Food

Food for thought: reconstructing the diet of Napoleon’s Grand Army | Jennifer Raff

A recent analysis from a 19 th century mass grave has revealed the astonishingly complex dietary – and social – diversity among Napoleons armed forces

Understanding the historical past can be incredibly objection. Written records are only as accurate as the knowledge of the author, and historical narrations can be influenced by political orientations and specified schedules. Even accurate depictions of historical events may not reveal the whole fact; how some people may have experienced a particular occurrence may differ radically from how the majority of people experienced it. The version of history that establishes its mode into history of the world can be incomplete.

Thats why archaeology is necessary to corroborate written documents of historical events. Physical evidence is a powerful check on speculation, deceit, and inaccuracy.

But archaeology and its related discipline, biological anthropology, can do more than merely prove or falsify historical narrations; it can reveal more detailed information on peoples lives( and fatalities) unobtainable through other means. Paleopathology can tell us exactly how young men died on a July afternoon in 1863 in a Pennsylvania peach orchard, or how an older man expend the last few hours of their own lives 5, 000 years ago. Anthropological genetics can tell us that an anonymous skeleton find in a parking lot belonged to a famous king whose family tree was not quite what registered history contends.

And stable isotope analysis can tell us about diet in ancient times: what a person eat is literally archived in his or her bones. If your diet composed primarily of C 4 plants( like corn, sorghum, and millet) which undergo a particular photosynthetic pathway, you likely have a different ratio of isotopic parts 13 C and 12 C( carbon atoms with different numbers of neutrons in their nuclei) than if you eat mostly C 3 plants( temperate crops like barley, wheat, and potatoes ), which undergo a different photosynthetic pathway.

Live near the coast and eat seafood? You likely have more 13 C relative to 12 C than inland dwellers because your carbon derives mainly from the atlantic provinces rather than the atmosphere. The ratio of nitrogen isotopes 15 N and 14 N will be similarly dependent on what kinds of meat you devour. Eventually, your isotopic rates will also reflect how much of your diet are from swine vs. flower generators( your trophic grade ).

Together, and in the purposes of the region-wide analyses of isotopic rates from different historical periods, its consideration of multiple stable isotopes can give a good show of the diet of different individuals in the past.

I was thinking of how this kind of study can tell us such personal stories of history while reading a recent survey in the American Journal of Physical anthropology by Sammantha Holder and colleagues: Reconstructing diet in Napoleons Grand Army applying stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis.

Napoleons Russian campaign of 1812 was recognized by dreadful logistical catastrophe and resulted in profound loss of life within his own legion. Although his forces reached Moscow, they found the city abandoned and burninga deliberate tactic on the members of the Russian legion to prevent the French soldiers from procuring provisions.

Forced to withdraw to find furnishes, the French encountered dreadful wintertime circumstances and farther interruptions to their render pipelines. Total estimates in respect of casualties vary, but hundreds of thousands of soldiers died in awareness-raising campaigns, many due to the combination of starvation, infection, and exposure while the army withdrawn.

The practice of necessitating soldiers to live off the country to supplement their rations likely contributed a great deal to this loss of life. This rendered them extremely vulnerable to the Russians scorched soil tactics which left them little to foraging or steal. But Napoleons Grande Arme was ethnically and socially heterogeneous. Were their sources, social status, and better access to meat during this time of deprivation reflected in their diet? “Thats one” of those issues that Holder et al. set out to address in their research.

They analysed stable carbon and nitrogen isotopes from the remains of 78 individuals trenched from a Napoleonic-era mass grave in Vilnius, Lithuania where the army had retreated in December of 1812. The existence of uniform buttons from multiple Napoleonic platoons in the grave confirmed that most of these individuals were members of the army. However, it is unlikely that everyone in the grave was necessarily a soldier; many male and female civilians were associated with the military forces in various abilities, and girl persists were found in the mass grave.

Skeletons
Skeletons of soldiers of the largest legion of Napoleon are unveiled after they were discovered at a building website in Frankfurt, western Germany, on September 17, 2015. The remains of some 200 dead soldiers in total of the Napoleonic Army of 1813, on the way back after the defeat of Napoleon during his Russian campaign, are expected to be found. Photograph: Daniel Roland/ AFP/ Getty Images

Holder et al. noted surprising difference in isotopic rates among the individuals trenched from the mass grave. For example, one group of individuals had chiefly C 4 -based diets, suggesting that they may have originated from Italy or Poland where similar isotopic rates ought to have found in persists from this period. Such an interpretation was bolstered by the presence of buttons from the uniforms of Italian and Polish platoons in the mass grave.

However, the majority of persons from the grave feed C 3 plant-based dietscharacteristic of many Northern European countries–but individuals differed significantly in the amount of terrestrial swine protein they consumed.

One group, which feed limited animal protein, may well be regular soldiers or conscripts. Another cluster of individuals, which included three women, feed a diet containing a significantly higher sum of terrestrial animal protein. The writers construe this result to indicate they were high-ranking officers( and perhaps their family members ).

Holder et al. concluded that the strikingly wide range of topics of isotopic rates found in the remains from the mass grave was indicative of dietary difference associated with a multiethnic and socially stratified military population.

These results are perhaps not all that astonishing. Napoleons Grande Arme is known to have been composed of soldiers from multiple populations, including French, Polish, Austrians, Italians, and Spanish. C 3 plants( wheat and barley) are known to have been the most commonly eaten plants in North european diets. C 4 plants( such as millet) were often eaten in southern Europe, and thus the isotopic rates of the soldiers may have reflected their geographic origins. In add-on, the amount of meat in a diet was relate directly to social status. Class differences between officers, regular soldiers, conscripts, and camp followers would have likely meant that there was unequal access to certain kinds of foods( such as flesh) the majority of members of awareness-raising campaigns. Limited furnishes during the winter retired from Russia would have likely driven this inequality of better access to even more extremes.

Interestingly, when is comparable to other European military forces( such as members of Britains Royal Navy buried in a graveyard at Gosport ), the dietary difference in the French legion was much higher. As more analyses of this type are conducted, it will be interesting to see if other countries armies were similarly diverse in their diet. I would be particularly curious to see how Napoleons Russian opponents ate during the same period of time.

As we said in the introductory post to our brand-new blog, archaeological surmise is based on complex, multi-layered evidence, and takes a holistic approach to understanding the past. Holder et al.s survey is a good example of how even the large scale events of history is also possible illuminated through an archaeological survey of the tiniest more detailed information on individual peoples lives.

Further speaking

Holder S. et al. 2017. Reconstructing diet in Napoleons Grand Army applying stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis. American Journal of Physical Anthropology DOI: 10.1002/ ajpa. 23184

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