Monthly Archives: June 2014


TED Talks: Why Not Eat Insects?

Click on title to link to a TED video lecture advocating entomophagy (eating insects).

Our ancestors all ate insects, and I’m not talking about just monkeys and apes! Nearly all hunter-gatherers worldwide ate insects as an essential part of their diet. Many cultures worldwide, such as in Southeast Asia, still eat tons of insects, and consider many varieties to be fine delicacies. Insects are super healthy, full of protein and good fats, easily gathered, and are way more energetically efficient than vertebrate foods. Since meat production is one of the biggest causes of global warming and environmental degradation, going back to eating insects would be a great solution.


Russians Put Frog in Milk to Prevent Spoilage

Click on the title to link to the original scientific article describing how they found many antimicrobial compounds secreted by frog’s skin.

This study was inspired by the old practice of Russians in putting frogs in their milk to keep it fresh!


Rana temporaria. Credit: Wikipedia

The ancestral art of keeping milk fresh had a clever, simple solution for Russians; put a russian brown frog, aka the common frog (Rana temporaria) in it! This frog (which ranges across Europe and has many congeners across temperate areas such as the US) secretes a battery of antimicrobial compounds, preventing the milk from bacterial or fungal growth and souring.

I doubt it affected the milk flavor much if at all. I don’t think it’s disgusting; what sure is gross though is tasting or smelling rotten milk!

The only other way known to keep milk fresh without refrigeration (also accomplished of old by constructing chambers to trap cold air from springs or cold creeks), is to let the microbes take over and grow cheese or yogurt!

Note there is a frog in the tropics called “milk frog,” but since its name comes from the toxic milky secretions it exudes from its skin, it may not be a good choice as a milk preservative!

New Map of Old North America Shows Indian Tribal Nations; what causes variation in tribe density?

Aaron Carapella has compiled all the original (self-identified) names of the American Indians on a map showing the locations of their original homes. It immediately gives a sense of the extent and variety of Indians occupying the continent.

See the full story here: The Map of Native American Tribes You’ve Never Seen Before

Or go straight to the PDF file of the map: Tribal_Nations_Map_of North America

There is a separate map for Mexico you can find in the article.


Ethnoecological hypotheses for high density of Indian tribes and populations in California and the coastal Pacific Northwest:

Like other similar maps produced before (which usually show the names colonists gave to Indians, such as “Costanoan” for SF Bay Area Indians, which just means inhabiting the coast), another remarkable feature is the high diversity of tribes in California, as well as the Pacific Coast. I’d attribute this high diversity, which goes along with notably large original populations (Heizer and Elsasser 1980), to the high diversity and productivity of ecosystems in these regions.

by Aaron Carapella

Detail of Tribal Nations map showing California and most of Nevada. Full map by Aaron Carapella

The unit of land-ownership for the American Indians was a watershed (Heizer and Elsasser 1980). Indian tribes would own both sides of a creek or river, and the mountains behind them with their tributaries, ending at the ridgetops that began another tribe’s territory (Heizer and Elsasser 1980). The wrinkled topography, caused by the geologic uplift from the subduction of the Pacific plate along the coast, has led to many distinct watersheds concentrated in a small area in California and the Pacific Northwest coast.

Thus the high density of tribes may be simply a result of the division of tribal groups by the high density of watersheds. If one looks at a map of the watersheds, the tribes do seem to be at least partly corresponding to different watersheds. If the names map had higher resolution, reflecting how each of these tribes divided into smaller groups and tribelets, this hypothesis would probably be better supported.

Interestingly, larger tribe groups tend to mirror the hierarchical structure of the watersheds, claiming large watersheds (different colors in the below map), and their constituent tribes claiming smaller watersheds within (different shades of one color in the below map).


