Coincidences and fish

Native method of smoking salmon

By a happy coincidence, Robert Tykot gave a talk here at Brown yesterday that’s totally going to affect Book 3! He spoke at the Joukowsky Center about his work analyzing the chemical makeup of human bones and teeth to find out what people ate long ago.

Basically it works like this: the higher up the food chain you eat, the less of the heavier isotope of common elements you’ll have in your bones. So if you eat a lot of kale = more heavy isotopes. If you eat a lot of beef = less heavy isotopes. But if you live on salmon, those are fish that eat fish that eat fish that eat fish that eat plants. Way high up the food chain = very little heavy isotopes. So we can tell from the percentage of heavy isotopes in your bones how much fish you eat.

threesistersA similar method lets you tell how much corn people have in their diet too. And looking at their teeth, we can tell whether they ate that way as kids, or only as adults. So cool!

So it turns out, all around the world people who have corn were eating waaaaay less fish than I, personally, would have predicted, which I think is also what a lot of other people thought too. People who don’t have corn often eat a lot of fish, but once they have corn, apparently people like that better.

Rich people in Central America also turn out to eat a lot more corn than poor people. You’d think they’d love salmon and mussels, no? But it’s corn. That’s because it’s not corn on the cob, or even grits – it’s chicha, corn beer. They’re rich, so they can afford to drink a lot of chicha. So in the book, I’ll be emphasizing rich beer-drinkers, and de-emphasizing fish in their diet. Lucky I came across this lecture before I drew this part of the book!

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A feather cape from Peru, made about 1000 AD

You can also use this method to tell a lot about enslaved Africans brought to the sugar plantations in the Caribbean.  We can tell from their teeth whether they all grew up in the same area, eating the same foods (mostly no – people working on the same plantation came from all over Africa and wouldn’t have known each other or even been able to speak to each other in their own languages). And we can tell from their bones about how long they were in the Caribbean before they died (mostly less than ten years, which tells you just how horrible it was.)

I also met a couple of other scholars at the reception – one who works on Native fabrics and is going to help me figure out what Native people would have been wearing in 1000 AD – and whether they were selling textile to each other. Stay tuned!

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