Prehistoric Indians and Historical Overview

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Prehistoric Indians and Historical Overview

Native North Americans consumed a variety of foods based on the diverse plant and animal communities found throughout the continent. Regional variation in diet paralleled regional variation in the availability of these food resources. This generalization applied until around 7000 b.c.e. This entry provides an overview of Native American diet, from the northern border of Mexico to the High Arctic, from the earliest peoples in the continent to the time of European contact.

Sources of Information

How do we know about the diets of past peoples? There are three main sources of information, each with its own limitations. Working backward from the time of European contact, there is recorded information about diet. The first European people to travel to the New World provided some information about native customs, but much richer information was provided by the first Europeans to live in the New World. These people (missionaries, explorers, and early settlers) were able to record information about foods and other customs before cultural disruption altered diet and subsistence. Because contact and early settlement was more often in coastal areas or along major watercourses, there is more information about coastal peoples. By the time Europeans had made their way inland, they were already encountering cultures changed by waves of impact from coastal regions. For example, the fur trade resulted in alterations in hunting practices among northern peoples before any Europeans were able to witness daily life in some inland northern villages.

A second source of information is ethnography and oral tradition. Ethnographic information comes from anthropologists who lived among native peoples and recorded their customs, including food procurement, preparation, and storage. A vast amount of ethnographic information was collected early in the twentieth century. Since this type of study represents only one or a few points in time, it is also helpful to learn the oral traditions of people, since these can reveal long-held customs and practices.

Insights into past diets are also provided by archaeology. Archaeologists analyze remains of food items including animal bones, charred seeds and cobs, pollen, and phytoliths (siliceous secondary cell walls of certain terrestrial plants which leave a "signature" that archaeologists and paleobotanists can identify), and the tools used for food procurement and preparation (spear points, fish hooks, digging sticks, manos, and metates). Chemical analysis of human bones provides direct information on foods consumed.

There are possible errors in all of these sources of information. Historians may only record what was eaten during a particular season. Ethnographers may also miss some of the diversity of the annual round of foods due to limitations on time spent with a group of people, or variations from year to year. Some items are more likely to be preserved in the archaeological record than others (bone tools versus wooden tools; ceramic vessels versus baskets woven from fibers). However, food preferences are strongly ingrained in cultures and so it is reasonable to assume that the habits that were observed by ethnographers and early historians and that are repeated in oral traditions can be extended back into time. The exception is that a major transition, plant domestication, took place prehistorically. The timing of this transition has been studied intensively by archaeologists and physical anthropologists.

The First North Americans

The first people to enter the New World are thought to have come from northeast Asia and are usually characterized as "big game hunters." During the late Pleistocene, large terrestrial mammals such as mammoths and mastodons were hunted, as is apparent from the association of projectile points and bones from these animals. Here researchers encounter the problem of bias in the archaeological record. Did these people only eat big game? The ethnographic information on northern peoples of the boreal forest and Arctic regions points to an emphasis on meat in the diet, and indicates that animals with fatty meat (moose and beaver) were preferred over lean animals such as hare. A number of different types of berries were collected in summer and some were preserved, but they constituted a small percentage of the total diet. As the early Asian migrants to North America moved south, they hunted other large mammals, such as bison, and they probably learned about local plants and animals. In the arid Southwest, the archaeological record is less biased toward animal remains since wood, plant fibers, and seeds are preserved by the dry conditions. The descriptions of regional diets that follow are derived from a combination of archaeological, ethnographic, and historical information. (For additional information, the reader is referred to the Handbook of North American Indians, which presents information on the archaeology, ethnography, linguistics, geography, and history of various regions.)

A few generalizations can be made about the diet of North America's native peoples. The edible plants and animals that are available locally constituted the diet everywhere until the beginning of the practice of plant domestication, around 7000 b.c.e. In areas where plants were domesticated, or where domesticated plants were introduced from Mexico and Central America, locally available food resources continued to be used, but were supplemented, to varying degrees, with domesticated plants. It takes approximately 120 days for a crop of Indian corn to mature. This means that in much of Canada, where the growing season is less than 120 days, cultivation of corn was not possible, and diet continued to be based on locally available resources. There is evidence of maize cultivation in the southern portions of several provinces, including Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec. Farther north, there was an increasingly heavy reliance on foods of animal origin. Other areas, including the Eastern Woodlands and West Coast, had plentiful and diverse foods available and continued to make use of those resources after the introduction of horticulture.


