“The Epic of Gilgamesh” is one of the earliest texts known in the world. It’s the story of a god-king, Gilgamesh, who ruled the city of Uruk in Mesopotamia in the 3rd millennium B.C. Within its lines, the epic hints at how the ancients viewed the origins of their civilization.
Gilgamesh’s antagonist, Enkidu, is described as a wild man, living with the beasts and eating grasses with the gazelles. But he’s seduced by a beautiful temple priestess who then offers him clothing and food, saying “Enkidu, eat bread, it is the staff of life; drink the wine, it is the custom of the land.” And so Enkidu is transformed from a naked wild beast into a “civilized” man living with other people.
Both bread and wine are products of settled society. They represent the power to control nature and create civilization, converting the wild into the tamed, the raw into the cooked – and their transformation cannot be easily done alone. The very act of transforming the wild into the civilized is a social one, requiring many people to work together.
Over the past few decades, archaeological theory has shifted toward the idea that civilization arose in different regions around the world thanks to the evolution of cooperation. Archaeologists have discovered that the consumption of food and drink in ritually prescribed times and places — known technically as feasting — is one of the cornerstones of heightened sociality and cooperation throughout human history. My own research in Peru bears this out. The data from my colleagues’ and my work provides yet another detailed case study for theorists to model the evolution of complexity in one of the rare places where a civilization independently developed.