The perils of borrowing citations (or: did ancient Egyptians really use palm oil?)

I admit to having read articles and books for the sole purpose of looking at their bibliography.  It’s easy to borrow a few citations from those who have done similar work before, especially if you need to fill out a section of background information. Problems arise when we don’t actually read the sources, however.

Example A: Friedel, C. “Sur des matières grasses trouvées dans des tombes égyptiennes d’Abydos.” Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des séances de l’Académie des sciences 124 (1897): 648–53.

In dozens (probably hundreds, at this point) of articles, poor Charles Friedel is identified as “MC Friedel.” The “M” that appears before “C. Friedel” in the article stands for monsieur. The citation for MC Friedel appears in the Cambridge World History of Food entry for “Palm Oil,” and I suspect that it where most of the copycats have taken it from.
Getting the name wrong is not, in and of itself, a serious problem. The bigger issue is that scholars have been mindlessly repeating a “fact” associated with this citation without bothering to read the original article. In 1897, Friedel conducted a chemical analysis of two jars containing organic matter that were excavated from a tomb in Abydos, Egypt. Friedel’s chemical analysis led him to conclude that one jar contained palm oil, and that the other contained beef or mutton tallow. The fats were badly degraded, and he inferred their original composition based on the proportion of residual fatty acids.
Is it possible that ancient Egyptians used palm oil imported from central or western Africa as a cosmetic (the likely use of the jars)? Certainly! All sorts of exotic luxuries from around the Old World turn up in Egyptian tombs. Were Egyptians regularly importing palm oil from tropical Africa, as many authors who cite this article infer? Maybe.
As Dr R. Montgomerie notes in his 2012 thesis, there is a great deal of debate over whether the substance found in Abydos was actually palm oil. Many fats contain palmitic acid, which was the indicator Friedel used to make his determination. Palm oil may have been used in lamps for illumination, and Herodotus and Diodorus are reputed to have identified it as an oil used in mummification (though I think the text is ambiguous… Greek scholars are welcome to weigh in here).
If palm oil were only used in cosmetics and mummification, we could treat it as a luxury good, likely traded on a small scale over great distance. If it were burned in lamps, however, we would expect a much larger volume of trade. That possibility raises major questions: Where were the oil palm trees? Who produced the oil? What were did they trade it for in Egypt?
Recent testing using state-of-the-art tools by Dr Stephen Buckley at York University identified date palm oil in a cosmetic jar from the Abydos excavations. Date palms grow in Egypt; oil palms do not. The composition of the two fats is very different (date palm kernel oil does not appear to contain substantial amounts of palmitic acid.) More work is needed to clarify the status of palm oil in the ancient world: testing Friedel’s jars (if they still exist?) would be a good start.
In short: authors would be wise to cite Monsieur C. Friedel’s 1897 paper with caution. Palm oil was probably traded up the Nile, but there is still no strong evidence showing that it was a major article of commerce in the ancient world.

Wartime fat shaming (1917)

Image result for world war II rationingHere’s another story from the Cornell University Archives. Faculty at the NY State College of Home Economics worked closely with the federal Food Administration to develop and manage food rationing during the First World War.

Home Economists taught people how to use underutilized foods, but in calling on citizens to “do their fair share” in rationing, they inadvertently turned America’s housewives into an army of informants. Mrs Devereux, of New York City, complained that her neighbors were too fat and didn’t deserve ration cards: “The over-heavy fed person (and he is numerous) could be sharply reduced in quantity and compelled to live on his own flesh, until he is in a normal condition.”

Another woman, writing from Florida, alleged that German agents were under orders “to buy and eat and hoard all the wheat they possibly can.” The letters offer a worrying vision of self-radicalization. Women (and a few men) suggested all sorts of inventive ways to spy on, shame, cajole, and punish their neighbors for not rationing food effectively. Letters started to arrive within a few weeks of the declaration of war in April 1917.

(box 17, folder 41, NY State College of Home Economics records, Cornell University Archive)

An Englishman’s list of unappetizing food (1839)

Cornell’s archive holds notes from the Herrington Food Science lectures, c. 1951-1961, which were part of a basic course in the history of nutrition for undergraduates.

The professor quoted an obscure treatise on egg incubation by William Bucknell for its description of food in Europe. Up to a third of Englishmen, according to Bucknell, “subsist almost entirely, or rather starve, upon potatoes alone, another third have in addition to this edible, oaten or inferior wheaten bread with one or two meals of fat pork or the refuse of the shambles per week …”

Bucknell said continental Europeans ate far worse fare: “Fish, soups made from herbs, a stuff called bread, made from every variety of grain, black, brown and sour such as no Englishman would eat; olives, chestnuts, the pulpy saccharine fruits, roots, stalks and leaves, not infrequently the barks of trees, sawdust, blubber, train oil with frogs and snails, make up a good part of the food of the greater portion of the population of Europe.”

