Balanophagy for Beginners

‘Balanophagy is the practice of eating acorns. Acorns are more than just food for birds, squirrels, and hogs. They have been used for food by millions of humans over the ages. Acorns compare favorably in nutrition with common grains, though acorns contain more fat. (That was not a bad thing during most of human history.) If you have any ancestry among people of the northern hemisphere, there is a reasonable chance that you have some ancestors who ate acorns.’ – Kelli Kallenborn

‘The oak tree, today revered primarily for its beauty, may once have been the central food bearer around which entire societies (balanocultures) built their diet and lifestyle. Recent evidence shows that tools used for grinding and pounding food existed long before corn became popular and may have been used to process acorns into meal. Factors such as the domestication of goats and the burning of oaks for fuel may have contributed to the movement away from balanoculture. By the end of this century severe crises in agriculture world-wide may make a return to some modified form of balanoculture a viable alternative.’ – David Bainbridge (apparent coiner of the term)

So, Bill, you say that the European ‘Dark Ages were ages of forest culture'; that

[…] the trees were highly valued, highly selected, had high yields. You paid for the use of land based on the richness of the tree crop. From the forest, they derived all their bread, all their butter. The butter was made out of beechnuts — highly selected beechnuts. There are still casks and casks of beechnut butter in Europe, buried in the peat, still in good condition. All the bread and cakes in Tuscany and Sardinia and a few other places are still made from chestnuts. Corsican muffins are made of chestnuts, not wheat flour. All the bread was made from the trees, and all the butter was made from the trees. There are your basics.

In your American southwest, the pinion pine nut is a staple Indian food. In one day a family of six can gather thirty bushels of pine nuts, and that’s a year’s supply. In South America, six trees support a family of Indians. Those great supports are a source of staple food. One white oak, in its year, will provide staple food for about six families. A good old American chestnut — how many pounds did we get off one of those trees? At least four or five hundred pounds. There’s a couple of families’ food for a year, with no hacking and digging and sowing and reaping and threshing. Just dash out in autumn, gather the nuts and stack them away. […]

When the forests were managed for their yield and their food equivalence, they were highly managed. Now there are only a few remnants of this in the world, in Portugal, and southern France. In Portugal, you can still find highly selected, highly managed oak trees, often grafted, and olives. The pigs and the goats and the people live together in a very simple little 4,000 yard area in which nobody is racking around with plows. In that economic situation, there is no need for an industrial revolution.

A few of these tree ecologies still remain up on steep mountain slopes, where it has been difficult to get up there to cut the trees down for boat building and industrial uses. The whole of Europe, Poland, and the northern areas once were managed for a tree crop, and the forest supplied all the needs of the people. (from Bill Mollison’s design course, ‘Forests in Permaculture’)

This sounds pretty good to me – something akin to the ‘better reasons’ for preserving woodland I started looking for last December. What state do we find Quercus Robur, the mighty Pedunculate or English Oak – our national emblem – today in ‘the most wooded county in England’ (Surrey – 22.4% coverage, compared to a 11.8% UK average, 8.4% for England and 14.1% for the South East)?

Mostly I find stand-alone specimens like this glorious creature (who I believe substantially outdates the ‘development’ now grown around him) in agricultural fields, parks, suburban street corners, some gardens. I don’t know that many places where they’ve been allowed to get together and form communities like they used to. A few golf courses, perhaps, and some patches here & there in the parks and on downland. Beech tends to predominate nowadays near where I live, although I’m told we used to have much more Oak woodland before the ship-builders and iron-smelting industrialists got their way. (Interestingly, current expert opinion suggests that actually Small-Leaved Lime was the most common tree in the Southern Lowland areas of the prehistoric, post-ice-age ‘Wildwood’ of the British Isles, while the big Oak forests lay to the West and to the North.) But now we don’t use them for anything. We get timber mostly from overseas sources, and even then we rarely use it for building, fuel, toolmaking or any other of the myriad uses which the forest was once put to. So the survivors of centuries of over-exploitation are allowed breathe a sigh of relief, look pretty, grow massive and provide for the 400+ associated species of insect, bird and mammal which we’re willing to tolerate. And yet, perhaps I’m just projecting my own insecurity, but to me they look slightly uneasy – “If the humans aren’t getting anything from us why would they think twice about chopping us down on the flimsiest of pretexts and, especially when times get hard, for the most marginal short-term gain?” I think we need to use – in fact depend on – the trees in order to really safeguard their future. Probably ours too.

Since we’re talking about Balanophagy  – ‘a compound formed from the Greek roots βάλανος (bálanos = acorn) and φαγεῖν (phageîn, infinitive of ἔφαγον, used as 2nd aorist of ἐσθίω, meaning to eat’ (source) – let’s look at some of the edible uses of the the Oak tree’s fruit, the humble acorn.

Here’s William Cobbett writing in the early 19th century about one form of Balanophagy previously widespread among European peasantry – processing acorns and other woodland nut-masts through pigs:

The only good purpose that these forests answer is that of furnishing a place of being to labourers’ families on their skirts; and here their cottages are very neat, and the people look hearty and well, just as they do round the forests in Hampshire. Every cottage has a pig or two. These graze in the forest, and, in the fall, eat acorns and beech-nuts and the seed of the ash; for these last, as well as the others, are very full of oil, and a pig that is put to his shifts will pick the seed very nicely out from the husks. Some of these foresters keep cows, and all of them have bits of ground, cribbed, of course, at different times, from the forest: and to what better use can the ground be put? (source – ‘Rural Ride’, Forest of Dean nr. Bollitree, Nov. 14th, cited in Roger Deakin’s Wildwood, p.131)

A more intensive version of this still survives in the Portuguese practice of montado (aka dehesa in Spain) whereby:

Oak tree forests were gradually thinned out and the land was ploughed to provide room for livestock grazing. The oak trees that remained grew larger and produced more acorns, which in turn provided additional food for the grazing animals. To further enhance acorn production, the trees were periodically pruned, and the trimmings were then used as fuel or fodder for the animals. (link)

This works out better for the land than conventional agriculture because the trees ‘protect against soil erosion by decreasing the amount of water runoff as they absorb rainfall; their roots reach nutrients deep in the soil and bring them up closer to the surface, making them accessible to other vegetation; and they also prevent desertification by enhancing the structural complexity of the landscape’ while at the same time maintaining habitat for wildlife. The pigs also presumably get a taste of their wild ancestry which they seem to like, judging by average weight gains of 30kg after living with the trees for one season between October and January.

