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Try out PMC Labs and tell us what you think. Learn More. Food taboos are known from virtually all human societies. Most religions declare certain food items fit and others unfit for human consumption. Dietary rules and regulations may govern particular phases of the human life cycle and may be associated with special events such as menstrual period, pregnancy, childbirth, lactation, and — in traditional societies — preparation for the hunt, battle, wedding, funeral, etc.
On a comparative basis many food taboos seem to make no sense at all, as to what may be declared unfit by one group may be perfectly acceptable to another. On the other hand, food taboos have a long history and one ought to expect a sound explanation for the existence and persistence of certain dietary customs in a given culture.
Yet, this is a highly debated view and no single theory may explain why people employ special food taboos. This paper wants to revive interest in food taboo research and attempts a functionalist's explanation. However, to illustrate some of the complexity of possible reasons for food taboo five examples have been chosen, namely traditional food taboos in orthodox Jewish and Hindu societies as well as reports on aspects of dietary restrictions in communities with traditional lifestyles of Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, and Nigeria.
An ecological or medical background is apparent for many, including some that are seen as religious or spiritual in origin. On the one hand food taboos can help utilizing a resource more efficiently; on the other food taboos can lead to the protection of a resource. Food taboos, whether scientifically correct or not, are often meant to protect the human individual and the observation, for example, that certain allergies and depression are associated with each other could have led to declaring food items taboo that were identified as causal agents for the allergies.
Moreover, any food taboo, acknowledged by a particular group of people as part of its ways, aids in the cohesion of this group, helps that particular group maintain its identity in the face of others, and therefore creates a feeling of "belonging". Years ago a student asked me the following question: "Why don't all animals eat the same kinds of food? Afterall, to grow and survive, animals all need the same basic things: carbohydrates, protein, fats, some minerals and water. Why are there herbivores, carnivores, detritovores, insectivores, fungivores, coprophages, xylophages and many more? Although it is true that all heterotrophic organisms need the same fundamental food stuffs, it is easy to understand that on of their different sizes, different anatomies, and different habitats, different species must make use of different food sources to satisfy their needs.
A cat would happily devour the meat of an antelope and a Looking to text about taboo forbidden would not reject a mouse, but both are not built for these kinds of food items. A tree-dwelling leaf-eater does not graze on the ground and a grazer does not climb trees. Pond snails may love lettuce, but they can never leave their watery realm. Moreover, it is a "Law of Nature" that, where there is an underexploited resource, it usually does not take long before such a resource is 'discovered' and used by some organism.
Yet, intense competition for one and the same kind of food by two species ultimately would lead to the extinction of one of them or it would result in the two species occupying Looking to text about taboo forbidden niches, either in connection with the food itself or the timing of feeding [ 12 ]. It is, thus, easy to understand why different species of animals with different anatomies and habitat preferences should use different food items, but food specialists within a species also occur and it is then less obvious why individuals of one and the same species should exploit different resources.
It becomes really tricky, when some adults of the same gender, species, and overall physical built nevertheless vary in relation to their food preferences. Yet, no ecologist or zoologist would use the term "food taboo" to describe intraspecific food preferences of this kind in animals, but in connection with humans we do use the term "food taboo". We use it or refer to "prohibitions" to distinguish the deliberate avoidance of a food item for reasons other than simple dislike from food preferences.
In non-human mammals, dominant individuals may force weaker ones to accept less sought-after food items, and a possible liking for these originally reluctantly accepted food items may in turn develop [ 23 ]. Some aspect of this scenario may also apply to human societies, because food taboos can be imposed on individuals by outsiders, or by members of the kinship group to manifest themselves through instruction and example during upbringing [ 4 ].
Probably food taboos as unwritten social rules exist in one form or another in every society on Earth, for it is a fact that perhaps nowhere in the world, a people, a tribe, or an ethnic group, makes use of the full potential of edible items in its surroundings [ 5 - 10 ]. One of many examples, although an especially well-studied one, involves the Ache people, i. According to Hill and Hurtado [ 6 ], the tropical forests of the Ache habitat abound with several hundreds of edible mammalian, avian, reptilian, amphibian and piscine species, yet the Ache exploit only 50 of them.
Turning to the plants, fruits, and insects the situation is no different, because only 40 of them are exploited. Ninety eight percent of the calories in the diet of the Ache are supplied by only seventeen different food sources. Although mere avoidance of potential food for whatever reason does not in itself ify a food taboo, it is easy to see how regular avoidance can turn into a tradition and eventually end up as a food taboo [ 7810 ]. But what is it that le to the regular avoidance? Social anthropological research on eating and food taboos cf.
