Tag Archives: ethnozoology


Crayfish Catching by California Indians

I like to free dive with snorkel and mask, and often find crayfish, which I’ve caught many times by hand (though I usually let them go). I find crayfish delicious, so I did a little research on the methods the California Indians used to catch and eat them.

Freshwater crayfish were eaten by the Indians of Northwestern California. The Yurok Sometimes caught crayfish by fastening a piece of salmon onto the end of a string tied to a pole. This bait was set in the water and when the crayfish grabbed it, they were pulled in. Instead of salmon, sometimes a ball of grass was attached, to which the claws or legs of the crayfish were entangled as they were pulled out of the water. The Karok used this method but with salmon gills as bait.

The Karok trapped crayfish by tying salmon gills above or in a basket that was set beside or under a rock, then lifting the basket out when the crayfish were feeding on the bait. Another Karok trap was a large, openwork, plate-shaped basket, with a four-foot stick attached to the center to keep the basket horizontal when lowered into a still place in the river. Salmon gills were placed on the basket as bait. Once the crayfish were lured onto the basket, it was lifted out quickly.


Shasta crayfish (Pacifastacus fortis), the only remaining native crayfish in California, is critically endangered. It’s endemic to Shasta County, where, before widespread environmental damage, it was caught by the Shasta Indians. Most crayfish in CA now are the introduced, invasive, signal crayfish (P. leniusculus).

The Shasta caught crayfish using the same type of trap, except instead of the four-foot stick, several strings were attached to the basket’s edges, and a stone was laid on it with the bait to weigh it down. This trap was used in about four feet of water in the evening. After 10-15 minutes, it was gently pulled to the surface.

Often, crayfish were simply caught by hand by the Yurok and Karok at the water’s edge. The Tolowa caught them by hand under rocks in streams while people were swimming.

The Karok roasted crayfish in ashes or hot coals till they were deep red. The Tolowa cooked them in ashes or in an earth oven. The Shasta boiled them in a basket with hot rocks.


Kroeber, A. L. and S. A. Barrett. 1960. Fishing among the Indians of Northwestern California. Anthropological Records 21(1):1-210. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

June Bugs are Edible

It’s already the time of year where June bugs are flying to my porch lights, much to the glee of my cats, who enjoy these fun toys.

June bugs are not known widely as edible, but according to one or two sources, they were food for some California Indians.

Bear River Indians ate June bugs (Nomland 1938:111). They were roasted in a fire and eaten immediately (Nomland 1938:111).

June bugs / June beetles, specifically including the white-striped June beetle
(Scarabaeidae: Polyphylla crinita and P. spp.), were listed by Essig (1931) as insects eaten by the California Indians.


June beetle: Polyphylla sp.

Essig may have determined this based on Nomland’s (1938) ethnography of the Bear River Indians. That is the only other source I have found listing June bugs as food for the California Indians.

Unfortunately, neither source mentions whether the adults or grubs were eaten. Presumably, they refer to the adults since they are commonly encountered, whereas the grubs live underground feeding on roots.

I’m confident the grubs are edible also, as  related grubs in the scarab family, such as the rhinoceros beetle, are edible, and also live underground.

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

Nomland, Gladys Ayer. 1938. Bear River ethnography. Anthropological Records 2(2):90-126. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Ants as Native Californian Cuisine

California Indians caught ants by spreading a damp skin or fresh-peeled bark over ant hills, which immediately attracted ants to the surface (Sutton 1988). When the skin or bark was covered with ants, it was carefully removed and shaken into a container where they were confined until dead, and then they were sun-dried and stored (Bodenheimer 1951).

The Nisenan and Achumawi were known to eat ants (Olmsted and Stewart 1978, Wilson and Towne 1978). Mono Lake Paiute ate the larvae of ants (Sutton 1988). Ant eggs, pupae, larvae, and adults are all edible and eaten by many aboriginal cultures worldwide (Bodenheimer 1951), thus it is likely the California Indians ate all these life stages.

Surprise Valley Paiute gathered ants “early in the morning when they were all bunched on the top of the hill” (Sutton 1988). Since ants carry their pupae to the top of the mound in the morning when the sun hits it, this may suggest the Paiute were aware of this activity and exploited it to easily collect the pupae, which are probably the preferred ant food. Alternatively, the gathering of ants was conducted in the early morning since they were less active then. Ants were frequently collected during the frozen winter (Sutton 1988), perhaps for the same reason, or since other food was scarce at the time.

