In a Pig’s Ear: On Levels of Pig Consumption as an Ethnic Marker of Ancient Israelites and Philistines

kosher-hamThere is a view that the low levels of pig bones found in the “Israelite” highlands during the Iron Age, and the comparatively higher levels in Philistine sites near the Mediterranean, provide evidence of an ethnic difference between an Israelite people and Philistines as early as 1200 BCE. That is, the explanation of the difference is sought in the ideological proscriptions against eating pork in literature from the much later Persian period (e.g. Lev. 11.7-8). One recent defender of such a view is William G. Dever:

One animal species is conspicuously absent in our Iron Age villages: the pig. Although not nearly as common as sheep and goats at Bronze Age sites, pigs are well attested then. They are also common at Iron I coastal sites that are known to be Philistine. But recent statistical analysis of animal bones retrieved from our Iron I Israelites sites show that pig bones typically constitute only a fraction of 1% or are entirely absent. A number of scholars who are otherwise skeptical about determining ethnic identity from material culture remains in this case acknowledge the obvious: that here we seem to have at least one ethnic trait of later, biblical Israel that can safely be projected back to its earliest days.

- William G. Dever, Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 108

It had already been pointed out, however, that there are other causes for a lack of pigs in arid highlands, such as the lack of water required for animals which require much more watering than sheep and goats (Brian Hesse and Paula Wapnish, “Can Pig Remains Be Used for Ethnic Diagnosis in the Ancient Near East?”, 1997; cf. Aharon Sasson, Animal Husbandry in Ancient Israel: A Zooarchaeological Perspective on Livestock Exploitation, Herd Management and Economic Strategies, Equinox, 2011).

A recent article from the excavators of Tel es-Safi (identified with biblical Gath, hometown of the legendary Goliath) affirms that there are good ecological and economic reasons for low levels of pig-farming in the highlands of “Israel”:

“… extremely high pig frequencies (c. 20 per cent or more) are found in [Philistine] sites in the Israeli coastal plain (Ashkelon, Tel Miqne-Ekron)…. At Tel es-Safi/Gath, located on the interface between the coastal plain and the hill country, pigs comprise 13 per cent of the Iron I fauna …, while Tel Batash, located in a similar setting, has yielded only 8 per cent pigs; at southern Philistine sites, the Nahal Patish temple … and the small village of Qubur el-Walaydah in the northern Negev …. pigs represent less than 1 per cent of the faunal assemblage, a similar low frequency to that observed in coeval Israelite sites…. Thus, it is very feasible that ecological, economic or functional factors, or a mixture of them, rather than ethnicity, were responsible for the relatively high frequencies of pigs in some Philistine sites and their dearth in others – Philistine and Israelite settlements alike”

- Aren M. Maeir, Louise A. Hitchcock, and Liora Kolska Horwitz, “On the Constitution and Transformation of Philistine Identity”, Oxford Journal of Archaeology 32 no. 1 (2013): 5–6 (emphasis added).

The article by Aren Maeir, et al, is well worth reading, too, for observations about the complex mix of Aegean and Levantine cultural influences in the Philistine territories. These observations are based in the latest archaeology being carried out in the area.

h/t: Aren Maeir, “New Article on the Formation and Transformation of Philistine Identity”, The Tell es-Safi/Gath Excavations Official (and Unofficial) Weblog, 10 January 2013

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One response to “In a Pig’s Ear: On Levels of Pig Consumption as an Ethnic Marker of Ancient Israelites and Philistines

  1. Pingback: Why Samcha’s History of the Jews is not History: On Jewish Origins in Episode 1 | Remnant of Giants

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