Social Anthropology Handout 1


Code: 94


Seems reasonable to think that people have always had a curiosity about ‘THE OTHER ‘since we first started to communicate. Then when people started travelling afar, the written word produced details.

Some examples of the study of Mankind from ancient times

Herodotus (484-424BC) observed matrilineal system of descent in the Lycian people

Tacitus in 98AD compared the ‘primitive’ Barbarians with the sophisticated Romans.

Marco Polo (1271-1295) reported on his journeys through Central Asia to China.

Ibn Khaldhun (1332-1406) a Tunisian who observed the social laws of the people he studied and founded the pre-runner of Sociology.

Between the Middle Ages and the mid C19th a French philosopher Montesquieu gained prominence during the Age of Enlightenment. Well ahead of his time he analysed and compared social situations, including religion and observed these individual beliefs and practices were best suited to the operating environment. E.g. trying to impose western democracy on a successful tribal culture.

Anthropology, like Pant Hunting became a hobby for men of means and some academic standing. Many of them were ‘natural philosophers, who thought and speculated a lot. They believed that all individual societies evolved on the same lines – some quicker and more successful. So, e.g., Aborigines were seen as failures. There was a passion for obtaining and analysing data of small scale societies – family life, rituals, and group’s dynamics. And keeping these in case the group died out.

Comparing them with ‘us’ was paramount and as well as behaviour, physical features were studied. ‘Races of Man’ (1900) by Deniker is an incredible account of all known races. Many Anthropologists of the time were civil servants and the information they found was targeted towards how they would fit into the political system. Were they aggressive? Were they easy to teach?

Eventually the workers decided that the people they were studying deserved respect and that their ‘strange behaviour’ was ‘different’ not wrong. Back in academia some anthropologists never ventured abroad but relied on the often slanted information given by missionaries, civil servants and explorers. It was also very Androcentric. Eventually the subject moved from small scale observation to working in specialist fields like Multiculturalism.

Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown introduced the term FUNCTIONALISM which

‘embraces the function of any cultural or social interaction i.e. any custom or social interaction should be interpreted in terms of how it meets the needs of a society.

Claude Levi Strauss contributed STRUCTURALISM from his linguistic discipline. This means that

perspectives find meaning from where they are in a structure. It is especially applicable to kinship and myth and symbolism. Just more words and not relevant in ordinary study.


Lewis H MORGAN (1818-1882) carried out much research with Iroquois Indians and devised 7 stages of man’s progress from ‘savage’ to ‘civilisation depending on technological achievements.

Edward TYLOR (1832-1917) Founding father of British Anthropology and 1st Professor at Oxford. Wrote ‘’Primitive Culture’ in 1871.

Emile DURKHEIM (1858-1917) much revered French Sociologist. Associate of Edward SAPIR (1884-1939) who with Benjamin LEE_WHORF developed the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis linking cognition and language. Sapir and Durkheim also claim that the Hope Indians think differently due to language.

Franz BOAZ (1858-1942) Margaret Mead’s mentor. Shaped direction of American embracing all branches – Cultural (Social) Biological, Linguistic and Archaeology.

Clifford GEERTZ (1926 -2006) A prolific author including ‘Religion as a Cultural System ‘and much work in Java. Probably the most significant Anthropologist of his time.

A.R RADCLIFFIE-BROWN (1881-1955) He did fieldwork in Australia and the Adaman Islands and was much more academic than Malinowski. He was also a supporter of Structural Functionalism and slightly

deviant from Malinowski. Structure was the Social Structure and Function was the way this contributed to the whole. This limited him in that it could not include social change   

Bronislav MALINOWSKI (1884-1942) Founder of British modern anthropology and creator of Functionalism. He started ‘Participant Observation’ where ethnographers stayed with a community and observed and participated in the life.

Claude LEVI-STRAUSS (1908-2009) See theory of Structuralism. Prolific writer. He searched for the link between social structures and deeper mental structures.

