In the last decade or so, the role of feasting in ancient societies has been extensively studied by many archaeologists covering various regions, periods and cultures. Without a doubt, in ancient societies (and in Modern ones as well…) feasting plays an important role in social cohesion, social hierarchy, food distribution, and various other aspects. Much has been written about this and in fact in recent years, more attention has been placed on this topic in the study of the ancient Levant, including several studies which have dealt with this topic on Iron Age finds (such as yours truly and Louise Hitchcock relating to the Philistines [for example, see here]; possible evidence of this at Ramat Rachel; suggested hints to this in the Samaria ostraca; etc.).
While I have been aware of the central importance of feasting in the archaeological record (having read and written about this topic in the past), seeing an actual example of feasting in a society that is much more traditional than the ones that you are usually exposed to, really stressed the major roles that such activities played in ancient societies.
Just such an opportunity arose when I had the honor to visit the village of Teptep, in the Finisterre Mt. Range in NW Papua New Guinea. During our visit, we had the honor of being invited by the local community who hosted us, for the inauguration a new church/synagogue (this is a Christian group which strongly identifies with Judaism…), and among other things, to mark this event, they had a feast, to which the entire village of Teptep was invited, as well as dignitaries and visitors from villages from the surrounding region.
Here is a picture of Pastor Shlomo and myself with a bunch of kids (and a couple of adults) from the village of Teptep, who are wearing traditional attire as part of the “Singsing” (traditional dance conducted on special occasions) to welcome us to the village.
For the feast itself, there were elaborate preparations. This included digging a pit (a “mumu” pit) which would serve as the pit in which the foods were cooked; making a big fire in which a large pile of stones were heated and then placed in the “mumu” and which actually cooked the food; collecting a large amount of food to be cooked in the “mumu” – including taro, potatoes, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, beans, cabbage, and cauliflower, as well as chicken and lamb (and other foods, such as rice and vegetables which were cooked separately – for people like me…).
The day before, a large rectangular pit was dug, and wood and large stones were collected. In the middle of the night prior to the day of the feast, a large fire was started and into which a large pile of stones was placed. This fire burnt for 3-4 hours, and then, at first light, once the stones had become red hot, they began to place them in the “mumu” pit, which had first been swathed with banana leaves. After the bottom of the pit was covered in hot stones, an additional layer of leaves was put in to cover the stones, and then they commenced placing the various layers of the different types of foods, with additional layers of stones and leaves in between. The last layer of food was the chicken and sheep (this community, as opposed to most people in PNG, does not eat pork, due to their religious beliefs).
The pit was then covered over with various layers of leaves, wood and finally earth, and was then left untouched for several hours.
After the inauguration ceremony, the pit was opened to reveal the cooked food. Following a blessing that Pastor Shlomo performed over the cooked food in the pit, the contents were taken out.
The food was served at two locations:
* The “inner circle” – consisting of the immediate family and congregation leaders, along with dignitaries from villages in the region.
* The “outer circle” – food for the entire village
The first people to get food were the guests (us and then leaders of the various leaders from nearby villages), followed by the leaders of the community and their families, and then friends, etc. At the same time, the rest of the village was given food at another location.
As you can see in the pictures, the quantities of food were quite substantial! This gathering not only provided a very nice and nourishing meal to all the many participants, it was an important social gathering, both for the village, the community and neighboring groups and leaders – and served to strengthen connections in the community, and between the community and other groups.
Very enlightening, interesting – and very honored to have been invited to participate in this special occasion.
Here is a PowerPoint presentation with some pictures from the event – check it out:
P.S. Just to stress how important feasting is in contemporary society, I can mention the old Jewish joke: “Question: How does one define what is behind the Jewish Holidays? Answer: They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat”… :-)