Sunday, December 18, 2011

Inupiat Plant Food

When someone mentions Eskimos or Inuit or people of the Arctic, the stereotype that most often comes to mind is snow houses and people in fur parkas eating whale blubber. However, as short as summer in the Arctic might be, people there eat plant food along with animal food.  As a matter of fact, people of the Arctic eat a wide variety of plant foods.  And we are fortunate to have a book with an extensive list not only of what they are but also how to prepare them.
The book is called, "Plants that we Eat." Although the book focuses specifically on plant foods that are part of the Inupiat diet, the listing for each plant also includes a map of Alaska that shows the range of the plants.  And although different Alaskan Native groups probable had their own preferences and their own unique ways of preparing plant foods, we can assume that many of the plants listed in this book were eaten by more than just the Inupiat. For that matter, many of the plants listed in this book can be found in the temperate zones of the lower 48.
If you are interested in wild foods, this book would be a good addition to your book shelf.

Aleut/Unangam Masks

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to visit the town of Sand Point on Popov Island in the Shumagin Island group. The Shumagin Islands lie off the southern coast of the Alaska Peninsula close to the eastern boundary of the Unangam territory.  Popov Island is now the only Island in the Shumagins with a substantial permanent human population.
Unga Island in the background. Popov Island in the foreground.

But until recently, neighboring Unga Island was populated as well.  And before the invasion by the Russians in the years following Bering's discovery of Alaska in 1741, Unga had a vibrant culture of which little has survived, save some masks.

I am guessing that Aleut culture on Unga was vibrant pre-1741 based on the fact that they made these stunning masks.  The making of art generally is impossible without a certain prosperity that affords people the leisure time to create art.  But besides the minimum level of prosperity, the making of art also requires that a culture have pride and confidence in themselves and their way of life.

Two more masks from Unga. Several things about these masks are worth mentioning.  The masks have holes bored into their chins and foreheads, an indication that hair or something else may have been attached to the masks at one time.
Another point worth mentioning here is that masks are usually provided with eye holes so the person wearing the mask can see.  As is apparent from the pictures there are no holes where the eyes are.  The person wearing these masks used the holes bored in the nostrils for eye holes.  This means that the masks are quite a bit taller than a human head.

The mask in the lower left corner may be a good indication what these masks may have looked like with all their added decorations in place.

If we compare the Unagam masks with those of Yupik people we can see right away that there is a good deal of difference in them.  Yupik masks are seldom purely human but often show additions of animal features or blends of human and animal features.  It appears that they depict transformations of fusions of humans and animals.  The mask from Unga by contrast show strictly human features, albeit, big-nosed humans.
Unfortunately, little is known about how the masks of Unga were used.  Unlike the Yupik culture which had little European influence until the 19th century, the Unagam culture was impacted by the Russians almost from the start of the Russian invasion.  As a result, pre-contact religious practices and the manufacture of accompanying parephenalia were stopped.  And the number of generations that intervened to the present day did not carry knowledge of traditional practices forward.

Food Gathering, a Communal Affair

One of the things I realized in writing about wild foods is that someone lost in any kind of wilderness whether it be arctic, woodlands or desert and finding food and surviving has the odds stacked against them.  Finding wild food requires not only knowledge and good timing, but perhaps most importantly for long term survival, community.
Mono women processing acorn meal.
It is one thing to be out in the wilderness for a few days or even a few weeks and getting by on wild food one can find.  It is quite another thing to live in the wilderness on a permanent basis.  Permanent wilderness living just like permanent living in civilization requires community.  Without community, living is simply more difficult than living in a community.
What is apparent in reading about food gathering in pre-industrial cultures is that while they all ate lots of different wild foods, they also invariably had some staple that became available seasonally and that everyone pitched in to gather when it became available and then worked to stockpile it for the times of the year when little or no food was available.
Acorn storage structures - note the stilts to keep the storage baskets off the ground and away from easy access to would-be competitors.

Given that communities living off wild food stockpiled against lean times, the chances of someone wandering into wilderness during the lean time of year and surviving on wild food are pretty slim.  The reason is simply that at certain times, there is no wild food to be had.
People living in a community had the resources of the community at their disposal, that is, the stockpiled food. Once people left the community, for instance to go on raids or extended voyages, they typically took some traveling food with them.  Barring that, they subsisted on some sort of food that was readily available and more often than not went hungry.  Long trips and raids consequently had to be made during times when some sort of wild food was readily available.
But the role of the community in wild food was not just in gathering, but also in processing.  Many wild foods need a good deal of processing before they could be put up against lean times and that generally required all available hands.  Even the gathering of surpluses required the whole community.  If the human community didn't collect the acorns or nuts or whatever, the animal community would.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Long Boats in Surf

Human powered displacement boats should be long and narrow for maximum efficiency. However, when you try to paddle one of these boats in surf or breaking waves, they tend to shoot over the top of the wave.  The stern stays in the water and the bow heads out into thin air, that is, until the boat's center of gravity moves past the crest of the wave.  At that point, the bow feels gravity and comes crashing down.

