With the British currently horrified at having been tricked into breaking one of their most cherished taboos and the associated scandal now spreading to Europe, it’s with peculiar timing that I should learn that my paper (co-authored with Jean-Luc Houle) “More than Just Horse: Dietary Breadth and Subsistence in Bronze Age Central Mongolia” should have recently been published in Mongolian Journal of Anthropology, Archaeology and Ethnology. Of course, the real issue in the European meat trade scandal is one of labelling and honesty (although I’d question the intelligence of anyone who honestly believed that bargain processed meat was ever anything but suspicious) but the way that it has been reported in Britain serves to remind us of the cultural implications of dietary choice. Were this a muslim country then it’s safe to assume that the pork that ended up unlabelled in beef meatballs would have been more controversial.
The reasons behind the British taboo on hippophagy remain as obscure as its origins. The simple truth is that we do not know when the taboo began or why. I recently read an archaeologist who referred to the consumption of horse-flesh in Mediaeval Winchester but did so without fully explaining that interpretation, which is a great shame when related to such a controversial topic and in a period which sees butchered horse remains more commonly interpreted as dog-food waste in Britain. Others have suggested that the taboo extends back into at least the Iron Age. What we do know is that the taboo is not shared by our neighbours across the English Channel: the taboo is a peculiarly British phenomenon not shared by our Europeans cousins.
Given the prevalence of this taboo, largely carried over to other British-settled states such as Canada, Australia, South Africa and the USA, it may seem odd that academics might argue for the existence of a people subsisting on nothing but horse meat. Nevertheless, that is just what has been suggested in the case of prehistoric Mongolia; a case of the projected ‘barbarous other’? Our work in Mongolia has revealed a far more complex society than hitherto suggested, with a dietary base already broad in the Bronze Age. Here’s a copy of the abstract of that article I mentioned that’s just been published:
Our current state of knowledge of subsistence strategies and dietary breadth in Bronze Age Mongolia has been hampered by a monument focused research paradigm, which has largely ignored habitation sites. This approach has skewed our understanding by extrapolating the ordinary from the extraordinary. The Khanuy Valley Project has recently excavated Bronze Age transhumant habitation sites in central Mongolia and recovered the associated faunal remains. Analysis has revealed a complex subsistence strategy focused on the herding of several species of domestic animal, with dietary breadth increased through the minimal exploitation of wild resources.