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 seed-producing grasses.
And when rising sea levels created the Chesapeake Bay and its flooded tributary rivers, there were salt- and brackish-water fish, shellfish, and, in the freshwater streams, tuber-producing plants such as arrow arum and seed-producing plants such as wild rice.
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.
Cultural, more than climatic, change marked the Woodland Period (1000 BC–AD 1650). The invention of pottery allowed large quantities of food to be boiled in stew pots, and Virginia Indians began to cultivate first beans and squash and then, around AD 1000, corn. Periodic dry summers, however, made corn a somewhat unreliable crop, possibly making it a high-status food at times due to its relative scarcity. Indian women continued to forage and men continued to hunt, while the lack of domesticated animals (aside from dogs) made large-scale farming difficult. If the historian Robert Beverley Jr., writing in 1705, was right, the Indians ate few “herbs or greens,” in which case they continued to get their vitamins from the organ meats that the botanist John Banister, writing around 1690, reported they cooked in their stews along with the rest of the carcasses. They also may have traded for some food. Early colonial records suggest that smoked oysters were taken up the James River to near the falls, and the colonist William Strachey, who lived in Jamestown from 1610 until 1611, wrote about dried cakes of rendered deer suet that may have been traded downriver where the deer population was somewhat depleted.
The Powhatan Indians recognized five seasons, all apparently based upon their diet. The first season, early and mid-spring (cattapeuk), was, according to John Smith, when the Indians “feed on fish, Turkeys and squirrels.” On mating runs upriver from the Chesapeake Bay, shad, herring, and alewife were caught in both weirs and nets and provided a needed source of Omega-3 fat, as well as protein. Sugary berries were not yet available, and a diet of too much lean meat such as venison reduces one’s energy. As a way to increase energy during this period, the Indians turned to tuckahoe tubers because they were a rich source of carbohydrates. Early spring also was the time when Indians planted crops and built their bark-covered houses. (Tree bark is best removed in early spring shortly after the sap has begun to rise.) Relying on wild foods and in constant need of energy—planting and building were both labor-intensive projects—Indians tended to disperse from their towns for at least part of the season to forage. Opechancanough‘s assault that began the Second Anglo-Powhatan War (1622–1632) occurred in March, during cattapeuk; he figured (correctly) that Englishmen bent on retaliation would have difficulty finding concentrations of Indian families.
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.
The late summer (nepinough) brought the harvest, although ripe corn, by Indian standards, was still green. Families lived in their towns in order to gather crops before insects or animals intruded further, reaping squashes from early July to September, and corn, beans, and maypops (passion flower fruits) from August to October. They also found wild rice in the marshes. All of these plants are rich in carbohydrates, and when eating large amounts, the Indians tended to gain weight. This season and the next were the times when they occupied the “fat” end of the continuum in John Smith’s description: “It is strange to see how their bodies alter with their diet; even as the deer and wild beasts they seem fat and lean, strong and weak.” According to Smith, the Powhatans steeped their corn overnight in (probably limey) water. Already high in vitamins C and A, the corn then became a source of niacin, or vitamin B3.
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.
Late winter and early spring (popanow) was a time of hunger for both people and animals. With the new year’s berries and seeds still months away, any stored nuts, acorns, and farm crops were eaten only sparingly. Although edible tubers could be found in the marshes, digging them up—considered to be women’s work—was an energy-consuming and bitterly cold task. Weirs yielded some low-calorie fish, and men hunted the flocks of waterfowl that wintered on the Chesapeake. Once stored foods ran out, the Indians’ diet was high in protein but low in carbohydrates. All of which made the season particularly dangerous for infants, young children, the elderly, and the ill—anyone who required additional calories or additional food processing (to make it easier to chew, for instance).
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.