Seasonality and Food in the Narragansett Bay

Essay by Rebecca Marisseau, Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at Brown University

What did early Native Americans who lived at Greenwich Cove in Narragansett Bay eat? To find out, archaeologists studied what they call their [simple_tooltip content=’trash pits’]middens[/simple_tooltip], or trash pits. Archaeologists study ancient middens because they often contain the traces of meals, just like our daily trash. For example, a person might have eaten the meat from an animal but discarded the bones, or they might have eaten the inside of a nut but left behind its shell. Archaeologists can study remains like bones and shells to understand the [simple_tooltip content=’the kinds of food that are usually eaten by a person or group’]diets[/simple_tooltip] of early people.

A shell midden from an archaeological site in Rhode Island. This is a profile of the midden. This means archaeologists cut the midden in half by excavating down the middle to be able to see what it looks like from the side and measure its depth. Photo courtesy of the Public Archaeology Laboratory, Inc.

At the Greenwich Cove site, archaeologists found seashell middens, which means that early Native Americans ate shellfish from the sea, including quahogs, soft-shelled clams, bay scallops, and mussels.1David J. Bernstein, Prehistoric Subsistence on the Southern New England Coast: The Record from Narragansett Bay (San Diego: Academic Press, Inc., 1993), 58-64. They also found the remains of white-tailed deer and of a bird called a thick-billed murre.2Ibid., 143. Archaeologists discovered some evidence that people ate wild plant foods, including hickory, acorn, and hazelnut.3Ibid., 148. Archaeologists have not uncovered evidence that people at the site ate squash, beans, or corn.4Paul A. Robinson, “A Narragansett History from 1000 B.P. to the Present,” in Enduring Traditions: The Native Peoples of New England, ed. Laurie Weinstein (Westport, Connecticut: Bergin & Garvey, 1994), 81. The absence of these foods from the material record contradicts the oral history of people who claim descent from the original inhabitants of Narragansett Bay.5Ibid. Descendants assert that corn was a staple of the early Native American diet in this area centuries before European contact. The fact that no archaeological evidence of corn has been found does not mean that the oral tradition is wrong, but it does raise the possibility that there are some missing links in the material record. Evidence of corn may have decayed, or perhaps it exists and has simply not yet been discovered.

Luckily, archaeologists are able to closely examine some of the animal remains to know what time of year people ate them. Archaeologists are interested in this evidence because it can help us know about the [simple_tooltip content=’movement’]mobility[/simple_tooltip], or movement, of ancient peoples. If Native American groups ate food at one place during every season of the year, then it is likely that they lived there all year long, while if there are times of the year when no food was consumed at the site, then the groups might have moved to different places according to the seasons.

How can archaeologists know what time of year something was eaten? Archaeologists must understand the bodies of animals in order to “read” their remains about the time of year of death. Take the quahog, for instance. The shell of the quahog is a useful tool for archaeologists because the shell tells the animal’s life history, including the time of year that it died.6Bernstein, Prehistoric Subsistence on the Southern New England Coast: The Record from Narragansett Bay, 127. As quahogs grow, their shells gain new layers that can be seen under a microscope. In the warmer months, the quahog shell grows fast and forms a large, [simple_tooltip content=’solid, cannot be seen-through’]opaque[/simple_tooltip] layer, but in the colder months, the shell grows slow and forms a small, [simple_tooltip content=’somewhat see-through’]translucent[/simple_tooltip] layer.7Ibid., 128. At least, this is the pattern seen in quahogs from Narragansett Bay. This pattern is reversed in southern latitudes (like around coastal Georgia) where fast growth typically occurs during the colder months of the year. If the last layer on the shell is a small, translucent layer, then the archaeologist knows that the quahog must have died in the colder months, which means that a person harvested and ate it in the winter. Based on quahog shells found at the Greenwich Cove site, we know that Native Americans who lived there between 1000 AD and European contact harvested quahogs in the summer, fall, and winter (the most intense harvest was between October and November), but did not harvest many quahogs in the spring.8Ibid., 143.

Profile image of another type of midden. Decomposed plant and animal remains stain the soil. The outline of the staining is pit-shaped. You can see that once the archaeologist found the top of the pit, they decided to cut it in half in order to see its profile. Photo courtesy of the Public Archaeology Laboratory

Archaeologists can also study deer teeth that they find in middens to learn about when people hunted and ate deer. Similar to quahog shells, deer teeth gain new layers each year, and the type of growth on the outside layer of the tooth tells archaeologists what season it was hunted.9Ibid, 137 Deer teeth found at the Greenwich cove site reveal that the people here had two seasons of deer hunting: one from February to June and the other from October to January.

The study of food remains at Greenwich Cove has changed the way that some archaeologists think about the movement of early Native Americans in Rhode Island. For a long time, archaeologists and historians thought that people did not live year-round on the Rhode Island coast, but rather only lived there in the warm months. This idea came from Roger Williams, who wrote in the 1600s that Native Americans moved away from the coast in the winter, a process he described as the “great remove” in the cold months to the “thick warme vallies.”10Ibid., 146. However, some archaeologists who have studied Greenwich Cove argue that for the last 2000 years of prehistory, earlier Native Americans settled along the coast almost year round.11Ibid., 143. There is evidence to support this argument because archaeologists found food remains there from every season of the year, meaning that people lived and ate in the same place nearly all year long. This is an example of why it is useful to look at more than one source of information while studying the past; sometimes, the material or archaeological record might present a different picture from what is written down.  Archaeologists will continue to debate the seasonal mobility of early Native peoples until more evidence comes to light.

Terms:

Midden: a trash pit

Diet: the kinds of food that are usually eaten by a person or group

Mobility: movement

Opaque: solid, cannot be seen-through

Translucent: somewhat see-through

Questions:

Why do archaeologists like to study ancient middens, or trash pits?

What are some of the kinds of foods that the early Native Americans who lived in Narragansett Bay ate?

Why are archaeologists interested in the season when people ate food?

In 1000 years, what do you think archaeologists would discover about you and your family if they studied your trash?

  • 1
    David J. Bernstein, Prehistoric Subsistence on the Southern New England Coast: The Record from Narragansett Bay (San Diego: Academic Press, Inc., 1993), 58-64.
  • 2
    Ibid., 143.
  • 3
    Ibid., 148.
  • 4
    Paul A. Robinson, “A Narragansett History from 1000 B.P. to the Present,” in Enduring Traditions: The Native Peoples of New England, ed. Laurie Weinstein (Westport, Connecticut: Bergin & Garvey, 1994), 81.
  • 5
    Ibid.
  • 6
    Bernstein, Prehistoric Subsistence on the Southern New England Coast: The Record from Narragansett Bay, 127.
  • 7
    Ibid., 128. At least, this is the pattern seen in quahogs from Narragansett Bay. This pattern is reversed in southern latitudes (like around coastal Georgia) where fast growth typically occurs during the colder months of the year.
  • 8
    Ibid., 143.
  • 9
    Ibid, 137
  • 10
    Ibid., 146.
  • 11
    Ibid., 143.