Not bad! (Except for the tree bark, sawdust, blubber, and train oil)

99.9% Communist (Home Economics and the Cold War)

Last summer I was fortunate enough to spend six weeks at Cornell University, exploring their huge collection of material on the history of home economics. I am finishing an article on colonial and post-colonial food policy in Ghana, and remembered one of the reasons I applied to work at Cornell: a 1960s project to start American-style Home Ec courses in Ghana.

kwame_nkrumahThe project (which I’ll write about in more detail later) fell victim to Cold War politics, as Kwame Nkrumah’s regime became increasingly radical and was eventually overthrown in 1966. In 1965, a Mrs. Hector wrote to Cornell’s Home Economics faculty to complain about their work in Ghana. Mrs. Hector accused Nkrumah of “waging his on-again, off again campaign of hatred” against the US.  His goal is “to eradicate Western influence and promote the revolutionary rise of Marxist regimes in Africa.” Her source of information? “All of the above came from the Readers Digest article.”


Mrs. Hector  called her local reference librarian for more information: “She then gave me the conservative estimate of communist influence in Ghana. In 1958 it was between 80 – 100%. In late 1964 it was between 90 – 100%. For all we know, it could be 99.9% today. This influence is transmitted via labor unions, government officials, political parties, propaganda, direct, visible and undercover agents, all working together.”

The Cornell archives contain a stack of letters from Mrs Hector and other women, many of them Cornell graduates, who had been asked to raise funds for training Ghanaian teachers. “This is a lot of support for a system we Americans abhor,” complained Mrs. Hector. She urges a recall of faculty from Ghana, “with full apologies to those Ghanians [sic] friendly to us.”

This was a typical Cold War-era reaction to uncomfortable news from abroad. Other New York women took a more strategic view, however: Mrs. Wood told her county Home Economics organization, “if we withdraw, the vacuum we leave will be filled by others.” [ie communists] To their credit, the Cornell faculty kept working in Ghana until 1967, when the project term expired.

The Home Economics department at the University of Education, Winneba, is still operating today.


Palm oil and deforestation in SE Asia

In a new article, Peter Guest examines one of the most dangerous trends in oil palm cultivation: the explosion of smallholder cultivation alongside large-scale plantations and processing mills. Guest visits the front lines of the oil palm frontier in Sumatra, where large and small plantations are encroaching on sensitive forest ecosystems.

Peter Guest: “Last stand at Leuser –  A unique Indonesian ecosystem lies in the path of the palm oil industry, which must ceaselessly expand to sate the bottomless appetite of the global consumer goods sector”

Guest interviewed me in November to discuss the history of palm oil in the global food supply.

“Fatter Cows, Slimmer Women”

That was how Newsweek described the work of the Cornell University nutrition program in a 1953 article. I’m reviewing notes I took last summer at the Cornell archives, where I was fortunate to be working as the College of Human Ecology Dean’s Fellow. My goal was to trace changing ideas about fat in the American diet, and this article is a perfect illustration of the post-1945 faith in scientific progress. The author praised Cornell’s dairy barns, in which animals were “chock-full of superior feed laced with antibiotics,” and described Dr. McCay’s “Golden Triple Rich Bread,” a wheat bread supplemented with soy flour to provide added protein. Another Cornell professor offered a formula for losing weight, which he tested on Cornell’s co-eds: 90g protein, 80g fat, and 80g carbohydrates daily. Clearly the Atkins diet is nothing new. The proportions of nutrients probably didn’t matter as much as the fact that this diet only amounted to 1400 kcal – not nearly enough to maintain weight in an active adult.

Recipe to bake your own Cornell bread

Source: “Nutrition program at Cornell: Fatter Cows, Slimmer Women,” Newsweek, 13 April 1953. Clipping in box 45, folder 1, 23/2/749, NY State College of Agriculture – Home Economics collection, Cornell University Archives.


American exodus, viewed from Africa

In Cotton and Race across the AtlanticI wrote about several attempts to transplant African Americans to Africa. The idea of emigration is an old one, dating a century beyond the well-known antics of Marcus Garvey and his “back to Africa” movement. Historians have written a lot about African American emigration movements, but relatively little is known about how Africans viewed these movements.

A fragmentary letter held by Ghana’s Public Records and Archives Administration in Accra hints that some Africans were excited by the prospect of building ties with the African diaspora in America. On June 17, 1912, Christian Jacobson wrote to Sir Emmanuel Mate Kole, the Konor (king) of Krobo (southeastern Ghana today) about one emigration proposal:

“The Negroes in America had formed a trade relation now between the West Africa, and they are opening a factory there – They desire our Brothers or people in Africa also to go in [with?] them Company and reap [missing text] profit from our own Soil [missing].”

I don’t know anything abut Christian Jacobson, but his diction suggests that he was Ghanaian, rather than Danish. Jacobson tried to get Mate Kole to buy 25 shares of this American company. He insisted this as a legitimate business: “They have go their own Steamers and everything for the business and there is no fear of doing anything with them.”

I don’t know if Mate Kole invested or not, but he would have been wise to stay away. The company in question was the Akim Trading Company, the brainchild of “Chief Sam.” Chief Sam duped hundreds of African Americans into buying shares in his company. A few dozen set sail for Ghana with Chief Sam in 1914, but found that the “Chief” had no power to give free land to American settlers as he had promised.

Read more about Garveyism and emigration (and see a photo of Chief Sam) here:


Christian Jacobson to Mate Kole, 7 June 1912, SC 17/192, PRAAD-Accra.

Semhar Negasa, “Chief Alfred Sam,”