The American Indian/Chapter 1

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The American Indian by Clark Wissler
Chapter I



The most tangible and objective of human traits are those having to do with food. It is obvious that the fundamental necessity for man’s existence is a sufficient quantity of some kind of edible organic substance. Moreover, a retrospect of the world, as we find it today, suggests that one of the eternal problems confronting the several groups of mankind has been the discovery of practical methods for adapting living forms to dietary requirements. For this reason, if for no other, it seems advisable to begin our study of man in the New World with a general discussion of food complexes.

The almost universal tendency among the several groups of mankind is to specialize in some one kind of food which thereby becomes the staple, or main support, to be supplemented by secondary foods when opportunity permits. Even our own very complex culture has not fully overcome this disposition, as shown in our great dependence upon bread and beef. Another characteristic is that this specialization is uniformly distributed over a considerable area. Because of these two conditions our task of classification is far less difficult than if it were otherwise.

Guided by these considerations the New World may be comprehended under eight large food areas, the general boundaries of which are indicated on the map. Thus, beginning with North America, we have in the north a large extent of territory presenting Arctic and sub-Arctic characteristics. This region is the natural range of the caribou, or American reindeer, whose flesh was the main support of the aboriginal populations. On the Pacific slope, centering in the drainage of the Columbia River, we have the salmon area. To the south, in California and a portion of the interior, is the area of wild nuts and seeds. In the heart of the continent is the bison area.

The American Indian Fig 1.jpg

Fig. 1. Food Areas of the New World

Eastern United States is embraced in the eastern maize area. Beginning at the Colorado River and extending down through the Isthmus and the Andean regions to the lower part of Chile, is the area of intensive agriculture in which maize is also the leading food. The interior of the southern continent, centering around the Amazon drainage, is, in the main, a dense tropical forest about whose native inhabitants we have the least knowledge of any. In fact, we cannot certainly characterize the food of the whole area, but inferring the whole from the known parts, we should say that small game and cultivated manioc are the important foods. Finally, the lower part of the continent has certain similarities to the North American caribou area, the chief food animal being the guanaco.

It will be observed that these eight areas can be grouped: three of them being the homes of hunting peoples, three of agriculturists, one of fishers, and one of gatherers of wild seeds.


In the caribou area live two groups of tribes generally recognized as having little in common, the Eskimo and the Canadian Indians. As we shall see later, this view as to their diversity is in a large measure justifiable, but with respect to food they have close similarities. It is customary to characterize the Eskimo as a people living upon sea mammals, particularly the seal; but we must not overlook the fact that their winter clothing is of caribou skin and that the flesh of that animal is an important part of their diet. However, the severe winters of their extreme northern range drive the caribou southward and leave the seal the only recourse during the period of prolonged darkness. Yet whenever the caribou are in reach the Eskimo places his chief dependence upon them. Thus, while our classification should not be permitted to obscure the large part that sea mammals play in the domestic economy of the Eskimo, the caribou is absolutely indispensable to his existence, not so much for food as for winter clothing. Hence, we see that Eskimo culture must be considered as a modified form of caribou culture.

The Indians of this area, chiefly the Déné and Northern Algonquin tribes, are an inland people occupying the sub-Arctic tundra and the sparse forest belt below it, which gradually shades off into the denser forests of southern Canada. Among these tribes we find the typical caribou culture. Vivid pictures of the prehistoric caribou hunting life have been penned by Hearne[1] and its surviving form by Warburton Pike.[2] In southern Canada the moose and other deer were also available and in the far North the musk-ox; wood bison were also found in a few localities, and hares and other small animals were eaten when needed. Though not reaching the seacoast at any place, these inland tribes had within their range lakes and rivers well stocked with fish, and in season frequented by water fowl. As with the Eskimo, these sources of supply were drawn upon in season. Yet all these foods were merely supplementary, for the people pinned their faith to the caribou and developed their whole feeding and clothing complex around this animal. Consequently the failure of the caribou in any locality for even one season alone would spell disaster.

The methods of hunting are fully described in the descriptive literature of the several tribes, but, as always, such methods are largely dictated by the habits of the animals themselves. Among both the Eskimo and the Indians, the method of killing caribou is to drive or stampede them into artificial or natural lanes or defiles where the hunters are concealed. A variant of this is to run them into deep water, where they are at the mercy of swift canoe men. Snaring is also highly developed, even the largest game being caught in this way. Fishing of whatever kind is with three forms of appliances: the harpoon, the hook and line, and the net. These methods were both known to the Eskimo and to the Indian, though not used by both to the same relative degrees.

