What do “barbarians” eat? Integrating ceramic use-wear and residue analysis in the study of food and society at the margins of Bronze Age China

Karine Taché, Yitzchak Jaffe, Oliver E. Craig, Alexandre Lucquin, Jing Zhou, Hui Wang, Shengpeng Jiang, Edward Standall, Rowan K. Flad

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The Siwa archaeological culture (ca. 3350 and 2650 cal yr BP) has often been associated with the tribes referenced in textual sources as Qiang and Rong: prized captives commonly sacrificed by the Shang and marauding hordes who toppled the Western Zhou dynasty. In early Chinese writings, food plays a key role in accentuating the ‘sino-barbarian’ dichotomy believed to have taken root over 3000 years ago, with the Qiang and Rong described as nomadic pastoralists who consumed more meat than grain and knew little of proper dining etiquette. To date, however, little direct archaeological evidence has allowed us to reconstruct the diet and foodways of the groups who occupied the Loess Plateau during this pivotal period. Here we present the results of the first ceramic use-wear study performed on the Siwa ma’an jars from the site of Zhanqi, combined with the molecular and isotopic characterization of lipid residues from foodcrusts, and evidence from experimental cooking. We report molecular data indicating the preparation of meals composed of millet and ruminant dairy among the Siwa community of Zhanqi. Use-wear analysis shows that Zhanqi community members were sophisticated creators of ceramic equipment, the ma’an cooking pot, which allowed them to prepare a wide number of dishes with limited fuel. These findings support recent isotope studies at Zhanqi as well as nuance the centrality of meat in the Siwa period diet.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0250819
Pages (from-to)e0250819
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
RF: American School for Prehistoric Research (no website, no grant number) RF: Harvard University Asia Center (no grant number) https://asiacenter.harvard.edu/ YJ: Esherick-Ye Family Foundation (no grant number) http://www. esherick-yefoundation.org/ O.E.C & A.L.: UK Arts and Humanities Research Council grant (grant number: AH/L00691X/1) https://ahrc.ukri.org/ E.S.: Wellcome Trust (grant number: 097365/Z/11/Z). https://wellcome.org/ The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Taché et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.


  • Archaeology
  • Carbon Isotopes/analysis
  • Ceramics/chemistry
  • China
  • Cooking and Eating Utensils/history
  • Dairy Products/analysis
  • Food/classification
  • Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry
  • History, Ancient
  • Humans
  • Millets/genetics
  • Nitrogen Isotopes/analysis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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