Some Indians dug out ants, larvae, and pupae (the latter two being probably erroneously called eggs), and winnowed them to boil alone or with other foods (Sutton 1988). Ants were sometimes ground into flour for storage (Sutton 1988). Ants were preferred even to grasshoppers by the Northern Paiute since they contained more fat (Sutton 1988). Ants were killed with live coals then eaten dry, or stored to later thicken soups (Sutton 1988).

The larvae and adults of carpenter ants (Camponotus spp) were enjoyed by California Indians, according to John Muir (1972). The heads of the adults were bitten off and spat out and the “tickly acid body” eaten with enjoyment (Muir 1972). Carpenter ants were dug out of their nest early in the morning when it was still cold by the Western Shoshone (Sutton 1988), perhaps allowing gathering with fewer stings. The ants were winnowed from the soil with a basket, killed with hot coals in a parching tray, and boiled into a mush (Sutton 1988). These ants are very large: probably the reason the Indians preferred them. However, their nests harbor fewer individuals than those of smaller ants.

A few weeks ago, I collected a few dozen carpenter ant workers and drones. I broke apart the their wood log nest, and put down wet paper towels over the swarm, which they clung to, biting. I then flicked them off the paper towels into a cooler with a few inches of cold water, where they drowned or were cooled into immobility. I fried them in a pan with a few drops of oil on medium for about a minute, then ate them whole and plain. The workers have a great lime flavor and a nice crunch. The drones don’t have that zingy flavor (lacking formic acid glands and stingers), but taste mild and nutty. Overall, they were a great snack that was easy to collect.

Honeypot ants (Myrmecocystus spp.) are found in the deserts of Southern California, and are known to have been eaten by Southwestern US Indians and Mexican Indians (Bodenheimer 1951, Sutton 1988). Specialized “nurse” or “replete” workers of this ant, living in special chambers of the nest, store “honey,” or a very sweet solution, in their greatly engorged abdomens to regurgitate to other ants in times of famine (Bodenheimer 1951, Sutton 1988). These nurse ants were collected by Indians and eaten or alcohol or medicine (Bodenheimer 1951). I wouldn’t try to go dig up a nest without some serious expertise on their nest structure though. One professional entomologist in Arizona spent 12 hours digging an 8 foot trench in the desert to get just a few handfuls of repletes! If anything, this testifies to the supreme ecological knowledge of hunter-gatherers, especially regarding the hymenopterous (bees, wasps, and ants) nesting and reproductive biology.


Bodenheimer, F.S. 1951. Insects as human food. Dr. W. Junk Publishers, The Hague, The Netherlands.

Muir, J. 1972. My first summer in the Sierra. Norman S. Berg, Publisher, Sellanraa, GA.

Olmsted, D.L. and O.C. Stewart. 1978. Achumawi. In Handbook of North American Indians Vol. 8: California, eds. W.C. Sturtevant and R.F. Heizer, p. 228. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Sutton, M.Q. 1988. Insects as food: aboriginal entomophagy in the Great Basin. Ballena Press anthropological papers: no. 33.

Wilson, N.L. and A.H. Towne. 1978. Nisenan. In Handbook of North American Indians Vol. 8: California, eds. W.C. Sturtevant and R.F. Heizer, p. 390. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Deer Hunting Traditions of the Apache

The following notes are from this book:

People called Apache. Mails, Thomas, E. 1974. Prentice-Hall, Inc. Englewood Cliffs, NJ.

Chiricahua women hunted when necessary, but it was a man’s responsibility.

The Apache practiced fasting before hunting deer. They would not eat onions or put on anything aromatic. Such taboos were the norm among American Indians, and worked (including fasting) to greatly reduce the smell of the hunter that the deer may otherwise detect. No baskets brought along for a hunt, since that signaled overconfidence.

The Apache hunted alone or in groups. Mostly they hunted with bow and arrow. Sometimes mounted men or relays of footrunners ran deer till they were exhausted, when the men then roped and strangled them. Running deer negatively affected the taste of the meat, so it was not a preferred method.
Deer head and antelope head masks were used for stalking, but not elk-head masks, since the hunters did not think the latter necessary. Perhaps elk are wiser, or probably just less friendly to strange elk. The deer heads were filled out with grass and the skin was sewn and tied to fit the head and stay on. Clothing or covering the color of the deer was worn, and while stalking, the hunter acted like a grazing deer. Deer were approached from downwind. If they were in the open, the hunters crawled long distances while keeping brush in front of them to hide. The deer were called by making a whistling sound through a leaf held horizontally along the lips. This may be in imitation of the bleating of a fawn, as some California Indians practiced.

Deer were sometimes hunted by the Apache after heavy snows and cold drove deer down into the flatlands.

The Apache cultivated corn, pumpkins, beans, melons, and potatoes, so were well aware that a field of half-grown corn became an excellent hunting ground when deer and other animals were attracted to the produce.