This is a photo of one of Ralph Frese's replica fur trade canoes out on Lake Michigan when some swell was running from the north. The canoe isn't quite up to its center of gravity, so the guy in the bow has a ways to go yet before he comes crashing down.  Ralph told me that when the canoe did come crashing down it shot water twenty feet up in the air, but not a drop got into the canoe. 

Here is a similar situation with an Indian boat in the Kerela region.
But scary as it looks to paddle a long skinny boat into breaking waves, paddling them down a breaking wave is even more scary since a long boat will try to broach if the wave is moving faster than the boat.

Boats and Oxen

This post is dedicated to the use of oxen on and around boats.  I am not suggesting that people with boats should go out and get a team of oxen  but if you already have a team of oxen, you might consider putting them to good use around your boat.
Oxen used for surf launching and landing

This picture shows a team of oxen standing by to pull this Block Island Cowhorn up the beach and out of the reach of the surf.  Pulling boats up on the beach used to be common practice in places where there were no suitable harbors.  Coming in through the surf had to be an adventure and you also had to have a boat built for the task.  Don't try this with a keel boat.

Here's the same scheme in Portugal.  Picture apparently supplied by António Fangueiro and lifted from
And finally, a vaporware concept for the use of oxen directly on a boat.  This one by an unknown Roman writing sometime around 400 AD.  

At first glance, it might not be apparent what our Roman conceptualist was proposing, but if you take some time to study the picture you will  see that two teams of three oxen are harnessed to two capstans which apparently are linked to paddle wheels at the side of the boat. 
The picture comes from a post by Ugo Bardi on the collapse of the Roman Empire. Ugo did not suggest that schemes such as this made the Roman Empire collapse.  Rather, he suggested that when the Roman Empire was collapsing, people were proposing to solve the apparent problem with fanciful technology like the oxen in the boat.  
Here is an excerpt from Ugo's article:
"The author described all sorts of curious weaponry. One that you can see here is a warship powered by oxen. Of course, a ship like this one would never have worked. Think of how to feed the oxen. And think of how to manage the final results of feeding the oxen. Probably none of the curious weapons invented by our anonymous author would ever have worked. It all reminds me of Jeremy Rifkin and his hydrogen based economy. Rifkin understands what is the problem, but the solutions he proposes, well, are a little like the end result of feeding the oxen; but let me not go into that." And we have to consider transmission losses and the added weight of the oxen, etc. etc.  
So, the long and the short of it is that history has shown that it is best to keep the oxen on the beach.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Indian Wild Food How To Books

This current post was inspired by my own earlier desert survival posts.  What I realized in the process of writing was that living in a particular place is not really survival.  The term survival implies that one lives in spite of various hardships.  I don't really think that Indians who lived in the deserts of the US southwest were merely surviving.  I think that for the most part, they were living comfortably.  Surviving is what you end up doing when you don't know what you're doing.  So toward that end, I thought I'd look at some of the books on my shelf that dealt with how the Indians made a living, where they got their food and how they prepared it.  Theoretically, if one reads these kinds of books, one might figure out how to live in the wild.  So let's look at the books.

Survival Arts of the Primitive Paiutes is really a pretty good book in spite of the overly dramatic title. I guess this kind of title grabs more attention than Natural Economy of the Pre-industrial Paiutes.  The book tells us, among other things that the Paiutes had multiple tribes and that each tribe tended to be named after their main food source, for instance Trout Eaters or Cattail eaters. Today we would call them locavores, people who eat only locally grown food.  But back then, everyone was a locavore by necessity.
One important fact that comes out of this book is that availability of food was seasonal.  Pine nuts appeared in the fall.  Cattails were at their best in the spring.  Fish came out of the lakes and ran up streams to spawn the same time each year.  And there were lean times like the dead of winter when people ate what they had stored.  What is apparent when you read this book is that one cannot simply walk into a wild region and expect to find food any time of year.  The Paiutes, like any moderns society needed to store food to survive the lean times of year.  Even the ground squirrels and wood rats and birds had to store food against the lean times.
The book also has a chapters on various Paiute technologies such as the construction of traps, the processing of food, making of cordage and nets, the building of tule reed boats and more.  While these descriptions probably leave a few things out, they are detailed enough that someone wanting to replicate the Paiute technologies would at least have a place to start.

