DIET: THE RELEVANCE OF
THE PAST TO THE PRESENT
WHY STUDY THE HISTORY OF FOOD?
When it comes to eating the contemporary, animal-based, high-fat diet, many people tell me: “That was the way our human and prehuman ancestors ate.” “That was the way people of our tradition or religion ate.” “Our religion explicitly endorses using animals for food.” “The Jews always sacrificed animal and ate them.” “Jesus fed the 5,000 with five loaves and two fishes.” “The Buddha allowed the eating of meat if the animal was not killed specifically for the one who ate it.” “It is part of our fundamental human nature to eat meat.”
To varying extents, and depending on the religion or tradition you come from, these assumptions are false, as I will demonstrate below. But even if these assumptions were true, they must be tempered by the fact that we humans have made profound changes to the physical environment. The human population has grown from a few hundred or a few thousand around 74,000 years ago to ten million around 12,000 years ago (estimates vary) to 6.6 billion in 2007. There will be 9.0 billion of us by the year 2050.
Times have changed in other ways: Until the early 1900s and even up until after the end of World War II, animal-based foods were a smaller part of the typical diet. Before refrigeration, it was not easy to eat milk or meat on a daily basis. Before it became the custom to fatten animals on grain, they were typically only around three percent fat. Hunted animals are very low in fat. Grain-fattened animals are now typically 40 percent fat. Before the rise of the factory farm industry, right after World War II, food animals ate organic grass in open pastures, drank pure water, were largely free of disease. They were sometimes killed in more humane ways. Today’s factory farm animals are fed unhealthy feed, are cancer-ridden, are marbled with fat, endure months of ghoulish captivity, and are killed in terrifying and painful ways.
Moreover, there is a strong tradition that for thousands of years, various groups and individuals have opposed using animals for food. The indigenous Dravidian or Shramana people of India claim they ate a vegetarian diet from time immemorial. There were those in the early literate period of our history who actively opposed the eating of meat. Plato opposed it for health, environmental, and ethical reasons. Others opposed it for ethical or religious reasons, including Pythagoras, the Buddha, and the Hebrew authors who wrote the earliest strata of Genesis and the Talmud. The Brahman Hindus, the Essenes, and the Judeo-Christians, all of which are discussed below, also opposed eating meat.
THE HISTORY OF DIET, A TUNNEL BACK INTO TIME
Foodways is the study of the “cultural, social and economic practices relating to the production and consumption of food.” It includes a historical dimension and is a tool for penetrating back into the past. Dietary patterns change slowly. Invasions bring new food customs. A study of what our ancestors ate can reveal some things not written down, identify connections not otherwise apparent, and sometimes can penetrate much further into the past than written history. Historians learn what people ate through a study of the writings of the oldest cultures. Archaeologists look at buried kitchens, pottery, grind marks on teeth and knives, and garbage dumps—known as middens or bone piles.
THEOLOGY AS A TOOL FOR DOING HISTORICAL ANALYSIS
Religion has often been an oppressive force, and in reaction, some want to avoid the subject entirely. This is a serious intellectual error, for to do so leaves gaping holes in both historical and ethical analysis. I have not hesitated to introduce religious discussion where it is relevant to my inquiry into the history and ethics of diet.
I ask the reader to regard my use of theological analysis as a tool for historical and ethical analysis and not as an attempt to prove the truth of any particular theology.
I should clarify the difference between religion and ethics: The term “religion” derives from the root “to bind.” Religion is what one is bound or required to believe and to perform as ritual in order to be pleasing to god and to those who consider themselves to be god’s authorized representatives on earth. By this standard, I am not religious at all.
Ethics, on the other hand, is how one ought to behave. Religion makes requirements; ethics makes suggestions. Religion is generally inflexible and resistant to change. Ethics is more flexible and continually evolving. Ethics is right behavior as judged by any reasonable standard. Ultimately it derives from aesthetics: What is beautiful is what is right. One can be a deeply ethical person and even a deeply spiritual person without being a religious person, and this is the way I think of myself. I revere, study, and follow various religious leaders of history because of what they said about how we should behave, not because of any religious beliefs they taught.
Until the 19th Century almost everyone was religious, and almost all fields of study were intertwined with religion. There was little discussion of ethics outside the context of religion. Most although not all philosophy was religious. For these reasons almost all history has been religious history and almost all ethical analysis has been religious ethical analysis.
