How do we know what people ate before there were written records?

Foodways = subsistence. How people acquired food including the tools they used and the way they organized their families to acc omplish the task.

Archaeologists have studied what Native Americans ate over the past 16,000 years by examining the remains of plants and animals recovered from archaeological sites. Animal bones are the most common type of preserved dietary information and have been the focus of many archaeological studies. By quantifying the numbers and types of remains, archaeologists can determine the percentage of different types of animals that were harvested, such as deer, turkey or fish. Unfortunately, animal bones and plant parts more than a thousand years old are rarely preserved in archaeological sites in Pennsylvania.

Plant remains, such as seeds, nuts, corn, beans and squash are preserved when they are partially burned. These remains are frequently found in cooking hearths and trash pits but are typically small and difficult to identify. In the 1990s, archaeologists began to systematically recover this type of data using a method called floatation. During this process soils from these features are submerged with water and the charred plant remains float to the top. These are collected, dried and sent to a paleoethnobotanist for identification. As floatation became more widely utilized, archaeologists discovered Native Americans ate a wide variety of seeds, nuts, berries and roots.

Archaeologists have recently discovered there are even smaller (microscopic) pieces of evidence that shed light on prehistoric diets. Paleoethnobotanists have been able to analyze charred food remains on the inside of pottery or on stone tools to add to our understanding of prehistoric diets. Lipids are an organic substance found in animal fats, plant oils and beeswax that do not mix well with water and are frequently preserved. Different types of plants and to a lesser extent animals can be identified from both stone tools and, more frequently, pottery. Phytoliths are tiny plant parts made of silica that are preserved for long periods of time at archaeological sites. These microscopic remains are further evidence of the importance of plant foods that are not otherwise preserved in the archaeological record of prehistoric diets.

Finally, archaeologists use ethnographic analogy — what types of foods do hunters and gatherers or simple horticulturists today or from the recent past use? Most hunters and gatherers living in temperate regions such as Pennsylvania collected more plant foods than foods acquired by hunting. Ironically, archaeologists generally study spear points, frequently made by men, but the majority of foods were collected by women using digging sticks that are almost never preserved in the archaeological record.

A related aspect to food and diet is health. The growing of corn became very common about a thousand years ago and allowed Native American groups to support large populations. Unfortunately, dependency on a diet of corn resulted in iron deficiency anemia, especially in children. Another consequence of a corn-dominated diet was increased tooth decay in both children and adults, often resulting in serious and sometimes fatal illnesses.