Anthro-fantasy: Leaping about the Kamass patch

When we left you, the snass was upon us and the cole snass was a very recent memory. Both rain and snow encourage indoor pursuits — basketmaking, for example, among the tribes of the lower Columbia, including the Multnomah, who lived where I sit and type now. Without having gathered the appropriate reeds for basketmaking, I was left to my own devices, Internet devices, and I ran across two stories with Oregon connections: specifically, they were both based on research by archaeologists with Northwest roots. Both of them led me to the beginning of human habitation on the Columbia River, which is still a space that we can occupy imaginatively, because the details are so sketchy.

For grounding, I turned to Melissa Darby, an expert in these matters. She was part of suddenly, an ongoing meditation about the ideas of Thomas Sieverts, which we visited below, and as organizer Matthew Stadler suggests in the post immediately preceding, taking part in their ongoing discussion is a good idea. But I’m afraid I have to take responsibility for the conclusions to which I’ve leaped here. (After the jump: Killer comets! Cake! Idle anthropological speculation! Recipes! More!)

1. “Nanodiamond find supports comet extinction theory”: A National Geographic story reported a theory proposed by a University of Oregon archaeologist, Douglas Kennett: The disappearance 12,900 years ago of both large mammals (like mammoths and sabertooth tigers) and the first settlers of North America, the Clovis people, was the result of massive firestorms across the continent ignited by a swarm of meteorites and comets. These firestorms caused the draining of a massive lake in the interior of the continent, which happened to shut off the currents that bring warm water north from the tropics, causing an ice age and the extinction of both wooly mammoths and people. There is lots of skepticism about Kennett’s theory, which the story reports.

2. Cooking camas bulbs in fire pits was widespread in North America 9,000 to 10,500 years ago and then use jumped 4,000 years ago. The people who replaced the Clovis apparently came here understanding the use of camas, and started digging them and cooking them in stone fire pits soon after their arrival. That’s the assumption I’m making from a study on the prevalence of firepits used for cooking camas bulbs and wild onion in North America, reported on by the Los Angeles Times. Presumably, as population pressures grew, they intensified their production of camas (as well as other edible roots). This occurred all over North America as well as Asia and Europe. The archaeologist who reported these findings, Alston V. Thoms, has Northwest roots — he was the staff archaeologist at the Center for Northwest Anthropology at Washington State through the 1980s.

OK, I have combined these reports, because the timing seems to add up, but I have no idea if the timing is correct. It’s conjecture. And timing is a very big deal in archaeology. It’s less of a big deal to us civilians, of course. But the ways the native peoples we have mostly replaced understood and used this place should be. The idea that the great-grandplants of the ornamental camas bushes that grow so well here were an important part of the menu for these people changes the way we think about them, adds meaning by adding context, raises our appreciation for both plant and cultivator.

We didn’t need Thoms to know that Northwest tribes knew their camas. It’s a Chinuk Wawa word, Kamass in the spelling of George Gibbs’s dictionary, derived from the Nootka language, in which it meant “fruit” or “sweet” or “pleasant to the taste”. And early Euro-settlers saw members of the Clackamas tribe, say, going through the laborious process of cooking up a batch. Here’s a pioneer account from 1845 by diarist James Clyman (I’ve done a little punctuating for ease of reading, though not too much — I like the pell-mell original):

“The Indians our neighbors were out early digging roots this operation is performed by sinking a strong hard stick in the ground near the roots to be dug then taking pry on the outer extremity of the stick a portion of earth containing from 2 to six roots is taken up the roots being the size of a small onion and much resembling the onion in appearance. They are then washed and cleansed, a hole of suitable size is dug into the earth filled with sticks and stones. After the earth and stone become well heated… a layer of grass laid over the hot stones, the roots piled on the grass and a layer of grass laid over the roots then a thin layer of earth over the whole and a fire outside of all which is kept up some 24 hours when it is allowed to cool down and the roots are ready for use of for drying and putting away for future use. When dry they keep for months or years”

Clymer doesn’t describe the process for pounding camas into a “mash”, forming the cash into cakes or bricks, and storing it for later use. Nor does he talk about the cultivation of camas patches. The two-day cooking process is necessary, though, to breakdown the indigestible carbohydrate, inulin, into usable fructose. “The food value is high, and cooked material yields large amounts of sugar, approximately one-third of the dry weight of the bulbs,” writes Joe Arnett for the North American Native Plant Society. Thus, the firepits.

