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THE AMATEUR ARCHAEOLOGIST ONLINE
A version of this paper was presented at a symposium, THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE OHIO VALLEY, May 16-17, 2008, hosted by The Archaeological Society of Ohio, Columbus, Ohio.
Diet, Food Preservation and Cooking Among Ohio Valley Early Cultures
By Richard Michael Gramly
The shift in lifestyle between Palaeo-American and earliest Archaic cultures was profound and occurred rapidly. It is hypothesized that in the Ohio valley change took place during the terminal phase of the Early Lanceolate (Agate Basin) Tradition or sometime within the interval 12,000-12,500 calendar years ago.
DIET, FOOD PRESERVATION AND COOKING AMONG OHIO VALLEY EARLY CULTURES
Richard Michael Gramly
The study of encampments and the activities that took place at them is a fit undertaking for any North American archaeologist -- not excluding archaeologists interested in Ohio River Valley prehistory. Three basic categories of data used in such a study are: 1) artifacts, 2) dietary remains and 3) archaeological features. Here I am going to focus upon the last two categories – dietary remains and features. Of the two, features stand the best chance of enduring and are, therefore, deserving of our attention.
But not ALL archaeological features are pertinent to our discussion, rather, it is the ones with evidence of burning and burning’s aftermath that I find fascinating. Of course, features where fires burned provided heat and light, but also they could have been used to prepare food. Prepared food might have been for immediate consumption or for long-term storage and use at a later date.
During the millennia since initial peopling of North America methods of food preparation developed -- just as the forms and shapes of artifacts did and just as the variety and number of economically important animal and plant species changed.
In the ethnographic present we learn about a bewildering variety of foodstuffs, many of which were prepared and cooked by the aid of fire. 1) Beds of rocks upon the ground with fires kindled upon them, 2) racks over fires, 3) in-ground ovens with or without rocks, 4) shallow hearth basins, 5) heated stones used to boil stews or to parch food within containers of various raw materials – by all these means and others food across historic North America was made ready for consumption or storage. Each technique of food preparation might leave a particular trace within the archaeological record – a trace that interpreters of evidence may not confuse with any other.
Here and there one reads about reconstructions of cooking features and simulations of cooking techniques, as for example, replicated beds of heated rocks used to bake agave leaves and to alter their starchy pith to sugar (see Page 1997). Huge heaps of cracked rock, the aftermath of generations of baking agave over stones, dot the West Texas landscape. Among the fire-cracked rocks are many stone artifacts, but seldom is there found a trace of agave itself, which was the focus of all that labor.
I, too, have enjoyed replicating ancient shellfish bakes that my students and I observed within the archaeological record of coastal Long Island and adjacent New England. (See Figure 1 series.) The ancient inhabitants of the North Atlantic coast used earth ovens in conjunction with rocks brought to a high heat. Their food preparation skills doubtless were on a par with other traditional societies who used earth ovens routinely, as for example, the Marquesans of French Polynesia (Handy 1923: 186). One wonders, of course, when cooking in earth ovens began among both groups?
Jump link: Figure 1 series
The Diachronic View
The evolution of food use, food preparation, and associated features in North America during the past 12-14,000 years is a demanding topic, presuming encyclopedia-like knowledge. From time to time calls have gone out for archaeologists to address the topic (e.g., Barnes 1980), but unlike King Arthur’s court, paladins have been few.
In general, the best over-views of evolving food preparation (cooking) are to be had from a close reading of archaeological studies of single river basins. Such studies routinely integrate sequences from many carefully investigated, well-dated archaeological sites with high-standard descriptions of dietary remains and archaeological features. Several examples might be mentioned; however, the ones best known to me are the late Robert E. Funk’s monumental investigations in the upper Susquehanna River valley (Funk 1993 and 1998) and his colleague, Herbert Kraft’s, smaller endeavor in the Tocks Island area of the Delaware River valley (Kraft 1975).
