American Indian Food

Native Americans domesticated nine of the World's most important food crops. Corn, one of the most important crops that they developed about ten thousand years ago; more properly called maize (Zea mays), presently provides about 21 percent of human nutrition across the globe.


New York Times - May 24, 2010 Science Section

Tracking the Ancestry of Corn Back 9,000 Years


It is now growing season across the Corn Belt of the United States. Seeds that have just been sown will, with the right mixture of sunshine and rain, be knee-high plants by the Fourth of July and tall stalks with ears ripe for picking by late August.

Corn is much more than great summer picnic food, however. Civilization owes much to this plant, and to the early people who first cultivated it.

For most of human history, our ancestors relied entirely on hunting animals and gathering seeds, fruits, nuts, tubers and other plant parts from the wild for food. It was only about 10,000 years ago that humans in many parts of the world began raising livestock and growing food through deliberate planting. These advances provided more reliable sources of food and allowed for larger, more permanent settlements. Native Americans alone domesticated nine of the most important food crops in the world, including corn, more properly called maize (Zea mays), which now provides about 21 percent of human nutrition across the globe.

But despite its abundance and importance, the biological origin of maize has been a long-running mystery. The bright yellow, mouth-watering treat we know so well does not grow in the wild anywhere on the planet, so its ancestry was not at all obvious. Recently, however, the combined detective work of botanists, geneticists and archeologists has been able to identify the wild ancestor of maize, to pinpoint where the plant originated, and to determine when early people were cultivating it and using it in their diets.

The greatest surprise, and the source of much past controversy in corn archeology, was the identification of the ancestor of maize. Many botanists did not see any connection between maize and other living plants. Some concluded that the crop plant arose through the domestication by early agriculturalists of a wild maize that was now extinct, or at least undiscovered.

However, a few scientists working during the first part of the 20th century uncovered evidence that they believed linked maize to what, at first glance, would seem to be a very unlikely parent, a Mexican grass called teosinte. Looking at the skinny ears of teosinte, with just a dozen kernels wrapped inside a stone-hard casing, it is hard to see how they could be the forerunners of corn cobs with their many rows of juicy, naked kernels. Indeed, teosinte was at first classified as a closer relative of rice than of maize.

But George W. Beadle, while a graduate student at Cornell University in the early 1930s, found that maize and teosinte had very similar chromosomes. Moreover, he made fertile hybrids between maize and teosinte that looked like intermediates between the two plants. He even reported that he could get teosinte kernels to pop. Dr. Beadle concluded that the two plants were members of the same species, with maize being the domesticated form of teosinte. Dr. Beadle went on to make other, more fundamental discoveries in genetics for which he shared the Nobel Prize in 1958. He later became chancellor and president of the University of Chicago.

Despite Dr. Beadle’s illustrious reputation, his theory still remained in doubt three decades after he proposed it. The differences between the two plants appeared to many scientists to be too great to have evolved in just a few thousand years of domestication. So, after he formally retired, Dr. Beadle returned to the issue and sought ways to gather more evidence. As a great geneticist, he knew that one way to examine the parentage of two individuals was to cross them and then to cross their offspring and see how often the parental forms appeared. He crossed maize and teosinte, then crossed the hybrids, and grew 50,000 plants. He obtained plants that resembled teosinte and maize at a frequency that indicated that just four or five genes controlled the major differences between the two plants.

Dr. Beadle’s results showed that maize and teosinte were without any doubt remarkably and closely related. But to pinpoint the geographic origins of maize, more definitive techniques were needed. This was DNA typing, exactly the same technology used by the courts to determine paternity.

In order to trace maize’s paternity, botanists led by my colleague John Doebley of the rounded up more than 60 samples of teosinte from across its entire geographic range in the Western Hemisphere and compared their DNA profile with all varieties of maize. They discovered that all maize was genetically most similar to a teosinte type from the tropical Central Balsas River Valley of southern Mexico, suggesting that . Furthermore, by calculating the genetic distance between modern maize and Balsas teosinte, they estimated that domestication occurred about 9,000 years ago.