Bronislav MALINOOWSKI (1884-1942

E.E.EVANS-PRITCHARD (1902-1973) is best known for his studies of the Nuer people of the Nile Valley and for placing Anthropology amongst the Humanities instead of Biological Sciences. He wrote a classic ‘’Theories of Primitive Religion’ (1965) where he discounted most of the theories of the time.

Victor TURNER (1920-83) and his wife Edith. Both were experts on ritual and symbolism He also extended van Gennep’s theories on rites of passage. Together they wrote ‘Image and Pilgrimage in a Christian Culture’ in 1977. His method is interpretive and symbolic.

And a couple of women

Margaret MEAD (1901-1978) throughout most of her working life, Margaret Mead was hailed as an outstanding anthropologist with celebrated studies of childhood in Western Samoa, Bali and Papua New Guinea. Her books were readable and she was a good communicator. Towards the end she was in conflict with Derek Freedman who tried to destroy her reputation after her death. An interesting angle on her in Nigel Barley’s Island of Demons. (both in book box);

Mary DOUGLAS (1921-2007) was an eminent student of Evans-Pritchard and noted for her work on symbols and meaning

There are still eminent writers like Beattie, Kuper and Hendry who write general books. Two recent ones which area very easy to read (obtainable on Amazon)are Barnard, Prof Alan (2006) Social Anthropology studymates and Hendry,I and Underdown S (2012) Anthropology Beginners Guides

I have said many times that Anthropologists do a lot of thinking and writing – and disagreeing.

At our level of Anthropology we can get by without taking sides.

CULTURE is pivotal to Anthropology. Edward Tylor describes it as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art,morals,custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by many member of society” (1871)

UNESCO has a definition –“Learned thought and behaviour passed from one generation to another”

For Geertz 1973d;89)CULTURE is an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate and develop their knowledge about and their attitude towards life”

So what is ANTHROPOLOGY? From anthropos- a human being it is usually described as the study of mankind.. Or

“It seeks to understand and explain how human societies work” (Burns 2003).

Anthropologists are interested in discovering:

WHEN WHERE AND WHY humans appeared on the earth.

HOW and WHY they have changed since then

HOW and WHY Human populations vary in certain physical features

HOW and WHY societies past and present have varied in their customs, ideas and practices (Ember and Ember 1999)





Social Anthropology Handout 2


PLANTS THAT HEAL                                                                                                         Hand-out November 2014

“For what climate soeveris subject to any particular Disease, in the same Place there grows a cure”- a quote by Robert Turner (1664),an astrological botanist. Natural Botanic Knowledge (NBK) has been known probably before the first recorded usage. Ethnobotany is the mutual relationship between plants and people and Traditional Societies still use their Traditional Botanic Knowledge (TBK). This Knowledge entails Identification, Processing and Management which can be applied to modern day foragers and users. There are three approaches to TBK.

UTILITARIAN APPROACH –Which plants? What for? And how are they used?

COGNITIVE APPROACH – How are they perceived?

Symbolic Analysis – relates to art, myth, ritual.

Socio-Cultural Analysis – Could be restrictions of who collect or uses. Only the Shaman eg.

Ethnotaxonomic Analysis – Cultural classification of species or Doctrine of Signatures approach.

ECOLOGICAL APPROACH – Embraces knowledge of Sacred Groves, Evil Spirits.

Our plant usage is now historical, although there is tremendous interest in natural medicines and herb teas. Our TBK died through industrialisation and little access to meadows and woods. But Healing Plants have a long and interesting history. The Sumerians drew opium poppy in 2500BC and the Egyptians have left much evidence of their knowledge of cures. But the Greeks were instrumental in imparting their acquired and accumulated knowledge. Prior to this, in 6th and 5th C, the Chinese were well practiced and with the opening up of trade routes, knowledge and supplies began to be exchanged. Cinnamon, only found in Sri Lanka was evident in Egyptian tombs. Ayuverdic medicine was practiced in Sri Lanka and in India and throughout the East; pepper was used to cure many symptoms.

