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Some liked it hot.

Some liked it hot

Open a textbook describing the desert tribes of North America's Great Basin, and you're likely to get a biased view. Researchers have carefully documented the plants and animals consumed by inhabitants of the Basin's colder, more populous desert areas, but have largely ignored how the other third of the Basin po;ulation found sustenance in a hotter, harsher environment.

Whereas her predecessors focused on natives in the more mountainous regions of Utah, norhtern Nevada, western Wyoming, southern Idaho and southeastern Oregon, Catherine S. Fowler spent three decades studying hot-desert cultures: the Southern Paiute tribes in southern Nevada and California, and the Death Valley Shoshone tribe in California.

Fowler, an ethnologist with the University of Nevada in Reno, says the fruits of her labor are twofold. In addition to providing the first detailed report on nutrition among the Basin natives of the hot desert, the study led her to meet Isabel Kelly, an arcaeologist and ethnologist who had spent a year with the Southern Paiutes in the early 1930s. Kelly, who died in the early 1980s, never published her findings.

Sixty years ago, only a few Southern Paiutes spoke English, and several of these individuals served as Kelly's interpreters during their youth. Decades later, as aging adults, some of the former interpreters joined Fowler's study. By combining her findings with Kelly's, Fowler believes she has traced the group's food-gathering habits as far back as the 1830s. Her findings offer a unique look at how these native Americans once turned to the hot desert for nourishment.

Yucca and agave served as important staples, Fowler says. The Paiutes either peeled or pit-roasted the base of the agave plant and then pounded it into meal, she says. Routine fare also included mesquite beans and screbeans, and in some areas these staples replaced acorns and pinyon nuts -- prime food sources for cold-desert residents.

But in addition to harvesting the desert's natural bounty, the tribes cultivated tepary beans and other vegetables, which probably provided a safety net in lean times, Fowler says. Kelly found gardens at 70 percent of the sites she visited.

While people in the more mountainous, colder desert regions typically enjoyed a wider selection of foods, Fowler says the findings show how native Americans could survive -- and even thrive -- in a more severe environment. She plans to publish Kelly's notes as part of a monograph on the Great Basin.
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Title Annotation:research on food of the Indian peoples of North America's Great Basin
Author:Cowen, Ron
Publication:Science News
Date:Mar 30, 1991
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