These genetic discoveries inspired recent archeological excavations of the Balsas region that sought evidence of maize use and to better understand the lifestyles of the people who were planting and harvesting it. Researchers led by Anthony Ranere of Temple University and Dolores Piperno of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History excavated caves and rock shelters in the region, searching for tools used by their inhabitants, maize starch grains and other microscopic evidence of maize.

In the Xihuatoxtla shelter, they discovered an array of stone milling tools with maize residue on them. The oldest tools were found in a layer of deposits that were 8,700 years old. This is the earliest physical evidence of maize use obtained to date, and it coincides very nicely with the time frame of maize domestication estimated from DNA analysis.

The most impressive aspect of the maize story is what it tells us about the capabilities of agriculturalists 9,000 years ago. These people were living in small groups and shifting their settlements seasonally. Yet they were able to transform a grass with many inconvenient, unwanted features into a high-yielding, easily harvested food crop. The domestication process must have occurred in many stages over a considerable length of time as many different, independent characteristics of the plant were modified.

The most crucial step was freeing the teosinte kernels from their stony cases. Another step was developing plants where the kernels remained intact on the cobs, unlike the teosinte ears, which shatter into individual kernels. Early cultivators had to notice among their stands of plants variants in which the nutritious kernels were at least partially exposed, or whose ears held together better, or that had more rows of kernels, and they had to selectively breed them. It is estimated that the initial domestication process that produced the basic maize form required at least several hundred to perhaps a few thousand years.

Every August, I thank these pioneer geneticists for their skill and patience.

The original story can be found at this link: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/25/science/25creature.html?_r=1&th&emc=th



Please click to read about California's American Indians used Acorns as a basic food: http://www.danielnpaul.com/CaliforniaNativeAmericans-Acorns.html

To view a list of pre-Columbian American Indian Food - North and South America click: Food Sources and Cuisine


November 24, 2005
Op-Ed Contributor
They Held Their Noses, and Ate

San Marcos, Tex.

NO contemporary American holiday is as deeply steeped in culinary tradition as Thanksgiving. Not only is the day centered on a feast, but it's also a feast with a narrowly proscribed list of foods - usually some combination of turkey, corn, cranberries, squash and pumpkin pie. Decorated with these dishes, the Thanksgiving table has become a secular altar upon which we worship America's pioneering character, a place to show reverence for the rugged Pilgrims who came to Plymouth in peace, sat with the Indians as equals and indulged in the New World's cornucopia with gusto.

But you might call this comfort food for a comfort myth. The native American food that the Pilgrims supposedly enjoyed would have offended the palate of any self-respecting English colonist - the colonial minister Charles Woodmason called it "exceedingly filthy and most execrable." Our comfort food, in short, was the bane of the settlers' culinary existence.

Understanding this paradox requires acknowledging that there's no evidence to support the holiday's early association with food - much less foods native to North America. Thanksgiving celebrations occurred irregularly at best after 1621 (the year of the supposed first Thanksgiving) and colonists observed them as strictly religious events (conceivably by fasting).

It wasn't until the mid-19th century that domestic writers began to play down Thanksgiving's religious emphasis and invest the holiday with familiar culinary values. Sarah Josepha Hale and her fellow Martha Stewarts of the day implored families to "sit down together at the feast of fat things" and raise a toast to the Thanksgiving holiday. When Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, the cornucopia-inspired myth was, as a result of these literary efforts, in full bloom.

This secular transition laid the foundation for families to adopt what had become familiar American foods as the holiday's bountiful centerpiece. Popular as they might have been in 19th-century America, however, the earthy victuals that Thanksgiving revisionists arranged on the Pilgrims' fictional table were foods that Pilgrims and their descendants would have rather avoided.

The reason is fairly simple. Hale and her fellow writers seem to have forgotten that their Puritan forebears migrated to New England with strict notions about food production and preparation. Proper notions of English husbandry generally demanded that flesh be domesticated, grain neatly planted and fruit and vegetables cultivated in gardens and orchards.