The theory of the Balance of Humors was a philosophy which lasted until modern times. This philosophy was developed by Aristotle and Hippocrates. Hippocrates believed that good health came from diet and exercise. Galen (131 – 200) was the most influential on Humor Theory. He supported the idea of 4 elements, Fire, Air, Water and Earth. This thinking confirmed the change from believing in the supernatural and basing theory on developing science.

Illness was seen to be the result of imbalance, excessive heat or cold and was treated with the opposite sort of food.

BLOOD                 associated with the heart corresponded to air and was warm and moist

PHLEGM              associated with the brain corresponded with water and was cold and moist

BLACK BILE          associated with the spleen corresponded to the earth and was cold and dry

YELLOW BILE      associated with the liver and corresponded to fire and was hot and dry.

Health is a balance of the four humors but one could be dominant.

SANGUINE -       Temperament of the BLOOD. Optimistic, cheerful, confident, even-tempered.

CHOLERIC -       Temperament of YELLOW BILE. Mean spirited, ‘colicky baby’, doer, leader,

MELANCHOLIC-Temperament of BLACK BILE. Thoughtful, kind, perfectionist, depressive

PHLEGMATIC     Temperament of the PHLEM. Self content, shy, relaxed,consistent,dependable

So each humor has two qualities – hot/cold; wet/dry. Galen confirmed that health depends on balance. Hot complaint needed cold treatment. Also evacuating liquid from the body was essential to flush out the poisons.

The Arabs became proficient in processing plants having developed techniques like distillation, crystallisation and mathematical calculation for prescriptions. In the middle Ages many books of Herbal Medicine were written, including one by Ibn al Bail (1197-1248) with reference to 1,400 products. They introduced sugar to medicine to take away nasty tastes and to stop bleeding. Medicine was particularly well developed in Baghdad in the middle Ages and Arabs travelled extensively to bring in new plants.

The growth of monasteries post 1066 resulted in the first infirmaries but herb or physic gardens arose at the time of Charlemagne (742 – 814). At first, monks would not treat ill people because they thought illness was divine retribution for evil ways. Eventually monks became very well informed. The Benedictines in particular were able to increase their stock and knowledge because they had houses all over Europe and no doubt welcomed new additions from returning Crusaders. Some herbs were fresh plants but others in a partially dried state were known as ‘drigan’ or ‘drugs’. Galen’s work was referred to having been translated by monks. Recent excavation at Soutra near Edinburgh by medieval waste specialist, Dr Brian Moffatt has turned up much evidence of plant usage. Chelsea Physic Garden was founded in 1673.

Shakespeare made 25 references to medicinal herbs and poisons and his son-in-law, John Hall was very well known for his innovations, like an enema made from chicken broth and herbs for tuberculosis. However many of the herbs he used have been proved to help recovery although the placebo effect cannot be ruled out. This need for plants resulted in a lucrative trade. Not only at home, but it also caused a desire to search the world for new plants and added to exploration.

For centuries, herbalists abounded and women often dispensed treatment. Sometimes it could include a bit of witchcraft.

The Doctrine of Signatures was the concept of the Italian, Paracelsus (1493 – 1541). This claimed that since plants were put on earth by God, He had provided signs in plants to show their potential use. Usually, liver remedies came from yellow plants (jaundice) nerves were treated with blue plants, the spleen with orange, blood with red or purple and bones with white. Then the exterior characteristics also gave a clue, with shape and texture as well as colour. Vetch, being kidney shape was for all kidney disorders, Pulmonaria with its mottled leaves is known as lungwort. Eyebright looks like a bloodshot eye and is used for conjunctivitis. Lady’s slipper orchid which has a deep sac and mouth - like feature was thought to resemble female genitalia and ground orchid root was used for female ailments. It was placed in a stoppered bottle with 2 parts of alcohol and left in a dark place for 8 days until it was red. It was then drunk.

