Every now and then you come across an absolute gem of a book – in this case in relation to my ‘sacred economy’ project. The delight is always more exquisite when that gem is buried beneath a title like Animal Husbandry in Ancient Israel: A Zooarchaeological Perspective on Livestock Exploitation, Herd Management and Economic Strategies (Equinox, 2011). Written by Aharon Sasson, it has that tinder-dry, wooden style that threatens to flare up into a major bushfire at any moment.

What does he argue? Basically, you are what you eat. He means this not in terms of some faddish diet-conscious modernity, desperately struggling against flab. No, what you eat provides a window into economic practice and class differentiation. Sasson’s method – a relatively new one – is to analyse the remains of animal bones across all available archaeological sites. Laced in with comparative, spatial, sagittal and ethnographic approaches, is a battery of sophisticated chemical, physical and computer analysis.

The results:

1. Throughout bronze and iron age Levant, no one was engaged in producing basic goods for profit-driven ‘market’ exchange. Nomads did not ‘trade’ with sedentary agriculturalists; rural areas did not ‘trade’ their wares with the towns. This flies in the face of some half a century of assumptions by historians and archaeologists, who based their arguments on pure speculation, no evidence and not a little desire to make these ancient Palestinians and Mesopotamians nascent capitalists.

2. The basic economic strategy was subsistence survival. This requires a very different approach to economic life.

a. Optimal rather than maximal preservation of resources. Optimal means below carrying capacity in terms of water, arable and pasture lands, livestock and population size.

b. Small surpluses were kept as insurance against bad years rather than generated for sale and profit.

c. Every part of the animal was used rather than a particular product (meat, wool or milk) for trading.

d. The preferred mode of life was pastoral-nomadism, since this is the best way to survive in marginal ecological situations.

e. The key, however, is flock composition. The bone records show that the herds were primarily goats and sheep (caprines). Why? The flock composition of caprines averages out at no more than 67% sheep and 33% goats. Why? The aim was herd security and survival. Goats are very flexible in terms of feed, water and climate, while sheep are less so. However, sheep provide significant food and the vital element of wool. Both species breed quickly and well, so recovery from herd calamity (disease etc.) is easier. The mixed herds also mean that disease in one breed does not necessarily affect the other.

What about bovines? Very few turn up and the ones that do are mature animals. The reason is that they were used for ploughing. But you need only a few for that; any more and you threaten the subsistence survival requirements, since bovines use a shitload of water and fodder.

And the pigs? Very few pig bones turn up, which has of course led a good number to argue that the religious taboo (cultural-ideological factor) was already in force. Sasson simply points out that pigs are a poor option when subsistence survival is the key: they need to be watered daily, cannot manage temperature variations and do not move well. Eventually, this practical economic issue gave rise to the religious taboo.

All of which is extremely satisfying, since I have always had a hunch that ‘trade’ for profit was a not a consistent feature of the ancient Near East. What minimal exchange there was turns out to involve the acquisition of a few preciosities rather any form of bulk agricultural produce. To give but one example: I am sure that the pastoral nomads of the Levant would have looked forward to sampling Solomon’s latest shipment of ivory, apes, and peacocks (1 Kings 10:22). Just like all those medieval European peasants hanging out for the latest silk fashions coming along the Silk Road.