Native Americans' Lifestyle and Migratory Cuisine

  December 19, 2023   Read time 3 min
Native Americans' Lifestyle and Migratory Cuisine
For coastal tribes the staple wild starch was tuckahoe root; in western and upland areas foragers relied on acorns processed by shelling, grinding, and then soaking to remove bitter tannins. Other wild foods included hickory nuts and filberts (hazelnuts); wild strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, huckleberries, plums, persimmons.

Although hunting and fishing provided protein, and foraged fruits and vegetables afforded dietary variety, for Plantation South Native Americans as for many others, the cultivation of food plants was central to domestic life and culture. Plantation South tribes were among the most successful native farmers because of the region’s superior resources. Tree cover was their only obstacle to farming. In response, Plantation South Native Americans and other East Coast tribes developed ingenious methods of clearing and working farmland.

Until contact with Europeans, Native Americans did not have metal tools or domesticated animals other than dogs. Working in small groups with primitive tools and no draft animals, Native Americans could not cut down hundreds of trees and pull out their stumps and roots as in standard European farming. Instead, Native Americans developed a unique farming method called swidden agriculture, in which crops are grown in small plots amid standing tree trunks. The first step in this method involves killing trees by a process called girdling, in which trees are destroyed by starving them of water and nutrients. Native American women selected a promising site for farming, typically one with access to a stream for irrigation. The men then used stone hatchets to chop away a girdle, or wide band, of bark around the trunks of all the larger trees.

Girdling exposes the trees’ tender interiors, stopping the flow of water and nutrients from the roots to the leaves. Within months after girdling, the trees were dead, standing devoid of leaves. The following spring, when the men chopped down any remaining saplings and then burned the undergrowth, the resulting ashes further enriched the soil. After loosening the soil with stone hoes, the women planted their crops in clusters spaced around the standing tree trunks. The leafless trees did not shade the ground around them, and thus plenty of sun reached the plants growing among the trunks. Swidden agriculture is still used today in parts of Africa and Latin America.

Corn, beans, and squash thrive under swidden agriculture for several reasons. Because all three plants have shallow root systems and grow well in clumps, they don’t require deep plowing in long, straight rows as do European grains. Corn, beans, and squash are ideal companion plants—in other words, they grow well when planted together. When beans and corn are planted in hills or mounds of soil, the beans’ climbing vines grow up the corn stalks and support them in windy weather. While corn uses up the nitrogen in the soil, beans return nitrogen to it. Squash plants grow well in the spaces between the hills. Their large, spreading leaves act as living mulch, keeping down weeds and holding in moisture.

Native American corn was of the field corn variety. Although it was eaten “green,” or fresh, near the end of its growing season, most was dried and used as a grain. Corn was the most valued of all Native American crops. In precontact Native American society it was considered a high status food, prepared for important guests and used as a valuable item of trade. In addition, corn had great religious significance. Figure 2.5 illustrates the origin and spread of corn culture in the Americas. In Chapter 7 we’ll discuss this topic in greater depth. The beans grown by precontact Native Americans were not modern string beans but shell beans ranging from red, kidney-type beans to speckled beans and white beans. In early summer, tender young bean pods were eaten in their fresh, immature state much as we eat string beans today. Shelled mature beans were also eaten fresh in season. However, most beans were dried on the vine and then removed from the pods.
Native squash varieties were of the hard-shelled, winter type. Both the sweet flesh and crunchy seeds were used as food. During the growing season, squash blossoms were selectively harvested and cooked, considered a delicacy. Mature squash and pumpkins could be stored for long periods, often kept underground in cool caves or in hand-dug pit.

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