Among Arctic peoples, diets varied depending on proximity to the coast. Those in coastal regions relied on sea mammals and fish. Sea mammals were more important in the High Arctic, where they were hunted in the frozen sea. Fish were more important in the warmer regions where there is more open water. Inland groups relied on migrating caribou, smaller terrestrial mammals (hares), birds, eggs, and berries (salmonberries, cranberries, and blueberries) and roots (cotton grass root and licorice root) (Ray, 1984). While dietary diversity was greater than is generally assumed, Arctic peoples, who are well adapted to metabolizing foods high in animal fat, relied primarily on hunting. Fat is essential as a source of lightweight, storable energy for functioning in cold climates and with periodic food scarcity. Cooking was not routinely carried out among Arctic peoples since fuel is a scarce and precious commodity. Meat was usually eaten raw and fish were dried before eating. From a nutritional perspective, this means that a number of vitamins, including vitamin C, that would otherwise be lost in cooking, were available. Internal organs were also eaten, adding to the supply of vitamins and minerals.


In the Subarctic boreal forest there was also a heavy reliance on animal foods in comparison to plant foods. Large terrestrial herbivores, such as caribou and moose, were hunted, along with small mammals. Fish were also an important food source. Although native people did not domesticate caribou, the migration routes were well known, and caribou drives, in which the animals were herded into enclosures, allowed for large-scale hunting. Among the Hare people of the Northwest Territories, foods were cooked either by roasting or stone boiling. Some favorite dishes included caribou tongue, caribou fetus, muskrat, and beaver tail (Savishinsky and Hara, 1981, p. 317). Meat and fish were preserved either by smoking, drying, or freezing. A food that was common throughout the Subarctic and on the Great Plains is pemmican, which is made by pounding dried meat or fish with fat and sometimes with berries.

Northeast and Southeast

The peoples of the eastern Woodlands enjoyed a wide variety of both animal and plant foods. An assortment of nuts (hickory, walnut, and chestnut) were collected and served as one source of protein and fat. They could be stored over the winter and were used in a number of different ways. Among the Cherokee, nuts were pounded, then boiled, and the resulting milk was added to other foods such as corn. Fruits such as apple, cherry, peach, plum, and crabapple were used along with numerous wild greens, including dandelion, Solomon's seal, and bergamot, and berries (blackberry, strawberry, wild grape and huckleberries) (Chiltoskey, 1975). Animal foods included deer, rabbits, squirrels, and fish. Maize (corn) was introduced around 200 C.E., and it gradually became a staple (in breads, soups, and as roasted ears) to which other foods were added.

Researchers have determined that native plant species were domesticated prior to the introduction of maize in eastern North America. Sometime between three and four thousand years ago, indigenous plants were cultivated by people in the American mid-continent and Northeast. These plants include sumpweed (Iva annua ), goosefoot (Chenopodium berlandieri ), and sunflower (Helianthus annuus ) (Smith, 1992). Goosefoot bears starchy seeds while sump weed and sunflower bear oily seeds. By 800 C.E., maize increased in importance relative to indigenous seed plants, and this was accompanied by an increase in population density in the American Midwest, Southeast, and Northeast.

