Temperate and Arctic North America to 1492

Elizabeth J Reitz. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 2. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

In writing about the history of food and drink in pre-Columbian North America, one is reminded that for the temperate part of the continent, we are describing cultures primarily known only through archaeological and archival research. Very few native populations survived the events of the past five centuries, and those that did endured considerable cultural modifications. Nonetheless, many of the foods and drinks they used became important legacies to the new North American and global foodways that emerged after 1492, and certainly such foods were critical to the survival of the first European colonists who established permanent communities there.

Perhaps the most important of these were pumpkins, squash, beans, and maize (corn), and although few of these crops were originally domesticated in temperate North America, today they, as well as indigenous cultivation and preparation techniques, continue to be valued.

The practice of mixing maize, beans, and squash in gardens was developed by Native Americans, who also contributed many maize dishes, including hominy, grits and other gruels, breads made with corn flour, corn on the cob, and succotash (Hudson 1976: 498-9). Early North Americans gave sunflowers to the world’s economy and contributed to the development of modern strawberry, blackberry, raspberry, blueberry, cranberry, hickory, and pecan varieties (Trager 1970: 278-80; Hedrick 1972). Finally, such preservation techniques as drying fruits or vegetables and curing meat by smoking over hickory coals have Native American antecedents (Hudson 1976: 499).

Native North American cuisine is important to scholars for its contribution to knowledge about adaptations to tropical, temperate, and arctic environments. In the sixteenth century, the continent was not occupied by a single people making use of a limited suite of plants and animals. Instead, many different peoples wove the resources of their regions into complex and specialized strategies that were finely adapted to local environmental features.

Subsistence patterns in the northern portion of the continent may be broadly generalized into subarctic and arctic hunting traditions and temperate seed-gathering traditions (Spencer and Jennings 1965: 2). The latter were widespread, forming the basis for farming lifestyles that developed in many areas. A farming tradition was being widely practiced in the temperate eastern sector of the continent and in the Southwest when the first European explorers arrived. The farming traditions of the temperate Eastern Woodlands had a profound impact on the earliest European colonists; indeed, those who survived did so only because they adapted to North American conditions, melding their own foodways with native North American dietary traditions (Reitz and Scarry 1985). In the sixteenth century, the “transplanted Spaniard” either adapted, left the colony, or died.

Because of the importance of Eastern Woodlands farming traditions to sixteenth-century European colonization, this chapter focuses on that region and, for historical depth, traces Mississippian dietary practices from their antecedents in the nonhorticultural Paleo-Indian and Archaic cultures into the horticultural traditions of the Late Archaic and Woodland periods. It concludes with an examination of the impact of native foodways on sixteenth-century Spanish colonies.

Cultivation, Domestication, and Horticulture

Evidence of horticulture is lacking for some areas of the Eastern Woodlands, which may signify either that horticulture was not practiced everywhere or that plant use in some locations is still poorly studied. Likewise, evidence of a domesticated plant variety in one area does not mean that this variety was grown throughout the region at the same time or that it was grown universally at any time.

As Richard Ford (1985a) has observed, the paths from wild to domesticated plants and from foraging to farming were not direct. A continuum exists between the wild and domesticated states, and doubtless plants passed through stages when they were intentionally tended, tilled, transplanted, or sown, but were not fully domesticated (Ford 1985a). Domestication is difficult to demonstrate with archaeological materials unless a phenotypic change can be spied that corresponds with genetic changes reflecting human intervention. Changes in color, for example, are often associated with domestication in both plants and animals, but are not normally found in the archaeological record.”Cultivated” plants are found in the archaeological record – often in large numbers in some deposits – indicating that they were probably intentionally propagated. But morphological changes providing evidence of the domesticated state are not observed (Ford 1985a; Fritz 1990). Plants are considered “domesticated” when archaeological remains reveal those signs of phenotypic alteration that indicate that domestication did take place. A domesticated plant would not normally be found unassociated with humans and, in fact, they often cannot survive without human intervention.

In North America, both cultivated and domesticated plants were grown under horticultural rather than agricultural conditions. Entirely different energy inputs are required by these systems because agriculture involves domestic animals and horticulture does not (Kottak 1987: 269-71). Agricultural techniques must produce adequate calories not only for humans but also for a complex of domestic animals, whereas horticultural production only meets human nutritional needs.

Although domestic crops in the Eastern Woodlands were grown under horticultural conditions, this does not mean that farming was limited to temporary fields or small garden plots. Rather, plants were grown in many large fields (Riley 1987;Woods 1987) that were permanently maintained with digging sticks and hoes, classic horticultural implements, and not with the agricultural plow.

Because cultivation and domestication of plants is achieved gradually, it is unlikely that North American farmers completely abandoned the use of wild foods. Certainly this would have been the case in the Eastern Woodlands, where those proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals derived from animals could only be obtained through foraging, trapping, hunting, and fishing.

The Eastern Woodlands

Most of temperate North America from the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic seaboards westward beyond the Great Lakes region is characterized by extensive, mixed-deciduous forests. The northern boundary of the Eastern Woodlands is defined by a mean annual January temperature of -10° C and the western boundary by a line marking rainfall equal to 80 percent evaporation (Shelford 1974: 17). It is the southern half of the Eastern Woodlands that is most closely associated with the Mississippian tradition of the sixteenth century (Smith 1986).The northern border of the Southeastern Woodlands is around 38° north latitude, roughly corresponding with the farthest glacial advance, which occurred around 16,000 B.C.