La Dehesa

Did the peasants ever cut out the middle man, as it were, and eat the acorns directly themselves? In ‘An Iberian perspective on Upper Paleolithic plant consumption‘ Jonathan A. Haws writes:

In his book, “Prehistoric Europe: The Economic Basis” (1952), Grahame Clark discussed prehistoric acorn consumption in the Mediterranean. Citing the geographer, Strabo, he noted the Lusitanians, in what is now Portugal, were observed to eat bread made of ground acorns for three-quarters of the year. Although in later times acorn flour was milled and made into “famine breads” when grains were scarce, many people appear to have subsisted off acorns for centuries (Jørgensen, 1977). Numerous citations from classical sources suggest acorns were viewed as the basis for all of civilization (Clark, 1952; Mason, 1995; Vencl, 1996; Sieso and Gómez, 2002). In fact, the genus name  “Quercus” is derived from two Celtic words meaning “beautiful tree” suggesting its importance in early times (Sánchez Arroyo, 1999). Acorn-eating, or balanophagy, survives today in Iberia where sweets are made from acorns. In Algarve, people eat raw acorns from the evergreen oaks. On Sardinia, local people still gather acorns and process them using traditional methods. Acorns are mixed with a special iron-rich clay and boiled to absorb the tannins (Johns, 1990). In the western Rif of Morocco, acorns are eaten raw, toasted, soaked in water or sun-dried (Peña, 2000). (pp.55-6)

I find it intriguing to speculate that montado/dehesa practices may have hung over from the subsistence economies of earlier cultures. Did the new farmers learn the techniques from the hunter-gatherer peoples they supplanted (viz. Indians teaching the first European colonists how to grow corn)? Or perhaps these were the same people, doing their best to hang on to the proven old ways while the Neolithic revolution swept through them? Haws lays out some tantalising possible scenarios of earlier practices:

Hunter-gatherers incorporating simple forest management techniques such as pruning, burning or possibly intentional planting could have created improved foraging areas for wild boar, deer, chamois and even wild aurochs. Spring pruning in the dehesa /montado is the primary method for increasing acorn yields per tree however this would be difficult if not impossible to detect archaeologically. There is evidence of prehistoric fire management of European woodlands by people during the Mesolithic (Mellars, 1976; Mason, 2000). Much of this burning has been perceived as a means of encouraging new growth for browse to support deer and other ungulates. However, as Mason (2000) points out, burning can encourage the proliferation of desirable forest species for human subsistence. In this case, fire may have been used as a tool to manage oaks or other fruit / nut-bearing vegetation. Fire may permit more light to reach the crown thus increasing acorn yield for individual trees (Mason, 2000). Comparisons between Holm oaks in managed stands and natural forests showed that unmanaged trees are generally shorter, found closer together and have smaller canopies (Pulidoet al., 2001). (pp.58-9)

Other extant Balanocultures show similar evidence of burning, pruning and other extensive management to maximise acorn production. In her 2005 book, Tending the Wild, Kat Anderson builds a picture of techniques used by Indians in California, some still within living memory. Acorns provided a ‘principle staple’ for the people there, with records of charred shell remains going back at least 10,000 years (p.287). This sounds like fun:

Individuals of many tribes harvested acorns by climbing the trees and cutting the limbs, a process Galen Clark recorded among the Yosemite Miwok: “In order to get the necessary supply [of acorns] early in the season, before ripe enough to fall, the ends of the branches of the oak trees were pruned off to get the acorns, thus keeping the branches well cut back and not subject to being broken down by heavy snows in the winter and the trees badly disfigured, as is the case since the practice has been stopped.” The Mono elder Lydia Beecher remembered the former pruning of oaks: “My grandpa Jack Littlefield would climb black oak trees and cut the branches off—just the tips so that many more acorns would grow the next year” (p.139)

As with practically all the other plant communities they ‘tended’, the Indians used fire to manage Oak trees. Apparently this served various purposes such as: helping to facilitate gathering, suppressing pests and diseases, encouraging the growth of long, flexible new shoots (useful for basketry etc.), keeping forest debris levels down so fires wouldn’t rage out of control, and fostering the growth of edible grasses, herbs and mushrooms between the trees (pp.288-9). As ‘Klamath River Jack from Del Norte County’ put it:

Fire burn up old acorn that fall on ground. Old acorn on ground have lots of worm; no burn old acorn, no burn old bark, old leaves, bugs and worms come more every year…. Indian burn every year just same, so keep all ground clean, no bark, no dead leaf, no old wood on ground, no old wood on brush, so no bug can stay to eat leaf and no worm can stay to eat berry and acorn. Not much on ground to make hot fire so never hurt big trees, where fire burn. (p.146)

As late as 1991 ‘Rosalie Bethel, Nork Fork Mono’ could still recall her elder’s stories from the 1800s:

