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Meatscapes: Spaces and processes associated to subsistence livestock

  • Leila Marie Farah

Corps de l’article


This study explores the processes and spaces associated with meat and investigates their respective interactions within a settlement and their influence on the landscape of Montreal in 17th and 18th century New France. [1] It does so, by introducing the notion of meatscapes, by surveying and mapping them. Meatscapes are defined by this research as spaces associated to different phases in the journey of subsistence livestock from field to waste, and encompass raising, keeping, slaughtering, preserving, preparing and trading livestock in whole or in part for consumption as well as for other purposes like garment. Tools, objects, rooms, outbuildings, yards, parcels, fields, infrastructure and waterways also interact with these stages in the production, transformation, commerce and disposal of subsistence livestock parts and by-products, contributing to a broader picture of meat processes and spaces.

The case examined involves 17th and 18th century Montreal. According to Gilles Havard and Cécile Vidal, circa the end of the French regime in the mid-18th century, the urban population living along the Saint Lawrence River had accounted for 20-25 percent of the total population of New France. At that time, Montreal was the second most populated town after Quebec City with 5,000 inhabitants. [2] The planning, development and architectural history of the island and its town have been approached by a number of researchers. [3] However, little research has been conducted in depth on links between foods and spaces. During the French regime, Montreal grew and developed albeit not without obstacles. Its climate was harsh, but milder in comparison to other Canadian settlements, and it enabled life-sustaining agricultural activities; in prosperous times, it even produced surpluses. [4]


To illustrate the interconnections between spaces and foods, this study utilizes a flow chart diagram as well as urban and architectural representation techniques to investigate locations and plots in the town of Montreal. It combines the information found to represent them visually and at different scales through the use of maps, plans, axonometric views and schematic sections, in order to enable readers to project themselves in a context that can no longer be seen or physically experienced.

But how to pursue, identify and reconstruct these linkages in a data-scarce period like 17th and 18th century New France? Architectural drawings related to the surveyed timeframe are scant, not only because little physical evidence remains to this day, but also because depictions were usually authored by engineers and mainly portrayed infrastructure works; the few exceptions showing wealthy homes and religious institutions were researched through the Canada-France Archive database and the Archives nationales d'outre-mer. To fill the gap, this research sought records from travellers’ notes [5] and legal documents compiled by Edouard Z. Massicotte. [6] These include regulations and rules that together help identify common practices affecting cultivated lands and the development of a town and portray measures authorities took to manage them. In addition, this study consulted the Adhémar database, [7] a particularly valuable asset. Its interactive interface assists researchers in reconnecting people to their respective profession at a given time and in locating parcels of land they owned, leased or occupied thereby enabling the reconstruction of a clearer spatial picture of Montreal at that time. This database can be searched through different variables including the production of food in which butchers are recorded. Following this initial step, one can survey in greater detail the parcels associated with these inhabitants, including plot sizes, built areas and, in some cases, material used. This information ultimately permits the quantification of spaces occupied by these artisans. Further, transcribed notarial deeds related to butchers were also consulted through records archived at the Société généalogique canadienne-française. Moreover, a number of historical museums like the Château Ramezay, the Maison Saint-Gabriel, Pointe-à-Callière, the Montréal Museum of Archaeology and History, the Saint Sulpice Seminary in Montréal, the Sisters of Charity of Montreal, and the Musée des Hospitalières de l’Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal were also visited. Finally, the paper also relies on secondary sources, like archeological reports, historical thesis and biographies.

The resulting rich data collected is then used to apply the proposed framework for the study of the nexus between foods and spaces. In this paper, this framework focuses on meat, its products or by-products, architecture and landscape and includes (i) identifying the processes they underwent (Figure 1) and (ii) exploring how they affected domestic, private and public spaces. The result is animating representations of urban environments hitherto frozen in time into more dynamic networks of artisans, private and public spaces - through which livestock was present in whole or in part in a variety of forms - contributing to meatscapes.