(Shelford 1974: 19; Delcourt and Delcourt 1981). Winters are relatively short and the growing season long. Annual rainfall varies from 100 to 150 centimeters (cm) and is greatest in the spring and summer, especially along the coasts and in the mountains (Shelford 1974: 56). The Southeastern Woodlands are well watered, with numerous rivers, floodplains, marshes, swamps, and lakes. Systems, such as that associated with the Mississippi River, drain vast portions of the continent. There are many smaller drainage systems throughout the region, particularly along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

Climate and vegetation in the Southeast were dynamic in the late Pleistocene and early Holocene (King and Lindsay 1976; Wright 1976; Delcourt and Delcourt 1981, 1983). During the late Pleistocene, the northern portion of the continent was covered by glaciers. At the peak of continental glaciation, about 16,000 B.C., boreal forests of spruce, jack pine, fir, and some deciduous trees covered much of the unglaciated interior plateau, whereas deciduous oaks and hickories mixed with southern pines were found on the coastal plain (Delcourt and Delcourt 1981, 1983; Smith 1986). At the same time, Gulf and Atlantic sea levels were 60 to 130 meters lower than today, and so the coastal plain was considerably broader (Black-welder, Pilkey, and Howard 1979).

Temperate conditions began to replace boreal ones about 12,000 B.C., and by roughly 8000 B.C., temperate deciduous vegetation dominated most of the region between 34° and 43° north latitude (Delcourt and Delcourt 1981, 1983). South of this area there had generally been little change in vegetation since about 18,000 B.C. About 7000 B.C. the post-glacial trend of rising temperatures culminated in a warm, dry period known as the Hypsithermal Interval (Deevey and Flint 1957; Wright 1976). Temperatures began to cool again after about 5000 B.C., and by 3000 B.C., an essentially modern climate prevailed, with forests achieving distributions similar to those of the sixteenth century (Wright 1976; Delcourt and Delcourt 1981). Important additional events at this time were a rise in sea level (with modern sea levels reached about 3000 B.C.) and changes in regional hydrology (Wright 1976: 586; Delcourt et al. 1980; Brooks and Sassaman 1990).

Origins of Mississippian Foodways

Humans probably came to the Eastern Woodlands sometime between 40,000 and 15,000 years ago, first crossing from Asia to North America while the floor of the Bering Strait was exposed by low Pleistocene sea levels (Dincauze 1985; Steponaitis 1986). Prey species important to humans, such as brown bear, moose, elk, white-tailed deer, and bison, had made a similar crossing somewhat earlier (Kurtén and Anderson 1980: 410, 416-17). Caribou probably originated on Beringia itself (Kurtén and Anderson 1980: 315).

Late Pleistocene conditions are associated with what is known in human terms as the Paleo-Indian period (Smith 1986; Steponaitis 1986). Information about subsistence in the Eastern Woodlands during this time is limited. Most people probably lived in small hunting and gathering bands using an impermanent residential pattern to take advantage of seasonal fluctuations in resources. From the limited evidence available, the foods commonly consumed by Paleo-Indians appear to have included hackberry, blackberry-raspberry, blueberry, hickory, walnut, goosefoot, bivalves, gastropods, fish, turtle, wild turkey, rabbit, squirrel, elk, and white-tailed deer (Adovasio et al. 1978). Although a number of now-extinct Pleistocene animals, such as giant land tortoise, ground sloth, mastodon, mammoth, horse, and tapir, lived in the Eastern Woodlands at this time, few remains have been found in contexts that conclusively prove that extinct animals were hunted by Paleo-Indians (Bullen, Webb, and Waller 1970; Wood and McMillan 1976; Clausen et al. 1979; Graham et al. 1981; Dincauze 1985; Grayson 1991).

Modern geological, climatic, and biological conditions are associated with the Archaic period, which began about 8000 B.C. The Early and Middle Archaic periods were characterized by the use of modern animal species by peoples who employed a combination of gathering, hunting, and fishing techniques (Neusius 1986). The atlatl, or spear thrower, was used in hunting, whereas netsinkers and fish-hooks indicate that fishing was part of the subsistence strategy. Nets could also have been used to capture reptiles, birds, and mammals. Grinding stones suggest that some foods were ground or pulverized.

Evidence for plant use in the Early and Middle Archaic is limited (Byrd and Neuman 1978; Yarnell and Black 1985; Neusius 1986). Seeds of fleshy fruits, such as papaw, hackberry, persimmon, plum, wild black cherry, elderberry, and wild grape, are abundant relative to other seeds throughout the Archaic period. Although walnut and acorn were commonly used in the Archaic, hickory is the most abundant nut found in archaeological deposits (Yarnell and Black 1985). However, Richard Yarnell and Jean Black (1985: 97) argue that in terms of nut food consumed, acorns were the most important plant food in the Southeast until the Mississippian period, at which time they were replaced by maize. Their estimates of dietary contribution suggest that acorns contributed 75 percent of the nut food consumed, whereas hickory nut comprised 20 percent (Yarnell and Black 1985). American chestnut, hazelnut, and beechnut were used in small amounts. Seeds of plants used for greens, such as pokeweed and purslane, are relatively abundant in some Early and Middle Archaic deposits (Yarnell and Black 1985). Some of the starchy-seed plants that later became important as cultivated and domesticated plants, such as goosefoot, may have been used for their leaves rather than for seeds during much of the Archaic period. This would account for their low numbers in Early and Middle Archaic deposits (Bye 1981; Yarnell and Black 1985).