Burning was in the fall of the year when the plants were all dried up when it was going to rain. They’d burn areas when they could see it’s in need. If the brush was too high and too brushy it gets out of control. If the shrubs got two to four feet in height it would be time to burn. They’d burn every two years. Both men and women would set the fires. The flames wouldn’t get very high. It wouldn’t burn the trees, only the shrubs. (p.177)

The resulting ‘Oak Savanna‘ habitats look strikingly similar to the Iberian landscapes pictured above, and were often compared to parkland by early European observers (p.175):

http://oaksavannas.org/photos/savanna-unit12b-0312.jpg

As well as the fact that, ‘Open country is much easier to travel in than country with thick underbrush; it is easier to find game and harder for enemies to sneak up on the camp’ (p.288), fire management would only leave the oldest, most productive trees standing and leave enough space for rounded canopies with more access to the sun (p.179). As I’ve observed over here when on the hunt for acorns and beechnuts, trees in the middle of woodland tend not to crop very heavily, whereas those in clearings, on edges or out on their own are much more likely to carpet the ground with large, sound nuts. Even on individual trees I’ve noticed that the best pickings are usually found on the South-facing (or open-canopy) side. This makes sense from the tree’s point of view too: What’s the point of dropping seeds in the middle of a shady wood? You’re far more likely to succeed in propagating your kind on the edge of the forest or where a fallen tree opens a clearing, allowing more sun in to increase the chances of germination and/or swift, healthy growth.

Unfortunately (for me) there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of evidence for acorn consumption in pre-agricultural Northern Europe. The abstract of the Mason paper, ‘Fire and Mesolithic subsistence — managing oaks for acorns in northwest Europe?‘ cited by Haws above (anyone got access to the full article?), particularly the number of question marks in the subheadings, suggests a fair amount of conjecture, though the attempt to ‘to extend and apply the model for Mesolithic burning suggested by Moore (in 1996) to two pollen and microcharcoal sequences from Mesolithic Britain’ sounds fascinating. Haws notes:

In the Near East there is solid evidence that acorns were used as food as early as 19,000 bp at Ohalo II (Kislevet al ., 1992). At La Sarga, an Epipaleolithic site in València, a painted rock art scene shows several figures collecting acorns as they fall from the tree (Fortea and Aura, 1987). However, inadequate recovery techniques and/or preservation biases inhibit an understanding of the role acorns may have played in European hunter-gatherer subsistence. (ibid. p.56)

I’m still not clear on how far back acorn remains are found in the archaeological records of the more Northern regions, though. In a 2000 dissertation, ‘Food production and food procurement in the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age’, Anne Evelyne de Hingh writes that:

Finds of concentrations of charred acorns are not at all exceptional and occur from the Mesolithic through to historic times throughout Europe. In Northern France, acorns are found from the Mesolithic up until the Middle Ages (Marinval/Ruas 1991, 420). Several authors have listed (pre- )historic finds of acorns in Europe (see e.g. Knörzer 1972; Karg/Haas 1996)’ (from chapter 11, ‘The collection of wild plants: risk reduction?’, p.200 – pdf)

However the table she provides only lists finds back as far as ‘Neolithic’ digs. Now, farming arrived in Greece around 6500 BC, spreading North and West to the British Isles by 4000 BC, yet archaeologists reckon Mesolithic hunter-gatherer cultures continued to occupy land unsuitable for cultivation (eg: mountainous areas), in some places living alongside agriculturalists for upwards of 1,000 years (source: Wikipedia). One way or another it seems the early farmers either acquired or maintained the knowledge of how to subsist on acorns:

Archaeological evidence for the roasting of acorns is known from the German Rhineland. A pit dating from the Late Bronze Age and doubtlessly intended for roasting activities is known from Moers-Hülsdonk in the German Rhineland (Knörzer 1972). The large pit (4 metres wide and 2,4 metres deep) produced burnt loam and other traces of fire in the filling as well as a red-burnt floor surface. Charred remains of apple, hazelnut and large quantities of acorns were found inside the pit. All evidence points towards the interpretation of a roasting or drying pit for the roasting of acorns and other fruits. (p.200)

Interestingly the Northern Europeans all seemed to have preferred this roasting technique (possibly soaking in water or a lye of wood ash beforehand):

The finds of carbonised acorns from our samples consist solely of kernels, often split into halves. […] This proves that in Northwest European prehistory, acorns were roasted before consumption, which contrasts with North American traditional communities for example, where they were cooked or rinsed (p.201)

Where did this knowledge come from? Maybe they sought help from the people in the hills during times of famine? Or maybe crop failures occurred often enough to ensure that these cultures remembered – and continued to practice – their own old ways? I don’t suppose we’ll ever know… De Hingh is of the opinion that ‘The principal role of Quercus in the agricultural regimes of prehistoric communities should be found in its properties as “reserved food”, which can be eaten in cases of an emergency, like major harvest failures.’ (p.201) So the peasants still maintained relationships with the trees, relying on them to diversify their subsistence base as a ‘risk buffering’ strategy.