Three hundred years is the blink of an eye in history. Only 300 years ago, we were burning witches in Massachusetts, and one could be jailed in Virginia for being a heretic. Even today, it can sometimes be disadvantageous to one’s career not to appear religious. For example, it would be difficult for a Moslem, Hindu, or Jew to be elected to the United States presidency, and impossible for an admitted atheist.
A meteor struck the earth around 65 million years ago, wiping out most dinosaurs, and making possible the rise of mammals. Our direct post-reptilian, early mammalian ancestor was a shrew-like animal that ate vegetable matter and insects. Primates arose around 40 million years ago, monkeys around 36 million years ago, apes around 25 million years ago, gibbons around 10 million years ago, orangutans around 8 million years ago, gorillas around 7 million years ago, and chimpanzees around 6 million years ago.
Sometime around 6 million years ago, Lucy made her appearance, formally known as Australopithecus afarensis. Lucy is apparently the earliest upright walking hominid from which we humans are descended. Lucy did not use tools or fire. Australopithecus africanus followed around 3 million years ago.
Homo habilis appeared around 2.5 million years ago. Homo habilis is the first species which is agreed to be “man.” Homo habilis people stood upright and had bigger brains than their predecessors. They were called “habilis” because they were “handy.” They were the first of our line to make tools out of stone and bone, including chipped stones for cutting.
Homo habilis families were gatherers who ate fruit, seeds, and insects. Some archaeologists suggest—because they were only three to four feet tall—that they did not hunt large animals but ate insects and scavenged the carcasses killed by other animals, driving away the other animals, and using chipped stones as tools to cut off meat. When they hunted, it was probably for smaller animals. They fished. Analysis of skull remains indicates their brains had a Broca’s area, which indicates they probably had some language abilities. They stood upright, but their arms were long, their legs short, and their toes long and curled, meaning they still spent at least some of their time in the trees. (Robert L. O’Connell, Ride of the Second Horseman, p. 34-38; Marvin Harris, Our Kind, p. 22 f., 44 ff.)
Homo habilis families did not know how to make fire, so they huddled together at nights in the cold and dark. Without fire, they were subject to being attacked by predators. Being cold evokes feelings of boredom and misery. Being cold makes it difficult to laugh and be happy. Homo habilis families endured millions of years of cold nights and winters. They had no light at night other than the moon, and they went to sleep when the sun went down.
THE AQUATIC APE THEORY
Australopithecus afarensis, our ancestor, nicknamed Lucy, was the first ape to stand up, around 6 million years ago. The mystery is why she stood up. Lucy did not stand up so she could walk between the groves of trees on a drying savannah—the “savanna theory” or the “mosaic theory”—because Africa was still covered by almost continuous forests when Lucy appeared. She was walking long before Africa dried up. Nor did Lucy stand up so she could have hands free to use tools, because Lucy did not use tools. Lucy stood up long before her descendant, Homo habilis, later started using tools.
According to the Aquatic Ape Theory, AAT, Lucy moved from the trees to a life that was partly aquatic. The Rift Valley and other areas of Eastern Africa where Lucy lived were inundated at times. Food, both plants and fish, was abundant in such an environment. Standing does have an advantage for a primate spending a significant part of her time wading in deep water.
Why did we become relatively hairless? Relative hairlessness has no advantages on the savannah, where the sun burns exposed skin, but it is advantageous in water, and most mammals which have returned to the water, including some which have largely left the water for the land, are relatively hairless—the whale, dolphin, walrus, hippopotamus, rhinoceros, elephant, pig, and the tapir. Fir covered seals and otters are exceptions to the rule.
Why do we shed tears copiously, unlike all our primate relatives? Weeping is useful in eliminating salt water from the eyes. Why do we urinate more than all other land mammals? Why do we sweat copiously, unlike all our ape relatives? All these are traits which are disadvantageous out on the savannah but advantageous in water.
Why do we have a thick layer of subcutaneous fat, unlike all our primate relatives? All mammals which returned to the water or which spend or spent a lot of time in the water have a thick layer of fat. It insulates them against the relatively cold water and helps them float. Human babies have even more fat that adults, and it helped Lucy’s babies float.
Why are babies born with the instinct to hold their breath under water? Perhaps because Lucy’s children were born under water. Why are we humans the only primates with the ability to control our breathing and hold our breath when we wish? For all other primates, breathing is as automatic as the beating of the heart. Lucy was able to hold her breath so she could dive underwater. This ability consciously to control breathing allowed Lucy’s descendants to evolve speech. We are the only primate with a descended larynx, which is a disadvantage in that we sometimes choke while eating or drinking and cannot easily breathe and drink at the same time. However, a descended larynx made possible the evolution of speech. Note that the larynx is not descended at birth and that infants are more capable than adults of breathing and drinking at the same time and less capable of speech. According to AAT Lucy evolved such traits because they were advantageous to an aquatic ape. Humans retain the adaptations which Lucy evolved.