Processes Associated to Meatscapes

Livestock States and Processes

Figure 1 offers a schematic representation of the phases through which livestock made its way to food and other products. [8] Animal slaughter usually took place in the homestead, either indoors (or in an extension of the house), or outdoors. The butcher, or, the inhabitant, divided the slaughtered animal into different parts, including meat, entrails, blood, grease or tallow, bones and hides. Due to its properties, blood was collected in wood, or, leather containers, and grease and tallow were most probably stored in wood barrels crafted by a cooper, hence extending the network of artisans contributing to livestock-related processes. Non-edible livestock products were further transformed into several by-products like medicine, [9] energy, leather works, [10] horticultural fertilizer and pesticide, as well as other common household goods, like glue, soap and candle which illuminated spaces at night. Live, dead, edible parts of livestock, hides, tallow, etc. all contributed to meatscapes in different ways. For example, they helped fortify the population and mark festive occasions with the abundance of meat-based dishes on tables (its absence during meagre days was associated to the religious calendar); they were also considered towards healing practices for the sick (when used as a remedy), but also adversely affected inhabitants’ health (when rotten meat was consumed); moreover they helped dress inhabitants and illuminate rooms at night; but also overcrowded streets and polluted waterways.

Figure 1

Livestock products and by-products diagram

Source: This illustration is inspired by the work of environmental historians, such as Sabine Barles. Sabine Barles, L'invention des déchets urbains: France 1790-1970 (Seyssel: Champ Vallon, 2005). Drawing: Author
Livestock products and by-products diagram

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Spaces Associated to Meatscapes

Keeping Livestock

Prior to the establishment of European colonists in Canada, there were no cows, sheep, or hens and meatscapes were associated to hunting. The French imported subsistence livestock and draught animals from the Old World [11] up to the mid 1670’s. [12] After that date, such imports began to drop, following a letter addressed to the King of France by Jean Talon, the intendant of New France. In it, he mentioned that there were sufficient cattle to sustain the settlement. [13] Raising and keeping subsistence livestock was essential, as meat was the second most common element of colonists’ diets; [14] and the Island of Montreal was one of the most important livestock centres in New France. [15]

Hardy estimated that between 1740 and 1755, in the town of Montreal, 71% of the artisans surveyed kept domestic animals. [16] This included pigs, horses and poultry, and their value roughly accounted for 4.8% of their total belongings. Buteau complemented Hardy’s study and estimated that on average, one third of Montreal households kept two oxen and two to three milk cows, a dozen hens and a rooster. [17] Habitants either owned, or, leased animals including cows, oxen, bulls, horses and other livestock; [18] they were considered valuable and were also included in post mortem inventories.

In terms of location, subsistence livestock was found in houses, in barns usually built of wood, [19] on plots, in streets, on pastures and commons, [20] and on fields. To bring some order to the settlement authorities regulated their keeping out of houses (especially in the case of pigs raised in the town and they imposed a fine on those who carried on with this practice), [21] within fenced plots and concessions to protect cultivated lands (particularly between sowing and harvest periods), [22] and away from the public domain (not to encumber streets or harm pedestrians). Following the harvest, livestock was released and left lawfully wandering in the vicinity of the town of Ville Marie to fatten before the winter months ahead. [23] Overall, keeping livestock had effects on the colony. Meatscapes shared and negotiated spaces with other activities which required the intervention of authorities to spatially separate livestock from cultivated crops intended for human consumption.

Spaces associated to butchers

Rules and ordinances also limited the number of butchers in Ville-Marie and aimed to set the price of the meat. For example, in 1710, Guyon dit Després, Paul Bouchard, Jean Brunet dit Lasablonnière and Nicholas Lecours were granted the privilege to practice their profession as butchers for three years (their plots are represented for the year 1725 in Figure 2). [24] While individuals were not allowed to sell meat without an authorisation, a number of religious institutions were exempted from this regulation. [25]

According to the Adhémar database consulted for each year between 1642-1704, about a dozen butchers were identified practicing for longer or shorter periods during this timeframe. While the majority were male, Catherine Lucos was one of the rare female butchers, practicing between 1700 and 1702. Another was Louise Leblanc, both a tavernkeeper and a butcher. Following the death of her butcher husband Michel Lecours, she most probably continued his business, and eventually married another butcher, Paul Bouchard. [26] In some instances, butchers also partnered with each other. For example, in 1692, Jean Brunet (whose property is identified Figure 2 for the year 1725) and Claude Robillard listed in a record 14 animal purchases combined as well as the income from meat and cow hides they sold. [27]

1725 is an informative year because the Adhémar database and a map drawn at that time by a French engineer Chaussegros de Léry enable the piecing together of a snapshot of butchers’ properties and buildings. Table 1 lists their properties and buildings and Figure 2 shows their location.