This association of acorn-eating with famine and ‘hard times’ lives on in the European imagination. Most of the wild food literature talks about ground, roasted acorns being used as a coffee substitute when importing the real stuff got too difficult (eg: during WW2), although one American source suggests that this practice was invented by ‘industrial economists’ of the 19th Century French Consulate who, rather ironically, marketed it as ‘indigenous coffee’. There are also many references to peasants eating acorns during later famines, though these practices sound much more desperate, perhaps owing to the progressive deforestation of Europe, if not the loss of the old knowledge. Here’s a snapshot provided by a letter from the Governor of the Province of the Dauphine to Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the Minister of Finances for King Louis XIV during the French famine of 1675:

Sir, — I can no longer delay in letting you know the poverty to which I see this province reduced; commerce here is absolutely at a standstill, and from all quarters people come to me to let the king know how impossible it is for them to pay the taxes. It is asserted — and I speak to you because I am well informed thereon — that the greater part of the peasants of the said province have lived during the winter only upon bread made from acorns and roots, and that at the present time they may be seen eating the grass of the fields and the bark of the trees. (from The Economic Transition in India by Theodore Morison, p.101 – link)

No commerce, no taxes, subsisting entirely on foraged foods? Sounds like my kind of heaven! It doesn’t look like the peasants had much fun at the time, though… Here’s an account of the earlier 1528 famine:

The stock of provisions was already so far consumed in the first year that people made bread of acorns, and sought with avidity all kinds of harmless roots, merely to appease hunger. These miserable sufferers wandered about, houseless and more like corpses than living beings, and finally, failing even to excite commiseration, perished on dunghills or in out-houses. The larger towns shut their gates against them, and the various charitable institutions proved, of necessity, insufficient to afford relief in this frightful extremity (Justus Friedrich Carl Hecker – The Epidemics of the Middle Ages, p.219 – thanks, e-books!)

(Though in this instance they may have been suffering of ‘trousse galant’ – erroneously attributed to acorn consumption but actually thought to refer to a form cholera that killed young men – rather than simple starvation.) All of which provides the lesson that you can’t reintroduce a foraging culture at the drop of a hat when your crops fail and expect to support the same population levels for any length of time, especially if the ‘wild’ lands have been depleted by the various impacts of that same population. There has to be a wild food tradition already in place, preferably with management practices already established for maximising yields. As Mark Fisher impressed upon me, we urgently need to restore the ‘devastated landscape’ before sustainable human use becomes possible.

Indeed, shifting our subsistence strategy away from the annual grains and towards perennial plants and trees as the permaculture people suggest strikes me as an obvious first step towards ecosystem restoration without compromising the human food supply. Both Iberian and Californian sylvicultural landscapes host wide diversities of plant and animal life – including endangered species – all while producing human food on land often considered too marginal to support full-scale agriculture. In fact many of the sources I’ve come across compare yields from Oak and other nut trees favourably with those obtained from the common grains, with the bonus that they don’t require yearly ploughing or monocropping (two factors which eventually deplete the soil of essential nutrients) or, in more recent times, regular fertilisation and the chemical extermination of wildlife (aka ‘weeds’ and ‘pests’) with fossil fuel derivatives. In a 1984 Mother Earth News article, ‘Acorns: The Grain That Grows on Trees‘, David Bainbridge made the comparison between Corn and Oak species in terms of blunt productivity:

Corn yields generally range from 2,500 to 10,000 pounds per acre. In comparison, acorn yields in natural forests have been recorded as high as 2,000 pounds per acre from the live oak (Q. virginiana), and—in a good year—I’ve recorded black oak (Q. velutina) yields per tree that would amount to more than 6,000 pounds per acre in a pure stand. And J. Russel Smith, in Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture, cited an individual oak that produced a full ton of acorns annually. If a 100-foot spread is assumed for that tree, it seems possible that a yield of 10,000 pounds of acorns per acre could be achieved.

Of course this doesn’t account for all the other productive uses an Oak tree can be put to. I never saw a house built out of the withered remains of harvested corn… Also, if you reinstate Indian-style practices of encouraging the growth of seed-bearing flowers, perennial herbs and other edible plants under the Oaks you can further ramp up food production for years when the trees don’t crop so heavily (Anderson, pp.177-9).

Putting all of this information together you start to wonder how agriculture ever got started in the first place. (As ‘Leavergirl’ noted in a recent overview: ‘In the old days, anthropologists used to ask what took humans so long to become farmers. Now they are asking, what forced our ancestors into this difficult way of life when life as foragers was generally plentiful enough, healthier, and full of leisure compared to the new lifestyle?’) Farmers have spent centuries working hard with their domesticated plants in an effort to maximise the human food they produce, and this has translated into the work-until-you-drop modern insanity of growing economic production at the maximum possible rate, environmental & human costs be damned. But if forager cultures approached similar levels of productivity for thousands of years with a fraction of the effort, surely our end-results-obsessed culture would opt for more intensified versions of their practices rather than sticking with a model that eats the ecology and then fails every other year before finally collapsing in on itself? It doesn’t make sense, given the mantras we hear repeated every day. Unless those in charge are really less interested in total yields than they are in controlling the surpluses and concentrating the subsequent wealth & power… In which case I guess the superior storability (and in the globalised age, transportability) of grains might just give them the edge.

Intriguingly, various scholars have begun to posit that agriculture began among acorn-eating cultures – that the whole project of Civilisation got started when people turned their backs on the trees. This article, for instance, explores the contention that the ‘Natufian’ culture in the Levant, East of the Mediterranean Sea subsisted on acorns in a similar way to California Indians (they had a similar climate and distribution of forests) before shifting into one of the major global starting points for the agricultural revolution. (Check out this equally interesting reply, which challenges the original on various points.) Here’s David Bainbridge again, writing in another paper I wish I had full access to, ‘The Rise of Agriculture: A New Perspective‘:

Interest in and research into the origin and development of agriculture has increased sharply in the last twenty years, yet all of these studies have missed the common link between the areas where agriculture may have begun-the acorn. All three areas considered of significance to date-the Middle East, middle China, and Mexico-are, or were once, characterized by oak woodlands. The experience in California, where ethnographers and anthropologists have been able to study a fully developed balanoculture (from the Greek balanos-acorn) reveals the primacy of acorn use and the complex interaction between people and oak woodlands. The California balanoculture was in fact a very successful agroforestry system that prospered for thousands of years. Balanoculture provided the stable communities necessary for agriculture to develop. The lower time and work cost associated with acorn use suggests agriculture may have evolved as acorns became more scarce from the decline in the oak woodlands brought about by the adverse human impacts resulting from overgrazing, fuel cutting and cutting for timber, and field burning, exacerbated by climatic fluctuation. A reevaluation of the record is in order: agriculture may perhaps be better considered a regressive rather than a progressive evolutionary event.