There are many books with a huge selection of herbal remedies some of which are suggested for use today. Perhaps the huge development of herb and fruit teas makes experimentation safer!

Does anyone have some favourite remedies?

A few years ago we spent two sessions on mind altering drugs from plants. These are known as psycho-active drugs or narcotics. To remind you.

STIMULANTS - tea, coffee, cocoa, coca, betel, khat

INEBRIANTS –Where alcohol is obtained from a plant. Hops, all flower wines.


HALLUCINOGENS which act on the central nervous system to alter the mind or cause a trance.

Fly Agaric is the fairytale red mushroom with white spots, discovered in Siberia where it is used in many forms, including being chewed by women and rolled into pellets. Think Alice.

Solanaceous plants like henbane, datura, belladonna, nightshade and mandrake were popular and ‘Witches ointment’ is made of most of these plants which ‘allows’ witches to fly or turn into an animal – Lycanthropy. Mandrake has much lore. Since instant death is the result of pulling up mandrake, there was a practice of tying the root to a dog and tempting the dog with food!

HYPNOTICS which act as sedatives and tranquilisers. Opium, mandrake, kava, valerian, wormwood. Although the others are plant based, perhaps only HYPNOTICS which merge into medicinal use because they can reduce both physical and mental pain are Plants That Heal. Hallucogens could perhaps be considered because of the feeling of ‘well-being they promote. However, without knowledge they are ALL toxic.


Although ‘PLANTS THAT HEAL’ have little relevance to our everyday life now, they have not only provided synthetic compounds for many drugs today, but they have   served a useful purpose for several millennia. Even if the patient remained uncured, he probably felt better. They are only useful with Traditional Botanic Knowledge (TBK) Their use has encouraged scientific experimentation and extensive travel as well as publication of very many words on the subject for thousands of years. Plants have always supported man. Think of a life without plants.


Social Anthropology Handout 3

ATTITUDES TO THE ELDERLY (2)                                Handout                      January 2015

Last year, we looked at various cultural attitudes towards the Older Person and concluded that there has been an element of loss of dignity and respect the world over.

This month we will take 2 more approaches. One is based on the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘The Invisible Age’ with Mathew Sweet (available on IPlayer) where he challenges the ‘Ticking Time Bomb’ attitude in favour of celebrating reaching mature years. The other is to remember how useful we are and what a wealth of knowledge and experience we have.

Are we worth keeping alive? Should we feel guilty that we are taking so much of the precious resources? Should our determination to live on cause a crisis or is there not a way of having a smoother transition according to our wishes and abilities? Ageism, so apparent in Western Societies, is not like sexism or racism which can be resolved. Ageism is a continuum. There is a huge difference between 60 and 90, similar to birth and late twenties, but no-one would lump this group together. Can we not be more positive and decide that a much more viable division is between good health and a reasonable quality of life and those who cannot cope with being old either through bad health or social isolation. It is probable that this is the group the pollsters look at as being a ‘drain’ on resources. Perhaps what we need to do is to encourage those who are able, and support those who are not.

Mathew Sweet interviewed many ‘ordinary’ people as well as academics. It was agreed that since WW1, positive attitudes switched to younger people. At the same time, through modern medicine, people began to live longer – often much longer than before. Overall, those interviewed were happy with their lot because they had made the best of it. Many felt free from competitiveness and having to conform (‘When I am old I will wear purple’) However, they felt that they were not listened to and often patronised.