The cache is an important invention of this area and has found its way into our own culture. The name is usually applied to an elevated or a subterranean enclosure for storing dried or frozen meat. The caribou, living in great herds, must move forward as they graze over the almost barren
The American Indian Fig 2.jpg

Fig. 2. Cree Indians Driving a Herd of Bison into a Killing Pen.
Hind, 1860. I

tundra and the hunters must follow with equal speed. So the cache method was devised to solve the problem. The kill of the day is dressed as quickly as possible and then cached, after which the pursuit is again taken up. Thus, each family group will have a number of stores in various accessible places upon which they may draw in case of need.

The bison area is contiguous to the caribou area, but is of far less extent. It is also entirely inland, and like the upper portion of the caribou area, is comparatively treeless, except along the water courses and upon the higher ridges. The tribes formerly residing here are known to us as Buffalo Indians, and no characterization could be more exact. Along the foothills of the mountains, elk were formerly abundant and also mountain sheep, and out on the plains antelope were to be met, but these were obscured by the seething masses of bison, or buffalo encountered everywhere, summer or winter. Edible fish were not abundant, and some of the tribes observed a taboo against them as well as all water animals.

The methods of hunting bison bear certain analogies to those employed in the caribou area. Before horses were introduced, small herds were enticed or stampeded into enclosures where they were shot down at will; at other times they were rounded up by systematic grass firing and while in compact formation attacked at close range by foot men.[3] In favorable times, the surplus meat was dried and packed in bags.

This is a convenient place to note the manufacture of pemmican, a process which appears in some parts of the caribou area, but which seems to be more characteristic of this area. To make pemmican, the dried meat of the buffalo was pounded fine with stone hammers and packed in bags which were then sealed with melted fat. A special variety of pemmican was prepared by pulverizing wild cherries, pits and all, and mixing with the pounded meat. This is known in the literature as berry pemmican. There was also a variety in eastern Canada and New England made of deer and moose meat. When properly protected, pemmican will keep for many months and being compact and easily transported forms an exceedingly valuable food. From the very first it was adopted by Canadian and Arctic explorers among whom it is still the chief dependence.

In pemmican we have our first good example of the many ingenious processes by which the various groups of mankind have converted raw foods into more serviceable and conservable forms. In all cases, the chief consideration seems to have been its preservation and availability for transport.

The next great hunting area is in South America. From the interior of Argentina to the Horn we have in the main an open country, suggesting the central portion of the United States. There are few trees and in some parts, as the celebrated Pampas, there are rich, grassy plains. At the time of discovery (1492), the fauna here was not so rich as that of the northern continent. Yet the guanaco was abundant. This is considered to be the wild llama, a ruminant having close similarities to the camels of the Old World, but much smaller. Another animal of economic importance was the rhea, or American ostrich. The early accounts suggest that the original human inhabitants of this area were a nomadic hunting people, primarily dependent upon the guanaco, which they pursued with the bola and the lasso. For this reason we shall speak of the region as the guanaco area. In the extreme southern part of the area, or lower Patagonia, we find a condition somewhat like that of the Eskimo, the tribes tending to live more on fish and seals, until we reach the Fuegians, who were almost entirely dependent upon marine fauna.

Spanish colonization soon made great changes in the guanaco area proper by the introduction of horses and cattle.[* 1] The latter soon ran wild in great herds like the buffalo of the northern continent, and the former not only ran wild, but were domesticated by the natives. Dobrizhoffer[5] has given us most readable accounts of how completely these natives assimilated horse culture. Some of the Patagonians are still famous for their horsemanship.