Table 1

Butchers’ properties in 1725

Source: Data collected from the Adhémar database, Groupe de recherche sur Montréal, Canadian Centre for Architecture
Butchers’ properties in 1725

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The Adhémar database indicates that for that year, the settlement was subdivided into 442 plots with 337 buildings. Constructions were mainly composed of two materials: stone and wood. For that specific year, the database identifies five butchers living within the limits of the town, all of them landlords. An example is Jean Brunet, the Montreal-born father of eleven, who had been in the butcher business from a young age. [28] Records indicate he was a successful one – with steers and fattened cattle and eventually a stake in the skin and tanning trade, which allowed him to own two parcels of land. Bouchard, Lecours and Serre only had one parcel, but Guyon, who also provisioned the King’s warehouse, [29] owned five, including two unbuilt ones.

Figure 2

Multi-scale identification in plan of butchers’ parcels in 1725

On the bottom, the thick outline delimits buildings and the lighter one represents the parcel or the garden subdivisions.

Sources: Data and plan of the city of Montreal in 1725 from the Adhémar database, Groupe de recherche sur Montréal, Canadian Centre for Architecture (top portion of the drawing). Plan de la ville de Montréal, Chaussegros de Léry, Gaspard, 10 septembre 1725, Archives nationales de France, Centre des archives d’outre-mer, Aix-en-Provence, DFC, Amérique Septentrionale. FR CAOM 3DFC 475B (bottom portion of the drawing). Compilation and visual reconstruction: Author
Multi-scale identification in plan of butchers’ parcels in 1725On the bottom, the thick outline delimits buildings and the lighter one represents the parcel or the garden subdivisions.

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Parcel size varied considerably and ranged roughly from 59 to 1,919 m². In five cases, there was just one building on the plot, and in three cases there were two or more. Their function is specified and includes a house, a bakery and a barn/cowshed. [30] Surprisingly, ice houses are not mentioned, which might suggest that if the plot contained one, either it was integrated to the building and was probably in the cellar, or, that it was a self-built outbuilding that did not require a mason’s intervention, or a record. To cross-reference the above quantitative data that provided links between artisans, parcels, buildings and areas, this study also sought evidence from iconographical sources. Their combination informs a more comprehensive, physical understanding of meatscapes’ phases. The top part of Figure 2 was reconstructed based on a 1725 map (available on the Adhémar database), and the bottom part shows buildings and the layout of plots based on another by Chaussegros de Léry. The composite map of Figure 2 locates butchers’ parcels and underlines the heterogeneity of this category of food-artisans, both in the size of parcels and buildings, as well as in their locations. When gardens are depicted, they are situated in the backyard. Smaller parcels are found close to the market. Two of the five butchers identified had one or two plots close to the market place - most likely to facilitate the commerce on market days. Nevertheless, also evident from this combined data is the twin observation that a good number of butchers’ properties are positioned along, or just off, Saint Paul Street, whereas none of them are on Notre-Dame Street. The reason for this is probably because Saint Paul was the main commercial street. Another important aspect of their location is the proximity to gates which would enable them to discharge their wastes in a waterway. [31] In New France, waterways in general – and the Saint Lawrence River, in particular – were the main dumpsites. Butchers were specifically requested to throw blood and carcasses in rivers; and a 1754 ordinance explicitly mentions that they were to be discharged into the Saint Lawrence. [32]

Following the slaughter, relatively large quantities of meat and other parts became available. With respect to other products, one example was animal skins. Butchers were not allowed to tan skins, hence they sold cow, oxen, lamb and calf hides to tanners. [33] In the mid-18th century, smaller rivers or streams, such as the Petite Rivière (Figure 2, bottom left) and Petite Rivière des Fonds (Figure 2, top), were considered open sewers. [34] Livestock carcasses, animal wastes and tanning processes polluted waterways; as a result, meatscapes were also associated to contamination.

