When Drought Led to Famine, What Did People Eat?

Here in the Southwest, we’re heading into our second year of severe drought after a few years of normal drought. Because we humans live in the Twenty-First Century, we can live on food grown and imported from rainier regions or grown with water pumped from deep in the earth. But what about the indigenous people who lived here centuries ago, how did they cope with drought? What did they eat when the rains didn’t come or were spotty?

It’s Carolyn here today, and I began to look for some answers in the new book Famine Foods: Plants We Eat to Survive (University of Arizona Press, 2021) by Paul E. Minnis, an archaeologist/ethnobotanist. Dr. Minnis writes: “Food shortages of various kinds and severities have been a part of humanity for as long as humans have existed.” Later, he writes, “Out of these experiences, humans have developed a range of responses to deal with these problems including the use of famine foods.”

Although Minnis looks at how people respond to food shortages world-wide, I was particularly interested in what he had to say about the Southwest. Because famines only occurred every so often, there was the chance that plants that weren’t eaten regularly, but could be eaten might be forgotten. The Zuni of New Mexico embedded ethnobotanical knowledge by making plants integral parts of ritual paraphernalia so people had to remember where to gather them and they also included knowledge of plants in ritual liturgy. So even if someone had not actually eaten a plant, they had heard of it.

People facing food shortages also changed their minds about what they considered proper food. During the Second Century in Greece, peasants facing food shortages would eat acorns they had stored to feed their pigs. However on the California Coast, centuries later, Native Americans subsisted to a great part on acorns and considered them a fine and preferred source of food.

Here are some wild foods that sustained desert dwellers in Southern Arizona for millenia even in droughtrs: saguaro, mesquite, barrel cactus, and both prickly pear pads and fruits (pictured above). My colleagues and I have written about all of these numerous times over the years, not as famine foods, but as ways to bring the desert into your life.

This years saguaros are blooming further down on the arms. Botanists believe this may be related to the drought. More fruit means more opportunity for baby saguaros. (Photo by Doug Kreutz)

Another way Native Americans faced food shortages is what Minnis calls “social banking.” In 1939, the town chief of Acoma, a New Mexico Pueblo said, “The people of Zuni are coming. They have no crops. They are coming to work for us. Some day we might have to go to them when our crops are small.” The Tohono O’odham when facing food shortages would sometimes go visit their cousins the Akimel O’odham who had an easier time growing crops with the Gila River water. Because there were no draft animals, it was easier to move the people to the food rather than try to transport large quantities of food.

To learn more about how people all over the world have survived food shortages and famine, get a copy of Famine Foods and learn about human resilience.

Want to know more about history of food in the Southwest? My new award-winning book A Desert Feast: Celebrating Tucson’s Culinary Heritage covers more than 4,000 years of food history, from the hunter-gatherers, to the Early Agriculturalists to today’s farmers.

Categories: Sonoran Native | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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