It occurs to me that a grain-based culture would have a short-term competitive edge over a tree-based culture simply because it doesn’t take so long to establish. If a farming tribe wanted to conquer their balanocultural neighbours, they could cut down their trees, sow seed and be done in a year. If the acorn-eaters wanted to fight back, sure they could burn the wheatfields easily enough, but they’d have to wait several decades before new saplings started to fruit heavily enough to support them again.

Clearly the farmers can’t continue like this forever. You can only fight the inborn tendency of all living beings (including your own – why do rich people spend their lives cutting down the forests of poorer regions in the name of ‘development’ but insist on coming home to immerse themselves in acres of prime hunting woodland?) for so long. Certainly in temperate Europe the land wants to turn into forest – it’s our ‘climax ecology’. No wonder grain farming takes so much effort… Leave even the most completely altered environment alone for an average human lifetime and the various successional stages will revert it to woodland by the end, so long as the necessary seeds still exist and can get in from somewhere. The second we let up on our revolution the Great Rollback begins.

The 18th Century French writer François-René de Chateaubriand wrote that ‘Forests precede civilizations and deserts follow them’. I’d like to see this tide reversed and Civilisation pushed back into the desert of its own sick imagination. I’d like to see human beings allied to this irrepressible riot of diverse lifeforms, reclaiming the continent for our own.

*****

Some ideas for reinstating Balanocultures:

  • Quit throwing acorns away! I know plenty of people who just rake them up from their gardens or driveways and stick them in compost bins for the council to tow away. That’s food you’re wasting! I don’t know what happens to them in the ‘Community Recycling Centres’, but I bet they don’t get ‘recycled’ back into human stomachs, except maybe indirectly through compost. I’m not a fan of big centralised solutions, but if individuals haven’t got the time to organise this among themselves would it be too hard for these Centres (we used to call them ‘Dumps’) to separate out the acorns and maybe sell them on as feed to local pig- or chicken-farmers?
  • Look at what Oaks you have around you with a view to returning them to management. I’ve often seen farm or pasture fields in England with huge oaks in them (someone told me there was a law about this dating back to shipbuilding times), and I know a few suburban developments that kept the old trees from preceding land uses:These are already in prime conditions for heavy acorn cropping – rounded canopy, not too crowded, open to the sun – and I’ve found that they do in fact produce far more acorns of better quality than most trees in conventional woodland. I’d say they need a few more brothers and sisters though… Also, I don’t suppose they like being surrounded by all that concrete (acorns bruise like apples, especially if they land on hard surfaces). Even when grasses grow at the base, the habit of raking/blowing/’tidying’ away the annual leaf litter robs the tree of the nutrients it depends on from its own self-generated ‘mulch’. Either leave the leaves be, or you could consider introducing small-scale burns in Autumn/Winter which would release the nutrients much faster and allow other plants to grow from the ashes. Sure, you’d get an unsightly black scorch-mark for a while, but think of all the other interesting plants you could get growing in the place of yet-another-boring-lawn by the start of the next season.
  • Get in touch with your inner squirrel and start storing, processing and eating acorns yourself (more on how to do this in a subsequent post) – link your fate co-dependently with the trees.
  • Preserve the f*&%ing forests! When it gets too expensive to pour massive amounts of petroleum-based energy on the fields, and we run out of imperial leverage on the other countries who we rely on to supply our needs, Britain’s crops will fail and famines will return with a vengeance. This will open up more space for agro-forestry techniques to step in and take up the task of food production, but how much time will these take to get established? Far quicker & easier to step up management on existing trees than to wait for new ones to grow to maturity. This won’t work if we already cut them down for ‘necessities’ like free newspapers, biomass, office/toilet-paper etc…
  • Spread the word!

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30 Responses to “Balanophagy for Beginners”

  1. Deano Says:

    Loved the post,and found it through Tag Surfer,because of the ‘Permaculture’ Tag.
    Looking forward to more
    Deano

  2. stickyllama Says:

    This is strange, Found your post through Tag Surfer, like Deano above because I have just started a blog about self sufficiency. BUT was reading all about acorns and their uses yesterday. Lovely and informative post. Thanks!

  3. Ian M Says:

    Hmm, maybe I should tag things with ‘permaculture’ more often…

    Welcome, Deano and stickyllama! Many thanks for the kind words.
    Ian

  4. Douglas Ou-ee-ii-jay-ii Jack Says:

    Thanks for all this research so valuable for making Sylvalization (tree-based human populations) knowledge available for humanity again, so important for sustainability and stewarding the tree-planet responsibly. Indigene Community http://www.indigenecommunity.info looks at a number of ‘indigenous’ (Latin = ‘self-generating’) practices of peoples from around the world, which are remarkably similar as is this human balanphagy story. Indigenous Welcome and Orchard Food Production Efficiencies considers 3 – dimensional polyculture orchard production at 100 fold (10,000%) more productive than 2-D ‘agriculture’ (L. ‘ager’ = ‘field’) https://sites.google.com/site/indigenecommunity/design/food-materials-resouces

  5. Sarah Head Says:

    Hi Ian – I;ve only speed read this article so far, but you don’t appear to have mentioned that the northern oak is very different from the oak species in North America. With oaks on my doorstep (literally) I’ve been very keen to find out how to process the acorns after reading how Kiva Rose Hardin make an acorn bread in her neck of the woods in New Mexico. Having looked at this a little further, the difference between the species appears to make a huge difference to the “easy food availability” of the acorn. In Britain there appears to be several days worth of processes to go through to remove the high tannin levels to make the acorn meat digestible as opposed to simple grinding in the US. I suspect this is why we don’t have a huge history of acorn consumption in this country – we let the pigs eat them first and then hopefully eat the pigs!