Though it is true that in these three great hunting areas the main food was flesh, many vegetable products were used. Even in the Arctic the Eskimo gather berries and edible roots
The American Indian Fig 3.jpg

Fig. 3. Patagonians Hunting the Guanaco. Wood, 1876. I

in summer. Throughout the caribou area proper, the berry crop is considerable, and judging from Morice's[6] account of the Carrier some tribes dried and pressed them into cakes for storage. Edible roots also played an important part. As we come southward into the bison area, the flora grows somewhat richer in wild fruits, such as the cherry, plum, strawberry, etc., while in the more arid portions, the prickly pear is abundant. Of roots there were several species, but particularly the prairie turnip (tipsina, in Dakota). Even in the guanaco area we find the Aucaria imbricata, a kind of pine tree growing along the eastern border of the Andes, bearing abundant nuts, not unlike chestnuts, which are eaten raw, boiled, or roasted. Here also the algarroba, or mesquite tree, abounds and from its seeds a food is prepared. In the treeless parts of Patagonia are the prickly pear and a few other scant food plants, while the pampas proper is devoid of all except a few edible grasses. On the other hand, the territory of the Fuegians is fairly well provided with berries which they use, but also produces wild celery and scurvy-grass, of which they make no use.


All the streams between San Francisco Bay, California, and Bering Strait, Alaska, draining into the Pacific are visited by salmon. These ascend from the sea en masse to spawn, constituting a "run," in local speech. As they reach the very headwaters, they are available to all the tribes of this drainage, even those far inland. The run for each species of salmon occurs but once a year and this developed periodic seasonal practices not unlike those of agricultural peoples. As the time for the run approaches, the tribes gather upon the banks of the streams, equipped with fishing appliances, dip nets, harpoons, and weirs, as the local conditions may require. Then when the salmon pass, they are taken out in great numbers, to be dried and smoked. In the interior of the Columbia Basin, the dried fish are afterwards pounded fine in mortars, thus being reduced to a state not unlike pemmican. This pulverized food is carefully stored in baskets as the chief reserve food supply of the year. The tribes on the coast and outlying islands engage in sea fishing all the year and are almost entirely dependent upon the marine fauna, but those of the interior hunt deer and other game to complete their diet.

Of vegetable foods there are several varieties. Inland, several species of roots are gathered, dried and pounded fine in the same manner as dried fish. The chief root is camas but there are several other species in general use. In their proper season, berries are also very numerous in certain localities.

One striking peculiarity of these inland people is the extent to which they pounded or pulverized dried flesh and vegetables quite like agricultural peoples treat forms of grain. The trait seems to be almost a conventionality and leads one to suspect that the idea was borrowed from their southern neighbors who, as we shall see, were in contact with grain grinders. The tribes of the coast, particularly the indented island-studded part north of Puget Sound, did not have this pulverizing habit, nor did they make very extensive use of roots. Dried fish and berries were their staples. Where available, a kind of clover was eaten green and the inner bark of the hemlock worked up into a kind of bread-like food.

While in this area the tribes of the coast maintained fairly permanent villages; those of the interior were rather nomadic, or more correctly, moved in an annual cycle, according to their food habits. Thus at the salmon run each group took its accustomed place on a river bank; then as berries ripened, they shifted to the localities where they were abundant; later they moved again for the gathering of roots; again for hunting deer, and so on in one ceaseless round. To a less extent this seasonal shifting prevailed among the coast tribes, for by the use of canoes they could readily reach the places sought and return again to their villages.

This correlation between the use of wild foods and instability of residence is perhaps more striking in this area than in the others but, nevertheless, holds for all. The Eskimo regularly shifted from sea to inland and back again as winter set in. Likewise, the caribou, bison, and guanaco hunters, each in their respective habitats, shifted according to seasonal requirements. The more extended and definite annual cycle of the salmon area seems to be due to the fact that each of their staple foods was available for but single short periods of the year, not unlike so many successive harvests of an agricultural people whose fields were far apart.


The area of wild seeds is often spoken of as the "acorn area," and will frequently be so designated in this work. However, it should be borne in mind that in southern California acorns are found only on the uplands and mountains and that in the surrounding parts and eastward over the Great Basin wild seeds take their place. Yet, since the most typical culture is found in central and southern California, we may consider the acorn the most characteristic food.

At the proper time acorns are stored in large basketry bins to protect them against thieving rodents. The raw acorns are not palatable, for they contain a large amount of tannic acid; however, this objection is eliminated by pounding the kernels into flour and then leeching with hot water. Good descriptions of this ingenious process may be read in the publications of the University of California. From this substance, a kind of bread or cake is made, which proves to be a very satisfactory food, but even here this is supplemented by foods from several varieties of wild seeds, roots, herbs, and grasses.[7] The tribes on the eastern side of the mountains out on the arid plateaus are forced to get along without the acorn and in consequence eke out their living from but a scant flora. One peculiarity of the area is the rarity of berries and fruits, which is in contrast to the interior of the salmon area.

