Back Before Soup Was Invented – Peter Peteet

Soapstone bowl

Peter Peteet, soup bowl fragment, digital 2014

Peter Peteet

Back before soup was invented — yes there was such a time, and people were living right here in DeKalb County, Georgia — they had spears and shelters, sex and conversation. They had no soup because they had no bowls, pots, or pans to cook in.

I’ve eaten one meal prepared that way — with neither dishes nor cook pots — a feast called a Pachamanca. A young goat was killed, skinned, and cleaned. The meat was rubbed with a mixture of herbs. A large fire was built and used to heat a pile of rocks in a pit dug next to the fire. The meat was wrapped in large leaves and placed on the rocks. Then more hot rocks were placed on top. Soil sealed the whole thing, and it cooked for hours. When the soil was dug away the steam rose with a wonderful scent, and the meat was served on the leaves. The juice ran down our hands and was lost as it dripped away.

It must have been that lost gravy that inspired our soup-inventing ancestors. One of them took a stone and used it to shape another. They put that stone with its depression in the fire and no one knows what went into that first soup — birds, perhaps, or bison, or blackberries. The bison are all gone from here now, but the blackberries and most types of birds remain — along with this stone.

There’re actually thousands of these stones here; some in cabinets or on shelves of museums or storage units, some on tables or mantles of houses. The sex and conversations go on; the spears are mostly gone, but guns are common and not so different (unless you’re fighting with one against the other). The conversations are stories, mostly, truth and fiction. Facts and fantasies, fears and possibilities. Back then they had to be remembered, as there was no other way to record them any more than there was a way to record the music made on flutes or with voice in song.

Pawpaw were here, then as now. They bloom every spring along the South River, and the fruits fall to earth. Human beings eat some of them. Like the apple in the garden of Eden, pawpaw were doubtless gifted from one human to another. Probably they were traded, as the bowls were traded — though not over such distances. Bowl fragments from what is now Georgia have been found as far away as the Mississippi and St. John’s rivers. We won’t ever know what the currencies were; how many of the bowls were gifts or tribute; which were taken by force or or exchanged for tools, food, protection, or precious objects, like shells or copper.

Traces of fats in some stones tell us that deer, much like the ones that graze beside the Interstate now, were here. Their DNA tells us that, and the DNA in our cells tells us some of us are descended from those humans.

Cultures left traces, too, and although they are not physical, they are present, not in microscopic bits of fat, but in stories. The stories were retold thousands of times before they were written down. Like the fat bound up in the stones, stories hold the values, morals, and philosophies of ancient peoples. Enduring floods, fires, and wars, the concepts of fairness, love, and obligation to both one’s ancestors and one’s children are here still.

The first of these stones I ever saw was on the lawn of our county courthouse. It is not a bowl but a boulder with a circle beaten into it. Running my hand over it, I doubted what was told to me of it. How could they know it was the work of someone over three thousand years ago who was intending to make a bowl?

Twenty five years went by, and I met a man who gave me a stone. He’d shaped it to look like an owl; there was a child growing in my wife’s womb at the time, and perhaps he thought that child, now a man, would like it. I listened as he and a friend of mine who had been his student spoke of excavating sites where boulders had been shaped for benches and anvils — the scatter of chips around them still lying where it had fallen thousands of years before. I find now that he was the one who first pushed for study and preservation of these stones and sites. The only published academic work on these artifacts in the Southeast is dedicated to him, Roy Dickens. The study was done before many of these sites were destroyed to create a landfill.

There is a story in my mind — who knows where or when it was first told? Shel Silverstein, Yeats, and many others have written it down, but they acknowledged its pre-literate age. It is about some hungry people who had a fire, water, and a pot. Each of them had things they could eat, but none of these things was very nourishing or palatable by itself. One of them had only a stone and an idea — a link between the magic of story and of soup.

Poverty Point, along the Mississippi, is one of the places farthest from Georgia that traces of soup stones have been found. It is famous, largely for the strange ceramic balls called boiling stones found there. At the time of their use, they were a competing technology to ceramic bowls, which were invented at about the same time. You couldn’t put a ceramic bowl over the fire and subject it to the thermal shocks that stone could handle, but someone realized you could put those ceramic balls in the fire and then put them in the bowl with the food, and heat it that way. Perhaps this knowledge, lost and found many times, went into the story of stone soup.

Magic, story, and soup all arose independently in cultures scattered across the globe. This story arose, too, in cultures far flung and fighting against each other. Without stones and stories, human beings would be more like other beasts. We might endure to procreate, or not, but we would not be the dominant life form that we are, changing the planet in myriad ways.

Heft the soup stones. Feel their weight. Tell stories. Think about what stories mean. Sip the soups, share the sustenance, and ponder what you owe to the ancestors, your fellow humans, and your children.

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