Another, related reason for the high density of tribal names and population size is the ecology of the area. The massive trees of the coastal Pacific Northwest, along with their lush understories, forming specialized assemblages in every nook and cranny of the convoluted topography, gives rise to ecosystems with a huge variety and abundance of plant and animal life, next to ecosystems that are entirely different yet close-by. The Indians of the Pacific Northwest, relying upon these profuse plants and animals, therefore did not have to harvest from a large area of land to meet their needs, but could live in peace with close neighbors and at high population densities without risk of hunger.

Supporting this latter hypothesis is the recent synthetic finding of Ethnobotanists is that regions of high biological diversity strongly correlate with regions of highest linguistic and cultural diversity (Carlson and Maffi 2004, Nolan and Turner 2011).

A final alternative hypothesis is simply that by the time ethnographies were conducted to record all the names of the tribes, the areas with fewer tribal names had already been decimated, leaving few behind to have their names recorded. Although California and the west coast was indeed some of the last territory to be settled and the Indians rounded up and exterminated, this hypothesis is refutable by comparing to the east coast.

The eastern coast, the first areas to be settled and the Indians persecuted, has a similarly high density of tribal names, though somewhat more dispersed or clumped. Note also Florida and along the southeast coast there is a rather high density of tribes, and that these areas have remarkably high diversity of plant life, though are not very mountainous. These patterns, along with the general tendency for high tribal name density on the map to correlate well with mountainous areas and/or areas of high plant diversity, lends support to the watershed and/or ecological diversity hypotheses I gave above.

Further support of these hypotheses can be seen in the areas of low density of tribal names. The mountainous eastern Rockies, though dense with watersheds, have very little water. These deserts and dry forests have low plant diversity, and accordingly seem to support few tribes, at presumably low population densities. Furthermore, the midwest, the belt from Canada to Texas about two states wide, consists of flat grasslands; areas with low density of watersheds and little environmental heterogeneity. Despite its high soil fertility and productivity of grazing animals, predictably, this area also has low density of tribal names, and presumably, Indian populations. Similarly, in the far north, where boreal forest, tundra, or arctic ecosystems predominate, there is a low density of tribal names, and presumably populations, since these ecosystems are very homogenous, with low plant diversity and low productivity of plant energy.

To put it (somewhat) simply, humans are animals too, and just as how animal diversity (at the levels of genotypes, populations, and species) is directly positively related to plant diversity and environmental heterogeneity, so is the diversity of Homo sapiens (here presumably at the genotypic, and population / cultural levels) directly positively related to plant diversity and environmental heterogeneity (namely density of watersheds).



Carlson, T. and L. Maffi (eds.). 2004. Ethnobotany and conservation of biocultural diversity. Advances in economic botany Vol. 15. Botanical Garden Press, New York, NY.

Heizer, Robert F. and Albert B. Elsasser. 1980. The natural world of the California Indians. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Nolan, J. M. and N. J. Turner. Ethnobotany: the study of people-plant relationships. In Anderson, E. N., D. M. Pearsall, E. S. Hunn, and N. J. Turner (eds.). 2011. Ethnobiology. Wiley-Blackwell, Hoboken, NJ.

Bug Honeydew was a Sweet Treat for California Indians

Certain insects in the true bug order are specialized to only feed on plant sap, including all aphids (Aphidae) and scales (Coccidae), and most of the planthoppers, leafhoppers, froghoppers, and cicadas (Hemiptera:Auchenorrhyncha aka Homoptera). These insects have syringe-like mouthparts to pierce the sap and/or water-conducting vessels of leaves, veins, stems, and fruits. Their adaptation to their extremely watery diet has also given rise to a very long intestinal tract with which they can absorb most of the nutrients of the sap before it passes out. But this still isn’t enough to absorb the sap’s sugars and other nutrients completely, so their frass (insect excrement) is very sweet.