Personally I am unaware of any study for the Ohio River valley that is as detailed and exacting as the works of Funk and Kraft, which covered long periods of the archaeological record. There are, of course, well-documented sequences of artifacts in association with features at individual sites, as for example, Broyles’ (1971) report about the St. Albans locality on the bank of West Virginia’s Kanawha River -- tributary of the Ohio. The variety of features (among a sample of 200) within the deep cuts that she made was very limited – a significant observation in my opinion.
We await the published results of the recent digging at the casino grounds near Louisville, Kentucky, along the Ohio River, where we hear that rich, deeply stratified Archaic deposits were explored. One anticipates that wide trenches exposed many archaeological features that were documented and dated.
Data from well-researched sites here and there along the 1,000-mile course of the Ohio River and its tributaries, taken together with information from stratified sites and site-sequences in adjacent watersheds, furnish the diachronic view we want. As we will discuss below, the record spans more than 12,000 calendar years. It is only the first few millennia that engage my attention, however. During this time an Archaic lifestyle arose within the Ohio River region and, spreading up- and down-river, it replaced the more ancient, peripatetic Palaeo-American way of living.
The Palaeo-American Era
Cooking features are rare and sometimes difficult to identify at fluted point Palaeo-American sites. At the Murray Springs Clovis site in Arizona (Haynes and Huckell, editors, 2007), specifically within Area 4, an animal kill locus and processing area, there were two hearths. These features were little more than oval patches of wood charcoal, burned bone, and heat-altered, flaked stone artifacts (See pp. 120-121). At the Sugarloaf (Gramly 1998) and Vail (Gramly 1982) fluted points sites in New England more substantial hearths had been kindled within shallowly dug pits. On their peripheries were concentrations of flaked stone artifacts including cached objects (Figure 2). Hearths at both sites were roughly oval in shape although the example at the Vail site was more angular (Figures 3 and 4).
Jump link: Figure 2. 3. and 4.
The rarity of hearths at Clovis sites, as well as at earlier and later manifestations of the Fluted Point Tradition, indicates most may have been superficial and laid directly upon the ground. Too, where animal fat was in good supply lamps may have been used. If they existed, lamps must have been made of perishable substances, for none have ever been found by an archaeologist.
Important to note, rocks were not used around Clovis hearths. No fire-cracked rocks have ever been unearthed within a Clovis cooking feature. The technique of boiling with hot rocks was apparently unknown during that early era. Further, roasting upon beds of heated rocks was not practiced. However, cooking with rocks was routinely performed in western Europe many thousands of years prior to the New World Palaeo-American era (see Bricker and David for a discussion of hearths at the Abri Pataud site, 1984; Howell 1965: 164-165). In my opinion this difference in cooking and culture between ancient people of the New World and Europe is profound. It seems to argue against any close relationship between the two.
Since no beds of rocks were laid upon the ground or within ovens dug into the earth, we may conclude that Palaeo-Americans did not rely upon bulk vegetal foods – many of which demand long, slow cooking to make them palatable. That Palaeo-Americans may have consumed very few roots and vegetables, I realize, is hardly a surprise to some readers. Here is a case of archaeological evidence actually fitting cherished preconceptions.
Beds of heated rock are also useful in drying foods for long-term preservation. With no direct evidence of food preservation at Palaeo-American sites, one might be tempted to assert that Palaeo-Americans did not preserve surpluses of flesh and fat against times of want. Such an assertion is unjustified as wind and sun may be used to dry food, and in frosty neo-Arctic environments freezing may have kept food very well.
Food Preparation During the Very Early and Early Archaic
Jump link: Figure 5.
Extensive excavations staged over 18 years at the Olive Branch Very Early Archaic site near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers (Gramly 2002, 2008) yielded abundant evidence of fire and food preparation. Literally tons of fire-cracked rock were unearthed from stratified Dalton deposits (Figure 5) that were well dated to the 10th millennium BP radiocarbon (11,100 – 12,000 calendar years).
This age is a full 500-1,500 years after the end of the North American Fluted Point Tradition.
