In the rain forest the treetops form a dense unbroken canopy, cutting out most of the sunlight at ground level, thus preventing the growth of many plants on the forest floor, but every now and then, one of the great trees crashes down, creating a gap in the canopy that allows the sunlight to flood in. Lying dormant, awaiting just such an event, is a wide variety of plant seeds and seedlings ready to take advantage of the situation. Sunlight causes them to germinate and spring into life to fill the space made briefly available. Such clearings would at times allow some of the food plants sought by humans to multiply as they colonized the open space, providing a natural forest garden for the inhabitants to exploit (Crowe 2000, 135).
Sometimes people may have constructed temporary shelters near these clearings. Wild plants would have also naturally colonized the open areas around dwellings, and this process would have been encouraged by the increased nitrogen content of the soil, enhanced by human waste that would also have contained the seeds from the food plants eaten. This and any other discarded plant material left over after eating, such as fruit stones or cores deposited nearby, would have also provided people with an excellent opportunity to observe just how some plants were propagated. Human waste and discarded plant debris would naturally have often contained viable seeds of the very plants most favored by the people inhabiting the site (Hawkes 1989, 481).
Given sufficient incentive, deliberate cultivation would have logically been the next step (Harris 1989). Initially human intervention may have simply been a matter of creating the right conditions to encourage the growth of favored plants by clearing areas of forest of vegetation that competed with these plants for the light and nutrients. Cutting back the young trees to maintain the open area created by a falling tree may have led to forest people producing temporary clearings themselves to create forest gardens. Later the deliberate propagation of particular species meant humans were taking the first steps toward cultivation and the full domestication of certain plants, which would have occurred as the direct result of human selection. Some of the earliest evidence we have for this kind of intervention is in New Guinea (Groube 1989, 298-301). Climate change may have also had an influence. In the Amazon, for example, a warmer, more seasonal climate following the last Ice Age would have had an effect upon the food resources available and the survival strategies adopted by humans inhabiting the rainforest (Colinvaux 1989). This scenario may well have led to humans exerting a more conscious control over the selection of the flora they relied upon for food, resulting in a more diverse food economy in which cultigens were eventually included.
The early inhabitants of the forest probably learned to use the same slash and burn techniques that present-day Amazonian Indian populations use. This involves the men of the group cutting down the trees and undergrowth in a small section of the forest and then setting fire to the debris. The burning is done near the end of the dry season, when the vegetation has dried out and is easier to ignite. The resulting ash helps to enrich the soil, which in the rain forest is otherwise very poor in nutrients. The forest soil is naturally low in plant nutrients and soon becomes exhausted. After two or three years the soil cannot support any more crops, so the gardens are abandoned and new ones begun. At any one time, a family may have several gardens at various stages under cultivation (Harris 1973).
Deep in the Amazon rain forest particular food resources are often restricted; however, on the flood plains adjacent to the main watercourses there are large areas of rich alluvial soil. Tribes living close to the rivers would have had a much wider variety of wild plant foods, together with fish, mol-lusks, and aquatic mammals and perhaps freshwater turtles. The food resources offered by a river and adjacent habitat would have therefore made it far easier to support a settled community. Human waste and discarded vegetable matter would have encouraged the germination of commonly used food plants near dwellings, which could have formed the basis of "doorstep gardens."
Long before cultivation began, grinding stones were being used by some foragers to process seeds and other plant foods. Seed gathering is of primary importance for survival in the desert regions of Australia. For this reason, grinding stones were probably essential for desert people. Seeds were often dehusked by rubbing them between the heel of one hand and the palm of the other. They were then dropped into a wooden dish, allowing the wind to blow away some of the chaff, or the chaff was removed using a technique called yanding. This process involves agitating the contents of a dish to separate the seeds, which were then ground into a flour and often mixed with water to be formed into cakes or dampers that were cooked in the hot ashes of a fire (Cane 1989). A wide range of sedges, edible grasses, and the seeds from several kinds of shrub were gathered as well as the seeds of several nontoxic varieties of acacia. Apart from making certain foods more palatable and aiding mastication, grinding had the added advantage of making foods easier to digest, thereby allowing the release of more nutrients. The processing of potentially edible plants is not only a means of extending the range of resources that can be exploited for food in a given area; it also has the advantage of ensuring that the nutritional value of the resources available is being maximized.
When the nomadic tribes would move to another area, they would leave behind their grinding stones. The stones were not abandoned, however. Similar to other nomadic people, the aborigines of Australia periodically return to the same locations on a regular basis. They may cover a vast area during their wanderings and sometimes, in more arid regions, it may be decades before they revisit an area. This constant movement is necessary to allow depleted resources to recover. Any given area can only support a finite number of people and in these arid environments nomad groups are normally quite small, between thirty and fifty individuals, according to Yellen (Renfrew and Bahn 1991, 173).
Exact numbers are partly dependent upon the resources available and how far it is necessary to travel when hunting and gathering plant foods.