Given these expectations, English migrants recoiled upon discovering that the native inhabitants hunted their game, grew their grain haphazardly and foraged for fruit and vegetables. Squash, corn, turkey and ripe cranberries might have tasted perfectly fine to the English settlers. But that was beside the point. What really mattered was that the English deemed the native manner of acquiring these goods nothing short of barbaric. Indeed, the colonists saw it as the essence of savagery.

From the colonists' perspective, Native Americans grew crops in an entirely corrupt manner. They typically prepared fields by setting fire to the underbrush and girdling surrounding trees. Afterward, they planted corn, gourds and beans willy-nilly across charred ground, possibly throwing in fish as fertilizer. To the Indian women who tended the plants with clamshell hoes, the ecological brilliance of this arrangement was abundantly clear: the cornstalks stretched into sturdy poles for the beans to climb upon, the corn leaves fanned out to provide squash with shade, and the beans enriched the soil with extra nitrogen. But the English, blinded by tradition, never got it - they just looked on in horror.

Where were the fences? The neat rows of cross-sectioned grain? The plows? Where were the carts of dung? The team of oxen? The yokes? Why were perfectly good trees left to rot? Why not burn them to power a fireplace? And those fish! Why not salt them down and export them to Europe for a tidy profit? What was wrong with these people? The collective English answer - "everything" - honed the colonists' distaste for foods, especially corn and squash, that they quickly judged best for farm animals.

A similar culinary misunderstanding developed over meat. To be sure, the English frequently hunted for their meals. But hunting was preferably a sport. When the English farmer chased game to feed his family, he did so with pangs of shame. To resort to the hunt was, after all, indicative of agricultural failure, poor planning and laziness.

Thus the colonists reacted with extreme disapproval when they saw Indian men adorned with paint disappearing into the woods for weeks at a time to track down protein. Making the scene even more primitive was that the women who stayed behind spent their time tending crops, lugging water from the creek, and toiling away at odd jobs that the English valiantly considered men's work. The elk, bear, raccoon, possum and indeed the wild turkeys that the men hauled back to the village were, for all these reasons, tainted goods reflective of multiple agricultural perversions.

They were also, much to the settlers' chagrin, entirely unavoidable. The methods that colonists condemned as agriculturally backwards - and the food these methods produced - became necessary to their survival. No matter how hard they tried, no matter how carefully they tended their crops and repaired their fences and fattened their cattle and furrowed their fields, colonial Americans failed to replicate European husbandry practices. Geography alone wouldn't allow it.

The adaptation of Indian agricultural techniques not only sent colonists deep into the woods galloping after game and grubbing corn from unbound, ashen fields, it also provoked severe cultural insecurity. This insecurity turned to conspicuous dread when the colonists were mocked by their metropolitan cousins as living, in the words of one haughty Englishman, "in a state of ignorance and barbarism, not much superior to those of the native Indians."

This hurt. And under the circumstances no status-minded English colonist would have possibly highlighted his adherence to native American victuals - even if the early Thanksgiving holiday had been a genuine culinary event. Indeed, it wasn't until after the Revolution, when the new nation was seeking ways to differentiate itself from the Old World, that these foods became celebrated as a reflection of emerging ideals like simplicity, manifest destiny and rugged individualism.

Today, of course, we proudly evoke this native American heritage by crowding the table with turkey, corn, stuffing, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie as if they had always been there. That they weren't shouldn't be a cause for chagrin, but a reminder that Americans have survived in some measure because we are endlessly adaptable and capable of overcoming our deepest prejudices - even if the Pilgrims wouldn't have approved.

James E. McWilliams, a history professor at Texas State University at San Marcos, is the author of "A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America."



Freedom Socialist
Voice of Revolutionary Feminism
October-November 2014 - Volume 35, No. 5


In celebration of a Native American Thanksgiving feast

Guerry Hoddersen, October 2014

The following salute was given at the Thanksgiving Day celebration in honor of Native Americans held on Nov. 24, 2010 at New Freeway Hall in Seattle, WA. The speaker was Anne Guerry Hoddersen, International Secretary for the Freedom Socialist Party.