Despite the large amount of fire-cracked rock, I observed 1) no long-lived hearths and hearth basins, 2) no earth ovens, and 3) no dense spreads of rock that might be interpreted as drying areas for food preservation. Discoveries show that the inhabitants of Olive Branch relied upon fish, deer, turkey and products of the forest such as nuts; in other words, theirs was in every way an Archaic diet. Such a suite of resources was sufficient to sustain populations residing along the Ohio River for thousands of years.
The lack of earth ovens is, in my opinion, highly significant at such an extensive, intensively occupied encampment. Also, they appear to be absent at slightly more recent Early Archaic sites along the Susquehanna, Delaware, and Kanawha Rivers. I take these facts to mean that vegetal foods and perhaps shellfish benefitting from baking were unimportant in the diet of Very Early and Early Archaic groups of the general region. In time, however, such cooking features would become commonplace, and by the Late Archaic period few sites are found without them.
Throughout the Archaic, one might believe, the definition of food expanded to include things that would have been eschewed at an earlier time. As population grew, so did reliance upon foods that required more preparation. Expansion of the resource base required refinements in cooking, which are mirrored but weakly within the archaeological record.
The Transition from Palaeo-American to Archaic
The idea of an “economy or lifestyle in transition” is a concept with no real basis in day-to-day human behavior. It is but a construct of prehistorians who synthesize the past for students like ourselves. If you are an hunter-gatherer, you are either making a living by one means or you are not making a living by that means. There can be no middle ground for members of societies without institutionalized “safety nets” against want. You cannot make “part of a living” and survive unless you consume stored energy (like coal and oil) or inherited wealth.
As we begin to fill in gaps of the prehistoric record and understand the exact nature of early economies, the duration of the transition period between Palaeo-American and Archaic shrinks. One day, when our knowledge of the past is fully matured, the duration of the transition period will have shrunk to zero.
At this moment we can say that an economic “transition” took place prior to 12,000 calendar years BP (the date of the deepest cultural zone at the Olive Branch site) but after 12,500 calendar years BP (the end of the Fluted Point Tradition as marked by the Folsom arch-aeological culture; see Meltzer 2006).
During this 500-year period the Ohio River valley as well as parts of the High Plains (Frison and Stanford 1982) supported makers of lanceolate projectile points, who were bearers of an Agate Basin Tradition. On the High Plains studies of faunal remains show an economy based upon an extinct form of bison and, therefore, typically Palaeo-American. What may have been the dietary foundation in the East is unknown but it need not have been identical.
Since no food remains have been recorded from any Ohio Valley site of the transition period, we have only archaeological features to guide us. Alas they are very few.
Archaeological excavations at the William H. Zimmer Generating Station site in the floodplain of the Ohio River in Clermont County, Ohio (Roper and Bradley 1991), specifically at 33Ct476P, exposed a cultural zone known as Occupation 2 with a radiocarbon date of 10,240 +/- 110 years BP (Beta-17774). This determination falls neatly within our hypothesized transition period. Although no completed lanceolate projectile points were unearthed with Occupation 2, it is likely that they were the Rice Lanceolate type, which belongs to the terminal phase of the Agate Basin Tradition. Complete points of this type are on record for the Zimmer site (Figure 6).
Jump link: Figure 6. 7. 8. and 9.
Most important for guessing what may have been the economy of the makers of Rice Lanceolate points at the level of Occupation 2, was the discovery of a pitted stone (Figure 7) and an enigmatic lense of tightly-packed pebbles (Figure 8) near hearth Feature 1 (Figure 9).
itted stones of the sort discovered at the Zimmer site were recovered within the Dalton zone at the Olive Branch site and, thus, are a feature of an Archaic economy. They have not been reported from any station of the Fluted Point Tradition or any other Palaeo-American site known to me. As for the pebbles, we are challenged to make an interpretation. I favor the notion that they represent an early attempt at cooking with rocks. Later experimentation would reveal that larger rocks -- all of one sort and homogeneous in their make-up -- were best for preparing food. How long it took early groups to perfect cooking with rocks we cannot know, however, injuries from exploding rocks may have been an incentive to rapid learning!