The Late Archaic period is characterized by signs of demographic growth and sedentism in many parts of the Southeast (Steponaitis 1986). Large Late Archaic shell middens are characteristically found along streams and estuaries. There is evidence that residences in some aquatic and estuarine settings may have been multiseasonal, if not year-round (Reitz 1988). Elsewhere, dense midden deposits suggest increased and/or long-term use of specific locations. Large middens, as well as storage pits, indicate a higher degree of sedentism than earlier, although it has been suggested that subterranean storage facilities may indicate concealment of storable foods during periods when villages were abandoned (DeBoer 1988).

Cooking techniques such as stone boiling in baskets and stone bowls had probably been utilized throughout the Archaic period, but clay vessels reflect widespread adoption of food-preparation methods requiring containers that could be placed directly in or over fires and left to simmer unattended for long periods of time. Late Archaic fiber-tempered ceramics from the southeastern Atlantic coast are among the earliest known in the hemisphere (Smith 1986; Steponaitis 1986).

The Late Archaic is marked by changes in the use of plant resources. Nuts continued to be relied upon extensively, but starchy and oily seed use increased (Yarnell and Black 1985; Fritz 1990). Seeds found in large numbers in Late Archaic deposits include ragweed, goosefoot, wild beans, hog peanut, maygrass, and erect knotweed. The relative abundance of seeds from plants used for greens but not for seeds, such as pokeweed and purslane, declined from earlier Archaic levels and remained low until the Mississippian period (Yarnell and Black 1985). Yarnell and Black interpret this as evidence that starchy seeds contributing both greens and seeds, such as goosefoot, may have replaced plants that provided only greens, such as pokeweed and purslane (Yarnell and Black 1985). Seeds from such fruits as hackberry, persimmon, plum, blackberry-raspberry, elderberry, black-haw, and wild grape are commonly identified in Late Archaic deposits, although the degree to which specific fruits and berries were used varied regionally (Kay, King, and Robinson 1980; Johannessen 1984; Watson 1985). Remains of American lotus at some sites indicate use of aquatic plants.

The Late Archaic is characterized by evidence for plant cultivation and domestication in some midlatitude, interior locations (Asch and Asch 1985; Cowan 1985; King 1985;Watson 1985, 1989; Smith 1989; Fritz 1990). Maygrass was probably a cultivated plant by 2000 B.C. (Cowan 1978; Yarnell and Black 1985). Domestication is first clearly demonstrated for the Eastern Woodlands with the identification of domestic chenopod, sunflower, and sumpweed at some Late Archaic sites (Yarnell 1969, 1972, 1978; Marquardt 1974; Asch and Asch 1978; Conard et al. 1984; Heiser 1985; Smith 1985b, 1989;Yarnell and Black 1985; Fritz 1990). Important indigenous cultivated and domesticated plants suggest that the development of horticultural traditions in the Eastern Woodlands was not dependent upon introductions from tropical America (Yarnell and Black 1985). The increase in cultivated and domesticated plants is associated with an increase in pollen of species commonly found in disturbed habitats, such as garden plots (Delcourt 1987).

Occasional identifications of gourd-squash indicate the presence of this plant after 5000 B.C. at a few eastern locations, although its status is currently being debated (Ford 1981; Conard et al. 1984; Asch and Asch 1985; King 1985; Decker 1988; Decker and Newsom 1988; Watson 1989; Fritz 1990; Decker-Walters 1993). There is, however, growing evidence for domestication of some varieties of gourd-squash in the Late Archaic Eastern Woodlands (Kay et al. 1980; Ford 1981; Conard et al. 1984; King 1985; Yarnell and Black 1985; Smith 1987b, 1989; Decker 1988; Fritz 1990). Recent work suggests that a native wild plant closely related to the gourd-squash, the Texas wild gourd, was present in North America and might have been the source of domestic gourd-squash found in the Eastern Woodlands (Decker 1988; Smith 1989; Fritz 1990; Decker-Walters 1993). Gourd-squash includes acorn squash, scallop squash, fordhook, crookneck, and most of the ornamental gourds (King 1985), although the gourd-squash found in deposits about 2000 B.C. were probably woody varieties used for containers and oily seeds, rather than the fleshy vegetable found in the sixteenth century (Yarnell and Black 1985; King 1985).

The origin of bottle gourd is also in doubt (Heiser 1989; Smith 1989; Fritz 1990). Very small seeds and thin-walled fragments of bottle gourds found at two Eastern Woodlands deposits, dated between 5350 and 2300 B.C., suggest that they may have been used very early. Remains of bottle gourds that were clearly domesticated are found in contexts that date from around 1300 B.C. or a little before (Smith 1985b; Yarnell and Black 1985; Fritz 1990;Yarnell 1993). It is probable that the recovery of bottle gourd remains from contexts with early dates indicates that this plant reached the Eastern Woodlands serendipitously (Heiser 1989; Fritz 1990), perhaps by floating to the eastern seaboard from tropical America or Africa (Smith 1985b, 1989; Yarnell and Black 1985; Heiser 1989; Fritz 1990). It seems likely that bottle gourds were valued as containers, rather than as food (King 1985).