The term "digger," generally applied to the natives of this area, was suggested by their persistent gathering of roots and plants. It was also an expression of contempt due to the contrast between the scanty diet of these Indians and those of the bison area with whom travelers were more familiar. Likewise , the fauna was not particularly favorable. Deer were to be found in the mountains, but rarely in large numbers, and small game animals were not numerous. In the eastern part, the rabbit was an important item, and as noted above, salmon were caught wherever they made "runs," and other fish were used when available. Likewise, the coast people depended to some extent upon the marine fauna. Thus, notwithstanding the popular idea of modern California as an ideal habitat for us modern Americans, it must be regarded as rather unfavorable to the development of primitive tribes, for while enough food could be found, the daily routine of gathering it in small bits was time-consuming in the extreme. Moreover, in parts of Nevada, Utah, and Idaho the margin of even this sort of food was so narrow that many species of insects were eaten.


There are just two cultivated native food plants, maize and manioc (cassava), that rise to the level of chief staples. Both take the highest rank in excellence among the world's foods, and after the epoch-making discovery of Columbus were quickly spread to other parts of the world.[8] The uniqueness of these plants and the sharp contrast they make when compared with the cultivated staples of the Old World, is the strongest possible argument for the independent development of American culture.

In the first place, we have a distinct agricultural area in the eastern half of the United States, including a very small section of Canada. The chief crop was maize, on which account we speak of this division as the eastern maize area. Although its contact with the great agricultural area of Mexico and the South is slightly broken in Texas, we have no reason to doubt a historical connection between the two areas, and consequently we may consider them as parts of the same whole. The remaining inland boundaries of this eastern maize area mark the approximate climatic limits to its growth. These limits also define the distribution of agriculture, from which we have reason to infer that the introduction of that art did not precede the introduction of maize culture. However, this is a problem to be discussed later. We see, then, that the Indian tribes had extended agriculture in the East to its physical limits. The stretch of country from Louisiana to Maine presents considerable climatic variety which is reflected in the aboriginal crop lists, for though maize was grown throughout, it seems to have been more exclusively toward the north. Roughly considered, in the northern half of the area, the crops were squash, beans, and maize, all planted in the same field, while in the southern half, maize was supplemented by a kind of millet, and squashes gave way to melons, sweet potatoes, and gourds.

Tobacco, though not strictly a food, may be noted here. It was extensively grown in the South, and its cultivation carried as far north as the climate permitted.

Wild plants were also abundant and many species were used. Parker's[9] exhaustive study of Iroquois foods shows how completely that people drew upon the contiguous flora. From the data at hand, we have reason to believe that in the South a still greater number of species were eaten. In the far North wild rice became almost a staple; but while, as Jenks[10] has shown in his laudable investigation of this food, it was sometimes planted by the natives, it was not truly domesticated as was rice in the Old World.

Of manufactured foods, other than those made of maize, maple sugar takes first place. Practically every essential detail of the process now in use was developed by the Indians of this area before 1492. The sugar maple being a northern tree, the trait is almost peculiar to the northern half of the area, though the box elder and a few other trees have, in later times at least, permitted a makeshift extension of the art. That any kind of sugar was made in the South is doubtful.

Another food deserving mention is oil derived from hickory and walnuts. This oil was highly characteristic of the south and added a valuable element to the otherwise starchy diet. In early days the natives did a good business in supplying this oil to the colonists. In some parts of the Atlantic coast plain tukahoe (a fungus) bread was made, and in the south, persimmon bread.

Of foods and dishes made with maize there is a long list, which is in the main the same as we ourselves use. Two noteworthy studies of this aspect of maize culture by Carr[11] and

The American Indian Fig 4.jpg

Figure in the American Museum of Natural History

Fig. 4. Iroquois Woman Pounding Maize into Meal

Parker[12] show how completely the white colonists absorbed the maize complex of the Indians.