The eminent contributors included two moral philosophers, Baroness Warnock and Professor Mary Midgley, along with Baroness Sally Greengross who is Chairman of the International Longevity Centre, the former archbishop John Taylor and Clive James. All are still making a huge contribution with in their specialisation. Not surprisingly they tended to have a philosophical outlook. ‘Forget birthdays and think about experience’, Advanced age was seen as an intellectual resource to be called upon when needed. Consequently we could be seen as ‘a transmission belt of wisdom’. The analogy of a journey was mentioned where we had been travelling a long time and our destination was what we aspired to as the ultimate gain. In particular, Mary Midgley observes that we have passed through various stages and need to stand back and take a wider view. In order to reach an advanced age – and both philosophers are over 90, much tribulation and perseverance has been encountered and this builds character. Obviously it does not work with everyone but achievement is the result. So, without being too patronising, it could be said that anyone reaching an age of maturity has achieved well. The question here is, do younger generations appreciate and acknowledge this? Or, in fact, do we ourselves celebrate our achievement? This is the theme of ‘The Invisible Age’.

So how useful are we? What can we offer? We no longer live in three generation families where granny moved in after being widowed, probably fairly young. Our families are considerably fragmented. But what we do have is TIME although talking with members of

any U3A group, this could certainly be disputed. But others think we have time. Family for instance, if we are lucky enough to live nearby. Last session we acknowledged the enormous input many of us have in caring for grandchildren. Many of us are also caring for an elderly parent. Not much time to sit in the rocking chair on the veranda. Of course some people have no family at all or maybe they are rarely accessible. So for family matters, not forgetting ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’ we are useful. Indispensable in fact. But what about ‘getting a life’ in twilight years. Everyone here today must be participating in that. In addition to learning a language, taking up a new skill, even a degree is there a way to contribute to the world of work – this world that is supporting us whilst we learn the ukulele (not forgetting that we have contributed not only in skill, but financially all our working lives).There are initiatives like B & Q where people over retirement age can be employed, and recent legislation states that there is now no optimum retirement age.(see later) Of course, some jobs are prohibitive on grounds of physical strength and stamina.

We have considered our usefulness and enormous knowledge but there are some achievements which are perhaps sadly only of use for our grandchildren’s social history projects. They will never need to use a slide rule or log table. Will they ever darn socks or make starch? And try talking imperial measurements with anyone under 40. However, knitting has made a comeback and some younger people do long to return to ;the simple life’ with some TV programmes to support the romantic view.

To end, Mary Midgely talks about the ‘two tribes’ the workers and the retired. Understandably many people look forward to retirement and others, including some in this group, ‘keep their hand in’ by working perhaps by ‘bank’ working. Mary Midgely suggests we ease ourselves into retirement through part time (although this has pension implications) and whatever happened to ‘job-share? Academics in America are able to continue working on research but hand over administration to the next generation. She argues that such compromises should be seen as normal and not exceptional. And many younger women would welcome shorter hours without loss of prestige. In this way, older workers can share their accumulated knowledge without interfering with management. Another suggestion is that accumulated skills, social and career gained could be harnessed through volunteering. A simple but glaring omission through several generations is an inability to cook. Reading, gardening, DIY also. And caring for our less able peers providing here is no physical excess. And remember that every group leader at every U3A is making a positive contribution. The trouble is that essential police checks does make some procedure cumbersome. But perhaps the guilt will be removed, even though we may be helped in our longevity through medical support. But younger generations will not lump us all together as ‘old’ but will continue to appreciate our potential and usefulness.

Hoping for some discussion in this session!!

Some further reading.

According to ‘The Observer, Sunday 11th January 2015, fixing the problem of ‘Ageing’ is the new mission for Silicon Valley’ …where biotech firms are working to extend life – despite huge fears of the social implications. Recommendation made by Mathew Sweet ‘The View in Winter’ (1969) Ronald Blyth and Mary Midgley referred to ‘How to Live for Ever or Die trying’ (2008) Brian Appleyard. Also ‘Warning When I am Old I shall wear Purple (1961)-Jenny Joseph.(I have this book)(1p on Amazon!)

Social Anthropology Handout 4

EASTERN SLAVE ROUTES FROM AFRICA       handout                MARCH 2015

We covered Slavery in 2008 and Brazil in 2013 with emphasis on the Atlantic Triangular Trade. However, the Eastern Trade is under researched and overshadowed by the Atlantic Trade and its consequences. Probably a similar number of slaves were transported East but over a period of 1,000 years. Conditions and consequences are very different.