Although plant use was highly dynamic at the end of the Archaic period, use of animal resources seems to have remained stable at those few locations for which stratigraphic sequences are available. Archaic peoples consumed a broad range of animals, which suggests subsistence strategies making use of the most efficient resources available in a particular setting. In general, animal remains indicate strategies that combined white-tailed deer and a wide range of other species. Other taxa included bivalves and gastropods, gar, bowfin, sucker, catfish, sunfish, freshwater drum, snapping turtle, mud-musk turtle, box turtle, pond turtle, softshell turtle, snakes, opossum, rabbit, squirrel, woodchuck, pocket gopher, muskrat, beaver, black bear, raccoon, badger, and elk (Curren 1974; Stoltman 1974; Parmalee, McMillan, and King 1976; Neusius 1986). In some areas, migratory waterfowl were taken in season, but usually birds other than quail, wild turkey, and passenger pigeon were not a major part of Archaic diets. In coastal settings, this list becomes even more complex, with estuarine mollusks and fishes dominating the diet, whereas mammals, including white-tailed deer, were rarely consumed (Reitz 1988).

The Archaic is followed by the Woodland period, which began about 700 B.C.. In the Eastern Woodlands, extensive earthworks were constructed during this period; some of these assumed large geometric patterns, although many were conical earthen burial mounds. There were numerous villages of various sizes, of which some were occupied throughout the year. Villages were particularly common at coastal and aquatic settings, from which a complex of wetland, aquatic, and estuarine resources were used. Evidence for regional variation in diets is much stronger for the Woodland period than for the Archaic period, perhaps because more data are available.

During the Woodland period, there was an increase in the cultivation of starchy and oily seed crops and a corresponding decrease in reliance on nuts, although hickory and acorn continued to be important resources (Yarnell and Black 1985). Pawpaw, persimmon, wild strawberry, honey locust, maypop, plum, sumac, blueberry, wild grape, wild beans, and American lotus were also used (Watson 1969: 53; Munson, Parmalee, and Yarnell 1971; Byrd and Neuman 1978; Johannessen 1984; Yarnell and Black 1985; Gardner 1987). Seeds from greens are recovered from archaeological sites in low numbers, and remains of starchy seeds are notably more abundant in Woodland deposits than in Archaic ones (Yarnell and Black 1985).

The energy base for increased sedentism and mound construction in the interior upland areas of the Eastern Woodlands probably came from cultivated and domesticated plants (Yarnell and Black 1985; Fritz 1993). Little barley, maygrass, and erect knotweed were probably cultivated at this time, joining chenopod, sunflower, and sumpweed that had been domesticated in the Late Archaic (Ford 1981; Smith 1985b; Yarnell and Black 1985; Steponaitis 1986).This group of indigenous cultivated and domesticated grains comprises what is known as a starchy seed complex. Little barley and maygrass were summer-maturing starchy seeds, whereas erect knotweed and chenopod were fall-maturing seeds (Smith 1985a), as were the oily seeds of sunflower and sumpweed. Yarnell (1993) estimates that at one site, starchy and oily seeds contributed as much as 76 percent of the plant foods in the diet, and starchy seeds may comprise as much as 90 percent of the seeds recovered from a Middle Woodland deposit (Yarnell and Black 1985). Domestic gourd-squash and bottle gourd were grown along with food crops in small gardens (Smith 1985b; Yarnell and Black 1985).

Maize is the only domesticated food plant of clearly tropical origin found in Middle Woodland deposits (Fritz 1990). It was introduced to the Eastern Woodlands from Mesoamerica sometime around A.D. 200 (Conard et al. 1984; Chapman and Crites 1987), although isotopic and other studies of human skeletal systems do not show that it was more than a minor component in the diet until many centuries later (Merwe and Vogel 1978; Bender, Baerreis, and Steventon 1981; Boutton et al. 1984; Ambrose 1987). A domesticated tropical pumpkin-marrow variety was introduced from Mesoamerica at the very end of the Woodland period, probably about A.D. 1000 (Smith 1989).

The increase in horticultural activities during the Woodland period is reflected in wood-charcoal and pollen studies in several locations. Late Archaic wood-charcoal assemblages at several sites are dominated by plants associated with floodplains, but in Middle Woodland samples, floodplain species drop to 10 percent of the wood spectrum (Johannessen 1984; Fritz 1990). Trees associated with disturbed habitats, such as pine, red cedar, tulip tree, and giant cane, increase during this same period (Fritz 1993). This evidence indicates that stream-terrace vegetation was cleared for planting (Chapman et al. 1982; Delcourt 1987; Smith 1987a; Fritz 1990). Many of the plant species used in the Eastern Woodlands also thrive in open or disturbed habitats, demonstrating this preference by living as commensal plants around human habitations (Yarnell 1982; Gremillion 1989).

Not all of these plants were grown throughout the Eastern Woodlands, although there is evidence for a Late Archaic-Woodland tradition that featured small starchy seeds in some portions of the region (Smith 1985a; Fritz 1993). One of the intriguing problems is that the starchy seed complex appears to have been of minor importance on the coastal plain. This may be because appropriate recovery techniques have not been used at archaeological sites below the fall line, or it might indicate that an entirely different complex of resources supported communities on the coastal plain and in the lower Mississippi River valley.

