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Globalization in Guinea Pig Bones

Posted On July 13, 2020 | 14:56 pm | by ostmannj01 | Permalink
Sarah Kennedy establishes why food is key to understanding power, identity, and status in colonial Peru

Sarah Kennedy, a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh, was a recent junior fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies. Her research report, “Diet, Labor, and Identity: Indigenous Livelihoods in the Silver Refining Industry of Colonial Peru,” shared insights into the lives of Indigenous laborers in the Lake Titicaca region of Peru through the food they ate.


Q&A with Sarah Kennedy

Why are gastropolitics important for understanding colonial Peru?

Gastropolitics is a term first used by anthropologist Arjun Appadurai to describe how food and cuisine transmit social messages during meals. This is especially true in times of social conflict. Food isn’t just something we eat to sustain our bodies. It is related to our identity and ethnicity and gender. Where, when, how, and what we eat sends messages about our beliefs and social standing in the world.

Colonial Peru is an interesting microcosm to study gastropolitics because the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were periods of great social conflict with the clash of multiple cultures. You had enslaved Africans forced to work in silver mines, Spanish conquistadors, mestizos (mixed-race individuals), and multiple Indigenous groups, all of whom spoke different languages and had different ideas of what was or was not “edible” food or a “proper” meal. Once the Spanish invaded Peru, they made decisions on what food was brought from Europe, which foods were not brought from Africa, and what local Andean foods were considered edible and socially appropriate. For example, local Indigenous practices of consuming chicha (maize beer) and chewing coca (a native Andean stimulant) were viewed as dangerous and amoral by the Spanish.


What does your zooarchaeological research reveal about identity?

Zooarchaeology, or faunal analysis, is the study of animal remains: their bones, teeth, eggshells, feathers, and even their poop! I excavated a colonial silver refinery called Trapiche Itapalluni in Puno, Peru, to find the remains of animals that were used in ancient meals. I concentrated on excavating in Indigenous laborer households, where people might have eaten or had a hearth or swept trash into corners and around doorways. I also looked at trash middens where everyone at the refinery would have dumped their waste. Back in the lab, I cleaned the excavated animal bones with toothbrushes and then sorted and identified them by their size and shape. For example, bird bones are hollow, while cow bones are large and robust. So you can tell them apart through analysis.

My zooarchaeological results revealed differences in social status and power among the individuals who lived at the silver refinery during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I found the mestizo overseer had access to peaches, guinea pig meat (a higher-status food in the Andes), better-quality cuts of llama meat, and generally more diverse types of foods than the Indigenous laborers at the site. Eating a diverse diet as opposed to just dried llama meat and potatoes for your entire life can tell you a lot about someone’s quality of life: it’s another way of looking at power and status and identity.


Why might people have chosen to work at a silver refinery?

That’s a good question. Many laborers did not have a choice and were forced to work in silver refineries. These were harsh places to live: laborers breathed in toxic fumes and were forced to mix mercury and silver with their bare feet. My research revealed that most laborers at the Trapiche refinery weren’t in control of how and what they ate. They were often “paid” in food provisions instead of wages, which were purchased from colonial towns (similar to how nineteenth-century coal miners were often paid in company scrip, only redeemable at a company store).   

But being an overseer or caretaker at a silver refinery would have put you in a position of power if you were an Indigenous or mixed-race person—again, “power” here is indicated by the quality and diversity of foods and prestige goods (like jewelry) I found inside houses at the refinery. So some people did come to work at silver refineries in the hope of gaining power, prestige, and riches.

Later in the colonial period, I think many Indigenous laborers chose to work in silver refineries because there were few other industries where they could gain wages. Also, because silver refining was a seasonal business and work only lasted a few months of the year, laborers didn’t have to disrupt their entire lives to gain an additional income. I found evidence (such as shawl pins for women’s garments) that women lived at the refinery too, and likely worked there as well. Because I also found evidence of llama and alpaca herds being raised near the refinery while it was occupied, I think children and family members of refinery workers also traveled there to take care of their animal herds. This is further evidence that short-term work at silver refineries didn’t cause a huge disruption to Indigenous families.  


Julia Ostmann is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, postgraduate digital media fellow.