A functionalist's explanation of food taboos as mechanisms for conserving resources as well as a person's health, have been less popular cf. Yet even rituals and taboos based on spiritual, religious, and magic ideation must have had a "history" and somehow 'got going' [ 7 - 1120 - 23 ]. Therefore, given that food taboos can involve plants as well as animals, solids as well as liquids, hot as well as coldwet and dry items, etc. The five examples chosen reflect the author's own cultural background Jewish dietary lawsor are based on original field research by the author in Central Australia, Papua New Guinea, and India, or refer to other persons' published work e.
Based on the authors own experience, observations, recordings, and interactions with locals, examples of Jewish dietary laws and Hindu practices form the basis of examples 4 and 5. Research stays in India of 2 months Meghalaya and Nagaland and three weeks Karnataka and Goa during sabbaticals in and as well as a Brahmin Indian wife further helped gathering the necessary information for the section on Hindu food Looking to text about taboo forbidden. Field work by the author in Papua Niugini of several weeks each in Onabasulu and neighbouring tribes,and Kiriwinaduring which the author stayed with the locals in their villages or homeste and then studied the locals' entomophagic practices as well as food taboos, forms the basis for the information given in example 2.
Information in the field was always gathered from more than one informant although it has to be mentioned that the informants were all males. Examples 1 and 3 Orang Asli and Mid-West Nigerian food taboos were chosen from the literature available, because they illustrated yet other aspects and reasons for food taboos, not covered in the earlier mentioned examples.
Thus, the selection of the examples represents a mixture between emic experiences from within a culture and etic approaches, i. The reason for the selection of the examples was twofold: to demonstrate the existence of very different possible food taboo reasons and to re-ignite interest in this important field of inter-disciplinary research. The term 'Orang Asli' describes a variety of aboriginal tribes, nowadays confined to the forests and forest fringes of West Malaysia. Food taboos amongst these people have been recorded by Bolton [ 24 ].
In the context of this review, the Orang Asli were chosen as an example of a people, in which food taboos appear to serve a double-purpose: the spiritual well-being of individuals and resource partitioning. Human flesh is never eaten and animals, which the Orang Asli have kept as pets or have reared, are also protected. They can be sold, though, or given away to others, who then would have no qualms of consuming them.
An animal that is capable of feeding on a human being will not be eaten as it conceivably could contain some "humanness" in it. Small lizards and leeches Looking to text about taboo forbidden considered to be unclean to the jungle Orang Asli. Should a leech, for example, accidentally drop into the cooking pot, all its contents will be regarded as contaminated and thrown away. Thus, the crow is thought to be poisonous and is rarely eaten.
Likewise, any small, crawling animal living in or on the soil, is usually left alone for fear it might be dangerous. Since all animals are considered to possess spirits, many Orang Asli will start their weaned children of more than 4 years of age on small animals: fish, frogs, to, small birds and water snails.
When the child gets a bit older, rats and mice can be added to the list of edible species. At 20 years of age the human spirit is deemed to be strong enough to successfully compete with the spirits of small monkeys, bat species, cats, anteaters, deer, turtle, larger birds, and even the Malayan bear. Later in age snakes, gibbons, and bigger animals, including the elephant, no longer remain taboo. Pregnant women have strict food taboos to observe and must restrict themselves to rats, squirrels, frogs, to, smaller birds and fishes, that is animals which are small and thought to possess "weak" spirits.
Moreover, rodents may be eaten only if caught by the pregnant woman's husband or a near relative and she must eat the whole rodent by herself. Fish must also be caught by a near relative but never with a spear or with the help of explosives.
After childbirth, the mother normally eats gruel for a week and for 6 weeks thereafter has to eat on her own. She continues to observe food taboos, but her husband, who observed the same food restrictions as his pregnant wife, is then no longer bound by them. Special 6-day food taboos may be "prescribed" by a medicine man for any sick person that seeks his advice. Although the food taboos of the Orang Asli are not totally absolute, men are always ready to remind the younger women and children of the dangers of breaking them and of eating meat of new and unfamiliar species.
In Papua New Guinea 'Niugini" in Pidgin-English with her multitude of peoples and cultures, food taboos are particularly varied. The example chosen illustrate that many food taboos are deed to protect humans from health hazards real and assumed. Yet, a tendency by some section of the society to safeguard exclusive rights to certain food items is also obvious. Onabasulu and neighbouring tribes with institutionalized homosexuality, like the Kaluli and others, regard with great suspicion any organism that lives or burrows in the soil [ 25 ].