Why are we relatively hairless compared with all the other hominids? Because a coat of hair would not have been advantageous in water. Why does the light hair coat we do have orient itself in the direction in which water would flow over a swimming body? Because we had an aquatic past.
Why do we, alone among all the hominids, have nostrils that point downwards? This orientation would be advantageous for diving into water. Why do humans, alone among all species have a philtrum, the dimple in the center of the upper lip? In a significant percentage of humans, the two ridges on either side of the philtrum fit neatly into the nostrils when the lips are pursed. This seals the nostrils closed, something that would have been advantageous to an aquatic mammal. We can presume that all of Lucy’s kin could seal their nostrils closed as they swam or dived. As we ceased to spend much time in the water, this ability no longer exerted selective evolutionary pressure, so most of us lost this trait.
The traditional theory that we stood up and walked in order to move between groves of trees on a savanna that was drying up no longer makes sense. Why would early humans have lived on a harsh savanna when there were such better alternatives? Although AAT remains to be proved, it makes much more sense than the savannah theory.
Lakes, rivers, and river deltas were rich in fish and a very easy habitat for Lucy to earn her daily fare. This would tend to negate the naive theory that our distant ancestors were once strict vegetarians. On the other hand, the semi-aquatic proboscis monkey of Borneo is a fruit and leaf eating vegetarian. (www.primate.wisc.edu/pin/factsheets/nasalis_larvatus.html.)
Bear in mind also, that if AAT is true, and even if Lucy were a big fish eater, it does not follow that she stopped eating fruit, nuts, and greens. Lucy continued to live part of her life on land and probably in and under the trees, and water is rich in plants as well as fish. (Elaine Morgan, The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis; Dennis Montgomery, Aquatic Man and African Eve: A Search for the Origins and Evolution of Humankind in Africa, www.Sondela.co.uk.)
I have brought up the Aquatic Ape Theory for two reasons: First, I introduce it in order to give a fuller picture of how our diet evolved. Second, I bring it up to illustrate just how stubborn and conventional academics can be at times. While AAT has not been proven conclusively, it answers more questions and makes much more sense than the orthodox “savanna” or “mosaic” theories.
FIRE AND HEARTH?
Homo ergaster in Africa—probably an ancestor of modern man—along with Ergaster’s descendant Homo erectus in Asia—probably not an ancestor of man—learned how to manage fire around 1.5 million years ago, one of the most significant developments in human history. Early Homo probably only safeguarded and transported naturally occurring fire at first, and probably only later, around 400,000 years ago, learned how to make fire. These prehuman families had light and warmth. At night they sat around campfires in the open or in a cave or other shelter. They were able to leave a fire burning and, for the first time, sleep at night in complete security, for all their predators feared fire. We became fearless of other animals. Having control of fire, we developed the art of cooking. Homo ergaster people were of almost our stature and brain size.
Homo sapiens emerged around 300,000 years ago, and the Homo sapiens we know as Neanderthal man emerged around 75,000 years ago. Neanderthal people had bigger brains than we have today and were taller and heavier. They were the first humans to bury their dead, and so we presume they had ideas about life after death and thus were religious. (John Pfeiffer, The Emergence of Society, p. 54.)
POPULATION CRASH—74,000 YEARS AGO
A super volcano on Sumatra exploded around 74,000 years ago, creating a caldera known today as Lake Toba, pumping 100,000 times as much ash and dust into the atmosphere as the Mount St. Helens eruption of 1980, and lowering world temperatures around 5 degrees Centigrade. Earth entered one of its coldest and driest Ice Ages. There was a great die off of the human population, reducing our numbers to perhaps a few thousand or even a few hundred. Research into the evolution of mitochondrial DNA, which is passed along only from mother to child, and which mutates at a steady rate, along with research into evolution of the “Y” chromosome, which is passed along predominantly from father to child, indicates that all of us are descended from a handful of women around 74,000 years ago. (A small part of the “Y” chromosome does conjugate.) World population of humans could have been quite large before this cataclysm, however, our species started over again from nearly zero at that point.
