The food history of Native Americans before the time of Columbus involved ways of life ranging from big-game hunting to (in many cases) sophisticated agriculture. The history of foodways in North America since Columbus has been the story of five centuries of introduced foodstuffs, preparation methods, and equipment that accompanied peoples from Europe, Asia, and Africa, with the food culture of North America having been enriched by each addition.
The Sixteenth Century
Most narrative histories of North America give little attention to the sixteenth century, even though two earthshaking events took place during this time that were to alter the continent’s history fundamentally. One was the demographic collapse of the native populations in the face of Eurasian diseases, such as smallpox. This made possible the second, which was the establishment of European settlements along the eastern seaboard without substantial native resistance.
The Native Americans
The peoples of North America, who numbered perhaps 20 million in 1492, dwelled in societies of many different types, with their cultures shaped by their foodways. Thus, those who depended on hunting and gathering usually lived in roaming bands, whereas maize agriculture normally implied settled life in villages or towns. In the north and west of the continent, the hunter–gatherer lifestyle still predominated in 1492. Game varied from bison on the Great Plains to rats in the deserts of the Southwest. Men hunted and women gathered in these usually nomadic, band-level societies. Some bands, like the Mi'kmaq of Nova Scotia, grew one crop, such as tobacco, and hunted and gathered the remainder of their food supply (Prins 1996). It is important to note that the European picture of Indians as primitives did not allow for such sophistication. The Mi’kmaq knew perfectly well what agriculture was but chose to obtain their food from the wild and to plant only tobacco, which the wild could not provide. Where a staple food could be collected easily, such as in parts of California (where acorns were the daily fare) or in northern Minnesota (where wild rice was the staple), the natives frequently formed settlements (Linsenmeyer 1976).