One important characteristic of agriculture in this area is that it was woman's work, the man being a hunter. This sexual division of labor tended to give a well-balanced diet, but was not constant throughout, for in the far North where agriculture dwindled out into the caribou area, vegetable foods were decidedly in the minority, while in the extreme South, where agriculture was rather intense and the flora rich, the fruits of the chase were in the minority. The chief game was the deer. The bison of the prairies found its way as far east as the Alleghanies, but except in the open country was not an important item. The wild turkey and various small game were also abundant. Fish were taken where found by the usual methods, but in the south the use of poisons was general.

Next we turn to the great area of intensive agriculture, the only one in the New World, where work in the fields is not regarded as woman's work exclusively, and in which hunting ceases to be an occupation. As may be anticipated, it is also the home of the most advanced Indian cultures. We see from the map that it extends to about 35° on either side of the equator and is thus almost entirely within the torrid zone. On the other hand, all of this surface, except a narrow coast belt and a few intervening valleys, is the most elevated land in the New World. It is upon these highlands exclusively that maize was grown. Furthermore, there is a general tendency to aridity throughout, which, combined with the elevation, gives a very favorable climate. It is just the region where the most intensive cultures would be anticipated. As we proceed with the later sections of this book, the reader may be appalled at the complexity and variety of peoples in this area; hence it is fortunate that at the outset we are able to see one element of unity in the whole.

Beginning with the north, we have the pueblo-dwelling peoples of southwestern United States and northern Mexico. Besides maize, beans, melons, squashes and sunflower seed were the chief crops. In historic times, at least, onions and chili peppers were favorite garden plants; and according to


The following list enumerates the most important plants originally cultivated by the several Indian tribes before the discovery of the New World in 1492.

Name Area of Cultivation
Agave, or aloe (Agave americana Linn.) Mexico to Chile
Alligator pear (Persea gratissima Geartn. f.) Central American and West Indies
Arrowroot (Maranta arundinacea Linn.) Tropical America
Barnyard grass (Echinochloa crusgalli (L.) Beauv.) Mexico and southern United States
Bean, kidney (Phaseolus vulgaris Linn.) Distribution same as maize
Bean, Lima (Phaseolus lunatus Linn., var. macrocarpus Benth.) Brazil and Peru
Coca, or cocaine (Erythroxylum coca Lamarck) Peru and Bolivia
Cherimoya (Anona Cherimolia Miller) Peru and Brazil
Cashew nut (Anacardium occidentale Linn.) Tropical America
Capsicum or Chili pepper (Capsicum annuum Linn. and Capsicum frulescens Linn.) Tropical America
Cacao (Theobroma cacao Linn.) Tropical America
Corn (See maize)
Cotton (Gossypium barbadense Linn.) Tropical America
Guava (Psidium guajava Linn.) Tropical America
Gourd (Cucurbita pepo, var. ovifera Linn.) Distribution same as maize
Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus Linn.) Mississippi Valley
Maize (Zea mays Linn.) See map (Fig. 5)
Manioc (Manihot utilissima Pohl.) See map (Fig. 5)
Maté or Paraguay tea (Ilex paraguariensis St. Hil. and Ilex conocarpa Reiss.) Paraguay and western Brazil
Madia (Madia sativa Molina) Chile
Potato (Solanum tuberosum Linn.) Chile and Peru
Pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo Linn.) Temperate North America
Prickly pear or Indian fig (Opuntia ficus-indica Mill.) Mexico
Pineapple (Ananas sativus Schult. f.) Mexico and Central America
Peanut (Arachis hypogœa Linn.) Peru and Brazil
Papaw (Carica papaya Linn.) West Indies and Central America
Oca (Oxalis tuberosa Molina) Chile and Bolivia
 (Oxalis crenata Jacq.) Chile and Bolivia
Quinine (Cinchona calisaya Wedd.) Bolivia and Peru
 (Cinchona officinalis Linn.), and others Bolivia and Peru
Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa Willd.) Colombia and Peru
Sweet potato (Ipomœa batatas Poir.) Topical America
Star apple (Chrysophyllum cainito Linn.) West Indies and Panama
Squash (Cucurbita maxima Duchesne) Tropical America
Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum Linn.) and other species See map (Fig. 8)
Tomato (Lycopersicum esculentum Mill.) Peru

local conditions, the following wild plants were largely used: piñon nut, mesquite, bean and saguaro. Tobacco and cotton were cultivated. Fish as food was not an important factor, in fact, it was under the ban of some tribes. Game was rather scarce, rabbits being the most numerous. Turkeys were domesticated. Of prepared foods, the most unique is the piki maize bread, made in thin, paper-like sheets.

