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Cultures of Fermentation

Wenner-Gren Symposium #160
October 11-17, 2019

Fermentation is a practice in which complex communities of humans, animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria meet and thrive. It provides us with a unique vantage point to engage and connect with recent debates in anthropology, biology, and beyond. Today, many of these multi-species communities that have been fermenting together, often in an unbroken chain for hundreds of human generations (and millions of microbial generations), are under severe threat of loss. Many factors have contributed to this fermentation crisis, most importantly the increasing industrialization and standardization of farming and food processing. The global decline of small-scale agriculture results in the replacement of a multiplicity of local strains with a much less diverse set of industrially bred organisms.

But while there is a broad and diverse movement to save heirloom seeds and heritage livestock breeds, the impending loss of the microbial strains integral to small-scale fermentation is only starting to gain attention in academia and civil society. Popular interest in fermentation is growing dramatically, particularly in the context of microbreweries and artisanal cheese. Homemade fermented foods are increasingly considered healthy and hip, and they simultaneously serve to ground the fermenter in history and enable an expression of individuality. Fermentation is at the core of food traditions around the world, and the study of fermentation crosscuts the social and natural sciences. This symposium will foster interdisciplinary conversations integral to understanding human-microbial cultures. By bridging the fields of archaeology, cultural anthropology, biological anthropology, microbiology, and ecology, this symposium will cultivate an anthropology of fermentation.

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