Evidence for Woodland animal use is much more abundant than for the Archaic period. It suggests, however, continuity rather than discontinuity in the animals harvested (Munson et al. 1971; Parmalee, Paloumpis, and Wilson 1972; Byrd and Neuman 1978; Springer 1980; Styles 1981; Kelly and Cross 1984; Reitz, Marrinan, and Scott 1987; Reitz 1988; Reitz and Quitmyer 1988; Styles and Purdue 1991). This is surprising for two reasons. Sometime in the Woodland period, bows and arrows began to be used to hunt animals, augmenting the earlier spears. Additionally, the increased use of cultivated and domesticated plants might have called for an alteration of the strategies used to capture animals due to schedule conflicts or different opportunities to capture garden-raiding species. With more data we may find that subtle, site-specific changes did occur, but at present it would appear that there were no dramatic changes. The Archaic tradition of combining white-tailed deer with many other species continued into the Woodland period. Often those other species were aquatic or estuarine animals, which sometimes were used more frequently than land mammals, including white-tailed deer (Styles 1981; Reitz 1988; Reitz and Quitmyer 1988).

Mississippian Cuisine

Mississippian societies were among the most complex north of Mexico. The area associated with the Mississippian tradition includes most, although not all, of the Southeastern Woodlands (Smith 1986). It was densely populated in the sixteenth century by farmers who lived in villages organized into complex, hierarchical chiefdoms. The chief was a governing figure who inherited the role (Steponaitis 1986; Welch 1991). Many Mississippian communities had at least one flat-topped pyramidal earthen mound, and some of the larger towns had smaller subsidiary villages affiliated with them.

Chiefs who commanded large numbers of warriors collected tribute from vassal communities. This often took the form of goods, such as ceramic or copper objects, but it included maize, shell beads, bear canines, and deer hides as well (Welch 1991). Mississippian societies were not found universally throughout the Eastern Woodlands, but they had become widespread in the region after A.D. 1000, and in the sixteenth century, it was this lifestyle that was most frequently encountered by European explorers of the Southeast.

Mississippian cuisine included three types of resources: wild plants, wild animals, and cultivated and/or domesticated crops.

Wild Plants

Wild fruits, berries, and nuts were widely used in the Southeast (Medsger 1976; Byrd and Neuman 1978; Yarnell and Black 1985). Perhaps the most widely used fruit was persimmon, but many fruits and berries were included in Mississippian diets. In the sixteenth century, Old World watermelons, figs, and peaches were added to the list. These fruits achieved such rapid acceptance by Native Americans that they preceded European explorers, who often thought them to be indigenous (Hudson 1976: 295). Such nuts as hickory, pecan, black walnut, and a wide variety of acorns were also frequent components of Mississippian meals.

Wild plants added a variety of greens, roots, tubers, and grains to the Mississippian diet. Large cane, wild beans, and vetch were often eaten by Mississippian peoples, depending on availability. Unfortunately, archaeological evidence for greens is limited unless seeds accompanied the leaves to be eaten, as in the case of ragweed. In addition, jewelweed, peppergrass, pokeweed, and purslane provided greens. Many of these plants are now considered weeds and are often found around human habitations, whereas others are abundant in low-lying damp locations, such as river valleys (Medsger 1976). Fungi may have been consumed, but little archaeological evidence survives for their use (Swanton 1946: 244).

Roots and tubers were an important wild resource for Mississippian peoples, although archaeological evidence is extremely rare due to preservation biases. From ethnographic evidence we know that sweet flag, wild onion, wild garlic, hog peanut, groundnut, wild hyacinth, toothwort, Jerusalem artichoke, wild sweet potato, Indian cucumber, greenbrier, and coontie were all used. Many of these plants are found in swamps, on marshy ground, and along lakes and streams (Medsger 1976). Some of the tubers and roots used are actually found in water, including American lotus, golden club, arrow arum, arrowhead, bulrush, and cattail.

Some plants provided condiments, beverages, and oil. Honey locust, maypop, sumac, maple, spicebush, sweet gum, and sweet bay were made into sweeteners and beverages (Hudson 1976: 309; Medsger 1976). Sassafras was used not only as a drink but also to thicken soups (Hudson 1976: 309). One of the most remarked upon drinks was cassina, made from yaupon holly. Yaupon could be made into a simple caffeinated beverage or into “black drink.” Black drink had an emetic effect and was important in rituals on the coastal plain (Medsger 1976: 215-16; Hudson 1979; Welch 1991: 113-14). Plants, particularly the nuts, provided oil. Salt was obtained from salt licks as well as through trade with coastal peoples (Swanton 1946: 242, 268, 300-4; Hudson 1976: 316; Muller 1984), and some plants offered salt substitutes (Swanton 1946: 270, 303).

Wild Animals

Although many nutrients associated with plants could be obtained from either wild or cultivated-domesticated plants, sources of meat and animal-derived proteins, fats, minerals, and vitamins were almost entirely wild, with the possible exception of the dog, which may have been consumed in some locations (Hudson 1976: 289-90). Animals may be roughly divided into forest and aquatic-estuarine categories. In some respects this division is an artificial one because many animals that do not actually live in water are found in close proximity to it.

A wide range of forest animals were consumed by Mississippian peoples (Reitz 1982; Kelly and Cross 1984; Reitz et al. 1987; Carder 1989). Land resources often overlooked in discussions of Mississippian diets include box turtle, gopher tortoise, and snake. Quail, wild turkey, passenger pigeon, mourning dove, and a variety of small song birds were also sometimes included in Mississippian diets. Likewise, such mammals as opossum, rabbit, squirrel, woodchuck, black bear, raccoon, elk, and white-tailed deer were widely consumed.

Many Mississippian sites are found on river flood-plains and bottomlands, and so it is not surprising that numerous aquatic animals were used by Mississippian peoples (Springer 1980; Hale 1984; Carder 1989). Where freshwater bivalves and gastropods were eaten, they accumulated into very large middens. However, the nutritional contribution of mollusks is uncertain (Parmalee and Klippel 1974).