For the remainder of the North American part of the area the Nahua and Maya may be taken as the types. Here agriculture was more highly organized than in any of the areas we have discussed. With the former, maize is made into peculiar cakes called "tortillas," which, with beans and the inevitable chili pepper, constitutes the usual menu. If we add to this cacao we have the list for the Maya also. In the lower parts, especially in Central America, there were many fruits, many of which are now cultivated by Europeans, as the mammae apple, the alligator pear, the cashew nut, together with the fleshy stalk of its tree, the tomato, pineapple, etc.

The Andean region of South America is peculiar in that at almost any point one may shift from high to low valleys, thus quickly passing through several varieties of climate. Likewise, one may, by lateral shifting, encounter deserts and the most well-watered stretches in succession. All this tends to nullify the effects of changing latitude, so that the aggregate agricultural conditions in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru can be made the same. Still we find some cultural differences.

The Chibcha peoples of Colombia in the highlands raised maize, potatoes, sweet potatoes, manioc, beans, tobacco, coca, and cotton. They did not have the llama, and game was scarce, but carefully protected and conserved. The other peoples of Colombia did more hunting, but in addition still cultivated maize. Salt was manufactured in favorable localities and formed an important article of trade.

The adjoining highlands of Venezuela formerly had a hunting and maize-growing population which was exterminated by the Spaniards.

Ecuador was partly under the control of the Inca at the Spanish conquest but, no doubt, still retained its former food habits. Its population was almost exclusively agricultural. Maize was the staple except on the highest levels, where quinoa was substituted. Potatoes were universal, and coca, peppers, and other plants in the lowest valleys. On the coast there was fishing.

To the south was the Inca empire with its highly organized agriculture. Here the crops were about the same as for Ecuador, but in favorable places manioc, ground nuts, beans, gourds, tomatoes, guava, and fiber plants were raised. Hunting was carried on in an organized manner, large drives being made over great areas. The game animals were chiefly the guanaco and vicuña, of which the flesh was often dried and stored for the use of the army. The familiar term "jerked meat" is believed to have come from the charqui, as this dried meat was called in Peru. Birds were taken in nets, and on the coast there was some fishing.

The great basin of the Amazon with the adjoining coast is one of the world's most typical tropical areas, but almost everywhere throughout there was some native agriculture. As a whole, the area presents some geographical variety, for the eastern part of South America also has its highlands, though far less pretentious than those of the West. Here, however, the elevation was much less; consequently, maize did not become the chief cultivated food, manioc, or cassava, taking its place. Otherwise, the range of plants was about the same as in the Andean region. Tobacco, potatoes, and cotton were common. The celebrated maté, or Paraguay tea, and the edible clay of the Botocudo peoples are the principal unique features. Yet, in no case were the tribes of these highlands so dependent upon agriculture as were those of the west coast. In this respect they present a close analogy to the eastern maize users of North America, with whom they are geographically connected by the West Indies. Further, the almost complete delegation of agricultural responsibilities to the women is in itself an indication of the large part hunting played in their sustenance.

Finally, we come to the interior of the continent where high temperature, low elevation, and abundant moisture combine to produce rank flora. Our knowledge of this area is still rather scant, but what information we have indicates that the whole interior Amazon Basin with the contiguous east coast noted above should be considered as one distinct food area. That the art of agriculture is now absolutely unknown to any of the Amazon tribes is doubtful, because far into the interior we find manioc, tobacco, coca, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, etc., growing in the village fields. Also, maize has been reported from a number of localities, though the climate is unfavorable to it. The blowgun with poisoned darts is used in hunting, the game consisting largely of birds and small tree climbing animals. No living thing is so abundant as to offer opportunity for food specialization, and the native must make use of everything he can lay hands upon. On the upper Amazon and elsewhere the taking of fish by poisoning the water is common. A very characteristic dish of this whole area is the "pepper-pot." Small game of whatever kind is cast into a pot and boiled into a thick broth made hot with peppers. The pot is rarely emptied, but the contents continually augmented.


