Insects As Food: Aboriginal Entomophagy In The Great Basin

This is a major contribution to our knowledge about entomophagy among early cultures in western North America. From an entomological standpoint its unique value lies in the use of ecological information in an attempt to determine which species of insects were most likely used inasmuch as early ethnological accounts rarely give many clues. Data on the use of insects in aboriginal cultures are primarily of two types, ethnographic and archaeological (pp. 5-10). Ethnographic data are derived from direct observations by anthropologists, observations by non-anthropologists (e.g., ethnohistoric accounts), memory culture, continuation of practices into the present, and inferences from ethnographic data from neighboring groups. Dr. Sutton points out pitfalls relative to the gathering and interpretation of each kind, and the introductory chapter provides some excellent insights as to why the importance of insect consumption in aboriginal societies has been under-reported and underestimated.

Unfortunately, few of the observers were trained in anthropology, and fewer yet in the natural sciences. Observers from European cultural backgrounds were often biased in their observations of insect consumption or disregarded it entirely. In addition, as insects were usually processed and fragmented, they often could not be recognized by ethnographers, and so were not recorded. As a result, it is probable that a much greater number and variety of insects were utilized by the Indians of the Basin than has been reported. In addition, misidentifications appear to have been frequent, e.g., the term “locust’ used interchangeably for grasshoppers, crickets and cicadas. This affects conclusions as to seasonality, technology employed, and caloric return, and thus can lead to an underestimation of the importance of insects in the aboriginal diet and a corresponding overestimation of the importance of other dietary components.

Relative to archaeological data, poor preservation and inadequate field and laboratory methods result in a paucity of data. The author discusses reasons for this, and why even coprolite analysis is not as fruitful as might be expected.

As far as known, insects never comprised the staple in any economy, but they were often critical resources that were more than an occasional addition to the diet. The author notes that Great Basin investigators are now beginning to study resources in view of their seasonal availability, nutritional content, and search and processing time, but the usually cursory treatment of insect consumption by anthropologists leads to this statement (p. 2): “From an ecological standpoint, an understanding of, or at least a delination of, all parts of an economic system is

necessary for an understanding of the system as a whole and of its interactions with other systems.” Many components, including insects, are poorly known. Anthropologists often consider that insects are “famine food or backup resources, usually taken on an individual encounter basis,” yet, Sutton states (p. 3): “While it is probably true that insects were taken individually during the course of other activities, the overall procurement of insects appears to have been systematic and not confined to chance.” The author concludes that, “insects were commonly and extensively used and that they played an important part in fulfilling the nutritive requirements of the Great Basin Indians.”

Following the introduction, chapters are based on specific groups of insects as follows: 2) Grasshoppers and locusts, 3) Crickets, 4) Caterpillars, 5) Flies, 6) Cicadas, 7) Mesquite beetles, 8) Ants, 9) Bees and yellow jackets, 10) Honeydew, 11) Other insects, and 12) Summary and discussion. References cited include ethnological, archaeological and entomological papers totaling about 258. Each chapter is divided into sections: 1) Description and ecology. 2) Ethnographic data, 3) Archaeological data, and 4) Discussion.

Sutton concludes that grasshoppers and locusts were widely used throughout the Great Basin and were a very important resource. An example of the use of ecological data is to reinforce, on the basis of their abundance, earlier reports of the use of several species of Melanoplus and of Schistocerca shoshone. The Mormon cricket, Anabrus simplex (actually a wingless tettigoniid grasshopper), was also a resource of major importance and was probably used by virtually every group in the Basin. The author cites historical accounts of the plague proportions of this insect, frequently lasting for years on end, notes the organized manner by which they were harvested (involving large numbers of people), and concludes that it provided huge returns for the labor invested. Ethnographic accounts of groups (men, women and children) spending days and considerable labor in the harvest preparation certainly suggest that crickets were not an ephemeral resource taken on an “encounter basis.” The crickets probably constituted a formal part of the seasonal round, and the author states, “Hundreds of thousands of pounds of very high quality food for a few days of labor would have been a wise investment, especially since the resulting food was storable.” Several species of true crickets (Gryllidae) are also common in the Basin and probably were used as well although none have been mentioned by specific identity in the ethnographic literature.

