Anthropology, Department of


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Published in Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 16 (1997) , pp. 1–48. Copyright © 1997 Academic Press. Used by permission.


Heat treatment is one of the major ways humans change the composition and chemistry of food tissues, making them more digestible, less toxic, and more durable. This paper reviews salient features of food chemistry and food composition and how heat treatment, especially pit-hearth cooking, affects that composition. Ethnographic accounts of cooking indicate that traditional populations relied on pit-hearth cooking especially to alter the composition of foods high in either lipids or complex carbohydrates. Historically, pit hearths were also used to process large quantities of food. Various kinds of pit hearths figure prominently in the archaeological deposits of the American Great Plains and elsewhere. The implications of this recurring phenomenon are discussed in terms of the coevolution of diet, cooking systems, and the appearance of Neel’s ‘‘thrifty’’ genotype.

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