Author: Mary C. Rountree

a nutritionist specializing in diabetes at Riverside Hospital in Newport News
ENTRY

Diet in Early Virginia Indian Society

Diet in early Virginia Indian society changed significantly from the Ice Age to the English colonists’ landing at Jamestown in 1607, from initially relying more on meat to over time increasingly combining wild game, fish, nuts, and berries. The Indians’ eating patterns were shaped by the seasons, and for the Powhatans there were five, not four. In the early and mid-spring (cattapeuk), they ate migrating fish and planted crops. From late in the spring until mid-summer (cohattayough), they split their time between the towns, where they weeded the fields, and the forests, where they foraged. Late summer (nepinough) was harvest time, and the autumn and early winter (taquitock) the occasion for feasts and religious rituals. This marked a second time in the year when the Indians abandoned their towns, this time for communal hunts. Meats were prepared and stored for the late winter and early spring (popanow), when shortages made life difficult and even dangerous. “They be all of them huge eaters,” the colonist William Strachey observed of the Powhatans, but the Indians also lived intensely physical lives, requiring a large number of calories. Their metabolisms, meanwhile, were slow enough to store nutrients and then, during shortages, use them slowly while the people remained active. The colonist John Smith described the Powhatans as living “hand to mouth,” but they were often better fed than the colonists with a diet that was low in fat, sugar, and salt, and high in protein and fiber.

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