Even harmless earthworms are detested. Illnesses are thought to frequently stem from the wrong food intake: stomach ache sufferers must Looking to text about taboo forbidden juicy fruits, such as watermelons, pawpaw, cabbage and the introduced pineapple. Women are thought to be permanently in this 'sickly' and 'runny' state, because of recurring menstruations and are not allowed fresh meat, juicy bananas and all fruits of the forest of red colour. If a menstruating woman eats a fresh animal caught in a trap, it is thought that future traps will not fall; if the animal was caught with a dog, it is feared that the dog will lose its ability to find scent.
Similarly, bananas and pandanus: if a menstruating woman happens to eat some of these fruits, it is believed that the trees will then cease to bear. A woman herself must leave the communal longhouse and move to a shack some distance away for the duration of her period.
If she should cook or step over food, those who eat it, particularly her husband, will become "ill with cough and possibly die" [ 26 ]. Mature women must not eat fish and when pregnant are not even permitted eggs.
Young unmarried men receive the best food and have to obey the smallest of food taboos. When married, they, like their wives, can no longer eat fresh, but only smoked meat. In the Kiriwina Trobriand Islanders, pregnant women, too, have a considerable amount of food taboos to observe: fishes that lead a cryptic life or like to attach themselves to corals are not to be eaten by a pregnant woman, because this might cause her to have a complicated birth.
Similar beliefs are attached to bananas, pawpaws, mango, and other fruits; they are thought to either cause a hydrocephalus, club-foot, distorted belly or give rise to other deformities in the newborn [ 2728 ]. In addition to these food taboos, different ones, affecting men, also exist. If the men intend to go fishing for sharks, they not only have to abstain from sexual intercourse for a while, but they also have to fast posuma and drink a large quantity of saltwater beforehand.
Flatfish, including soles and stingrays, as well as a considerable of other species of fish are taboo, and during the turtle season no garden work is to be carried out. Food unfit for human consumption in one village because of taboos, may, however, be traded for the permitted item from others, who observe other taboos.
For example, the socially excluded inhabitants of the village of Boitalu are the only people on the Kiriwina Islands that can eat wild pig and wallaby a small species of kangaroo. Particularly strict taboos govern what chiefs are permitted to eat. In the northern part of Kiriwina they may eat only fried or roasted things, stewed and boiled food being banned. In the south, however, the village chiefs are the only ones allowed to violate against the flatfish and stingray taboo. The continent of Africa, because of its size, presents an enormous variety of food taboos. In many parts fresh milk is avoided by adults, although for the Masai, Fulbe, Nuba and other East African groups this commodity is thought to represent a particularly wholesome food for young men and warriors [ 29 ].
Observations on food taboos of the inhabitants of mid-west Nigeria were chosen as they represent a particularly good example of a people, in which food taboos appear to have been imposed on society mainly to serve the interests of the 'strongest' section, i.
In the mid-west state of Nigeria, meat and eggs are not usually given to children, because parents believe it will make the children steal [ 30 ]. Gizzards and thighs of ducks are eaten by the elderly; children can only have the lower legs or sometimes the head. Frequently coconut milk and liver is taboo for children, because it is believed that "the milk renders them unintelligent, whereas the liver causes abscesses in their lungs" [ 30 ].
In some parts of Ishan, Afemai, and Isoko Divisions pregnant women avoid snails, whereas pregnant women of the Asaba Division are neither allowed to eat eggs nor drink milk, Looking to text about taboo forbidden it is feared the children may develop bad habits after birth" [ 30 ]. Woen tribals of the Ika Division are forbidden to consume porcupine as that is thought to cause a delay in labour. Interestingly, the opposite an easy Looking to text about taboo forbidden is expected from some pregnant Urhobo women, who have consumed food leftovers from a rat.
Following delivery, young mothers in parts of Benin and Ishan Divisions must not consume oil or fresh meat and in parts of Ishan, palmnut soup is forbidden for 30 days postpartum. Men have fewer food taboos to observe, but nevertheless some also exist. Snail consumption may weaken a warrior's strength and to kill and eat some legendary animals that have helped a particular tribe in the past during intertribal warfare is totally forbidden. Thus, in some areas the partridge or bush fowl is not eaten; in others it is some water reptile or the porcupine or even the sheep that are protected by the food taboo.
Beans are one of the plant species that are not eaten, because they are believed to cause stomach disorders. The Hindu food taboos were chosen as example nr. The concept of re-incarnation and the sanctity of life lies at the root of these food taboos, but resource conservation and safe-guarding health play a role as well.Looking to text about taboo forbidden
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Food taboos: their origins and purposes