Great Lakes

The area around the lower Great Lakes supported a large population of Iroquois and related groups, and has been studied extensively by early historians, Jesuit missionaries, ethnographers, and archaeologists. In addition, many descendents of those native groups still reside in the area. In 1916, F. W. Waugh published a monograph titled Iroquois Foods and Food Preparation, which provides detailed information on agricultural practices and utensils used in gathering, preparing, and eating foods, along with numerous preparation methods for various foods. Two commonly eaten foods among the Iroquois, historically, were corn bread and corn soup. Bread was made by pounding corn into flour. Boiling water was poured into a hollow in the flour. Additional ingredients may have included dried berries (huckleberries, blackberries, strawberries, elderberries), cooked beans, and nuts. A lump of the resulting dough was patted between the hands then dropped into boiling water. Prior to the introduction of copper kettles by Europeans, bread was more often baked under hot embers or on heated stones. The bread was often eaten with maple sugar or syrup. The most common food at the time of historic contact was sagamité, a thick corn-based soup. From the basic corn broth, bits of meat or fish were added. Sometimes beans were also added. This meal would supply all essential amino acids and is a good source of carbohydrates.

Northwest Coast

The Northwest coast includes the land between the Pacific Ocean and the coastal mountains from the Bay of Alaska to southern Oregon. Food resources there are very rich, with abundant waterfowl, migrating sea mammals, and both marine and anadromous fish. In addition, over 550 different plant species have been documented as food items. Harriet Kuhnlein and Nancy Turner's Traditional Plant Foods of Canadian Indigenous Peoples: Nutrition, Botany and Use (1991) covers all of Canada but with special reference to the Canadian Northwest coast. Their detailed descriptions of plant use and the nutritional value of various plant foods provides ample evidence of an archaeological bias that overestimates the importance of animal foods in the diet. Interestingly, Native Americans did not differentiate between plants used for food and those used for medicine, since some foods were eaten as a form of medicine.

California, the Great Basin, and the Plains

Peoples of interior California and the Great Basin relied on fish, local game, and a variety of seeds. They also ate insects such as ants, roasted grasshoppers, caterpillars, fly larvae, and seventeen-year cicadas (locusts) (Bodenheimer, 1951). Food was stored in pits, and cooking was generally achieved by roasting. Pine nuts were ground into a flour that could be stored and easily transported (Kehoe, 1981). Along the southern periphery, agricultural crops included maize, beans, and squash.

The Great Plains extends from southern Canada to Texas. Along the eastern margins and along the major rivers, native people practiced small-scale horticulture. Hunting was important throughout the Plains, and there is evidence of big-game hunting among the early Clovis people, and later evidence of bison hunting through controlled drives over natural features such as cliffs and arroyos (Frison, 1998). There is archaeological evidence of long-term storage of meat from such drives. Ethnographic work as well as evidence from pollen and phytoliths indicate that a wide variety of indigenous plants were used, including plums, grapes, rose hips, berries, turnips, and camas root (Wissler, 1986).

Bison meat and fat were desirable food items. There is both archaeological and nutritional evidence for selective hunting of fatter animals (not only bison, but other large mammals as well). Meals are both more satisfying and more economical when protein is accompanied by fat and carbohydrate, a readily available source of energy that spares the higher metabolic demands required to break down protein. Other animals were also hunted for food, including deer, antelope, rabbits, and hares. Pemmican was a staple food for many Plains peoples. Foods were cooked either in earth ovens lined with heated rocks, or by boiling in hide bags with heated rocks inside.

Farming was also practiced by Plains peoples, particularly along the eastern margins and along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. Maize, beans, and squash were cultivated, and there is also evidence of the cultivation of the indigenous species, goosefoot, marsh elder, and sunflower, similar to the Eastern Woodlands.


The American Southwest is of special interest for two reasons. First, the earliest evidence of domestication of maize, beans, squash, and other Mesoamerican cultigens is found there. Second, due to the hot and dry climate, plant remains are preserved in the archaeological record, providing a less biased picture of past diet than in other regions of North America. Spectacular Anasazi villages that flourished from 9001300 C.E., such as Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde, and Canyon de Chelly, housed people who farmed in canyon bottoms and on mesa tops with the aid of irrigation (Cordell, 1984). The Anasazi also exploited antelope, white-tailed deer, jackrabbits, cotton-tailed rabbits, and wild turkeys. Along the eastern margins, maize was traded for meat with Plains peoples. Food was prepared in earth ovens, in ceramic vessels, and on open fires. Indigenous plants used for food include piñon (pine) nuts, prickly-pear cactus buds, amaranth seeds, mesquite pods, and the heart of the agave (Cordell, 1984). Zuni Breadstuff, an early ethnographic account of all aspects of Zuni food, is a valuable source of information (Cushing, 1920).