Centuries before the Portuguese began colonising, the Arabs had carried out a lucrative Slave Trade, as well as being central to the Spice Trade. Slaves are mentioned in the Old Testament, Greek and Roman records.

Slaves were sought by the Nawabs and Sultans of the Arab States and India, first recorded in India in 11thC. The Siddis still form a recognisable group in India with the Baluchis in Iran and the Kaffirs in Sri Lanka. African slaves reached China and Japan

There are huge differences between the history of slaves traded east and west.

First, the Trade went on from the 10th C. and African (and occasionally captured European) slaves were transported to countries which were already well advanced culturally. This is in contrast to the Western Trade which lasted only around 200 years specifically to provide mass labour for plantations and other colonial initiatives. The east had no need for mass labour.

Following on, male slaves became sailors and soldiers and although not free, their life was much more agreeable in that they were often allowed to increase their status and in China were offered women as concubines. Many female slaves became ladies maids servants and probably females were in the majority.

The slaves transported to the Caribbean and the Americas have obviously shaped the demography of these areas and caused much cultural conflict and change. In contrast, only the Siddis of India and the Kaffirs of Sri Lanka remain as identifiable documented cultural communities. Over the centuries, traces of the millions traded from the 10th century have become so assimilated that only DNA would prove former presence. Occasionally, in Turkey for instance, a very dark skinned baby will be born, part of the heritage of the thousands of Africans transported to the Ottoman Empire.

The Siddis (Afro Indians) are a traibal population whose members live in the coastal areas of Karnataka, Gujarat, Karnataka and Andrha Pradesh.Historical records indicate that the Portuguese brought the Siddis to India from Africa about 300–500 years ago; however, there is little information about their more precise ancestral origins. Using modern techniques the team discovered that the Siddis have inherited ancestry from Africans, Indians, and possibly Europeans (Portuguese). Additional analysis indicate that the Siddis trace their ancestry to Bantu speakers from sub-Saharan Africa. They estimate that the admixture between the African ancestors of the Siddis and neighbouring South Asian groups probably occurred in the past eight generations (200 years ago), consistent with historical records. Records show that Bantu (Niger and Congo basin) settled in East Africa which was eventually conquered by the Portuguese. Thus they came to be sold as slaves to the Nawabs and Sultans

The Kaffirs (an ethnic not a derogatory label) were brought to Sri Lanka by the Portuguese around 1500 chiefly to serve in the army and they remained in a garrison north of Colombo until 1816 when slavery in Sri Lanka was abolished. A few had been retained as servants throughout all colonial rule. In 1865, the 3rd Ceylon Regiment of which the Kaffirs formed a sizable part was disbanded and they were given a plot of land. However, the Kaffirs were unused to agriculture so they worked as construction workers, water carriers, palmquin bearers and government workers. There are now around 50 identifiable families left, living in a village called Sirambiyadiya near Puttalam. They are devoutly Catholic in a densely Catholic area of Sri Lanka due to Portuguese influence.Only a few older people understand the original PORTUGUESE Creole or original lingua franco. The total population of Sri Lanka is 20 million so the Kaffirs do not show as a statistic. Compare this with Jamaica where 90% of the 2.715 million are black Afro Caribbean, all descended from slaves. Remember that the Eastern slaves were introduced to countries with large, established populations and so they were always a small minority. probably maintaining some status. The former slaves may have become assimilated over centuries but the Siddis and Kaffirs have managed to sustain elements of their culture through music and dance.

Siddi maintained a musical tradition, and originally were required to perform at celebrations for their masters. Now mostly for ancestor worship which despite varying religions, brings them together. Their dress, instruments and music remain more African than Indian.