According to Perrier, butchers and tanners regularly partnered, usually for a twelve-month contract during which butchers supplied tanners with their hides. [35] According to Peter N. Moogk, Brunet partnered with a number of tanners between 1709 and 1736. They included Gérard Barsalou and his son Jean-Baptiste Barsalou, Charles Delaunay (who in 1700 partnered with Barsalou in the tanning business for a period of 6 years); Pierre Robreau, dit Leroux-Duplessis among others. [36] Moogk also researched Jean-Louis Plessy, another tanner. His findings indicate that he was originally from a family of tanners based in Metz, France. While he also worked in this industry in Canada, he did not have sufficient funds to establish a tannery. Hence, he partnered with Joseph Guyon Després (a butcher whose properties are identified in Figure 2) who helped finance a tannery. In 1714, Plessy proceeded to build his own tannery as well as a tanning mill. [37] From 1720 until his death in 1743, he owned a plot in the town of Montreal (the plot is identified in green in Figure 7) and according to the Adhémar database, he was the only tanner to have a plot in the town in 1725. [38]

With respect to the meat and edible parts of livestock, food needed to be cooked, or, preserved, as raw flesh was not culturally consumed by the French. [39]

Spaces Associated to the Transformation of the Raw

Preservation: decelerating the rotting process

Slowing down rotting enabled inhabitants to postpone the consumption of meat products and allowed its long-term preservation, especially for the extended periods of the Canadian winter. Freezing meat was possible, generally, after the November-December slaughter, or, as soon as the weather was cold enough. Meat was stored in the attic, but the main challenge with this practice was the danger of the temperature rising above zero and the meats defrosting, with a result of great loss for the household.

Another issue was the protection of the meat from animal predators. A 1727 plan of the plot of the Château Ramezay by Dugué identifies an ice house as an outbuilding (the plan is redrawn in Figure 3, the ice house is represented through a circle on the bottom right and the plot is identified with the letter M in Figure 2). [40]

Figure 3

Plan of the house, garden and orchard of Madame de Ramezay, 1727

Ice-house on the bottom right of the plan.

Source: Château Ramezay. Dugué, 1727. The plan was published online Delisle, André, “Découverte de plans anciens: nouvelle fenêtre sur le passé d’un château.” Bulletin Mémoires Vives, no. 27, 2008. Accessed online, May 8, 2015. http://www.cfqlmc.org/bulletin-memoires-vives/bulletins-anterieurs/bulletin-nd27-decembre-2008/227-decouverte-de-plans-anciens--nouvelle-fenetre-sur-le-passe-dun-chateau Plan redrawn by Author
Plan of the house, garden and orchard of Madame de Ramezay, 1727Ice-house on the bottom right of the plan.

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Further evidence is provided in Angers and Decouagne's 1726 plan of the Hôtel de Vaudreuil, [41] which also indicates the existence of an ice house (Figure 4, top-right identified within the black hatched area; the plot is marked with the letter L in Figure 2).

Figure 4

Plan of the Hôtel de Vaudreuil in Montreal, 1726

Source: Jean-Baptiste Angers et René Decouagne, arpenteurs jurés, 17 juillet 1726. Plan de l'hôtel de Philippe de Rigaud, marquis de Vaudreuil, gouverneur général de la Nouvelle-France, sis à Montréal. MARINE C/7/340 page 13. Accessed online, March 10th 2015. Electronic database http://bd.archivescanadafrance.org/acf-pleade-3-images/img-viewer/FRDAFANCH/IMAGES/MARINE/C7/340/PAGE13/viewer.html Plan redrawn by Author (the location of the ice house is within the area hatched in black)
Plan of the Hôtel de Vaudreuil in Montreal, 1726

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In the two above examples, the structure was placed at the extremity of the lot, possibly to distance it from the heat produced by the main building. In addition, mentions of ice houses are also found in the cases of religious communities, such as the Frères Charon. Their parcel (indicated with the letter Q in Figure 2) was located just outside the town’s limits, and they owned an ice house close to the community’s wing. [42] There are other mentions of ice houses in disparate documents, which make it hard to identify the number of households that were equipped with one; additional Montreal cases in point include innkeepers Pierre Lamotte [43] and Nafréchoux. [44] According to Dechêne, it was a luxury that could be afforded by the wealthy, and this type of outbuilding did not appear in the countryside before the mid-18th century. [45] What ice houses had in common is that they were generally built below grade, where large pieces of ice were stored. For the ice not to melt rapidly, this space was sealed as hermetically as possible, and prevented the sun’s rays from accelerating the melting process.

