Full Belly Files: Native Food Habits of the Mission Age

My interest in the culinary cultures of the world is matched, sometimes even surpassed, by my fascination with human history, particularly as it relates to the origins of what we now call California. This desire to better understand the past fueled my extensive studies in anthropology at UCSB and motivates my (unfortunately sporadic) work on a book about the Chumash revolt of 1824, the most widespread indigenous uprising against the colonial system of that time.

Although easily described as a battle between the oppressed and their oppressors – which, for a basic explanation, is a sufficiently accurate assessment – what makes the revolt worthy of book-length analysis is that the situation was not really so black and white. California’s colonial period was immensely complex, as indigenous peoples converged with soldiers, priests, settlers, and visitors from Spain, Mexico, the United States, and beyond to form a truly vibrant society, full of behaviors and beliefs that cannot be defined by the broad brushstrokes of popular history.

So when a press release came out Monday morning about an archaeological study that combined food, Indigenous peoples, California’s colonial history, and an evolutionary explanation of the complexity of that time, I found myself glued to my iPhone reading “Zooarchaeology of the Santa Clara de Asìs mission: bone fragmentation, stew production and commensality” by a UCSB graduate student Sarah Noah. Although the title doesn’t quite scream “revelation”, the study, which was published in the International Journal of Historical Archeology, argues that indigenous peoples retained their traditional dietary habits even after the Spanish changed their diet to rely on cattle and row crops. This is the latest evidence to counterbalance the long held wisdom that indigenous cultures were completely erased during the colonial era.

Sarah Noe examined how the bones were slaughtered and broken to determine what the native residents did with them. | Credit: Courtesy

To show how these alimentary pathways persisted, Noe analyzed the remains of slaughtered bones found on the grounds of Mission Santa Clara, where the native residents – who consisted of the Ohlone, Yokut and Miwok peoples – appeared to use the traditional rendering of fat. and marrow. extraction techniques. Although such methods were used by indigenous peoples throughout the region when slaughtering elk and deer prior to European contact, this type of extraction was not typical of the daily Spanish menu, which filled pozole and atole stews with pieces of meat.

“Although fat rendering and marrow extraction are documented as fairly common processing activities among prehistoric Native Californians,” the document explains, “these practices are not yet well documented in the historic period in Alta California”.

He also clarifies that, while marrow and fat are coveted in many cultures during times of famine, this is not proof of that. “Rather than an indicator of dietary stress,” Noe postulates, “this zooarchaeological analysis indicates that throughout the Mission period, native Californians fractured mammalian bones to extract marrow and fat in order to ‘to enrich a broth while cooking cattle meat in Spanish-style stews’. From a culinary and caloric standpoint, indigenous peoples took extra steps to utilize the rich marrow and fat resources found in cow bones, improving their stews beyond what the Spanish did.


This edition of Full Belly Files was originally emailed to subscribers on January 14, 2022. To get Matt Kettmann’s food newsletter delivered to your inbox every Friday, sign up at independent.com/newsletters.


Noe’s research also revealed that indigenous people continued to hunt wild game, both for food and for other purposes. “Although cattle provided the largest proportion of meat in daily meals, the continued presence of wildlife alongside domesticated taxa throughout the mission period indicates that traditional food resources remained important to locals. mission,” Noe wrote. “Despite constraints on hunting imposed both by mission boundaries and the decline of native species following the introduction of agriculture, food and non-food related wild mammals and birds have continued to be purchased and used.”

the the study includes a graph on all the animal bones that were found at the three sites that Noe examined. Among the preponderance of cow, sheep and goats and a handful of white-tailed deer found in more than 26,000 specimens, the largest bone species found was that of the California ground squirrel, with 926 occurrences. This is compared to just 600 cow bones, although the combined weight of cow specimens is exponentially greater than that of squirrels. On the bird side, Canada geese, mallards and ruddy ducks were the most popular.

I would be very curious to know more about how the indigenous people prepared these meats, if indeed they were hunted for food. I saw ground squirrels this weekend on a golf course, and they looked very plump, ready to spit.

A Santa Clara University sketch of Ohlone people preparing food near Mission Santa Clara. | Credit: Courtesy

It’s not exactly the deeper research that Noe is asking for by the end of the article, but she does plead for more in-depth analysis.

“Previous studies in Alta California have used evidence of Spanish material in Indigenous contexts to confirm the unidirectional adoption of European goods and practices by Native Americans, cultivating the misconception of the complete loss of traditional ways of life and domination of the Spanish socio-economic system,” she writes. “This article joins a growing body of literature proving these assumptions wrong, uncovering the uncritical classification of objects as representing continuity or change, colonial or traditional. environmentalism of Spanish colonization, archaeological work in Alta California and more broadly at colonial sites in North America is poised to challenge terminal narratives of the past and instead reinforce the persistence of Indigenous peoples that has lasted long after the mission system ended.


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Nohemi M. Moore