The use of caterpillars as food has been widely reported throughout the Great Basin, but the specific identity is known only of two species of moths, the pandora moth, Coloradia pandora (Family Satuurniidae), and the white-lined sphinx moth, Hyles lineata (Sphingidae). The food use of the pandora moth is well-documented in California and much is known about its ecology. Populations in Arizona have been estimated as high as 100,000 adults per hectare. The caterpillars were known as piagi, Pe-ag’-gah (big fat ones, good to eat) and similar spellings, depending on the tribe, and they were widely traded. Sutton quotes from a 1928 paper by Miller and Hutchinson: the Monos [Northfork Mono?], lured by the tempting collecting grounds, had crossed the range [the Sierra Nevada] and gathered caterpillars from areas that were considered exclusive worming grounds of another tribe (e.g., Miwok or Yokut]. This caused a serious break in diplomatic relations between the two tribes and very nearly resulted in a great Pe-ag’gie war.

Several investigators have concluded that the pandora moth provided a significantly greater nutrient return for effort expended than did plant resources.

In the Diptera, Sutton summarizes the numerous references to the use of the shore fly, Hydropyrus hians (pupae), and suggests that other shore flies were probably also used, particularly Ephydra gracilis, which coexists with H. hians in the Great Salt Lake and elsewhere. The presence of two sizes are mentioned in one early ethnographic reference, and E. gracilis is much smaller than H. hians. Although the larvae of H. hians were frequently mentioned in the early literature as the stage consumed, Sutton uses biological information to establish that it was primarily the pupae that were consumed. The larvae are generally attached to the bottom of the lake, while it is the pupae that wash up to the shore. The use of shore flies was probably widespread. They were traded, and some groups traveled fairly long distances to obtain them. They were available in great quantities and were apparently storable enough to serve as a winter staple.

Although there are no specific ethnographic records of the use of crane fly larvae by Great Basin groups, crane fly remains comprised 25% of a human coprolite found in east-central California. Holorusia rubiginosa, a large species with larvae from 30 to 55 mm in length, Tipula simplex, T. derbyi, and mplex, T. derbyi, and T. quaylii, all mentioned earlier by Essig, are among the species available. As the larvae appear in the winter months, January through March, they may have formed an important food source during what are considered lean months.

Sutton notes that cicada consumption may be underrepresented in the literature because of the confusion in terminology in which cicadas are often called “locusts.” Although specific species have not been identified in the ethnographic record,

species that are sometimes common in the Great Basin include the bloody cicada (Okanagana cruentifera), the bella cicada (O. bella), the orchard cicada (Platypedia areolata), and possibly P. lutea. The largest of these is 0. cruentifera, which measures about 32 mm in length. There are numerous reports of the use of cicadas by groups in the Great Basin. Fowler identified a cicada used by the Northern Paiute at Pyramid Lake as probably 0. bella. Ebeling reported a cicada gathered in large numbers from the saltbush (Atriplex) and eaten roasted by the Cahuilla as Diceroprocta apache. After emerging from the ground and molting it takes about a day before the adults are ready to fly. This is a vulnerable stage for easy harvest Sutton concludes that cicadas were a minor resource because they didn’t occur each year and rarely occurred in large concentrations.

Bruchid beetles constituted an “automatic inclusion of animal protein in processed mesquite.” Larvae, pupae and adults of the two major genera of Bruchidae in western North America, Algarobius and Neltumius, infest both the seeds and pods of the honey mesquite (Prosopis grandulosa) and screwbean (P. pubescens). There are as many as three generations per year and as many as 80% of the pods may be infested during the latter part of the season. The pods are harvested from early to late summer and either eaten raw or stored for later use. Fine grinding incorporates the insects into the flour, but coarse grinding permits the insects to increase to a “living mass” as so graphically described in earlier reports quoted by Sutton. The insects were accepted as an agreeable ingredient of the flour by the Indians, who made no effort to remove them.

Sutton concludes that consumption of at least several genera of ants was widespread in the Great Basin. Larvae, pupae and adults were used; references to “ant eggs” most likely refer to larvae and/or pupae. Ants were easily stored and undoubtedly formed an important portion of the winter diet of some groups. They also had medicinal and ritual uses which Sutton describes. Genera and species which, from ecological considerations, were probably of importance as food in the Basin included the red harvester ants, Pogonomyrmex occidentalis, P. owyheei, P. desertorum, and P. californicus, the former two of which are much larger than the latter two. Other ants endemic to the Basin include the red ant, Formica rufa, carpenter ants, Camponotus spp., and the American black ant, Lasius niger. The honey ant, Myrmecocystus mexicanus var. horti-deorum, occurs throughout the Basin and may have been used as food. In going through the ethnographic accounts, Sutton in some cases speculates on the specific identity of the ants that may have been used by a tribe in a particular region.

