July 10, 2008

What Prehistoric Man Ate: Forage Through History and Learn

Talk to executive chef Toby Joseph at Cero in the St. Regis Resort Fort Lauderdale or executive chef Ryan Artim of the Ritz Carlton, Palm Beach, and they are proud that they serve local seafood and produce. They are like many chefs today who brag of using organic ingredients in season. They go to great lengths to label such foods on their menus and build relationships with growers, fishermen and foragers who can supply them.

The Slow Food movement with 80,000 members worldwide has formed to celebrate just this type of eating. And locavores (New Oxford American Dictionary's 2007 word of the year) pat themselves on the back because they eat foods produced within a 100-mile radius of where they live.

These dining trends and hip eaters sound new and revolutionary. But truth be told, they couldn't be older.

South Florida's first inhabitants arrived here 12,000 years ago and were eating exactly this way. And eating many of the foods we are still in search of today.

Wild duck, blueberries, hickory nuts and grouper are just some of the items archaeologists tell us that these people were fishing, hunting and foraging for on our peninsula before Columbus and before written history.

"Early people knew their environment. They knew their resources, maximized both and wasted nothing," says Arlene Fradkin, who teaches archaeology at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

Step back in time with us to discover our history by studying animal bones, teeth and shells often left in middens, or pre-Columbian garbage dumps. Most plant remains rot and do not leave clues except for those remains buried in mud and muck, which sheltered them from oxygen. This muck keeps bacteria from growing and keeps the plants from decomposing.

The first people came to the Americas by traveling across a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska only to discover the northern part of the continent covered in ice sheets. They followed and hunted the large animals (known as megafauna), including mastodons and mammoths, until they ended up in what today is South Florida.

It may have taken them two to three generations to make the trip south, explains Michelle Williams, director of the southeast region for the Florida Public Archaeology Network and a paleoethnobotanist at FAU in Fort Lauderdale.

What those early migrants found was very different from the tropical paradise we enjoy today. It was nearing the end of the Ice Age, and the climate was much cooler and dryer. Sea levels were much lower so the land mass was twice today's size.

There were no Everglades or Lake Okeechobee, explains Fradkin, who has worked on archaeological digs in the Everglades and on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. And it would be some time before Biscayne Bay would take shape.

Thirst quencher For those early people, drinking water was at a premium; it had to be drawn from sinkholes. It determined where the people set up their camps as they went from watering hole to watering hole hunting their dinner.

"The South Florida Indians ate anything slower and/or dumber than they were," writes archaeologist Jerald Milanich, author of Florida's Indians (University Press of Florida, 1998), in an e-mail.

That included camels, horses, 12-foot-tall beavers, bison, dire wolves, paleo-llamas, horses, jaguars, peccaries (a small mammal related to swine and hippopotamuses), condors and three-toed sloths.

The animals also supplied fur, ligaments, antlers, bones, teeth and claws, according to Milanich. So after taking the steaks and roasts, the Paleo-Indians had raw materials for clothing, shelter and tools.

In the arid land covered with drought-resistant grasses and scrub oak, the people also gathered nuts and berries, according to Robin Brown in Florida's First People (Pineapple Press, 1994). They probably used nuts, a good protein source, to make butters and for cooking oil.

"By gathering plants you assure yourself more of a return than when you just go out hunting," Fradkin says.

Climate change As time went by, the climate gradually became warmer and wetter.

By 5,000 years ago (3000 B.C.), the modern hot, moist climate that we know today had developed, the ice sheets had melted and the water levels risen 130 to 165 feet, creating the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee. The pre-Columbian lake covered 645 square miles, according to Milanich in his book. (Today, when there is not drought, it covers 730 square miles, making it the nation's second-largest freshwater lake.)

And between 11,500 to 9,500 years ago (9500 to 7500 B.C.; for comparison, the first walled city at Jericho was built in 9000 B.C.) those huge animals that had been roaming the land became extinct. There's some controversy whether they disappeared because of climate change, disease or because they were overhunted. Regardless, those early people had to find something else to eat.

The wetter climate proved a blessing, however, because now drinking water was more available, making more places habitable. The people banded together and traveled from the coast to the Everglades and back in search of small game, saltwater fish, nuts and berries.

"They were nuclear families traveling together with an informal leader -- probably the best hunter. He would be the head as long as he could maintain the others' confidence," Fradkin says.

They cut cypress trees, burned them and scraped out the char to fashion boats. And because there was no water management system back then, the entire area was covered with natural canals they could use to follow their food supplies. But with water everywhere, one can only imagine the mosquito population.

Everglades eating These early people realized that the newly created Everglades were home to millions of birds, alligators, possums, raccoons and fish. And they made good eating.

The surface water was filled with freshwater species such as striders, cooters, freshwater turtles, gopher tortoises and snakes, including water snakes, mud snakes and cottonmouth moccasins.

The saltwater along the coast supplied snapper, varieties of catfish, barracuda, jack cravel, sharks, sheepshead fish, drum, oysters, mussels, quahog clams and nesting sea turtles.

"Fish was good for you back then like it is now. They knew what they were doing when they ate it," says Jorge Zamanillo, curator of the object collection at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida in Miami.

They could gather shellfish by wading. All they needed was a stick to loosen the shell and a basket or boat to carry the harvest, writes Brown. They used palm fibers to fashion fishing nets.

Whelk and conch were other marine sources of food and their shells became the raw materials to make household implements such as bowls, drills, awls, fishing weights, hammers, dippers and spoons. That was handy because stone was at a premium in South Florida.

White tail deer was one of the most popular quarries to hunt, as were rabbits, loons and gray fox. When they bagged game, the Paleo-Indians ate the meat; used the skins for clothing and shelter; and the bones (especially deer leg bone, which is very hard, according to Zamanillo) for tools such as awls, needles and fish hooks.

"They used every part of those animals they were able to dominate," Fradkin says.

Good food The land and climate as they developed were generous, offering pond apples, coco plums, sea grapes, cactus, cabbage palm, saw palmetto, wild grapes and hog plum, according to Donna Ruhl, an archaeobotanist and manager of the North Florida Archaeology Collections at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.

From cabbage palm they could take the hearts we still enjoy in salads today. On the other hand, saw palmetto's reddish black fruit with a pit was plentiful, but you wouldn't want to eat it unless you were very hungry (it's been described as "rotten cheese steeped in tobacco," Brown writes in his book). However, even early man may have known of its curative powers -- today it's a natural remedy for prostate problems.

Cactus gave them prickly pears, a pleasantly sweet fruit. Sea grapes offered an astringent edible fruit that could be dried. One can imagine them eating the grapes much as we eat Craisins. Coco plums provided edible dark purple berries.

While early peoples elsewhere on the continent were becoming farmers, those in South Florida found the land and water so rich in natural foodstuffs they didn't need to grow crops.

"People knew their environment and adapted well to it. They were in touch with nature. Something we are not," Fradkin says.

As time goes by By 2,500 years ago (500 B.C.), the small bands of people developed regional cultures throughout Florida. Those around Lake Okeechobee, including Glades, Hendry and the interior portions of Palm Beach and Martin counties, developed into the Belle Glades people. Those along the Southern Atlantic Coast, in the Everglades, in the Keys and along the 10,000 Islands became part of the Glades Culture.

These groups may have been the ancestors of, respectively, the Jeaga as well as the Tequesta people of Miami Circle fame.

And the rest is history.