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Organizers' Statement

woman milking elk

Mark Aldenderfer (University of California, Merced)

Christina Warinner (Harvard University, Max Planck Inst.)

Jessica Hendy (University of York)

Matthäus Rest (Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History)


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.

The symposium will be organized around five strains of inquiry:

  1. Cultures within cultures: Recent revelations on the importance of microbes for human biology, health, and culture on the one hand, and the rise of antimicrobial resistance on the other, necessitate a reassessment of the modernist attempt to pasteurize the world. Focusing on fermentation allows new ways of thinking through questions of agency, the body, and ultimately what it means to be ‘human.’ What will be the outlines of an anthropology of microbes that replaces visions of bacterial sterility with one of cohabitation? What would a political theory look like that considers the role of microbial life forms not only in the context of human suffering but also in human thriving?
  2.  Fundamental fermenters: Fermentation is an ancient and fundamental biological process. Long predating ourselves, it traces its origins to the early earth. Today, we use fermentation to transform our foods, fuel our microbiome, and compost our waste. There are however, many overlooked partners in this process. Insects such as wasps disperse wild yeasts and prime our agricultural products for fermentation. Dairy livestock seed their milk with lactic acid bacteria that outcompete pathogens and assist in raw milk yogurt and cheese production. Even human breast milk is not sterile – it is inoculated with native bacteria that assist the growing infant’s digestion. Who are the major partners in both human and non-human fermentation systems, and how do they interact? What are the routes that microbial species travel through in biological and cultural systems?
  3. The prehistory of fermented foods: Arguably, fermentation has been the most important technology for preserving food throughout human history. Recent advances in biomolecular archaeology have expanded our ability to detect ancient culinary practices and have already generated surprising findings on the antiquity of dairy in Asia, the origins of wine production in Europe, and the early use of pottery for fish fermentation. How does a food transition from being simply edible to a product of a sophisticated, multi-species manufacturing process? How did the evolution of fermentation technologies intersect with processes of animal and plant domestication?
  4. Microbes as the secret ingredient of cuisine: Underappreciated and often overlooked, fermented foods lie at the very heart of global cuisine. From wine and beer to bread, coffee, and chocolate, fermentation drives our appetites and dazzles our senses. On the one hand, industrial food production involves microbial regulation across the supply chain, but on the other, local traditions of fermented foods are vast, and homespun “wild ferments” have seen a rise in popularity, from kitchen-table sourdough starters to bathtub kombucha. How do microbes contribute to food identities? What are the culinary implications of food sterilization? What are the consequences of commercial microbial control? How well characterized is the diversity of food microbes and should there be scientific efforts to document, sequence, and preserve them?
  5. Politics of fermentation: With the rise of industrialized agriculture, we face a dramatic decrease in the diversity of livestock breeds and microbial fermenters. The global decrease in small-scale fermentation endangers the survival of many of the microbial strains that have been fermenting with us for thousands of years, and with them the social and biological legacy of millennia of human culture. How should we respond to the disappearance of these microbes? How can local communities of microbes be protected?

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