Remains of fish are abundant in many deposits. In freshwater settings, fish may include gar, bowfin, sucker, catfish, pike, sunfish, and drum. Amphibians are not frequently found in Mississippian deposits, but sirens, amphiuma, and frogs were clearly eaten in some communities. A wide range of reptiles, including alligator, snapping turtle, mud turtle, musk turtle, map turtle, cooter, slider, softshell turtle, and snakes, were used. Wetland birds were used in large numbers only at sites located along important migration routes. At such sites heron, duck, and geese were consumed. In addition to these resources, such aquatic mammals as muskrat, beaver, and otter were eaten.

Coastal sites with access to estuarine settings form a special case. Archaeological evidence for use of a wide range of animal resources is abundant. This array includes crustacea, bivalves, gastropods, sharks, rays, and bony fish. Turtles were commonly consumed, particularly those found only in estuarine settings, such as diamondback terrapin. Evidence for use of sea turtle meat or eggs is very limited, as is evidence for widespread use of birds and land mammals. Remains of white-tailed deer, for example, are often nonexistent at coastal Mississippian sites (Reitz 1985, 1988; Reitz and Quitmyer 1988). Mammals restricted to marine settings, such as dolphins and manatees, were occasionally eaten, but at most villages they were probably not commonly used.

Cultivated and Domesticated Crops

Farming was a key Mississippian subsistence activity. Cultivated crops included little barley, maygrass, and erect knotweed, whereas domesticated ones included chenopod, gourd-squash, sunflower, sump-weed, and bottle gourd (Yarnell and Black 1985; Steponaitis 1986; Fritz 1990). All were indigenous to the Eastern Woodlands, and in some communities starchy seeds contributed an average of 78 percent of the total identifiable seeds (Johannessen 1984). Although none of these plants individually constituted a complete protein source, their nutritional value was quite high and, when combined with other plants, would have provided a complete protein (Asch and Asch 1978; Cowan 1978; Crites and Terry 1984; King 1985). Maygrass is higher in protein than the other starchy seeds and is similar in protein density to fish (Crites and Terry 1984), although like all plants, it is inadequate in at least one essential amino acid (Asch and Asch 1978; Crites and Terry 1984). Sumpweed and sunflower seeds have a high oil content, with sunflower seeds yielding 20 percent oil (Medsger 1976). Chenopod, little barley, maygrass, and erect knotweed are high in carbohydrates (Crites and Terry 1984).

The domestic plants considered most characteristic of Mississippian diets, however, were introduced from tropical America. These included pale-seeded amaranth, pumpkin-marrow, the common bean, and maize (Fritz 1984; Yarnell and Black 1985). Tropical plants were introduced to the Eastern Woodlands just prior to or during the Early Mississippian period, but as already mentioned, maize was a minor crop throughout the Southeast for several centuries and only became important in most areas sometime between A.D. 800 and 1100 (Fritz 1990). At some sixteenth-century Mississippian sites, maize was clearly the most significant domesticated plant and had already become far more important than indigenous cultivated or domesticated plants. But at other sites, starchy seeds continued to be more abundant than maize (Scarry 1993a).The tropical common bean may have been added to the Mississippian diet as late as the 1400s (Fritz 1990).

Very little is known about either wild or domestic plant use by Mississippian peoples living in coastal settings. Although there have been lengthy discussions about the role of maize in coastal Mississippian economies, there has been little archaeological evidence of its importance (Yarnell and Black 1985; Reitz 1988, 1990).

Food Procurement Technology

The combination of wild fruits, nuts, tubers, seeds, and animals with maize and other crops provided a solid subsistence base characteristic of the Mississippian period. Such a base could have been exploited in a number of different ways to produce a surplus for storage and exchange. Many cultivated and domesticated crops were grown together in large, permanent fields, as well as in smaller gardens on river terraces (Swanton 1946: 304-10; Hudson 1976: 290-1; Smith 1985b; Riley 1987; Woods 1987).

Mississippian peoples living near large population centers appear not to have engaged in slash-and-burn or swidden cultivation, although people living in smaller communities may have done so. In some places, raised fields were constructed to improve drainage (Riley 1987;Woods 1987).The primary horticultural implements used were stone and bone hoes, stone axes, and digging sticks. Horticultural activities were largely the domain of women, although men participated in the initial clearing of the fields (Hudson 1976: 295).

Numerous techniques were used to acquire wild resources (Swanton 1946: 265-304, 310-44; Hudson 1976: 272-88), with many of these so sufficiently generalized that they could be applied to the acquisition of more than one resource. Wild berries, nuts, seeds, and tubers were gathered with the aid of beaters, skin bags, baskets, and digging sticks. Similar techniques and tools could have been used to collect most of the mollusks. Fish may have been captured using trotlines, gorges, spears, nets, weirs, and traps, and there is some evidence for the use of fish poisons (Swanton 1946: 246-7, 332-44; Rostlund 1952: 127-33).The latter are most effective in quiet waters, and many of the fish found in Mississippian sites are common in calm aquatic locations.

Fish were also caught with handlines or speared (Rostlund 1952: 113-26), and trotlines and traps would have been ideal for capturing aquatic turtles and mammals. Sirens, frogs, and snakes might also have been caught with such devices, and traps of various kinds, decoys, and snares would also have been useful for capturing most land animals (Swanton 1946: 328-32). Indeed, although larger animals, such as elk and white-tailed deer, could be hunted using spears, clubs, blowguns, and bows and arrows, traps and snares would have been considerably more efficient.