Freezing was not the only way of keeping meat. Most of Montreal’s inhabitants relied on salt to preserve lard, [46] and residents typically used salt boxes, or, barrels– as reported in Jeanne Mance’s death deed. [47] Salted meat to provision soldiers was among trading goods, military equipment and food stored in the King’s warehouses. Salt was costly and its supply depended on ships’ successes in reaching the New World and on the quantity of this commodity they carried. To counterbalance irregularities and shortages, inconclusive attempts were undertaken to extract it locally. [48]

A prime example of Montreal architecture of this time is the above mentioned building of the Frères Charon, [49] constructed between 1693 and 1694. Part of it is still standing and offers interesting clues about another method of meat preservation: smoking. To this day, it maintains a smoking chimney adjacent to the main fireplace. This technique enabled inhabitants to preserve and store meat in sheltered areas, such as the cellar.

In the Saint-Sulpice Seminary is an excellent example of a functional cellar designed following the well-understood principal that such a place helped preservation because it remained cool and the temperature stayed relatively constant. A meat cellar was located in the second underground level, measuring approximately 6.7 m by 4.0 m in area, and 2.44 m in height (the plot is indicated with the letter E in Figure 2). [50] The vaulted arch prevented humidity from forming stagnant patches on the ceilings. [51] In addition, hooks were placed onto the ceiling to suspend the meat cuts.

Overall, as this section illustrates, slowing down the rotting process of meat required adequate space, either within, or, next to the homes, and with specific temperatures and humidity characteristics. [52] Hence, structures like the ice houses and cellars built by the wealthier required excavation works to integrate such constructions. Also while not reserved for livestock products attics and storehouses shared the storage space with other goods and items.

Preparing meat for consumption: accelerating the transformation process

As shown in Figure 5, boiling, frying, baking, grilling and roasting were known transformation processes to cook flesh. In New France, every household with a chimney contained a trammel on which a caldron was hooked. This receptacle varied in sizes and remained one of the most popular utensils for cooking. Boiling and frying were possible through immersion techniques, and therefore required a container to hold the fluid.

Figure 5

Diagram presenting the processes to preserve or cook meat

Source: This drawing is inspired by twentieth century French philosopher Claude Lévi-Strauss’ concept of a Culinary Triangle[53] and lists different equations that speed up the transformation process of meat or slow down its rotting process. Drawing: Author
Diagram presenting the processes to preserve or cook meat

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In Canada, roasting was usually practiced by the affluent. [54] Following a devastating fire that occurred in 1754, the Château Ramezay (Figure 2, plot M) was rebuilt and extended by its new landlord, the Compagnie des Indes. In the kitchen space of the latest construction, a niche seems to have been integrated into the vault to incorporate a curious contraption that powered a roasting-jack: a dog wheel. [55] This mechanism was fitted into the building’s masonry, and the dog’s movement regulated a mechanical device that rotated a spit to cook the meat evenly. This type of appliance – specific to roasting – was uncommon and available only to the elite. Besides boiling and roasting, frying and baking were also ways of speeding up the transformation processes of flesh for consumption or preservation. Evidence of this comes to us from death deeds and their mention of related utensils, like frying pans and baking containers for meat pies, which indicates that the intervention of other artisans was required. [56]

Figure 6

Relationship diagram between interior spaces related to meat and their characteristics

Drawing: Author
Relationship diagram between interior spaces related to meat and their characteristics

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Figure 6 represents the derived relations between space functions associated with the edible parts of livestock and space characteristics in terms of specific heat and moisture conditions. Adjusting the temperature, the degree of humidity, the intensity of light and the ventilation were all critical to preserve or cook meat, which in turn required the construction of specific or multi-usage spaces inside and around the house. [57] Naturally, not all houses were equipped with the spaces illustrated in Figure 6, as building a smoke chimney, a meat cellar or an ice house were costly. Nonetheless such spaces existed and more affluent households (as well as religious institutions) were likely better equipped. Following the slaughter, subsistence livestock underwent a number of transformation processes for consumption and preservation. Meatscapes also spilled over into other areas of daily life, including tanning, shoe-making, candle-making, etc. thereby altering landscapes in a variety of ways, like public health and lighting.