Kaffir music includes Baila, Manha and Kaffrinha. Baila (Portuguese = dance) music is based on European melodic system merging with Asian and African harmony. Manha is handed down orally and only traditional songs are sung. Kaffrinha is a very lively dance which was adapted by Colombo society in the 1920’s and increases in speed to end abruptly/

Even though these slaves were stripped of everything they owned, music, dance and oral tradition remained. As it does across the Atlantic. Music, singing and dancing was more than an entertainment, it was a collective social identification. Music holds everything together – language, religion, identity, resistance and escapism as well as still being entertaining. There is an element of spirit possession present which helped to preserve and express their culture which could be handed over ritually and orally, preserved and passed on to others.

From an anthropological view, both diasporas illustrate the adaptation of cultures to a new culture. In the West, the African culture had a profound effect on the conditions and consequences, In the East, the strong military impact is all but forgotten and only music and dance have been preserved. But this is sufficient to have made a contribution to music of the Middle East and Asia. An example of the adaptability of music and its ability to connect is illustrated by the lyre and thus, the African migrants have become ‘culture brokers’ between the two continents.

My thanks to Dr Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya for bringing this to my attention. A few researchers have approached this subject, she leads the way, especially in Sri Lanka. Shihan is a linguist with music speciality and highly academic.

Social Anthropology Handout 5


According to FAO, a STAPLE FOOD is one that is eaten regularly and in such quantities as to constitute the dominant part of the diet and supply most nutrients and energy. It is also dependant on climate, ecology and knowledge of the crop, from generations of usage. Most people live on a diet based on one or more of these staples. Rice, wheat, maize, sorghum cereals; potatoes, yams, cassava and taro roots and tubers; and animal products including meat and milk products. Even in our modern world, past practices have affected our way of life and altered demography. Eg Irish influx into the U.S.A. after the potato famine.

Just 15 crop plants provide 90% of the world’s food energy intake with rice, maize and wheat in the lead, being the staple diet of 4,000million people. Rice feeds almost half. There is a slow shift away from rice as globalisation and urbanisation opens up McDonalds Roots and tubers are important staples to 1,000 million in the developing world. This too is falling because urban populations buy imported cereals. Chips and potato crisps are found everywhere as a quick snack.

Plants originally dismissed as ‘poor people’s foods’ are finding fame. Quinoa, Amaranth and cassava. And who ate sweet potatoes 10 years


Corn is the most produced grain in the world and a staple food for sub Saharan Africa as well as (see ‘Brazil and Foods of USA) being traditional food of indigenous American Indians, popular worldwide.

It is also increasingly used for ethanol.

Wheat covers more of the earth than any other crop, very resistant Bread is ‘the staff of life’

Rice is consumed

Potatoes give the greatest yield of any root crop. More of this later.

Cassava is a starch heavy life-saver for low incomes Taro equivalent in Pacific region

Soyabean is nutritious for humans and a soil fertiliser. It produces twice as much protein per acre as any other vegetable crop. Now used widely as meat substitute for vegetarians in Western world.

Sweet potatoes also originated South America but China is now largest producer.

Sorghum thrives in drought and is the fifth most important cereal crop. Seen any sorghum?

Yam is often confused with sweet potato but it is the massivew grey skinned tuber. Nigeria is the biggest producer in the world There are Yam festival throughout Africa.

Plantain looks like a large green banana and are always cooked. Reducing in popularity.

There is much ritual and tradition attached to crops – our own harvest Festival for example which is a vestige of ancient practice. People who depend on the earth will have some ritual. his session will concentrate on crop based stapes in general and the POTATO in particular

Potato can be traced back to the Peruvian Andes 8,000 years ago. Hunter Gatherers began domesticating the many species 7,000 years ago and fossilised remains have been found. Decorated urns and pots show the potato plant and the Incas revered the potato to the extent of having potato gods and goddesses. Farmers were very creative, layering differently tolerant potatoes up the mountain to a height of 11,500 feet with tomatoes beans and maize at the base. They employed a drying method called chuno which involves freezing and sun drying. Since potatoes were their staple diet it was essential to preserve them and preserve Food Security. The Incas continued to select and improve and the Andes still purports to be the centre of the potato world with the International Potato Centre for research in Lima in a country which boasts 3,800 species. There is also a Potato Museum in the USA. Farmers in parts of the High Andes measure land in topo - the area needed to grow their potato supply and time was measured by how long it took to boil a pot of potatoes.