  6. Ian M Says:

    @Douglas: Thanks – glad to do it :) I like the 2-D vs. 3-D comparison. You’ve been studying/implementing your forest gardens, I take it? Would you mind qualifying your ‘100 fold (10,000%) more productive’ claim, which sounds a little extravagant, even to me! Are you talking purely about calories produced, or taking other factors into account such as building materials, soil health, habitat for wildlife as I started to do above?

    @Sarah: Thanks for the prompt – that’s a rather important point I missed!

    Yes they have ‘sweeter’ acorns in the US, some of which you can even eat raw without suffering from tannin overload. Interestingly the species that predominate in the dehesas/montados, Holm (aka ‘Evergreen’ or ‘Holly’, Q. ilex) and Cork (Q. suber), are also noted for their comparative ‘sweetness’, indicating they were perhaps managed or selected for this quality over the centuries. Haws notes:

    Lewthwaite (1982) has raised the possibility that humans played a deliberate role in selecting sweet acorn varieties. This could have important consequences for lowering processing costs to remove tannins prior to human consumption. On the other hand, humans may have intentionally selected sweeter acorn varieties after observing that pigs prefer the sweeter ones (Parsons, 1962). Oak stands could have been managed to provide carbohydrate and fat for human diets or to create animal fat and protein, “porridge or pannage” to borrow from Grigson (1982). (p.59)

    While not native to the UK, the Holm Oak has naturalised to an extent after introduction for ornamental purposes. I’ve not tasted its acorns yet, but they’re said to be less bitter than the two Northern natives, Sessile (Q. petraea) and Pedunculate/Common/English (Q. robur). In the Plants For A Future book (online preview) Ken Fern writes:

    The quality of the [Holm Oak] seed varies from tree to tree, the best are free of any bitterness and can be eaten raw or cooked. When baked they develop a soft, floury texture and a sweet flavour that is rather like sweet chestnuts.

    The sub-species Q. ilex ballota used to be cultivated as a food crop in Spain and Portugal, it is said to fruit less well in this country though I have seen good crops on a number of occasions.

    The best way to obtain trees with good quality seeds is to eat seeds from the different trees until you find some that are sweet, then sow seeds from them. (p.36)

    I guess this technique would also work to alter the raw flavour of the Northern species over the long term. This might help to explain the wide diversity of Oak species in North America, with individual tribes selecting trees according to their own taste preferences to the point where they diverged sufficiently from a common ancestor for us to recognise them as sub-species in their own right. It seems the Indians didn’t consider bitterness a major obstacle – here’s another Bainbridge excerpt:

    It is also practical to harvest and use the bitter varieties. The tannins which causes the bitterness can be leached from acorns or acorn meal with water. Using hot water hastens the process. Studies at Dong-guk University in Seoul, South Korea showed the tannin level was reduced from 9 percent to 0.18 percent by leaching, without loss of essential amino acids, (Kim and Shin, 1975). Virtually all of the acorns the native Californians used were bitter and were leached with water to remove the bitterness. They apparently based their acorn preference on oil content, storability, and flavor rather than sweetness. However, the Cahuilla people in Southern California remember sweeter acorns from their past (in the South-Central U.S.) and consider their loss as a fall from grace, like Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden (Bainbridge, 1987a). (‘Use of acorns for food in California: past, present and future‘ [Word doc])

    Perhaps Europeans ‘fell from grace’ in a similar way when they turned away from the Oaks. Would this explain their (literal) bitterness towards us? The nutritional profile for acorns seems to vary greatly from oak to oak. Judging from the tables provided by Bainbridge (above, p.2) and Haws (p.96), Q. robur seems to fall low on the scale of fats (2.6% on 1.1-31.3), about average on proteins (3% on 2.3-8.6) and slightly higher-than average on carbs (57.8% on 32.7-89.7). Q. ilex, by comparison, has 8% fat, 5% protein and 43% carbs. As for tannin content the only source I could find for Q. robur came from this study by Serbian scientists which put it at 9.16% – somewhat higher than any Oaks on Bainbridge’s sample which goes from 0.1-8.8 (unfortunately he doesn’t specify which 18 species he chose for this). They also measured a higher level of protein (4.22%) from the trees sampled in Belgrade. At any rate they note that:

    The use of acorn in human diet has been registered in written documents since the end of the nineteenth century in Serbia (Pelagić, 1893), with recommendations about its application and benefitial action. The preparation of drinks based on thermally treated acorn (dry roasting) was especially recommended for children.

    I’m assuming that the acorns from archaeological digs in N. Europe listed by de Hingh refer to those of either the Sessile or Pedunculate Oaks native to Europe at the time. Maybe these were managed for desirable qualities in a similar way to the Iberian or N. American trees, though I imagine they’d have a hard time proving that just from charred acorn fragments… Studies of hunter-gatherers around the world indicate that if an abundant food supply is available, humans will find a way to exploit it, especially if it provides a large amount of starch and/or calories. I don’t see why this wouldn’t apply to our own ancestors here in Northern Europe.

    If Kern Fern’s suggestion of simply replanting the best acorns is as effective as it sounds, then working to ‘sweeten’ our relationship with the Oaks mightn’t be so hard, although it may take some time!