Now that we have gained a general perspective of New World food traits, we may note some of their most distinctive characteristics. It is clear that the art of agriculture centers around maize, for almost everywhere we find it grown. Its only rival is manioc, but, as we have seen, this plant is resorted to only in spots where it is too moist for maize. In the same way, the quinoa displaces it in the highest altitudes of the Andes. But this only serves to show how maize dominates aboriginal agriculture. We can be quite sure that if we knew the full history of this plant we should have a good insight into the development of the higher cultures of Mexico and Peru, yet in spite of its obvious importance, very little attention has been given to the subject. Though this homely art of maize culture is still practised by many surviving natives, the only field studies we have approaching a satisfactory standard are those of Parker[13] for the Iroquois, Hough[14] for
The American Indian Fig 5.jpg

Fig. 5. The Distribution of Maize and Manioc

the Hopi, and Wilson[15] for the Hidatsa. For the Pueblo peoples who still raise maize in the aboriginal way we have little more than the pioneer work of Cushing.[16] With respect to Mexico and the Andean region the literature is even more fragmentary. While we do have a great deal of more or less generalized information, this has been re-stated so often that it is difficult to weigh it and even the very best of such literature can never take the place of exhaustive field studies. For example, it is only from the works of Parker[17] and Wilson[18] that we can form a definite conclusion as to how closely the cultivation of maize of white farmers follows aboriginal patterns.

However, the gross characteristics of aboriginal maize culture are clearly known. In the first place, no beasts of draught were employed, but all was by hand. Nowhere do we find a plowing machine drawn by men. As an independent proposition it may seem strange that the Peruvians, with all their genius, should have missed the idea of harnessing either men or llamas to a digging tool, but when we note that maize grows best in bunches or "hills," while the Old World inventors of the plow sowed grain broadcast, we find a partial explanation. The heaping up of earth around the growing plant is still one of the fundamentals in maize culture. It is a fair assumption that the hoe is an aboriginal solution of the practical problem involved here. The mere sowing of grain by the ancients of the Old World was the one great problem, for after that there was little to do until the harvest, while in the case of maize the tending of the crop was the most exacting. The former presents a much simpler mechanical problem than the latter; in fact, it is not until 1731 that we hear of a horse cultivator in England.

The aborigines dug up the ground with pointed and spade-like tools. From New Mexico to Chile, spade-like tools with foot-rests for thrusting into the ground were common, but in the eastern parts of both continents we find a simple digging stick. In Peru the digging tools were sometimes pointed with copper and bronze.

The hoe was universal in the eastern maize area and seems to have extended into the West Indies, but from New Mexico
The American Indian Fig 6.jpg

Fig. 6. Pueblo Indian Planting Maize

The American Indian Fig 7.jpg

Fig. 7. Cultivating Maize and Squashes with a Bone Hoe. Hidatsa Indians

southward it does not appear in our collections. The significance of this is not yet clear. The data for the eastern maize area show us that the agricultural pattern was to hoe up hills around the plants. As stated before, maize, squashes and beans were often put in the same hill. Tobacco was planted in hills and so were the sweet potatoes of the south. The first Atlantic colonists adopted the hoe pattern of the native, especially in the south, where to some extent it still survives.

Artificial fertilization was practised from Nova Scotia to Chile. One method, widely distributed in both continents, was the placing of fish in the maize hill. Manures, both human and animal, were used in parts of the area of intensive agriculture. So particular a correspondence as planting with fish, reported for localities between New England and Peru, points clearly to a common origin, but it is the study of the maize plant itself that affords the strongest argument for diffusion from one center. The investigations of Harshberger[19] and Collins[20] indicate that maize was developed from a wild grass of the Maya habitat. The distribution from this center of varieties once so developed would readily account for the uniformity of maize culture we have noted. Unfortunately, no careful study of the aboriginal varieties of maize has been made, but the data at hand suggest that about all the distinct kinds we still have on our farms were in existence by 1492 and that they existed side by side in the same fields. The time required to stabilize all these forms and the subsequent precision of domestic routine that preserved their racial integrity to the present among some of the surviving natives, is one of the most impressive facts of our subject.

So brief a review as this must needs pass over in silence many interesting points, but we should give passing notice to the evidence for the local adaptation of these widely distributed varieties of maize. Wilson[21] has shown that the Hidatsa of the upper Missouri have trained certain varieties to ripen early and within the limits of the short season, a characteristic the maize of our eastern farms does not manifest. Collins[22] makes clear that the Pueblo tribes of New Mexico and Arizona have developed varieties with long, deep-growing root habits to reach the moisture in their very arid fields. These are, no doubt, but suggestions of many other adaptations awaiting discovery and which present very interesting chronological problems.