A) shows an aphid piercing plant tissue with its syringe-like mouthpart B) shows how this stylet pierces a single cell (in this case making it ideal for sampling cell contents for an experiment by a plant physiologist) Credit:

This sugar-rich exudation of these insects is called “honeydew” or formerly, “Indian honey.” You may have noticed this phenomenon if you’ve parked your car under a tree infested with aphids, leaving the car and pavement below covered in a sticky clear film. It can also be noted on trees that have sooty mold growing on their lower leaves, often to the point of blackening them almost completely. The sooty mold grows on the honeydew medium. Honeydew is produced by very many species of insects on many species of plants, but is produced in most abundance by Aphids on trees.


black-margined aphids and honeydew (shiny spots) on a pecan leaf. Credit:

[As an interesting aside, many species of ants eat the honeydew of sap-feeders who receive in exchange protection by the ants.]


Black ant feeding on aphid honeydew. Note the ant stroking the aphid’s back, which encourages aphids to secrete honeydew. Credit:

Honeydew was one of the few sugary foods known to the American Indians. Others were of course honey, and in some deserts of the US southwest, honeypot ants, which have specialized workers that fill their abdomens with a sugary solution to form a sort of food storage to make it through lean times. However, honey was very limited in supply until the introduction of the European honey bee since native bees produce very little honey (Essig 1931). And honeypot ants are quite limited in distribution and take extensive digging to collect a small amount of honeypots.

So effectively, honeydew was the only sweet food known to California Indians, and was therefore highly prized and collected with zeal.

Many different tribes of Indians used honeydew as a edible treat, and had various methods of collecting this nectar:

– In arid regions, honeydew is especially abundant on willows (Salix) growing along streams and on and under many shrubs, where it dried, adhered, and was collected (Essig 1931).

– In southeastern California, the Tübatulabal and Paiute collected honeydew deposited by aphids on reed or cane (Jacknis 2004).

– The Paiute collected honeydew on reed (Phragmites) by beating the dried honeydew into a basket, making it into a ball which they later softened by a fire and ate like candy (Jacknis 2004).

– The Tübatulabal cut, flayed, and dried common reed [Phragmites australis (Cav.) Steudel], beat off honeydew crystals (onto a hide or the like), winnowed out the debris, and cooked it into a stiff dough with cold water (Smith 1978, Jacknis 2004). When this dough dried, it formed a hard loaf from which lumps were broken off to eat with chia (Salvia columbariae Benth.) or acorn and piñon pine (Pinus edulis Engelm.) seed gruel (Smith 1978, Jacknis 2004).

– The Yavapai and Papago picked and washed off honeydew from cane and willow, boiled it and allowed it to congeal into a sweet whitish loaf (Gifford 1936).

– Honeydew was especially abundant on the leaves and young stems of a common species of willow in the Yavapai territory on Date Creek (Gifford 1936). The branches with honeydew were broken off and stirred into water to make a refreshing drink (Gifford 1936).

– Honeydew was stored by the Paiute using a special shallow basket made of tule (Sutton 1995).

– The mealy plum aphid, Hyalopterus pruni (Geoffroy), although only introduced around 1879 from the Mediterranean region, was one species whose honeydew was eaten by the Indians (Heizer and Elsasser 1980).

The California Bay Laurel is one very common local species in the Bay Area that is often covered with aphid honeydew. Its leaves are edible (and very flavorful), so it has potential as a source of collecting local honeydew. In the right season, I will try to dry branches with a fresh layer of honeydew to beat off, or perhaps dip into water  to dissolve it.


Essig, E.O. 1931. A history of entomology. The Macmillan Company, New York, NY.

Gifford, E.W. 1936. Northeastern and western Yavapai. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 34(4):268.

Heizer, R.F. and A.B. Elsasser. 1980. The natural world of California Indians. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Jacknis, I. 2004. Notes toward a culinary anthropology of Native California. In Food in California Indian culture. ed. Jacknis, I. Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, CA.