Bee and yellowjacket larvae/pupae were fairly widely used in the Basin, but they appear to be a minor resource that was gathered incidental to other activities. Honey also was a minor resource because the native species of bees do not produce appreciable quantities. Bees mentioned, among others, as in-habiting the Basin include the Xylocopidae carpenter bees, which are largely solitary. Among the common species in the Basin are Xylocopa opifex and X. californica. Bumblebees (Apidae) occur in large colonies, with the western bumblebee, Bombus occidentafis, the most common species in the western United States. Several other species of Bombus are also common. The most common yellowjacket in the Basin is Vespula pennnsylvanica, with V. diabolica also common.

Honeydew, the crystallized excretion of insects such as aphids and whiteflies, was probably widely used in the Great Basin, but Sutton considers it a minor resource. The mealy plum aphis, Hyalopterus pruni, is the insect most commonly identified with honeydew.

Sutton reports (via personal communication from Nancy Peterson Walter) that the Owens Valley and Mono Lake Paiute roasted June beetles (possibly Phyllophaga fusca) as late as 1981 (p. 79). These insects may have been used by other groups as well, but there are no other specific data. Woodboring beetles (Cerambycidae) are common throughout the Great Basin (p. 80) and their grubs may have been commonly used as food although ethnographic data are almost nonexistent. The larvae of some species are available during the winter.

Coprolite evidence exists for the use of termites (Reticulitermes tibialis) and water beetles of the genus Cybister (p. 81). Sutton notes that insect remains are frequently encountered during flotation analysis of soil samples from features and hearths in archaeological sites, but they are generally not identified because they are considered unimportant.

Sutton concludes (pp. 83-86) that crickets, grasshoppers, shore flies, caterpillars, and ants were the most significant insect resources and they were utilized by almost every Great Basin group. Other insects, including bees, yellowjackets, aphids, mesquite beetles, June beetles, and stoneflies were also eaten but in lesser quantity. Sutton disagrees with the view that insects were mostly obtained on an “encounter’ basis, stating that, “die ethnohistoric and ethnographic data indicate that considerable planning, travel, and effort was often involved in insect procurement,” and insect resources were fully integrated into aboriginal economic systems. Cost/benefit ratios for collecting most insect resources have not been determined, but studies have shown high return rates for Mormon crickets and grasshoppers. Although fresh insects were available primarily from April to October, many accounts specify that insect foods were stored for later use, often in large quantities. According to Sutton, “Stored insects,. combined with stored plant products (with which insects were often mixed) may have formed a balanced diet providing for a comfortable winter.”
Coprolites could yield much more information than has been the case to date. “The recovery of archaeological evidence of insect use suffers most from indifference, disinterest, or ignorance on the part of archaeologists who are not attuned to the recovery of such data.” Flotation samples must be given special attention and new data recovery techniques must be employed.

Sutton’s conclusion is that ” insects probably constituted a major rather than a minor resource in the Great Basin …. Anthropologists should continue to seek elucidation of the use of insect foods, both ethnographically and archaeologically, and should consider insect foods important resources that were fully integrated into the various economies of the aboriginal Great Basin.”

This ecological approach is of particular value in trying to elucidate the situation that formerly existed in North America. Here, one can no longer go into the countryside and determine the species used by direct observation, as can still be done in parts of Mexico, Africa, Asia and South America. The point made by Dr. Sutton that if the role of insects in North American aboriginal economies is underestimated, the role of other components is therefore overestimated and we lack an accurate understanding of the systems as a whole, is of particular interest. It has wide implications. If it is true for North America, it is probably equally true for Africa, Asia, and elsewhere inasmuch as most of the early information was furnished by Europeans. The under-reporting of insect use may be an excellent example of history distorted by being seen only through the eyes of those who wrote it.

Finally, the author is to be commended for consistently including the specific pages when citing books. Nothing is quite so wastefully time-consuming for readers who wish to consult an original source that has been cited as having to wade through hundreds of pages to find it.

by Dr. Mark Q. Sutton in  Ballena Press Anthropological Papers