    Apologies if that answer was more ‘in-depth’ than you were wanting… I’m conducting a few more experiments of my own at the moment, but will report back soonish with some tried-and-tested processing methods. For now I’ll just say that leaching isn’t as much work as it sounds – it’s the shelling that takes the most time (well, grinding might be harder without access to a food processor… apparently one line of evidence for acorn consumption in prehistoric times comes from the development of huge muscles in the shoulders and arms of women who pounded kilo after kilo of the nuts – I wouldn’t want to mess with them!)

    best,
    Ian

    • Douglas Ou-ee-ii-jay-ii Jack Says:

      Ian M. Thanks for your question. As someone who has worked in agriculture (grain production), orchards (I owned a ten acre orchard), grain processing, wholesale and retail natural foods for decades and now polyculture in the urban setting, I am surprised at how much higher 3-D Polyculture’s yield is. When one calculates yield increase for polyculture orchard food at some 10 times increase per area (eg acre) then add every other aspect including comparative human labour inputs / outputs for all benefits such as ploughing, planting, watering, fertilizing, climate benefits, wildlife, water conservation, stream and lake flows, storage, processing, protecting (police – army etc), war, then one arrives at 100 fold or 10,000% productivity increase for polyculture tree-led production. This increase is discussed more at https://sites.google.com/site/indigenecommunity/design/food-materials-resouces I expect that many of the ballpark calculations which I have estimated will be adjusted both up and down with other unforeseen factors also included. What this calculation points to is one confused and sick ‘exogenous’ (Latin = ‘other-generated’) human mind under 2-D agriculture dominance. The Indigene Community website is devoted to the healthy ‘indigenous’ (L = ‘self-generating’) mind and culture. douglasf.jack@gmail.com

  7. Ian M Says:

    Arg! There’s too much interesting stuff out there!

    My ‘huge muscles’ assertion was based on this comment from ‘an archaeologist’ on Hank Shaw’s excellent post, ‘Acorn Cake and Acorns Around the World':

    There are also large pestles that have been found which are apparently prized items as they have been found in burial contexts and as grave goods. And indications on skeletal remains that show that the tendons that attached the muscles to the bones in the shoulder of some Native American women were highly developed, suggesting they spent a lot of time grinding and pounding acorns.

    Also I tracked down Suellen Ocean’s 1993 classic, Acorns And Eat’em online (pdf), which is stuffed full of recipes and useful info, including this Malcolm Margolin quote which breathes life into Native American Balanoculture:

    At the edge of the village a group of women sit together grinding acorns. Holding the mortars between their outstretched legs, they sway back and forth, raising the pestles and letting them fall again. The women are singing together, and the pestles rise and fall in unison. As heavy as the pestles are, they are lifted easily – not so much by muscular effort, but (it seems to the women) by the powerful rhythm of the acorn-grinding songs. The singing of the women and the synchronized thumping of a dozen stone pestles create a familiar background noise – a noise that has been heard by the people of this village every day for hundreds, maybe thousands of years.

    Doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

    Finally, this page of info on the Common/English Oak contains lots of interesting factoids. Did you know that ‘The Romans undertook a wholesale felling of sacred groves upon their conquest of England’? Or that ‘2000 mature oak trees were used to build one ship in 1812’? Here’s my favourite passage though:

    From ancient times and throughout the medieval period, pigs were moved into pasture woodland to feed on acorns in autumn. In the Domesday Book many woods were calculated in value according to the number of swine they would support, which indicates oak was the commonest tree. The right to graze pigs known as “pannage” was often keenly disputed and jealously guarded. It meant that large oak forests were maintained because of their acorn crop. So valuable and significant to communities was this function that it entered mythology of early societies: In Irish myth, Fer Caille (“Man of the Wood”) is a semi divine figure who appears as a swineherd with one eye who carries a black pig. He is clearly derived from a woodland deity. The sinister gargoyle still to be seen in the roof or pillars of many English churches surrounded by oak leaves known as Jack in the Green or the Green Man has a similar ancestry. Oak leaves around the Green Man in churches reflected the survival of a strong association between oak and sacred spaces from pagan belief into Christianity.

  8. Douglas Ou-ee-ii-jay-ii Jack Says:

    Hello Ian,
    Just to add to your compilation and the meaning of Jack in the Green. The ‘gargoyle’ (water spout for roof water) is originally part of a roof water capture system on most European homes and buildings. Water is captured in eves troughs and channelled through spouts down into rain barrels. The root word for ‘Gargoyle’ and ‘gargle’ is ‘throat’ which is how the water was playfully depicted as pouring from.

    Your story demonstrates how this creative side of European peoples integrating many customs into belief systems. Originally as Roman conquest meant to subdue Celtic peoples, the word ‘catholic’ deriving from the word for ‘universal’ was used to attract peoples to the exogenous tradition of the church institution. Churches proved to be a useful distraction from indigenous living traditions. Catholic was meant at one time to be ‘inclusive’ as though all human traditions come from one spiritual source and all have truth to reveal to us. The Catholic church once Roman domination had firmly established over Celtic peoples quickly lost its liberal inclusive nature as did other protestant traditions, which had formed in reaction to Catholic exclusivity.

    Celtic oak-acorn based peoples used words like ‘Druid’ implying ‘wisdom of the oak’ and ‘witch’ to imply a ‘wise – woman’ with knowledge of herbs and other aspects of the biosphere. Celtic peoples largely lived in Longhouses or apartment building like structures with both private living areas and common facilities. Similar to Longhouse peoples here in the Americas, Longhouse peoples simply lived welcoming loving inclusive lifestyles and had no need for the abstraction called “religion”

  9. Ian M Says:

    Thanks for that explanation, Douglas. I bet farmers these days would consider all those other factors as ‘externalities’ (in the best corporate jargon) not of immediate concern to them or the goal of maximising short-term profit, while disregarding losses in the long-term. I sometimes fantasise about starting up a ‘Radical Accountancy’ which would purposefully expand the attention of clients to these ignored costs. Dunno how much business I’d get though…

    What this calculation points to is one confused and sick ‘exogenous’ (Latin = ‘other-generated’) human mind under 2-D agriculture dominance.