Indian Uses of Desert Plants is a survey of plants most commonly used by Indians of the Mojave and Sonoran deserts.  Several things stand out.  One is that the plants in this book are all fairly common.  They are all plants you will have seen even during a casual stroll around the perimeter of a road side or from the edge of a hiking trail.  While deserts will have small micro-environments around springs and water courses, by and large, the number of different plants growing in the predominantly dry areas isn't large so that even a casual observer can quickly learn all the main plants.
What struck me about this book was that just about all the plants one commonly sees in the desert seemed to be listed in this book.  It appears that there was hardly a plant in the desert that wasn't used by the Indians for something or other.  Every plant in the desert, even the most insignificant looking ones were good for something, tools, food or medicine.
While this book does a good job of listing plant uses, it is only a survey book and not a how to book.  You won't find recipes here for mesquite bean soup, only the fact that the Indians ground mesquite beans into a meal and ate it in various forms.

This is a book similar to the book about the Paiutes and even has a similar sounding title, only it is more detailed and three times as fat as the Paiute book.  The focus of this book is more on various technologies of the California Indians than the foods that they ate. But even with its 448 pages, a book like this can only be a survey, at best, or selectively detailed since California  probably encompasses more bioregions and Indian tribes than any other state in the US. In any case, while this book cannot do justice to all the Indian technologies of California, it does do a good job of covering those that it does focus on. Bow and arrow making, pottery, weaving and traps are covered in good detail. This book is highly recommended for anyone interested in Native technologies.

Early Uses of California Plants is a small book and avoids an overly dramatic title like some of the others reviewed here, but is thorough and detailed in what it does cover.  It only addresses plants, gives a picture of each for identification, along with some color plates bound into the center of the book and describes each plant in detail.  My favorite entry was on acorns, perhaps the most important food for California Indians in the regions where the oaks grew.  We are told that a family in Mendocino county would collect as much as 500 pounds of acorns in a year.
The book covers food plants as well as medicinal plants.  Details on medicinal plant use are generally slim other than to mention that they were used for certain conditions.  I guess you can't expect to become a medicine woman or man by reading a 104 page book.  Still, lots of good info in a small package.

Before California is about history and archaeology of the state of California before it became the modern political entity that it is today.  The book isn't primarily about food and technology of California Indians but does provide some good perspective on how lifestyles of California residents changed over the millennia. I personally had always thought of the human past as having had two distinct phases, the historical past where humans invented civilization and the time before that.  The time before civilization always seemed to be invariant for thousands of years on end.
But if you look at a narrow region like California as Brian Fagan does, then you discover that the climate and population density of the region varied greatly over the time that people first appeared on the scene about 10,000 years ago.  Perhaps not surprisingly, people first entering California ate all the best stuff first and ate the less desirable stuff only after the best stuff was gone. We now think that the main food of the Central California Indians was the acorn, but Fagan tells us that this wasn't so.  Acorn processing only started some 1000 years ago.  Acorn processing takes quite a bit of work and although California Indians knew about it for longer than 1000 years, they didn't bother eating acorns because there was enough stuff around that took less work to collect and process, like grass seeds.
Do Californians eat acorns now?  No, they've stopped because it's easier to buy food that somebody else made.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Wild Food, Does the Bear Eat in the Desert

I was going to call this post desert survival, part 2, food, but changed my mind.  The chances that someone would need to find food in the desert is remote at best.  Furthermore, the chance is slim that anyone would find wild food in the desert if they were  not schooled or at least self-educated in finding wild food. For that matter, someone who has never shown an interest in wild food is not likely to find any in an emergency situation. 
Still, wild food fascinates me and wherever I am, I am always on the lookout for it.  So anyway, today's post is about wild food and some possible clues about what is edible and what is not given a situation where you might want to eat some wild food but don't have the local wild food guide handy.

 Rule number one is not to look for food where there isn't any like in the place above.  Food is usually associated with water though not exclusively. Water supports vegetation and vegetation attracts animals. So use your water finding skills.
In this case we walked downhill into a valley where we found evidence of water. If you see cotton woods in the desert, you can be sure that you're near water.

 Another clue is to see what the other critters have been eating.  It passes through them and they leave deposits, in this case something with a lot of seeds in it.  At the time I saw these piles, I had no idea where the seeds had come from, but just a ways down from the piles there was a grove of mesquite trees and mesquite bean pods littered the ground.  Aha, someone had been eating mesquite beans. I chewed on a mesquite pod and found it to be tasty.  Slightly sweet and if ground and maybe roasted a little, tasty. 

Finally, here is a shot of a pond of water with cattails growing in it.  Euell Gibbons claims that the white core near the bottom is edible.  I have chewed on them and found them to be tasteless and unappealing, but if you were hungry enough, you could probably make a meal of them.
And there were frogs in this little pond as well but they would take some skill to catch unlike cattails which sit still.