Prehistoric Pests and Food Storage of California Indians Friday February 24, 2012
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Prehistoric Pests and Food Storage of California Indians

Connecting Pest Control to Nature and The Cycle of Life

The leader in organic pest control for Southern California, Hearts Pest Management provides a conscious, cycle of life, pest management approach for our customers.

Keeping Pantries Free of Pests – Then and Now

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Society has undergone many changes and technical progress over the years but when it comes to food storage, the quest to keep pantries free from pests was as much a concern 2000 years ago as it is today.

During prehistoric times, indigenous people gathered food and stored it in their “pantries” (granary baskets); today we store food in our cupboards and unlike the simple acorn granaries of yesterday, we have fancy packaging and preservatives to make our food last longer.

The idea of keeping food safe from pests for future use is the same today as it was 2000 years ago. …

Felicita Park, Escondido, CA - Prehistoric Village Site

Felicita Park, Escondido, CA – Prehistoric Village Site

Kumeyaay "Kitchen" Grinding Rocks

Kumeyaay “Kitchen” Grinding Rocks

“What’s For Dinner?” Food Consumption 2000 Years Ago

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If you think about it, everything we do is related to the consumption of food.  Our method of obtaining and storing food has evolved over time but our lives are still focused on the one proverbial question, “What´s for dinner?”

Imagine a scene 2000 years ago when indigenous women in willow skirts gathered acorns from beneath the oak trees and tossed them into burden baskets. The young men climbed the great oaks with long poles to knock down the good acorns for their mothers and sisters to gather.

Acorns were spread out on bedrock to dry in the sun while the boys stood on watch and waved sticks to defend their family´s food from being raided by birds and squirrels.

Kumeyaay boy hunting rabbit.

Kumeyaay boy hunting rabbit.

Kumeyaay woman gathering acorns.

Kumeyaay woman gathering acorns.

Grinding rocks - making acorn meal.

Grinding rocks – making acorn meal.

California Indian Tribes – Kumeyaay Acorn Food Preparation “Shawii”

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After the acorns were dried in the sun, California Indian women cracked the shells with stone tools then placed the nuts in shallow baskets and tossed them into the air (winnowing), to let the wind carry away the skins. The acorn nuts were ground into a meal for acorn mush. (In Kumeyaay, the mush is called “shawii”).

Kumeyaay home (ewaa)

Kumeyaay home (ewaa)

Because acorns have bitter tannins (used to tan hides) the women put the meal in tightly woven baskets and placed the baskets in a nearby river or creek to leach out all the tannins.

The acorn meal was then cooked by using hot rocks to stir it. If available, berries or small animals such as wood rat or rabbits were added to the acorn mush for flavor.  Dinner was finally served! Yum!

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California Hunters and Gatherers

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That was then……..now we get our cereal, meat, and bread from the corner grocery store. Indigenous women spent their days in the grasslands collecting seeds and gathering acorns from under oak trees; men hunted mule deer and other game, both “worked” together to ensure their families could eat and also to store food in their granary baskets for the future. Is life today really that different? Don´t we do the same? Both men and women working each day to “bring home the bacon,” storing it in our pantries and refrigerators for future use as well?

Mano and metate for grinding acorns

Mano and Metate for Grinding Acorns

Coast Live Oak

Coast Live Oak

Native American Pest Control

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So how did Native Americans keep their “pantries” (acorn granary baskets) free of pests?  Besides insects, rodents, and birds, moisture was also a concern.

Since moisture comes from the ground, the people placed their granary baskets on raised platforms of wood (branches).

The granary baskets were made from the willow tree which contains salicin, a natural insect repellent.  The baskets were lined with sticks and aromatic plants to keep the acorns from falling through and to mask the smell of food from rodents and insects.

Leaves of the Arroyo willow were brewed as a tea for pain.

Leaves of the Arroyo willow were brewed as a tea for pain.

Sketch of granary basket raised above ground

Sketch of granary basket raised above ground. Both the leaves and stem from the Arroyo willow were used for the basket.

California Sagebrush “Cowboy Cologne”

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One very fragrant native plant in Southern California is the highly aromatic California Sagebrush (Artemisia californica). Although the fragrance is similar to sage, the sagebrush is in the sunflower family. Native Americans rubbed sagebrush on their bodies to mask their human scent before a hunt.

Early miners in California learned of the benefits of the California Sagebrush and put in in their bedding to keep fleas away.   Settlers used it as a body fragrance which gave it the common name of “Cowboy Cologne.”

California Sagebrush "Cowboy Cologne" Lake Hodges, San Diego, CA

California Sagebrush (Artemisia californica) “Cowboy Cologne” Lake Hodges, San Diego, CA

Delectable Armyworm

Delectable Armyworm

Insects as a Food Source for Protein

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Not all insects were considered pests. It could be said that the indigenous people had their own pest management system using a combination of insect repellant plants for making baskets, like the willow, and by eating various insects collected from the plants.

Caterpillars, armyworms, grasshoppers, crickets, ants, and flies were collected in baskets and often roasted as a source of protein.  Insects were considered pests once they began to consume food stored in granaries and as farming progressed, they began to destroy crops.

The Acorn Weevil Pest

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The number one pest of the acorn from past to the present is the acorn weevil (Curculio pardus). It has a long snout for chewing holes into the shells of the acorns. The female acorn weevil sucks the fat out of a developing acorn, leaving most of it for the larvae that hatch from the eggs she lays inside the holes.

Acorn Weevil

Acorn Weevil

The acorns become heavy with larvae and fall to the ground. Then they tunnel out of the acorn holes, mama weevil made, and bury themselves into the soil until they mature.

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It takes 2-3 years to become adult weevils. Native Americans controlled the infestation of larvae in the soil by using fire to burn under the oaks and clear the area for acorn harvest in the fall.

Acorn Weevil Video

Video from National Geographic:
Acorn Weevil Video  | National Geographic Education Video

California Indian Tribes Today

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Many of today´s Native American Tribes practice the tradition of preparing acorns for acorn mush and continue to
pass on their skills in basket making and pottery to their children.

The Kumeyaay once used Felicita Park in Escondido, CA as a village site, however, many Kumeyaay now live in San Diego´s East County and down into Baja California.

Felicita Park, Escondido, CA - Kumeyaay Prehistoric Village Site

Felicita Park, Escondido, CA – Kumeyaay Prehistoric Village Site

Kumeyaay Martha Rodriguez teaches basket weaving at various locations through-out San Diego County and also teaches traditional foods at Kumeyaay Community College in El Cajon, CA.

Mini Granary Basket with Acorn

Mini granary basket with acorn

Basket Weaving, granary baskets from the Arroyo Willow Tree

Donna at a basket weaving class taught by Martha Rodriguez, Mission Trails Regional Park, San Diego, CA

Try Grinding Some of Your Own Nuts

Next time you go grocery shopping, think about the convenience of how we are able to obtain food so easily and all the varieties we have to choose from, not just what´s in season.

Try grinding some of your own nuts using a pestle and mortar and imagine the amount of nuts the indigenous people had to grind, in order to obtain enough acorn meal to feed their families.  So………”What´s for dinner?”

Article and Illustrations by Donna Walker

References

National Geographic Educational Videos – Acorn Weevil

Native American Granaries

Organization for California Indian Education – Mission Baskets

Kumeyaay Information Center

Sudden Oak Death Syndrome

Kumeyaay College

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