We all know that Columbus and the Pilgrims got everything wrong when they landed on these shores and that quite a bit of racist propaganda surrounds Thanksgiving. Columbus didn’t land in India and the people of this hemisphere were not godless folk in need of the “blessings” of conquest: Catholicism, slavery, the Inquisition, witch-burnings, genocide, rape, etc.

Farmers, inventors, scientists. In fact, the indigenous people of this hemisphere were 30 million strong and born of a race of brilliant scientists and astronomers, architects and builders. They were orators, poets, farmers, fishers, weavers, jewelry-makers, creators of political institutions and social orders that lasted hundreds or thousands of years. They created the League of the Iroquois which Ben Franklin and others at the constitutional convention looked to as a model of democracy that could bring together the colonies into a federated whole. They invented countless herbal medicines, domesticated animals and cultivated thousands of varieties of plants.

A world rescued. At the time of the conquest, the indigenous people cultivated over 300 food crops which today are the basis of three-fifths of what is eaten on our planet.

This is a most relevant fact to remember at Thanksgiving. When Columbus erroneously arrived here, the rest of the world was plagued by regular famines because the crops they depended on — grains in Europe, rice in Asia, and sorghum and millet in Africa — were vulnerable to bad weather, birds, and insects.

Luckily for the poor and underfed peasants of the rest of the world, the Incas had developed 3,000 varieties of potatoes over 4,000 years. They had a variety for every growing condition in Europe, Africa and Asia.

If you think about it, this is a very personal piece of information, since most of us are probably descended from peasants and wouldn’t be sitting here without the Incas humble, homely potato which ended famines caused by crop failures.

Potatoes, corn and beans were miracle crops. They could be grown in any soil, required no milling, and on a regular basis provided more food, more nutrition and with less labor than any grain.

In short, Native Americans revolutionized the world. Crops and spices grown in our hemisphere were spread around the globe. Slave traders brought back foods and spices from our hemisphere to Africa. Spanish ships sailing from Acapulco to Manila, a Spanish colony, spread them to Asia. The Portuguese brought them from Brazil to their colonies in Africa, India and Southern China. Lucky for the Chinese, the humble sweet potato yields three to four times more food on the same amount of land as rice.

Native Americans didn’t just create new varieties of food, they developed the technology for processing plants and animals by drying, grinding, adding lime or ashes, using acid to soften and preserve meat, tapping maple trees for syrup. Plains tribes even figured out how to extract oil from sunflower seeds. Mayans learned to produce chocolate from the cacao bean and Aztecs discovered vanilla in an orchid fruit that required months of heat and humidity to produce a wonderful aroma.

We can thank the Native Americans for all this! But words, once a year are not enough.

Today multinational corporations search the globe for new plants to patent and sell and for natural resources to exploit. In the process they are destroying the biological diversity upon which we all depend. Indigenous peoples are on the front lines of this war against the new conquistadors of “free trade” and we must be there with them.

A debt owed. While pushing indigenous farmers in Mexico off their land and onto the road in search of work in the U.S. as undocumented workers, these corporate conquistadors have the nerve to try and privatize the botanical legacy of indigenous people and criminalize them for not having documents. It is an outrage. We are the recipients of so much from Native Americans — a land; the means to survive; proof that human society can exist on a cooperative basis — not on exploitation and profit; that society can be built around respect for women, children and elders; that life is sharing plenty instead of hoarding it, of giving instead of selling.

The Quechua people of Bolivia do not have an equivalent of the English phrase “thank you” since their culture teaches that sharing is a requirement of life and that gratitude can only be shown in deeds not in words.

So while we share this wonderful food today let’s remember to show our gratitude in deeds of solidarity, kindness, respect and giving to our working class sisters and brothers of all colors, but especially to the people on whose land we are standing.

Click to read about American Indian Genocide