The generally accepted theory is that Homo sapiens came out of Africa around 75,000 years ago, migrated from Africa, and replaced all human species which had previous left Africa. Cro-Magnon people arrived in Europe around 45,000 years ago. They either displaced the Neanderthal people, or the Neanderthals simply died out. There was no interbreeding between the two subspecies. (Nicholas Wade, “Neanderthal DNA Sheds New Light on Human Origins,” New York Times, July 11, 1997, p. 1.) However, this is disputed. Dressed in today’s clothes, either Neanderthal or Cro-Magnon would be able to blend in on today’s streets. These almost-modern humans invented the bow and arrow around 30,000 years ago. Cave paintings in what is now Spain and France date from around 15,000 years ago.
When early humans hunted, they occasional had feasts that included meat, but for the most part they prospered on a diet of seeds, fruit, nuts, roots, herbs, and insects. I am talking about what humans in tropical and temperate areas ate, not what dwellers in the Arctic ate. We can study them by digging through their dumps, referred to by anthropologists as bone piles or middens, by looking at their teeth, which show the wear marks that come from eating gritty, raw vegetables, and by looking at modern day gather-hunter societies such as the !Kung San Bushmen of southern Africa.
Generally we read of pre-agricultural humans being hunter-gatherers. It is more appropriate to call them gatherer-hunters. One scholar estimates that 75 to 80 percent of their diet was plant-based, which is true of the !Kung today. Those who gathered and hunted lived long lives—once they had survived childhood diseases. They were healthier and worked fewer hours to obtain food and shelter than we do now. Today’s Bushmen work only a few hours each day, and even in times of drought have plenty to eat.
Thomas Hobbes said Stone Age humans lived lives that were “short, nasty and brutish.” He could not have been more wrong. Sahlins refers to this era as the “original affluent society.” Perhaps vague memories of the gatherer-hunter era were the source of legends about the Garden of Eden, Genesis, and the Golden Age of Pythagoras and Plato. (Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics, p. 1; Robert L. O’Connell, Ride of the Second Horsemen, p. 25 ff.; Marvin Harris, Cannibals and Kings, p. 15 ff.; Mark Nathan Cohen, Health and the Rise of Civilization, cited by Jim Mason, An Unnatural Order, p. 58 ff.)
THE FIRST AGRICULTURE—GROWING TREES
Most think of growing grains when they think of the first agriculture. However, Henry Bailey Stevens (The Recovery of Culture, 1949) believed we farmed trees long before we farmed anything else. He points out that for the last 60 million years, primates, which includes anthropoids (humans, gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans) and prosimians (such as lemurs), lived most of their time in the trees, eating fruit and nuts. As we descended to the ground, we would have been unlikely to forget this source of food. Perhaps this is why the tree or grove or ba’al was worshiped or was the symbol or place of worship. (Sir James Frances, The Golden Bough.)
While we were in the trees, hard seeds were just things to toss aside and let drop to the ground. But once we descended to the ground, we learned that seeds could be planted and grow into new trees. Edible seeds could be stored for later consumption. Hand axes go back a half million years, and we may have been farming trees for that long. No plowing was necessary, just planting seeds, and maybe a little weeding and mulching. There are wild strawberries, raspberries, and breadfruit, but they are small and tasteless. We saved and crossed cultivars, producing nuts and fruits which were bigger and tastier. Some species became dependent on us for propagation: Banana and pineapple no longer seed themselves naturally.
The image of Homo Erectus and Homo Sapiens surviving by spearing large animals is so common because most anthropologists have been from northern Europe. However, most of primate, anthropoid, and human evolution took place in Africa. Modern humans moved out of Africa and into the Middle East and southern Asia, hugging southern coastlines, around 74,000 years ago. They could have survived in such tropical and temperate regions on fruits, nuts, and root crops. They stayed closed to the sea and would have eaten fish, not mastodons. Our Cro-Magnon ancestors didn’t even enter Europe until around 45,000 years ago; humans who had been in Europe and Asia before the Toba eruption died out. Humans didn’t necessarily have to go out and spear large animals for dinner until one branch of our family which happened to be in Europe got trapped there during the last Ice Age.
What did we farm? All the fruits we eat today. We farmed nut trees, including acorns, pecans, walnuts, and chestnuts. Europeans and North American Indians used acorns and chestnuts as flour to make bread. American Indians—from California, through the Great Basin, and into Texas—harvested vast amounts of piñon tree nuts, commonly known as pine nuts. Unfortunately, cattle ranchers believed the piñon interfered with grazing and cut down and burned as many as they could, which was an environmental disaster for the arid West. The piñon can produce several hundred times as much food and profit per acre as dry land cattle ranching. (Henry Bailey Stevens, Charles Francis Saunders, Useful Wild Plants Of The United States And Canada,1920. http://www.swsbm.com/ManualsOther/UsefulPlants/Useful_Plants.html.)