A particularly useful hunting strategy would have involved the careful visiting of gardens and fields each morning and evening in order to surprise garden-raiding animals (Linares 1976). Many of the birds and mammals commonly consumed by Mississippian peoples are attracted to crops, so that traps set in or near fields should have been productive. Hunting at night with torches would also have been effective, and communal surround drives were employed in some areas in the Southeast (Swanton 1946: 313; Hudson 1976: 275-6). Mississippian peoples may have burned forest underbrush in order to improve the growth of vegetation preferred by white-tailed deer. At the same time, this would have made more abundant the nuts and other plants that prefer open habitat (Yarnell 1982).

Foods were prepared in a number of ways (Swanton 1946: 351-72; Hudson 1976: 300). In addition to being consumed fresh, fruits, nuts, seeds, greens, roots, tubers, and meats were preserved by drying either through simple exposure to sun and air or by smoking. Mortar and pestle were employed to pulverize or grind foods to ready them for preservation, as well as for immediate consumption (Hudson 1976: 301, 307).

Maize was consumed in many forms. In addition to use as a vegetable (such as roasted “corn-on-the-cob”), it was treated with wood-ash lye and made into hominy. The lye treatment increases the amounts of the amino acid lysine and of the vitamin niacin available from maize (Katz, Hediger, and Valleroy 1974). From hominy, a number of maize dishes were made (Hudson 1976: 305). Hominy might be eaten whole or ground into flour for breads that were fried, boiled, or baked. In addition, maize was often combined with other foods, such as nuts and beans. Combinations of beans and maize were particularly common and are nutritionally interesting because each plant complements the limiting amino acids in the other, so that together they provide a complete protein source (Katz, Hediger, and Valleroy 1974).

Elsewhere in North America

Not all of the peoples living in North America in the sixteenth century were farmers. Two of the most distinct examples of nonhorticultural foodways were to be found on the Northwest Coast and in the Arctic. Although both of these areas had early contact with Europeans, it is probably significant that this contact was largely intermittent and did not lead to permanent sixteenth-century European settlements, such as those that developed on the Atlantic coast.

The Northwest Coast is a long, narrow area stretching along the Pacific coast of North America from, roughly, 60° to 42° north latitude. It has a relatively mild climate but a rugged topography and a temperate rain forest that is broken at frequent intervals by streams used by anadromous fish, especially members of the salmon family. The area is well known for its large sedentary villages, elaborate woodworking skills, and complex social organization supported without horticultural input (Stewart 1977; Isaac 1988; Suttles 1990b).

In large part, the reason for the lack of horticulture was a well-developed marine fishery, especially one associated with the vast, but highly seasonal, salmon runs into coastal rivers. Salmon, surf perch, rockfish, greenling, lingcod, sculpin, red Irish lord, and many other fish were the source of most of the meat in the diet (Mitchell 1988; Wessen 1988; Wigen and Stucki 1988; Suttles 1990b). But whales, porpoises, harbor and fur seals, sea lions, and sea otters were also consumed. Many of these mammals were high in fat, and a smelt, known as eulachon, provided an edible oil. Mussels and clams were taken from the marine environment, as was a wide range of ducks and other birds.

Freshwater fish and mammals, such as beaver and otter, were frequently eaten, although gastropods and bivalves were apparently seldom used in most areas. Land mammals, such as bear, raccoon, elk, deer, and caribou, were consumed, but not as commonly as marine resources. Inasmuch as many of these animals were only abundant seasonally, preservation techniques, including drying and smoking and the liberal use of oil as a preservative, were well developed.

Such an elaborate marine fishery has often obscured the fact that plants gathered but not cultivated played an important role in the diet (Spencer and Jennings 1965; Suttles 1990a). Many species of fruits and berries were consumed, including salmonberry, gooseberry, currant, red elderberry, huckleberry, salal, and cranberry (Suttles 1990a). These were dried and combined with oil and fish to form pemmican. Rhizomes, such as bracken, sword fern, lady fern, spiny wood fern, male fern, and licorice fern, were consumed, and rice-root lily, chocolate lily, camas, tiger lily, wild onion, fawn lily, wild hyacinth, and a tuber known as wapato were also eaten. Several marine algae were part of the diet, as was the edible cambium of spruce, pine, hemlock, alder, and cottonwood bark; tree lichen; and, in some locations, mushrooms (Suttles 1990a). Nuts were also consumed, but seeds were not widely used (Suttles 1990a).

In sharp contrast to the foodways of the Northwest Coast and the Eastern Woodlands were the Arctic hunting traditions developed in the far north of the continent by Eskimos, or Inuits (Damas 1984b). The southern boundary of the Arctic roughly corresponds with the tree line, where the boreal forest ends and the northern treeless region, or tundra, begins. This also marks the distribution of prey species significant in the hunting strategies practiced in the Arctic region (Damas 1984a: 1).

Both plant and animal resources have been limited in the Arctic, and prior to the sixteenth century, most peoples there specialized in a maritime strategy that focused on whales, walrus, and seals. But many also hunted hares, ground squirrels, and especially caribou, along with the flesh and the eggs of ducks, geese, sea birds, and ptarmigans. Fishing and mollusk gathering were also important activities. Since many of these resources were highly mobile, as well as markedly seasonal, Arctic peoples adapted their settlement patterns to correspond with the seasonal cycle of animals important to their diets. This unique inventory of animals was hunted with a highly complex technology (Balikci 1984).

