During the Paleo-Indian Period (16,000–8500 BC), forests dominated the landscape, and Virginia Indians subsisted more on meat than they would in later periods. The lean wild game provided a source of monosaturated, or relatively healthy, fat, and because fruits and vegetables were less available for parts of the year, the Indians obtained vitamins and minerals by eating animals' organs and stomach contents. This made for a diet high in protein and calories but low in quick energy sources such as sugar and carbohydrates.
As the Ice Age ended, the largest animals became extinct, and Virginia's forests
filled with deciduous trees, many of which—oaks, chestnuts, walnuts, and
hickories—produced nuts. Warmer conditions also fostered fruit-producers such as
persimmon trees, as well as low-growing plants such as groundnuts and various
During the Archaic Period (8500–1000 BC), the Virginia Indians' diet shifted accordingly. Although they continued to eat the organs and stomach contents of animals, the Indians supplemented their intake with a greater variety of protein sources (from fish and shellfish) and carbohydrates (from wild plants). Oysters were particularly abundant, and although there were seasonal shortages of food, the advent of drying and smoking meat helped to compensate. A healthy diet—low in fat, sugar, and (probably) salt, and high in protein, fiber, and, for much of the year, vitamins—provided the conditions for steady population growth. Indians suffered few sugar-caused cavities in their teeth, but fibrous plants and tough meat caused enamel loss. As they grew older, Indians found it increasingly difficult to chew, leading in some cases to malnutrition and vulnerability to various opportunistic diseases.
From late in the spring until mid-summer (cohattayough), Indians commuted between their towns' fields—this was the time to weed their crops—and the waterways and forests, where they foraged until harvest time. Men and boys fished and hunted as huge sturgeon came up the rivers to spawn. Women gathered wild plant foods, including tuckahoe, and sometimes ate, according to White, "green wheat," or unripe corn. In the meantime, strawberries, raspberries, and mulberries all ripened, resulting in a sharp rise in the Indian diet's sugar and vitamin C content.
Food also was plentiful during the autumn and early winter (taquitock), which was the major time of feasts and religious rituals. Robert Beverley Jr., in The History and Present State of Virginia (1705), writes that the greatest Annual Feast [the Virginia Indians] have, is at the time of their Corn-gathering, at which they revel several days together. To these they universally contribute, as they do to the gathering of the Corn. On this occasion they have their greatest variety of Pastimes [games], and more especially of their War-Dances, and Heroick Songs; in which they boast, that their Corn now being gather'd, they have store enough for their Women and Children; and have nothing to do, but go to War, Travel, and to seek out for New Adventures.
Corroboration comes from the colonist Gabriel Archer, who reported in 1607 that the James River tribes were attacked by upriver tribes (and presumably retaliated) each year at the "fall of the leaf." Smith wrote that there was enough food to support large gatherings in this season: "plenty of fruits [crops] as well planted as natural, as corn, green and ripe, fish, fowl, and wild beasts exceeding fat." The fatness certainly applied to deer, for late in September through November is also the time when the nuts and acorns they love are ripe. Women and children gathered and dried them for eating during the coldest months.
While the first major dispersal of the year occurred in early spring, or cattapeuk, the second occurred during taquitock. From late in November through January, the Indians left their towns and traveled far out into the forest, where the men hunted large numbers of deer and the women and children gathered nuts and performed the initial work of preparing the meat and hides for transport and storage. There likely was plenty of meat and nuts to eat, and the women took corn with them to make bread in camp. This made for a balanced diet of lean game, carbohydrates and vitamins from corn, and monosaturated fats, potassium, fiber, and trace minerals from nuts.
The Powhatan Indians' diet determined the shape of their lives from season to season; it had other impacts, too. The Indians' habit of dispersing twice a year, once to forage and once to hunt, allowed their relatively small towns to "air out," which improved sanitation, which in turn made the population less vulnerable to European diseases. No epidemics are recorded before 1617, and then only in passing. (By way of contrast, some of the great Aztec and Inca cities in Mexico and Peru suffered 90 percent population reductions due to disease.)
The Indian diet depended on a variety of ecological zones: waterways for fish, plants, and transportation; riverfront terraces for farming; and forests for game, nuts, and firewood. Even swamps were useful, a fact that belied the common European perception that the Indians did not use all the land. Although not intensive farmers, they did, in fact, use all the land, although they used it perhaps more gently. In any event, they needed all of these zones—waterways, terraces, and forests—to produce and transport the food they needed to survive. When the colonists began taking Indian farmland, they not only stole the land but blocked access to waterways, forcing Indians to retreat into the forests. This double loss may have been one factor provoking the Powhatans to launch their assault in March 1622.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Rountree, M. C., & Rountree, H. C. Diet in Early Virginia Indian Society. (2012, January 31). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Diet_in_Early_Virginia_Indian_Society.
- MLA Citation:
Rountree, Mary C. and Helen C. Rountree. "Diet in Early Virginia Indian Society." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 31 Jan. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: May 17, 2011 | Last modified: January 31, 2012
Contributed by Mary C. Rountree and Helen C. Rountree. Mary C. Rountree is a nutritionist specializing in diabetes at Riverside Hospital in Newport News. Helen C. Rountree is professor emerita of anthropology at Old Dominion University, and author of Pocahontas's People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries (1990) and Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown (2005).