AN OVERVIEW OF AGES, EPOCHS, AND IMPORTANT EVENTS
Written history begins with Summer and Egypt. However, history in a broader sense is much older. I will give you a brief orientation:
The epochs—Pleistocene and Holocene—are geological. The Ice Ages should be called Ice Epochs. The ages—Stone, Copper, Bronze, Iron—are anthropological.
The last Ice Age Epoch began around 2.5 million years ago. It is called the Pleistocene. At about the same time the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age (an anthropological term) was beginning, and Homo Habilis began breaking flint to make crude hand-held cutting stones. The bow and arrow and stone axes appeared around 30,000 years ago, which made it possible for humans to hunt large animals.
Things were at their coldest around 70,000 years ago, probably because of the Toba eruption, warmed up somewhat starting around 60,000 years ago but got cold again around 25,000 years ago. The last Ice Age epoch began to end rapidly around 14,500 years ago, and by 13,500 years ago, temperatures were as warm as today. There was one more cold spell, but by 11,500 years ago or 9500 B.C.E. temperatures were much like those of today. It took several thousand years for glaciers to melt and sea levels to rise.
The end of the last Ice Age Epoch marks the end of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age and the beginning of the Neolithic or New Stone Age. The Pleistocene or Ice Age Epoch was ending and the Holocene Epoch was beginning—our time. Modern humans developed more advanced, polished stone tools and expanded their experiments in growing plants and domesticating animals. There was a pluvial period at the end of the last Ice Age, an extremely rainy time when glaciers melted and sea levels rose around 400 feet to current levels, dramatically reducing the area of coastal plains. This forced ancient humans to leave old coastal lowlands and retreat to higher coastal areas where most of us live today. The Sahara, Arabia, and other deserts in the temperate zone were lush and heavily populated, but dried out after 5000 B.C.E. (www.esd.ornl.gov/projects/qen/nerc130k.html.)
Horses were broken for riding around 5500 B.C.E., and the wheel was invented around 3300 B.C.E., making wagons and chariots possible. The plow was invented around the same time. The Bronze Age began around 3000 B.C.E. in the Caucasus and eastern Europe with the making of copper and then copper-arsenic and copper-tin tools and weapons. The Iron Age began in eastern Europe and the Near East around 1000 B.C.E. The dividing line between the ages is not fixed, because tools and metals were developed at different times in different places.
THE FIRST INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION—GROWING GRAIN
The gatherer-hunter Natufians lived in what today is Lebanon and Israel. They gathered a wide variety of fruits, nuts, herbs, and roots. They hunted wild gazelle, but they did not herd animals and at first they did not cultivate the plants they gathered. Around 12,500 years ago, they began to harvest wild grain. Over the next 2,000 years they gradually learned to weed out competing plants. They learned to save some of the grain and spread it in favorable locations in the Spring.
Before cultivation, the grain had a loose head, and seeds fell out easily, which made survival of that species more likely. However, as the Natufians took over the process of harvesting, saving, and planting seed grain, it was the grain that had the firmest head that was the easiest for them to harvest and save and replant. This trait was thus reinforced, and so grain with the rigid head came to predominate. Such grains became dependent on humans for their propagation and survival. With the crossing of various strains, there were complex genetic changes—from 14 to 28 to 42 chromosomes—and the result was the wheat we know today. The Natufians came to depend on the wheat, and the wheat came to depend on the Natufians.
By 10,000 years ago, Natufians had established one of the world’s very oldest cities, Jericho, and in its ruins is found grain with a firm head. During this time they continued to hunt gazelle, but they did not herd animals or keep them in barnyards. We know this because there are no bones of domesticated animals in their bone piles. All the bones found are those of wild animals such as gazelle. Gazelle are best left in a semi-wild state, because male gazelles resist domestication and will gore humans. The Natufians were plant agriculturalists but not animal agriculturalists. In other areas, however, cattle were domesticated and milked as early as 11,000 years ago.
By not herding animals, the Natufians and other pre-herding cultures interfered far less with the natural ecology than the herding cultures which would soon spread throughout the world.