Smith, C.R. 1978. Tubatulabal. In Handbook of North American Indians Vol. 8: California, eds. W.C. Sturtevant and R.F. Heizer, p. 444. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

How to Make Moccasins: a Photo Guide

1) First, trace your foot on some paper to make the pattern for the sole. You should leave a centimeter or so space between your foot and the edge of the pattern:





2) Trace these other patterns based on the size of the sole pattern. Analyze the below photos to determine the relative shapes / sizes. See step the third photo below to better size the tongue pattern (pattern on right side). Basically it should cover the top of your foot and its sides wrap around to meet the edges of the sole pattern with sufficient space (~ 1cm) to stitch.



4) Check the patterns have the right size and shape by lightly taping the edges to form a model of the moccasin.



5) After correcting for any size / shape problems revealed by the model, trace the patterns onto your leather (or other material of choice). Be sure to flip the patterns after tracing one side to make a mirror-image set of patterns for left and right foot. Mark each with an L or R to keep track of which go together.

Leather is usually irregularly shaped, so try different arrangements to fit all the patterns with as little waste as possible (in case you want a pair of replacement soles or for other uses).

Here, I used bison leather since it is very thick. In retrospect, the sole wore through rather sooner than I expected. Perhaps the wide grain size made for a more “loose” matrix of collagen in the leather, allowing it to wear sooner. I did wear them every day on concrete, so that’s another issue. I’ve read the Apache used rawhide soles to extend wear life. I may try this next. Fortunately the soles are easy to replace.


6) Put together the first moccasin, putting the inside facing out, and holding the edges (to be stitched) with pins.


7) Stitch the seams. Here I used artificial sinew divided in half (since it was then doubled around the pin eyehole, the stitches ended up being the same thickness as the original strand). To save a lot of effort, use a glovers needle (these are for leather and have really sharp tips with a triangular cross section). I used a whipstitch (aka lazy stitch), and used a sweet potato to put under the seam where I was pushing the needle in, so it easily went through the other side. Bison leather is super thick, so I had to use some pliers to pull the needle the rest of the way through from the other side.

Important note!! The below photo is incorrectly sewn where the back meets the tongue. It should be the opposite, with the tongue closest to the outside, so when you turn it inside out when you finish, you want the backs to be closest to the outside (see complete moccasin). I had to cut and resew the stitches on the below photo!


8) The below photos show the complete, correctly sewn, moccasins before and after being turned inside-out.


9) The completed moccasin! For this design (of my own invention), you will need a button of some sort to hold the sides that go over the tongue together. I used the canines of a grey fox skull I found for this. Except for thorough cleaning, you actually don’t need to unbutton and re-button it to put on the moccasin. Simply push down the heel, slide your foot in, then pull the heel up. They still fit very well and are extremely comfortable and good for running or anything else (except maybe wet weather which speeds the wear on the soles).

So the button can be difficult to unbutton or you could simply sew it permanently shut. I show some close-ups of the button I used below. The long cylindrical shape is cool since you can twist it and insert it into a small hole by the end. To get the sinew to stay wrapped on the canines, I had to file a shallow trench around the canine which the sinew could sit inside, then I tied it really tightly. Other button ideas I had was using shells, a strong twig, or a slice of a maple wood twig for a more conventionally-shaped button.

Note the below photos are after several months of wearing these all day every day, mostly on concrete, and never having washed them. They are easy to wash; just use warm water and soap to scrub by hand then let them air-dry.ImageImageImageImage


Fried Fiddleheads and Further Functions of Ferns

Fiddleheads on a ridge in Dark Canyon, Eldorado National Forest

Fiddleheads on a ridge in Dark Canyon, Eldorado National Forest


The fiddleheads of most (if not all) species of ferns are edible. The fiddlehead refers to the unfurling young fronds that appear in late winter through spring, appearing singly for new plants, or at the base or middle of full-grown ferns. They can be eaten raw, but are better after being lightly fried.

The species pictured below, Polystichum munitum (Kaulf.) C. Presl, aka western sword fern, is very common in the east bay hills. Also pictured below are its fiddleheads that I fried and ate this spring.




It is somewhat asparagus-like in flavor and texture. It makes a great side dish or could be an important survival food if lost in a fern-rich area.

