. This dissertation is an ethnoarchaeological effort to provide baseline information for linking the material remains with the human behaviors associated with earth oven use. Specifically, I examine the social, ecological, and artifactual contexts in three modern uses of earth ovens in the Chihuahuan Desert. The relevance of these ethnoarchaeological case-studies, beyond their utility to archaeologists interpreting cooking features, is to demonstrate how modern cooking traditions may relate to the evolution of subsistence strategies throughout prehistory. I borrow analytical techniques from the “hard” sciences to understand and record cooking feature thermodynamics. Ethnographic observations and replicative experiments reveal that earth oven thermodynamics are redundantly consistent. This thermodynamic redundancy is well suited for cooking foods/materials that require or benefit from a maintained environment at the phase change of water to steam, that is, at 100 degrees Centigrade. By maintaining temperatures near 100C, cooked materials are effectively hydrogen saturated, rendering foods more digestible and nutritious (Wandsnider 1997). My thesis is that earth ovens represent behavior surrounding either bulk processing of resources, festive food processing, or a combination of both. Bulk processing in earth ovens is often seasonal, relating to the time of the year when plants have stored up their maximum amount of energy or when extremely large amounts of meat need to be processed before spoilage (Brink and Dawe 1989). Bulk processing sites are typically non-domestic, situated in relation to the resource to be processed. The use of earth ovens in festive contexts is related to scheduled and ad hoc celebrations throughout the calendar year when large amounts of food are to be immediately consumed. Festive earth oven use typically involves some meat preparation, and is situated in out-door domestic settings. These two types of earth oven sites involve specific and distinctive artifact assemblages.