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Feasting is broadly defined as the sharing of special food (either in terms of type, quantity, or preparation) between at least two people on the occasion of or in recognition of some special event. Although the sharing of food may be a commonplace behavior in many groups, the act of feasting is set apart from food-sharing in that it is recognized by the participants to be an occasion—a special behavior that is separate from mundane food activities. The functions served by feasting are multifold. The practice has likely been used for different reasons over the course of human history, and it is possible that a single instance of feasting can serve a variety of purposes. Some of the earliest written accounts in the Classical record attest to such behavior in the form of feasts hosted by elites. Feasting significantly predates the written record in many areas, and archaeological evidence points to the presence of feasting-like behavior in many areas around the world and as far back as the Neolithic. The near ubiquity of food-sharing/feasting in humans is a unique characteristic. Therefore, it seems that prosociality and intelligence are necessary but not sufficient conditions for feasting behavior to emerge.
The most commonly accepted explanation of feasting states that feasting maintains cultural systems by creating social solidarity between participants. From a different perspective, feasting has also been interpreted as a way to compensate for occasional variability in subsistence availability. In this line of reasoning, Potlatches in the northwestern United States and chiefly feasts in Polynesia for example are seen as a method of resource redistribution. In contrast, or perhaps in complementarity, to this functionalist approach, feasting can also serve a less tangible purpose in the transference and accumulation of social status and prestige. Feasting seems to have played a significant role in the emergence of elites—an importance social development in human history.
Even though more formalized instances of feasting may be a relatively recent development, in the loosest sense of the definition, feasting behavior may stretch relatively far back in our or even our ancestral development. It is unclear whether the ability to cook food is a prerequisite for feasting to take place, although different types of cooked food are important to feasting that has been ethnographically documented. The earliest occurrences of feasting may be rooted in the communal consumption of highly seasonable or variable resources, which we can refer to as opportunistic feasting. A large kill, or a highly seasonal fruit ripening may have brought early hominids together for the earliest feasts. Although a large number of different feasting behaviors can now be said to occur independently of opportunistic abundances in food, this may have been important in the development of feasting behavior. It is questionable whether this would truly constitute a case of feasting given that it was not premeditated, however according to the broad definition used here it definitely would be.
While the sharing of food is a relatively common behavior in many species of animals, particularly between mothers and their young, feasting behavior as it is defined here does not appear to be present. The closest analogue could be the sharing of hunted meant between chimpanzees, especially since some have argued that the act of sharing meat with a conspecific can have positive social consequences. These cases of food sharing between chimpanzees, however, are tolerated at best. Food appears to never be voluntarily offered to a conspecific, only tolerated when some is stolen.
Most (and likely all) cultures around the world are known to engage in some type of feasting behavior. Specifics vary greatly, but sharing food, epecially on certain special occassions, appears to be a human universal.
A century of feasting studies, , Annual Review of Anthropology, Volume 40, p.433-449, (2011)
Pots, parties, and politics: communal feasting in the American Southwest., , Am Antiq, 2000, Volume 65, Issue 3, p.471-92, (2000)
Feasting in prehistoric and traditional societies , , Food and the Status Quest: An Interdisciplinary Perspective , Oxford, p.127-146, (1996)