October is here, and ‘tis the season for those warm, comforting autumn foods: soup, stew, chili, and various hot drinks. Ingredients such as winter squash, pumpkins (and related spices), and root vegetables are closely associated with fall, but why? The answer is simple, and one you probably figured out on your own, even if you’ve never really thought about it before: seasonality.
Seasonality refers to the time of year when certain wild foods or crops are ripe and ready to collect/harvest and eat. In our modern world of industrialized agriculture and global markets, it is easy to forget that people were once at the mercy of the nature of their food. In the past, fresh fruits and vegetables were not available all year round like many types of produce are now. Today, once-seasonal foods can now be grown in climates that produce year-round or in specialized greenhouses, and then distributed across the world via modern transportation. That’s not to say that we are not completely unaffected by seasonality. Those of you who have gardens or CSA shares, or who frequent farmers’ markets undoubtedly notice variations in the fruits and vegetables available throughout the year, and although many “seasonal” foods are available at the grocery store year-round, foods are often more abundant and affordable during their proper season.
Societies in the past were affected by seasonality to a much greater degree than we are today. Prior to the adoption of the full agricultural lifestyle, many societies in North America and around the world moved across the landscape following food as it become available. Food seasonality and availability heavily influenced when and where these mobile or semi-mobile hunter-gatherers moved and settled. The season during which a site was occupied by past groups is an important factor for archaeologists to consider. Archaeological food remains can help determine what season(s) of the year a site was occupied, giving us valuable insight into levels of mobility and settlement patterns.
The Cloudman site appears to have been occupied by small bands of people consistently during the late summer and fall months. Macrobotanical remains (plant remains visible to eye, such as seeds and nut shell fragments) at the Cloudman site include various berries, fruits, and nuts that are generally available in the summer and fall (Egan-Bruhy 2007). Faunal remains (animal bones) complicate this picture. Different species of fish spawn in different seasons, and they are generally more abundant and easier to catch during their spawning period (although they can also be fished in eaten in other seasons, too). Fall-spawning fish (whitefish, drum) AND spring-spawning species (sturgeon, pike, sucker, catfish, perch, and walleye) were present at the Cloudman site (Cooper 1996). Thus the site may have also been occupied occasionally in the spring, especially for fishing.
The evidence from food residues, which was the focus of my dissertation, provided more evidence for people living at the site in late summer and autumn. Maize (corn) and wild rice phytoliths were found on the Cloudman cooking vessels, which are both available for harvest in late summer, while squash/pumpkin phytoliths and acorn lipids, both autumnal fare, were also encountered (Albert 2018; Kooiman 2018; Malainey and Figol 2017). These foods were found either periodically or consistently throughout the 1600 years the site was inhabited by local indigenous groups (AD 100 – AD 1700), meaning Cloudman was a very important locale for collection of fall foods for a very long time. Food collected in the autumn was critical for survival throughout the winter.
The Cloudman site was the perfect fall food locale. It was located along the Potagannissing River, not far from where it meets Lake Huron. Modern beds of wild rice are located upriver from the site, and it’s likely that wild rice grew in this area in the past, too. Surveys of vegetation on Drummond Island show nearby oak stands would have meant an abundance of acorns for picking by Cloudman residents (Comer et al. 1995, 1997). Farming is very difficult in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan since the growing season is rather short, but coastal areas tend to be warmer, which means it may have been possible to grow some crops, such as maize and pumpkins/squash, at the site. In fact, the current owners of the site have a rather lovely garden there right now!
So as you grab your pumpkin spice lattes this fall, remember that those seasonal foods you look forward to all year were of even greater importance to the Native peoples who inhabited this land before us.
Comer, P., D. Albert, H. Wells, B. Hart, J. Raab, D. Price, D. Kashian, and R. Corner
1995 Michigan’s Presettlement Vegetation, as Interpreted from the General Land
Office Surveys 1816-1856. Michigan Natural Features Inventory, Lansing, Michigan.
Comer, P., D. Albert, H
1997 Vegetation circa 1800 of Chippewa County, Michigan, East Part: An Interpretation
of the General Land Office Surveys. Michigan Natural Features Inventory, Lansing,
https://mnfi.anr.msu.edu/data/veg1800/chippewa_east.pdf (accessed 3/7/18).
1996 Cloudman Site (20CH6), Drummond Island, Michigan, Features 26 and 27, 1992
Excavations. On file at the Consortium for Archaeological Research, Department of
Anthropology, Michigan State University, East Lansing.
Egan-Bruhy, Kathryn C.
2007 20CH6 Cloudman Site Floral Table. On file at the Consortium for Archaeological
Research Department of Anthropology, Michigan State University, East Lansing.
Kooiman, Susan M.
2018 A Multiproxy Analysis of Culinary, Technological, and Environmental Interactions
in the Northern Great Lakes Region. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology,
Michigan State University, East Lansing.