The Migratory Grasshopper Were Sometimes Very labor-efficient

In the spring of 1985, “millions” of grasshoppers (the migratory grasshopper, Melanoplus sanguinipes) were found lying along the eastern shore of the Great Salt Lake. Madsen, state archaeologist in the Antiquities Section of Utah’s Division of State History, says, “enormous numbers of the insects had flown or been blown into the salt water and had subsequently been washed up, leaving neat rows of salted and sun-dried grasshoppers stretched for miles along the beach.” The hoppers, coated with a thin veneer of sand, were in as many as five rows in some places, with the widest rows ranging up to more than six feet in width and nine inches thick and containing up to 10,000 grasshoppers per foot.

A year earlier, while digging in Lakeside Cave which is at the western edge of the Great Salt Lake, Madsen and co-workers had discovered thousands (and estimated millions) of grasshopper fragments in the various strata of the cave floor. The hopper fragments, in a matrix of sand, were also found in the majority of samples of dried human feces found in the cave. The connection between beach and cave was obvious. Lakeside Cave has been visited by Great Basin hunter-gatherers intermittently for the past 5,000 years. It served only as a temporary base because it is far from fresh water. Obviously, the cave was used as a winnowing site for removing sand from the grasshoppers which were scooped up at the beach and most of which were then hauled elsewhere.

Madsen and colleagues found that one person could collect an average of 200 pounds of the sun-dried grasshoppers per hour. At 1,365 calories per pound (compared with about 1,240 calories per pound of cooked medium-fat beef and about 1,590 calories per pound of wheat flour), this amounted to an average return of 273,000 calories per hour of effort invested. According to Madsen, “Even when we took a tenth of this figure, to be conservative, we found this to be the highest rate of return of any local resource. It is far higher than the 300 to 1,000 calories per hour rate produced by collecting most seeds (such as sunflower seeds and pine nuts) and higher even than the estimated 25,000 calories per hour for large game animals such as deer or antelope.”

Madsen also investigated the rate of return per unit of effort expended in collecting Mormon crickets (Anabrus simplex), another food of early Native Americans. Crickets were collected from bushes, grass, etc., at rates of 600 to 1,452 per hour, an average of nearly two and one-third pounds or, at 1,270 calories per pound, an average of 2,959 calories per hour. The crickets often reach greatest densities along the margins of streams or other bodies of water which lie in their line of march and which they will attempt to cross. In two such situations, they were collected at the rates of 5,652 and 9,876 per hour, an average of nearly 18 1/2 pounds of crickets or 23,479 calories per hour. The first number (2,959 calories per hour) surpasses the return rate from all local resources except small and large game animals, while the latter compares favorably even with deer and other large game.

Madsen places cricket collecting in a modern context by saying, “One person collecting crickets from the water margin for one hour, yielding eighteen and one-half pounds, therefore, accomplishes as much as one collecting 87 chili dogs, 49 slices of pizza, or 43 Big Macs.” He concludes, “Our findings thus showed that the use of insects as a food resource made a great deal of economic sense.”

David B. Madsen. Natural History (New York).