A brief look into the Indigenous peoples of California and thier food.
by Alexander Quebec
California is one of world’s greatest places for food and foodies alike. We’re the agricultural leader of the United States, providing most of the nations crops such as artichokes and avocados, which are exclusively grown in California. We brought unto the world the fast food giants McDonalds, Carl’s Jr, and Taco Bell. We have the most Michelin rated restaurants in the USA, and Southern California is where the current love of food trucks started while Northern California has one of the largest wine countries outside of Europe.
But it didn’t happen that way overnight. California has seen the flags of over four nations and millions of people come and leave their legacy in the 31st state. Food is a big part of who we are, but sometimes, many might not understand the importance that history plays on food and vice versa. Food is a result of many things coming together: environment, geography, politics, science, culture, art, and other intersectional topics we tend to overlook or consider.
To start us off, we’re looking into the lives of the first inhabitants of California, The indigenous tribes that called this place home.
What Makes California, well, California
Popular theory holds that the first natives to arrive in North America, and by extension California came around 30,000 to 13,000 thousand years ago, back when the Bering Strait wasn’t a thing like it is now. Groups of people coming from Siberia and Northeast Asia followed their prey across the land bridge into North America.
Many of these peoples broke off and settled in different places all over North and South America. Some of these adventurers eventually wandered into what would later become California.
In order to understand what was eaten during those times, you first have to have an understanding of where. California is a large state, not as large as Alaska or Texas, but large enough to have a varied ecosystem that comprises the following:
800 Miles of Mountains, including the Sierra Nevadas in the East and the Coastal Ranges in the West
840 Miles of coastline
The redwood forests in the north
The Mojave desert to the Southeast.
The Grasslands that make the Central Valley
Numerous rivers and inland bodies of water like Lake Tahoe and The San Joaquin River
With that in mind, the climate was perfect for the first Californians who made their way from the icy land bridge to settle down. There was ample food, so ample in fact that mainstream agriculture as we knew it wasn’t necessary for them to find food like it was with their contemporaries in the East Coast or the Southwest.
For this article, we’re going to take a look at a tribe that’s local to our own home in the South Bay, The Ohlone. They lived in an area that would’ve included most of the City of San Francisco, the Peninsula, the East and South San Francisco Bay all the way down to modern day Monterey and Watsonville.
So, what did the Ohlone people eat?
Knowing most of our readers, and through no fault of their own, you probably have a guess what their main staple crop was.
No, it wasn’t corn.
Corn isn’t native to California, or even to the modern US. Corn actually came from Central America from the Pre Olmec peoples, and transmitted to the Southwest and East Coast Native American peoples.
What the Ohlone actually subsisted on was…the mighty acorn.
You see, California has a ton of oak tree varieties, and nearly all of them drop acorns every fall season. Now, most people today wouldn’t even think of acorns of being a viable food source for humans, (chipmunks maybe, but definitely not humans) but way back before the Europeans arrived, it was one of the main food sources for many tribes all across California, especially the Ohlone. Harvesting the trees was a community effort, the men would shake the trees while the women and children would pick up the acorns that had fallen to the ground.
After the acorns were gathered, they were ground into a flour and had water poured in and out from the basket they were in to leach them (if you’re curious as to how to do it yourself, although we do advise care and caution), as acorns have toxins called tannins that can seriously hurt or kill you unless you remove them first from the nuts themselves; this took hours to do with the traditional method of pouring water in and out until the water was clear. If you were a part of the Ohlone tribe, the flour would then have water poured into it again and possibly heated with hot rocks placed into the water until it boiled, turning it into a porridge.
There were plenty of other non-acorn fruits and vegetables for the tribes to gather too, like wild berries, mushrooms, onions and grapes.
While formal agriculture didn’t take place the way we know it, the Ohlone tribes did practice a sort of a controlled burn of the local fields surrounding their villages. This would ensure that there was enough ground open enough to allow more food sources to grow, thus allowing them to continue to maintain their hunter-gatherer lifestyles.
Take a bow (and arrow)
To round out their diet with some protein, the natives also hunted wild game and fished in California’s numerous waterways
You’re probably imagining bands of hunters, either mounted or on foot, hunting their prey with bows and arrows.
Well, I got some news for you.
Bows and Arrows actually didn’t make an appearance in North America until 500 AD, so they were fairly recent even when the Europeans arrived. It was much more common for the native tribes to use throwing spears to hunt. Those same spears, as well as nets and other tools, would be more practical for fishing.
Also, native horse species went extinct in North America around 13,000 BC. Indigenous peoples wouldn’t see a horse until the arrival of the Europeans.
One might also think of the sweat lodge when thinking of the Native Americans. Before a hunt, the men of some villages would gather in the sweat lodges to prepare for the hunt: repairing tools, offering prayers and rubbing herbs all over their bodies to remove the scent of human that might otherwise alert their prey to their presence.
One interesting footnote to add was that while the Ohlone did consume a laundry list of different plants, animals and other organisms, for religious reasons, it was forbidden for them to eat Buzzards, Eagles, Frogs, Owls, or Ravens
The Ohlone, like all of their fellow indigenous Californians, lived in relative peace and prosperity. This however, would change in the year 1542, when men from a far away land sailed up the coast and altered the course of the history of California.