More food could be grown in agricultural settlements, and so more children survived and grew up and wandered off to establish new agricultural settlements. The countryside began to fill up. The next stage in population explosion was under way. Game animals were exterminated in many farming areas. Hunters had to travel further from cultivated areas to do their hunting. In many areas hunting ceased altogether. (Robert L. O’Connell, Ride of the Second Horseman, p. 55-58; “Livestock and Poultry Farming,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1979 ed., p. 1279 ff.)
Jericho was atypical in that it had 12-foot high walls around it as early as 10,000 years ago. Apparently it had been attacked by someone. However, “… there is no evidence of any other fortified sites in the Near East, at this time or thereafter, until around 5500 B.C.E. Nor would there be other clear signs of organized violence much before this date.” (Robert L. O’Connell, Ride of the Second Horseman, p. 60.)
The rise of animal husbandry was a natural outgrowth of plant husbandry, because the grain the Natufians tended attracted sheep, goats, and pigs. The bones of wild animals such as gazelle are found in the lowest strata, with the bones of domesticated animals in upper and more recent strata. Humans and animals competed for the grain. Sometimes the humans got there first and harvested most of it. The stubble that was left was still enough to attract grazing animals. Gradually, people learned to build fences and to protect, feed, milk, shear, and eat domesticated animals. Pigs served a sanitary and disease control function by eating every piece of feces they could find. Dogs, domesticated around 12,000 years ago, provided protection for humans and other animals and assisted in hunting and herding. (Marvin Harris, Cannibals and Kings, p. 29; Robert L. O’Connell, Ride of the Second Horseman, p. 63.)
Some archaeologists suggest that humans were animal agriculturalists before they were plant agriculturalists, that they herded animals or at least followed, managed, milked, and harvested animals before they settled down and cultivated fields. Perhaps the humans followed the animals to the wild stands of grain and in a way were led to get involved in plant agriculture by the animals.
Turning briefly to Central America, we find a different sequence of events: There the effects of the change in the climate after the end of the last Ice Age, along with over-hunting by humans combined to exterminate the large animals that had survived in the Eastern Hemisphere. There were no horses, cattle, or pigs in the Western Hemisphere. Mountain sheep and goats were far from civilization centers and were not domesticated in pre-Columbian times. Thus, there were no large, stubble-eating species that crops would attract. There were deer and antelope, and in North America there were bison, but they were impossible to domesticate. So in Central America people cultivated food crops for thousands of years before they built cities, all the while staying on the move to hunt small animals and forage for edible plants. In the Old World, plant and animal agriculture arose concurrently with the rise of cities, whereas in the New World, there was no animal agriculture, and plant agriculture long preceded the rise of cities.
Eventually, Central Americans domesticated and ate turkeys and dogs, but these animals do not thrive on stubble as do cattle, sheep, and goats. Some Central American tribes descended into cannibalism on a massive scale, slaughtering thousands of captured foreigners daily. Anthropologists speculate this resulted from the lack of large animals and the resulting scarcity of meat. (Marvin Harris, Cannibals and Kings, p. 36-41.) Perhaps they craved essential fatty acids and were unaware of flax, hemp, chia, or kukui as alternative sources. One wonders why fish would not have sufficed.
North American Indians cultivated a wide range of plant crops, including corn, squash, and beans, referred to as the “three sisters.” They dried large quantities of berries for winter consumption. They collected and stored nuts in the same way. They too were gatherer-hunters, not hunter-gatherers. Later they were farmer-hunters, but never herders. When invading pioneers passed through their territory, Indians were infuriated that white men would be so crude as to allow their cattle and oxen to trample Indian crops.
In South America the Inca and their ancestors domesticated the llama, vicuña, and the alpaca, relatives of the camel, and used them for their wool and as food. With the domestication of these animals, the Inca replaced human sacrifice with animal sacrifice. However, llamas and their kin could not be milked, and they were too small to carry big loads. They were of no use as plow animals or for warfare. Until the coming of the Spanish, no indigenous pastoral (herder) culture developed in the Americas that was comparable to the cattle culture of the Eastern Hemisphere. The Inca and their ancestors also domesticated and ate guinea pigs,—the cuy, plural cuyes—keeping them in their homes as scavengers. The Incas were excellent plant agriculturalists, growing quinoa, amaranth, squash, peppers, corn, sweet potatoes, and many varieties of potatoes. The wheel was known to pre-Columbian Indians in South America but used only in toys. (Marvin Harris, Our Kind, p. 488 ff.; Cannibals and Kings, p. 187 ff.; Jim Mason, A Unnatural Order, p. 159; John E. Pfeiffer, The Emergence of Society, p. 382 ff.)