I called Melissa Darby, an expert on the use of plants by Northwest tribes, to ask about Thoms findings, and to talk about camas and wapato. She said that these issues — how and when camas was cooked — were important to archaeologists because they are trying to trace human development patterns. Which basically means, at what point did we leave pure hunting and gathering behind and become sedentary cultivators or farmers. Firepits and camas patches, for example, imply storage, and storage implies at least a semi-sedentary lifestyle. You wouldn’t want to go tramping around the wilderness with a hundred pounds of camas cake dragging you down.

Another way of asking this, in Darby’s words, is “When did the intensification of vegetables happen?” Intensification means what you’d expect — applying more human resources (energy and technology) to increase the yield of the harvest. That’s important because the more food resources are available, the more “culture” starts to happen, expressed in the archaeological record in such things as firepits, cedar canoes, pottery, totems, carvings, etc., all of which imply more complex social organization (hierarchies, for example, or the development of specialized skills). “Camas represents of the intensification of a vegetable, the use of a certain toolkit (the digging sticks that women used),” Darby told me. And it also meant a semi-sedentary or sedentary lifestyle.

We know the Multnomah who sat were I am now (though their largest village was on what Lewis and Clark called Wapato Island, which we call Sauvie Island today) probably ate camas cakes. But they ate a lot of things. As Darby said, “They were pretty in tune to the environment.” And because they had the vast protein stream of the salmon runs plus game of various sorts, and a wide variety of plants to eat, they developed a large and complex society here.

Darby knows wapato, the plant that grows in shallow lakes and swamps, and was the plant of choice of the Multnomah. Wapato has a primary advantage over camas — it takes about 10 minutes to cook, not two days, and is about equally nutritious, although it must be dried for many days, even weeks, before cooking. (Its primary disadvantage was that harvesting involved wading into cold lake water, dislodging the roots or corms with the toes and then gathering them when they floated to the surface. The Multnomah used small canoes to hold the bulbs.)

Wapato Island was wapato central. As Darby wrote in 1996: “The high estimate of available wapato on Sauvie Island in a typical year is 4,656 metric tons. The low estimate, based on what percentage of tubers float, is 2,313 metric tons. If .633 metric tons of wapato would feed a family of five, the highest annual wapato harvest would feed 36,777 people. If we use the low estimate of 2,313 metric tons, this production would feed 18,270 people.” She goes on to note that Lewis and Clark estimated that the population of the island was around 1800 and 27,000 for the region. Darby told me that she still gathers wapato from time to time herself on Sauvie Island, where it remains abundant.

So, our Multnomah fit into the “complex hunter-gatherers” anthropological category. At what point did they become “complex”? This is a matter of debate, of course. It was highly complex when the first Euro-traders and trappers hit the Northwest, but when did canoe making technology develop to such an extent that early Euro-observers noted that they could see through the sides of the cedar canoes, they were so thin? When did salmon intensification occur? The plank house become common? Trading up and down the coast, the river and into the interior become large-scale? How long, in short, had the Chinook tribes of the lower Columbia been as Lewis and Clark, for example, found them? Was it 8,000-10,000 years ago, right after the glaciers receded? And perhaps when the continent was re-peopled by post-Clovis immigrants?

I am not an anthropologist or an archaeologist; anything I suggest is the purest speculation. I stumble across two articles and try to connect them. And the only way they make sense to me, really, is if I take this leap: When post-Clovis people hit the Columbia, they were already complex hunter-gathers. They were already looking for ways to get the most out of their environment. They already understood wapato and camas, knew about onions and swamp roots, had some fishing and boat-making technology. They found camas and started laying out firepits. They found wapato and started wading. They became more and more accomplished the longer they did it, over the centuries, and that gave them the space to develop cultural meaning in the specifics of what they did and what they found — represented by stories, petroglyphs, crafts, etc. I don’t think you can find a developmental line from pure hunter-gatherer to sedentary farmer here. (If you want a hunter-gatherer — though very highly developed — you are going to have to go to the Great Plains and follow the bison herds.) Humans came here equipped to make sense of what they found, whatever it was.

Let’s say you want to try to eat some wapato — and why wouldn’t you? — without going neck deep in a Sauvie Island lake. Darby suggests heading to an Asian market, Uwajimaya for example, and picking up the Chinese version (which is pretty indistinguishable from those on Sauvie, she says), which is called Chi Goo. Here’s a stir-fry recipe with Chi Goo. And here’s a recipe that also involves fava beans. Personally, I intend to grill a few for 10 or 15 minutes and then see what I’ve got!

Note: The wapato image comes from Flickr.