If future fieldwork supports the hypothesis that bearers of the Agate Basin Tradition in the Ohio River valley practiced a very early form of Archaic economy, as I think they must have done, then the Ohio Valley may be added to the list of world regions where innovative food-use and preparation occurred precociously. Its onset was the Early Holocene – a most fascinating era for students of culture change.
I wish to thank Bradley Lepper for furnishing photographs and information about the William H. Zimmer Generating Station sites. A grant-in-aid from the Archaeological Society of Ohio paid for the radiocarbon date from the Vail site – see Figure 4.
Richard Michael Gramly, PhD
Barnes, Ruth Carol
Bricker, Harvey M. and Nicholas David
Broyles, B. J.
Frison, George C. and Dennis J. Stanford
Funk, Robert E.
Gramly, Richard Michael
Haynes, C. Vance, Jr. and Bruce B. Huckell (eds.)
Handy, E. S. Craighill
Howell, F. Clark (ed.)
Kraft, Herbert C.
Meltzer, David J.
Roper, Donna C. and Bradley T. Lepper
Captions and figures accompanying Gramly essay about Diet, Food Preservation and Cooking Among Ohio Valley Early CulturesJump Back
Figure 1a. View of Mt. Sinai Harbor from the Pipestave Hollow Late Archaic site, Long Island Sound, Suffolk Co., New York. 1978.Jump Back
Figure 1b. Partial suite of Late Archaic projectile points from the Pipestave Hollow site. Most are datable to 1,900-2,500 years BC (radiocarbon).Jump Back
Figure 1c. 1978 excavations at the Pipestave Hollow site. During the Late Archaic the site was used intensively and may have been inhabited the full year.Jump Back
Figure 1d. Late Archaic earth oven used to bake shellfish and perhaps vegetal foods. Pipestave Hollow site.Jump Back
Figure 1e. First step in replicating a late Archaic shellfish bake: An ancient earth oven filled with rocks.Jump Back
Figure 1f. Second step: Igniting the fire.Jump Back
Figure 1g. Third step: Allowing the fire to burn out.Jump Back
Figure 1h. Fourth step: Adding the clams.Jump Back
Figure 1i. Fifth step: Cooking proceeds under a thick blanket of marsh grass.Jump Back
Figure 1j. Sixth step: The feast begins!Jump Back
Figure 2. Figure 2. Sugarloaf Palaeo-American (fluted point) site, central Massachusetts. This 30-item cache of flaked stone tools and the Clovis fluted point were deposited near an ancient hearth. 1995 photo.Jump Back
Figure 3. Fluted point from the Vail site, Oxford County, NW Maine.Jump Back
Figure 4. Hearth feature (Feature), Vail site, 1980 photo. Charcoal from this pit, the only one of its type unearthed at this encampment, yielded a C-14 date of 10,710 +/- 50 years BP (12,700 calendar years).Jump Back
Figure 5. Soil profile at the Olive Branch site spanning nearly the entire 10th millennium BP (radio-carbon). 1995 photograph.Jump Back
Figure 6. Rice Lanceolate type point, Agate Basin Tradition, Zimmer site, Clermont Co., Ohio. Brad Lepper photograph.Jump Back
Figure 7. Pitted stone in situ, Occupation 2, Zimmer site, Ohio River floodplain, Clermont Co., Ohio. Brad Lepper photograph (Nov. 1987).Jump Back
Figure 8. Lense of pebbles, Occupation 2, Zimmer site – an early use of rocks in food preparation? Brad Lepper photograph of 1222N 310E at site 33Ct476.Jump Back
Figure 9. Plan view of Feature 1 at 1221N 308E, Zimmer Site, Clermont Co., Ohio. This feature furnished a radiocarbon date on wood charcoal of 10,240 +/- years BP (Beta-17774).Jump Back
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