With the Spanish Conquest and destruction of the Incas, the potato found its way to Europe around 1532. The Spanish originally mistook solanum tuberosum for ipomaoea batatas or sweet potato which they called batata. Initially it was not well received in Europe. It is not mentioned in the Bible, was thought to spread leprosy and TB because the tubers resembled decayed organs. It was soon identified as a member of the Deadly Nightshade family and obviously poisonous. Since then it has been seen as a cure – for-all, and a potato poultice is supposed to cure piles, ulcers, gout etc.

It took much creativity to make the potato acceptable, and royalty were approached in several ways to give the lead. Unfortunately when Sir Walter Raleigh made a gift of potato to Queen Elizabeth with a banquet, the cooks discarded the lumpy tubers and cooked leaves and stems with disastrous results since they are poisonous. Parmentier in France was desperate to convert the French. Adam Smith compared nutrition and nourishment of the potato with wheat and eventually, it ‘took on’.

Russia is the main European producer with Germany 4th,UK 8th and Ireland 25th.

Potatoes travelled the world with the Spanish and Portuguese, the Dutch and later the British. Although potatoes originated in South America it was Europeans who introduced them to North America in the 18thC. Credit is given to an Irish/Scottish Presbyterian settlement in Londonderry, N.H making it now 4th in world production behind China, Russia and India. Think, potato chop suey?

Africa has received the potato more recently. Egypt comes top and originally production expanded to feed British troops in WW1. Missionaries and Colonisers brought it to Malawi, Dutch seafarers to South Africa, the French to Algeria and Morocco and by German soldiers to Rwanda. Ethiopia probably has most potential to provide food security.

Perhaps the most important social impact of the potato in modern history was the Irish Potato Famine from 1845 to 1847.It started in the USA, spread to the Low Countries and Britain before reaching Ireland where it was THE staple diet and also the main fodder for animals. At first it savaged 45% of the crop but bad management and a lack of help from Britain and rich Irish landlords caused desperation leading to more than a million dying or emigrating. The Irish caused permanent change in demography in America, Scotland and England including increasing the Catholic population as the Poles are doing today.

So how about Fish and Chips? What cultural implications can be drawn to what Churchill called ‘The Good Companions’. The origin of the chip is debateable. Fried fish however, came via Sephardic Jews originating from Spain and Portugal where they were sold in the street. But whether they came together around the 1850’s in the East End or Lancashire will be forever debated. Italian immigrants passing through saw the potential of commerce and so ‘chip shops were born. It seems they were wrapped in newspaper to keep down the price – until 1980.Fish and chips helped us through two world wars – and the government made sure they were easily available – like our cuppa, in order to keep up morale.

Prior to this, fish and chips was often the only hot meal and at the turn of the 20thC malnutrition and poverty was dire. People were crammed into small rooms where cooking was impossible, dangerous or nor the habit. Fuel and cooking utensils cost money. Upper classes disdained fish and chip shops and they were invariably unhygienic and probably dangerous. In addition, it was thought that visiting a Fish and Chip shop was shirking responsibility.’ moral degradation born of slothful housekeeping.’ But millworkers and miners survived on this essential protein and nutrition.

So have potatoes changed the world? Many believe that its introduction to Europe spelled the end of famine. It was easy to grow and a family could survive on a small plot. This led to a gradual population explosion. Eventually it inaugurated the agro-industrial complex. Before this, historians claim that the great Azrec Empire could not have survived without the staple food of the Andes.

The potato has touched social habits and produced ancient rituals. It re-invented the Irish and provides food security. Finally Fish and Chips with a cup of tea is essentially our British Heritage.