The aborigines generally preferred roots and fruits, when they could be found, as these usually involved little or no preparation, unlike nuts and seeds. In addition, aboriginal people living in desert regions also ate succulents. Some species of bushes in Australia retain their berries even after they have matured and dried out; these represented another important resource particularly during the most arid periods when little else was available.
In common with many hunter-gatherer people, Aborigine women played a key role in acquiring food for their group and were the main collectors of plant foods. As today, yams were found by identifying the leaves and then tracing the tendrils of each plant, entwined among the branches of nearby bushes, back to their source. A digging stick was then used to excavate the yams by following the tendrils underground until the main body of the plant was located. Great care was taken not to remove the whole plant when foraging, so that some was left behind to ensure vegetative regeneration. The bitter tasting Dioscorea bulbifera (bitter yam, air potato) was cooked in an earthen oven (Jones and Meeham 1989, 124). Snail shells with holes cut in them were then used to grate the tubers. The prepared material was afterwards left to soak overnight to detoxify it. Other yams, such as the long yam D. transversa, required less stringent preparation.
Although systematic plant cultivation was never adopted on the Australian continent as a means of ensuring a sustainable food resource, according to one early explorer, Sir George Grey, there were some areas where tribes extensively harvested and deliberately propagated the yam D. hastifolia (Hallam 1989). For many aboriginal people such plant foods traditionally provided the staple diet.
Wetland resources were equally important in some areas. During the rainy season the Gidjingali Aborigine women and girls collected water lilies (Nymphaea spp.), an important source of carbohydrate. The stalks were eaten raw, and the small black seeds were ground into flour to make unleavened cakes. In the dry season, as swamps began to shrink, women dug out water chestnuts, the corms of the spike rush Eleocharis dulcis. At other times of the year cycad nuts (Cycas and Mac-rozamia spp.) were exploited as the staple food resource (Jones and Meeham 1989).
In several places in Australia, the Philippines, and throughout Indonesia, the highly toxic nut of the cycad palm is used for food. The nuts contain a dangerous neurotoxin, so great care has to be taken at all stages of preparation, including the avoiding even touching the mouth while handling the nuts. The nuts are first dehusked before being allowed to dry in the sun for a few days. A stone pestle and mortar are then used to crush the nuts into a pulp that is then put into woven bags (Jones and Meeham 1989). These are put into pits filled with water and left immersed for a further few days. Fermentation takes place, and a foul-smelling froth forms on the water surface as most of the toxins gradually leech out. After further grinding, the resulting paste was formed into loaves, wrapped in pandanus leaves, and baked in an earth oven. With some species of cycad in the Philippines, it has been found that despite all precautions, the toxins can still cause paralysis and severe, irreversible mental degeneration in later life, as the effects of even small amounts of the toxin are accumulative. One great advantage of this food however is that the loaves can be kept for several months.
The use of preserved foods may not be as prevalent among nomadic hunter-gatherers as sedentary people simply due to the transport problems imposed by a nomadic lifestyle. Nevertheless such foods often play an important part in their long-term survival strategy.
In colder latitudes, there is a general tendency for people to include a smaller proportion of plant foods in what they eat (Lee 1968). The food of people living near the Arctic Circle used to consist mainly of flesh foods but plant foods were still an essential element in their diet. Plant material from the stomachs of both terrestrial and marine mammals may have once played some part in people's diet and seaweed was also consumed. In such regions the summers are very brief and there is therefore only a short period when the gathering of most other plant foods is possible. In high latitudes today bushes belonging to the heather family such as crowberries, bilberries, and cowberries provide edible fruits that represent an important source of vitamin C, as does the creeping willow, Salix arctica. The leaves of this plant, which contain ascorbic acid, were traditionally plucked by some Arctic people and dropped into boiling water to extract the vitamin. This was then poured into a hole that had been excavated in the ice, where the mixture very quickly froze solid, preserving much of the vitamin C present that might otherwise have been destroyed by the boiling. In its frozen state, this concoction provided a source of vitamin C throughout the winter.
Root vegetables, where they were available, were excavated from the ground, usually with a digging stick. They were also obtained, for example among the Nabesna people of Alaska, by taking them from the caches of muskrats where the animals stored food ready for the winter. Berries were sometimes preserved in oil but usually were dried simply by laying them out on racks in the sun. Reducing the water content prevents or delays bacterial growth and the action of the enzymes naturally present in the tissue. During the winter, or late autumn when it often rained, food was preserved by being smoked, usually within the family dwelling. Smoking dries out the food and coats it with chemicals that inhibit the invasion of microorganisms that could cause it to go bad. Sometimes meat was also ground up and mixed with grease and berries to help preserve it to produce pemmican, which the buffalo hunters of the plains also often depended on during the winter months. Drying or smoking can preserve many kinds of plant foods, fruits, and vegetables. Many aspects of the kind of food economy seen in northern latitudes in recent times might well be equally applicable to the cultures that existed during the last Ice Age in both Europe and North America as well as in parts of Asia.
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