The focus of this study has been the states and processes that food undergoes, and their association to spaces of production (raising and keeping livestock for meat) and transformation (slaughter, preservation, preparation, use of by-products) in the case of 17th and 18th century Montreal.

As perishable as livestock products and meat may appear, they nonetheless left inedible physical traces and had a structural effect on the colony’s layout. Domesticated animals, meat and by-products were found in a variety of spaces, both public and private (as shown in Figure 7). To resist food’s perishable characteristic, edible items were stored in different spaces that helped slow down the rotting process; these were located underground and above ground (as illustrated in Figure 6), indoors or outdoors, in cool or frozen areas, in relatively dark or dry spaces. Some were specifically built for food, like the ice house, while others shared space with different functions, like the attic. To prolong its lifespan, meat also required and underwent a number of transformation processes (boiling, roasting, and smoking) which also necessitated specific spatial configurations, structures and human resources. Derivatives were also important, as parts of the attire of inhabitants, their cleaning routines, and lighting practices. Overall, these phases were usually associated to spatial properties and interacted with a variety of scales, ranging from the landscape, to architectural and artefacts details. Together, these transient and ephemeral phases of livestock and meat trajectories ultimately produced more permanent effects, which impacted the making of pre-industrial Montreal.

Beyond mapping and investigating them, this paper’s goal has also been to illustrate that meat production, processing and preservation were quite complex involving an array of linked participants. As such, they extended well beyond the circle of the artisans’ barns and workshops and of the inhabitants’ tables, spilling over into other areas of daily life, including the production of medicine, leather and even light, thereby involving and highlighting different states, uses, producers-users, spaces and transformation processes that subsistence livestock underwent. In other words, meat affected many more parts of the settlement than conventionally thought (eg. butcher’s plots and markets), and it is for these reasons that this study has termed these livestock-related spaces and phases ‘meatscapes.’

Moreover, this work has also sought to demonstrate the utility of the research methods and resulting framework employed. Methodologically, this study has provided a novel framework through which settlements (towns and cities) and their foods can be investigated across time and space. Building on historical research on the provisioning of cities, it aimed to understand how a settlement was sustained by adding a spatial layer to the analysis. While Montreal has been known as an important outpost, this work identified spaces associated also to the production, transformation, commerce and disposal of livestock products in its settlement, and revealed some interesting socio-economic links. The end-result is a more comprehensive, composite picture of livestock transformation processes and the spatial aspects associated with them in 17th and 18th century Montreal, that can be composed and replicated across different cases and periods. In essence, the analytical framework presented here, also illustrates an approach through which future researchers can study the interconnected ways in which food practices affect architecture and landscapes. This would add more depth and new layers to urban analysis, by way of distinguishing, investigating and re-aggregating food producers, related artisans, industries and commerce, and the spaces their activities used, as well as multiple links between them.

Figure 7

Plots associated to livestock processes, streets and the marketplace

Sources: Data and plan of the city of Montreal in 1725 from the Adhémar database, Groupe de recherche sur Montréal, Canadian Centre for Architecture. Plan redrawn by Author and used in the axonometric view for analysis
Plots associated to livestock processes, streets and the marketplace

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One final conclusion from the study involves the inclusion of the food dimension towards understanding the development and functioning of settlements and towns. Besides form, function, defense, security and symbolism, the case of pre-industrial Montreal also indicates that food, and more specifically subsistence livestock, has been a neglected variable. It is one that affects its development, reveals additional important layers of life, and contributes to a composite, more nuanced and ultimately richer picture of the co-evolution of sustenance and architecture.

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