The Mescalero snared deer by hanging a string of head nooses along the deers’ favorite trails.
The kill was skinned and cut up immediately. This was done by traditional rules as where to begin and ceremonial gestures to use. The head and hoofs were brought home to assure future luck in the hunt. These were also valuable parts, the brain being mainly used to tan buckhides, hoofs used for glue and rattles, and both had many other uses. The hides were tanned or left as rawhide, either way with hair on or off, and used for moccasins, robes, blankets, saddlebags, and many other articles. The Chiricahua used thread from sinew along the backbone and leg bones of large animals, preferably deer, but also horses and steers. Sinew from alongside the backbone and hind legs were used by the Apache for bowstrings. The ends of two or three wet pieces were spliced and stuck together to form a long string, which was doubled over and the two parts were twisted  by putting a stick through the looped end. The finished string was placed on the bow and its length was adjusted as necessary. Awls were made from wood and from the sharpened leg bone of a deer. Deer’s blood was mixed with poisonous plants or spit and allowed to rot, then placed on arrowheads as a arrow poison. These are a handful of the dozens of other uses for deer parts.
Meat was jerked (preserved by drying into jerky) by cutting into long thin strips with the grain, then spreading it over bushes such as mesquite to dry. When dry, it was pounded until it was compact and stored in cowhide bags.

One method to cook deer meat was to roast it on a spit hanging over a dry cedar fire. Venison stew was also made.

The Chiricahua made acorns into a kind of pemmican. The acorn meal was mixed with ground dried deer meat and fat, then rolled into little balls that stored all winter and served as high-quality nutrition emergency food for trips.

In 1980 it was estimated that 50% of California was covered by deer, at a density of about 13 per square mile (Hiezer and Elsasser 1980). Just harvesting 1/10th of these deer, or 125,000 out of 1,250,000, would provide about a little more than a pound of venison per person per day (Hiezer and Elsasser 1980). [Ref: Natural World of the California Indians. UC Berkeley Press.]

See other recent posts about deer hunting:

Hunters Take Aim for Conservation

Deer Drive Hunt Method of California Indians

Grasshopper Hunting Methods of American Indians

Most American Indians ate grasshoppers (plus crickets and katydids: the orthoptera) as an integral part of their diet, collecting vast quantities in the summer, drying them and grinding them into flour to store for the winter.

They had many methods of gathering and trapping grasshoppers. The most simple gathering method was to merely pick them off vegetation during the early morning, when it was too cool for them to fly or jump off quickly.

At the most complex end of the spectrum, entire villages assembled to prepare pits and perform circle or or group drive hunts, surrounding a field and scaring grasshoppers inward simultaneously to drive the grasshoppers into the central pits. There were many variations on this method, from some Indians using fire to either drive the grasshoppers or kill them at the end, to driving them in a line towards a creek, where they were collected downstream in basket traps.

See Cricket Hunting Method of Nevada Indians for another example of a drive hunt.

One basic type of the circle hunt method was performed by the Shoshone Indians of the Western US (including California, Nevada, Idaho, and Wyoming): A hole was dug in the center of a field, 10-12 ft deep by 4-5 ft diameter. The 4-5 acre field was surrounded with people standing about twenty feet apart, armed with long branches of Artemisia (i.e. wormwood; a pungent, insect-repelling herb/shrub), with which they beat the ground and vegetation while slowly pushing them towards the hole in the center (Chittenden and Richardson 1905). Often 3-4 acres was sufficient to fill the hole. (Chittenden and Richardson 1905).

Circle drive hunt method of Shoshone Indians to trap vast amounts of grasshoppers for food. Illustration by C. Harp.

Circle drive hunt method of Shoshone Indians to trap vast amounts of grasshoppers for food. Illustration by C. Harp.


Chittenden, H.M. and A.D. Richardson. 1905. Life, letters and travels of Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet, S.J., 1801-1873. Harper, New York, NY.


7 Insects You’ll Be Eating in the Future

Click the title for a Livescience.com article about a few popular insects eaten around the world, and their important potential as a more ubiquitous food source in the future given the global food (esp. protein) shortage crises.

Some students from McGill University in Canada won the 2013 Hult prize, providing $1,000,000 in seed money for their project making protein-rich flour from insects, starting with grasshoppers (yes, 1 million bucks for bugs).

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: http://5e.plantphys.net/article.php?ch=t&id=136

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: http://northernpecans.blogspot.com/2013/09/black-margined-aphids-coat-pecan-leaves.html

[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: http://mattcolephotography.blogspot.com/2011/09/ants-and-aphids.html

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.