Impact of European Contact

Sustained European contact altered traditional foods and food preparation throughout North America. Metal cooking pots were introduced, altering traditional roasting and boiling practices. The introduction of the horse had a profound impact on hunting techniques, particularly on the Great Plains. The fur trade altered traditional subsistence practices in the north. Displacement of native peoples by European settlers was very disruptive since an intimate knowledge of local environments was so important to obtaining food. Finally, the exchange of foods between the Old and New Worlds had a profound effect on cultures on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean (Crosby, 1972).

See also Arctic ; Canada, Native Peoples ; Hunting and Gathering ; Maize ; Mammals ; Mammals, Sea ; Mexico ; Thanksgiving ; United States .


Bodenheimer, F. S. Insects as Human Food: A Chapter of the Ecology of Man. The Hague: Dr. W. Junk, Publishers, 1951.

Cordell, Linda S. Prehistory of the Southwest. Orlando, Fla.: Academic Press, 1984.

Crosby, Alfred W., Jr. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972.

Cushing, Frank Hamilton. Zuni Breadstuff. Indian Notes and Monographs, vol. 8. Reprint, New York: Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, 1974.

Frison, George C. "The Northwestern and Northern Plains Archaic." In Archaeology on the Great Plains. Edited by W. Raymond Wood, pp. 140172. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1998.

Katzenberg, M. Anne. "Stable Isotope Analysis: A Tool for Studying Past Diet, Demography, and Life History." In Biological Anthropology of the Human Skeleton. Edited by M. Anne Katzenberg and Shelley R. Saunders, pp. 305327. New York: Wiley, 2000. A discussion of chemical methods for determining prehistoric diet.

Kehoe, Alice B. North American Indians: A Comprehensive Account. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1981.

Kuhnlein, Harriet V., and Nancy J. Turner. Traditional Plant Foods of Canadian Indigenous Peoples: Nutrition, Botany and Use. Food and Nutrition in History and Anthropology, vol. 8, edited by Solomon H. Katz. Philadelphia: Gordon and Breach, 1991.

Larsen, C. S. Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behavior from the Human Skeleton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Chapters on health, disease, and diet in prehistoric people.

Ray, D. J. "Bering Strait Eskimo." In Handbook of North American Indians, edited by William C. Sturtevant et al. Volume 5, Arctic, edited by David Damas, pp. 285302 Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1984.

Savishinsky, Joel S., and Hiroko S. Hara. "Hare." In Handbook of North American Indians, edited by William C. Sturtevant et al. Volume 6, Subarctic, edited by June Helm. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1981.

Smith, Bruce D. "Prehistoric Plant Husbandry in Eastern North America." In The Origins of Agriculture: An International Perspective, edited by C. Wesley Cowan and Patty J. Watson, pp. 101119. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.

Speth, John D. Bison Kills and Bone Counts: Decision-Making by Ancient Hunters. Prehistoric Archaeology and Ecology series, edited by Karl W. Butzer and Leslie G. Freeman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983

Speth, John D., and Katherine A. Spielmann. "Energy Source, Protein Metabolism, and Hunter-Gatherer Subsistence Strategies." Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 2, no. 1 (1983): 131.

Vanstone, James W. Athapaskan Adaptations: Hunters and Fishermen of the Subarctic Forests. Chicago: Aldine, 1974.

Waugh, F. W. Iroquois Foods and Food Preparation. Canada Department of Mines Geological Survey Memoir 86; Anthropological Series No. 12. Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau, 1916.

Winham, R. Peter, and F. A. Calabrese. "The Middle Missouri Tradition." In Archaeology on the Great Plains, edited by W. Raymond Wood, pp. 269307. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1998.

Wissler, Clark. A Blackfoot Source Book: Papers by Clark Wissler. Edited by David H. Thomas. New York: Garland, 1986.

Mary Anne Katzenberg