The art of irrigation was known from Arizona to Chile, and in Peru was carried out on a scale scarcely equalled by modern nations. The remains of aqueduct systems in the Andes show such genius and organization that our respect for the native American rises to a high point.

The alternate of maize, cassava, or manioc, deserves special consideration. Though requiring a more tropical habitat than maize, it also requires a fairly dry, sandy soil. At the period of discovery it was found in the West Indies, Central America, and even in Florida. The poisonous nature of the juice leads to a mode of preparation described fully in the special literature.[23] The essential procedure is to grate the pulpy parts and squeeze them in a basketry press called a tipiti. The pulp is then made into cakes and heated to drive out the remaining volatile poison, finally giving cassava bread, which is a staple food.

If we now take a general view of the data at hand it appears a fair assumption that the prevailing type of agriculture was developed by a centrally located highland people and thence diffused, without essential modification, both to the north and to the south. While our experience shows that the art could have been extended farther to the extremes of the continent, it is doubtful if the aboriginal type could have been greatly extended without fundamental changes. In other words, the more primitive hunting tribes of the north and south borrowed the trait one after the other, so far as their habitat permitted.


In connection with this discussion of cultivated plants some note should be made of aboriginal narcotics. The best known are tobacco and coca, both extensively cultivated in aboriginal times, as shown on the distribution map (Fig. 8). The narcotic element in coca is cocaine, a modern derivative.
The American Indian Fig 8.jpg

Fig. 8. Distribution of Coca and Tobacco

The native, however, simply chewed the dried leaves mixed with lime or other alkalis. Such coca chewing still prevails in the area indicated on the map and has spread to the natives of other parts of both continents, as well as to the whites themselves.

As will be noted, the chewing of tobacco is found in South America contiguous to the coca-chewing area, but it also occurs on the Pacific Coast of America.[24] One peculiarity of the latter habit is that the tobacco is taken with pulverized shells or ashes, ground fine in mortars; in other words, after the coca method. The appearance of this trait in these two disconnected areas and its analogy to the betel nut culture of Melanesia and southeastern Asia is truly puzzling.

The taking of snuff is also largely correlated with chewing, since we find it in both the chewing areas, though it extended rather well over the Amazon country and even to the West Indies. However, the usual substance for making snuff powder is said to be the Acacia niopo berry. Along with chewing tobacco go various forms of eating, drinking, licking, etc.

Yet, the most widely distributed method of using tobacco was smoking, of which three aboriginal forms can be localized. First, we have the true pipe found in the greater part of the United States and Canada and in the lower Atlantic side of South America; secondly, the cigar in the West Indies and the greater part of the Amazon country; and lastly, the tubular pipe in western United States, Mexico, and Central America. The usual form of this last is a small section of cane stuffed with crushed tobacco to which the name cigarette is applied. These methods of smoking are not so exclusively localized as the map would imply, but grade one into the other.

The map indicates the approximate extent of smoking in 1492, but as we all know, the custom was quickly carried to all parts of the world, both savage and civilized. The Asiatic peoples have a distinct type of pipe and a different method of smoking, which in late times has reached the Eskimo of Alaska from Siberia.

  1. Col. Church[4] states that horses were purposely turned into the Pampas in 1535.

  1. Hearne, 1795. I.
  2. Pike, 1892. I.
  3. Allen, 1876. I.
  4. Church, 1912. I.
  5. Dobrizhoffer, 1822. I.
  6. Morice, 1906. I.
  7. Merriam, C. Hart, 1905. I.
  8. Laufer, 1907. I.
  9. Parker, 1910. I.
  10. Jenks, 1900. I.
  11. Carr, 1896. I.
  12. Parker, 1910. I
  13. Parker, 1910. I.
  14. Hough, 1915. I.
  15. Wilson, G. L., 1917. I.
  16. Cushing, 1884. I.
  17. Parker, 1910. I.
  18. Wilson, G. L., 1917. I.
  19. Harshberger, 1893. I.
  20. Collins, 1914. I.
  21. Wilson, M. L., and Atkinson, 1915. I.
  22. Collins, 1914. I.
  23. Im Thurn, 1883, I.
  24. McGuire, 1899. I; Krause, 1885. I.