Other uses:

Fronds of Polystichum munitum were also used by the Kashaya Pomo Indians of California to line earth pit ovens for slow-cooking many types of foods, as well as to line basins formed in sand for leaching acorn or buckeye meal (Goodrich et al. 1980).

Other fern species and uses:

The juice of fiddleheads of Pteridium aquilinum (L.) Kuhn, aka Western (or common) brackenfern were used by the Kashaya Pomo as a body deodorant (Goodrich et al. 1980).

The root of P. aquilinum was a staple food of California Indians of the Sierras (Chesnut 1902). The fronds of this species were used for beating down grass fires, and lining berry baskets for long distance travel (Chesnut 1902).

Hard wood from roots of P. aquilinum were easily split into flat bands for use in basketry (Chesnut 1902). Gathered from summer til fall, the root was lightly pounded to remove the bark, then the dark core was split into layers (Goodrich et al. 1980). Such bands were chewed to remove the greenish fibers, leaving the remaining black fibers, or buried in mud for a week to turn them black (Chesnut 1902).

Equisetum spp., aka horsetail (equus + setum = horsetail in latin) is a common fern on streambanks and other wet freshwater areas. Species in this genus have many uses. The hard outer “skin” can be peeled off, revealing a watery flesh with a nice taste. Though not quite substantial for easing hunger, it provides many vitamins and minerals. Horsetails are rich in silicates (which make them rough to the touch) and accumulate metals in their tissues. While this makes them risky to gather to eat from areas polluted with metals, it also makes them high in iron; a crucial vitamin.

The Kashaya Pomo used a decoction of the whole Equisetum arvense L. plant for washing itching or open sores, and drank a decoction of the whole E. laevigatum plant for kidney trouble and associated back trouble (Goodrich et al. 1980). The Kashaya Pomo also drank a decoction of E. telmateia Ehrh. stems for menstrual cramps (Goodrich et al. 1980).

The silicate-rich “skin” of horsetails were used like sandpaper for finishing wood such as on arrows (Goodrich et al. 1980). They were also used to polish wampum, the shell discs strung on strings used for money by American Indians (Chesnut 1902). The name “scouring rush” was given to this genus by American settlers since it was so useful for scrubbing metal pots and pans (rush meaning a grass-like plant growing near water).

Adiantum jordanii Mueller (=A. emarginatum Hook.), aka California maidenhair fern, is a beautiful fern growing on seeps, wet streambanks, and other wet areas. Its smooth, jet-black and mahogany leaf stems were used for keeping earlobe holes open and increasing their size (Chesnut 1902, Goodrich et al. 1980). Stems were split lengthwise, dried, and used as a material for basket design by the Kashaya Pomo (Goodrich et al. 1980). The stems are perfectly divided to be half black on one side and half mahogany on the other, which, along with their polished appearance, gives them a notable beauty (see pics below of whole maidenhair plant and its stem):




Chesnut, V. K. 1902. Plants used by the Indians of Mendocino County, California. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.

Goodrich, J., Lawson, C., and Lawson, V. P. 1980. Kashaya Pomo plants. American Indian Studies Center, University of California, Los Angeles, CA.

How to Make a Rabbitstick (non-returning boomerang)

Ringtail Cats

See my earlier posts How to Make a Returning Boomerang and Boomerangs are awesome! for more info about boomerangs.

The non-returning boomerang, aka rabbitstick was a ubiquitous and important weapon among hunter-gatherer cultures around the world, especially those living in open environments like desert, scrubland, and grassland.

The rabbitstick was used, obviously, to hunt rabbits, but also many other animals such as ground fowl, squirrels, and even large ungulates such as deer. The rabbitstick could instantly kill smaller animals when struck, but could also take down deer and antelope since it could break their legs, rendering them unable to flee.

The rabbitstick took many forms, but was always flattened and a foot to several feet long, and was usually bent along its length. Being thrown bend-first (with the V facing forward), the angle gave more force to the blow if it hit properly since the momentum would be directed along the…

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