Until recently, the Arctic diet was distinctive for its low content of plant resources, which meant little in the way of carbohydrates. In the absence of plant carbohydrates, humans can utilize protein only in the presence of fat; and an important characteristic of many of the animals consumed in the Arctic region was their high fat content (Freeman 1984: 45). Nonetheless, several plant foods were consumed in season. These included salmonberry, cranberry, crowberry, blueberry, cow parsnip, a lily bulb, licorice root, willow leaves, sourdock, cowslip, anemone greens, parsnip, and kelp and other algae (Lantis 1984: 176; Ray 1984: 289).

Native Foodways and European Colonies

The first Europeans to maintain a permanent presence in temperate North America were the Spaniards. The Spanish colony of La Florida, which encompassed a portion of the Atlantic coastal plain and the Florida peninsula, was established in 1565 and lasted for 200 years. Unfortunately, very little archival evidence is available for Spanish diets in the Southeast during the sixteenth century. We do know that supply lines to La Florida were unsatisfactory and subject to interruptions. Natural disasters and attacks by a variety of human foes contributed to the unreliability of imported staples, munitions, and other supplies. Disease and other natural disasters further hampered efforts to develop the colony. In the records that are available, Spanish governors complained bitterly of starvation and of eating unwholesome foods. If we are to believe the official correspondence, sixteenth-century St. Augustinians, at the least, had very little to eat, and sometimes subsisted on extremely unpalatable foods, or even nonfoods.

Data on plant and animal use recovered from archaeological sites in Florida indicate, however, that complaints of food shortages in the colony were probably exaggerated (Reitz and Scarry 1985).This is not to deny that food might have been scarce occasionally. But there is nothing in the archaeological record to suggest that starvation of the sort reported by some Spanish governors was a common phenomenon or that inedible, nonnutritious resources were consumed often enough to become noteworthy.

Rather, what we have is evidence that the colonists adapted to North American conditions and blended their own foodways with native North American dietary traditions (Reitz and Scarry 1985). During the first few years of colonization, the plant and animal foods consumed by Spaniards and Native Americans were very similar (Reitz 1985; Scarry and Reitz 1990).

Domesticated and wild plants employed by indigenous Native Americans dominated the list of plants consumed by Spaniards in the sixteenth century (Reitz and Scarry 1985; Scarry and Reitz 1990). Squash, sunflower, beans, and maize comprised about half of the vegetable part of the diet, with nuts and wild fruits making up an additional third. The primary Old World domesticated crops in the diet were watermelon, melon, and peach (Reitz and Scarry 1985: 56). Efforts to grow wheat were generally unsuccessful. It is interesting to note that indigenous New World domesticated crops, such as chilli peppers, moschata squash, and lima beans, previously unknown in La Florida, were apparently imported from Mesoamerica by the Spaniards.

Sea and land animals used by Spaniards in the sixteenth century were mostly wild (Reitz and Scarry 1985; Scarry and Reitz 1990). Over a third of their meat came from sharks, rays, and bony fishes, with the most common the hardhead and gafftopsail catfish, sheepshead, Atlantic croaker, black drum, red drum, and mullet. A wide range of reptiles, including sea turtles, entered the diet, but predominating were the estuarine diamondback terrapin and freshwater turtles, such as the cooter and slider. Ducks, Canada geese, and turkeys were the most important of the wild birds that were harvested. Although opossum, rabbit, squirrel, and raccoon found their way to Spanish tables, deer and gopher tortoise were generally the most prevalent wild land animals. Domestic animals contributed less than half of the meat consumed by Spaniards: Beef was probably more common in the diet than either pork or chicken (the only domesticated bird); sheep and goats were very rare.

Archaeological data indicate that the Spaniards combined Eurasian and American foods into a locally viable cuisine, but like the Native Americans, Spaniards were heavily dependent upon indigenous crops and wild animals. To this complex of local resources they brought some Eurasian plants and animals that could do well on the coastal plain. In terms of animal resources, this strategy continued with little modification until the end of Spanish governance in the eighteenth century (Reitz and Cumbaa 1983).


A study of native North American subsistence strategies is important for the contribution it can make to our knowledge of foodways in temperate environments and for an understanding of the importance that such strategies had for European colonists. A survey of food and drink in North America shows that Native Americans employed the resources available to them in complex and specialized ways. The foodways of the Eastern Woodlands combined a wide range of wild, cultivated, and domesticated plants and many different wild animals into a mixed subsistence strategy. The resources used were primarily low-cost, calorically productive ones acquired from nearby fields, forests, and waterways. The archaeological record of the Eastern Woodlands suggests that patterns established in the Archaic continued with subtle modifications into the Mississippian period and even into the early years of European expansion. Over time, however, subsistence strategies came to include an increasingly diverse complex of crops and wild resources. The most significant changes that took place in foodways in the Eastern Woodlands were the development of indigenous cultivated and domesticated crops and the eventual addition of tropical cultigens to local farming traditions. These changes resulted in a cuisine that supported large numbers of people with complex political and economic systems.

The native foodways of the Eastern Woodlands had a profound impact on sixteenth-century Spanish colonists, who benefited from the well-established mixed economy practiced in the region. They altered indigenous practices primarily through the introduction of domestic animals and by adding a few of their plants to augment a diet based on American crops. Not only did this interchange enable European colonial efforts to succeed but it also ensured that many of the foods and drinks used by native North Americans would survive to be included in North American and global foodways in the twentieth century.