Topic: Native American food find
Ancient charred rock pile used for roasting
Fire-cracked rock piles found across North America received little scientific attention for decades, but two new studies reveal their importance as early Native American earth ovens. For thousands of years, they were used to cook a favorite food staple: smoky, sweet camas bulbs.
Based on charred remains of plant material found at hot rock oven sites, cooked versions of this root vegetable — somewhat like a cross between an onion and a potato — is thought to have been the tortilla of the Stone Age.
The bulbs required up to two days to bake, due to a complex carbohydrate called inulin that is otherwise indigestible.
Alston Thoms, who conducted both studies, told Discovery News that “camas consumption preceded corn consumption everywhere in the U.S. by thousands of years.”
“Camas was mashed and pounded with a mortar and pestle into a thick dough that was then shaped into loaves that were later broken apart and cooked,” added Thoms, an associate professor of anthropology at Texas A&M University.
He analyzed the fire-cracked rock assemblages and food remains throughout North America, with a particular focus on northwestern and southwestern sites. The findings have been accepted for publication in both the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology and the Journal of Archaeological Science.
Thoms found that fire-cracked rock cooking dates to anywhere from 9,000 years ago to as recent as 400 years ago, with some sites up to 9 feet in diameter containing stones weighing more than 2,000 pounds.
Before the emergence of this technology, “Native Americans and people around the world got along fine for thousands of years without any kind of heated stones for cooking or bathing,” Thoms said.
As populations grew, the availability of foods that required little or no cooking lessened. The evolution of cooking methods appears to coincide with more land use, which Thoms outlined in a model.
Using fire for warmth led to direct cooking on, in, and above coals.
Thoms and several assistants also used ethnographic data to replicate early Native American cooking methods. While large meat steaks were probably just cooked directly on white ash fires, the camas bulbs were cooked “luau-style,” a method that Native Americans and Polynesians developed independently, Thoms believes.
Early Native Americans dug a pit and lined it with firewood and rocks, which they burned. Moist, green plants then went over the hot rocks. Vegetable fiber sacks full of fresh bulbs went over the plants and were covered with additional greenery. Sometimes a second fire was then built over the mound.
After a day or two, dinner was served.
Although the bulbs are about as nutritious as sweet potatoes, they fell out of favor not only because of long cooking times, but also because they take longer to grow and provide fewer calories per pound than wheat, corn, rice and other starches.
James O’Connell, a distinguished professor of anthropology at The University of Utah, told Discovery News that the new papers present a “well-supported inference about past human behavior from a widely recognized archaeological pattern.”
“I think (Thoms’) argument that the origin of heated-stone cooking is an example of subsistence intensification is interesting,” said anthropologist Michael Glassow of the University of California at Santa Barbara. “It makes a lot of sense to me.”
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