    Indeed! Well put, sir :)

    Interesting stuff about gargoyles – wasn’t aware of that.

    re: the Church as a ‘useful distraction’ – haha, that’s one way of putting it! Yeah, they were ‘inclusive’ in the way globalisation ‘includes’ local economies by destroying them and metabolising the survivors into its own global markets which are totally divorced from their experience, embedded as it was in that specific place…

    I’ve not come across any evidence to suggest that the people we think of as ‘Celts’ were ‘oak-acorn based’ in the sense that they subsisted off them to any great extent. As I understand it, they were farming, conquering people firmly placed in Iron Age, agricultural Europe only around 2-2.5 thousand years go. The nature of that conquest in Britain might have differed in significant ways to the later Roman/Christian occupation, though. As Ralph Whitlock wrote in In Search Of Lost Gods:

    Against the backcloth of human settlement in Britain, even the Celts are relative newcomers. As warlike invaders they started to arrive in Britain about the middle of the first millennium BC, but before that the island had an unwritten history of at least two thousand years [more like 700,000 years – ed.]. The Celts came in no great numbers, imposing themselves as an aristocracy on the older races, and it is unlikely that they initiated a great religious upheaval. Rather their own beliefs were probably grafted on or merged with those of a much older religion. (p.8 )

    So, like the Church’s adoption of various pagan traditions the Celts may have had an ‘inclusive’ attitude towards the form of previous religions, but I think the meaningfulness of the content would have suffered, especially if it no longer played a part in the peoples’ everyday lives, and if the new tradition was twisting it to suit its own ends.

    cheers,
    Ian

  10. Acorns & Good Times Bread « Frequently Found Growing On Disturbed Ground Says:

    […] Frequently Found Growing On Disturbed Ground tales of a budding agricultural counterrevolutionary « Balanophagy for Beginners […]

  11. wolfbird Says:

    Very useful essay, Ian, well done !

  12. Ian M Says:

    Thanks wolfbird – thought you might like it :)
    I

  13. Ian Fitzpatrick - Campaigner, researcher and writer Says:

    hey Ian – great website – just came across it through a permaculture newsletter. made some acorn flour for the first time a few months ago so it was great to read more.
    I have downloaded that article from sciencedirect you mentioned. can send it to you by email if you write to me
    “Fire and Mesolithic subsistence— managing oaks for acorns
    in northwest Europe?”

  14. Ian M Says:

    Hello Ian (and any other visitors from the newsletter – it was nice to see my page views go over 100/day for the first time!)

    Good to hear about somebody else doing stuff with acorns in the UK. How did you first get interested in them, if you don’t mind me asking?

    Yes, I’d be delighted to read that paper if you can send it to me. Check your inbox…

    Thanks!
    I

  15. Loose Ends 2011 « Frequently Found Growing On Disturbed Ground Says:

    […] hold onto their tough, waxy leaves all through the year. A few weeks after writing about them in a comment on my Balanophagy post I was walking up a road I’d not been on for a while and bumped into this huge […]

  16. Ian M Says:

    ‘grazia’ writes:

    ‘… i’m Sardinian…sorry to say that no traditional bread or cake is made out of chestuts. In Tuscany, however, is very popular and spread all over the region the “castagnaccio”, which is made with chestut flour’

    Ah, okay – thanks for that. Not sure where Mollison got his info from there. Maybe he gets carried away sometimes on his evangelical mission? ;) Don’t feel like I can hold it against him though…

    I recently read this article on chestnut-based peasant cultures in Europe which may be of interest. This passage is relevant to the question of how people get weaned off tree crops and end up growing inferior grains. It also reminded me of elitist attitudes towards the peasantry in England which anticipated the Enclosure of the Commons:

    A third reason for the decline of the chestnut, at least in France, may have been free trade in wheat. In 1664, fear of food shortages had prompted Colbert to take the severe measures of controlling wheat production and prohibiting its exportation. At the same time, the exportation of chestnuts was encouraged. Such regulations lasted about a century before the free traders triumphed over regional monopolists and wheat became a cheap and widely available foodstuff, even competing with chestnuts in regions that had traditionally grown them.

    Chestnuts also came under fire beginning in the eighteenth century as a foodstuff deficient in nutrients. A well-off society that tasted a marron occasionally pitied the unfortunate peasants who were condemned to gulping down a pigfood — the châtaigne. Such a diet represented “The International of Misery and Chestnut,” according to Leroy Ladurie (1966).

    But this was the time of the Physiocrats, who thought the soil was the only source of wealth and aimed at improving the productivity of farming by questioning all traditional rural economic processes. That chestnuts suffered at their hands is undisputable. In a query sent to provincial learned societies, François Quesnay and Victor Riqueti Mirabeau, both initiators of the Physiocratic school, asked the following questions: “Are there acorns or chestnuts used as foodstuff for pigs? Do chestnuts give a good income? Or are said chestnuts used as food for the peasants, inducing them to laziness?” (Quesnay 1888: 276). And in an agricultural text of a few decades later, the question of laziness was pursued: “To my knowledge, inhabitants of chestnut countries are nowhere friendly with work” (Bosc and Baudrillard 1821: 272). It went on to suggest that they refused to replace their trees with more productive plants because of their fear of taxation and concluded that they were not worthy citizens of the modern state.

    Interestingly, the voice of François Arouet Voltaire (1785: 106) was one of the few who defended the chestnut:

    [W]heat surely does not nourish the greatest part of the world. . . . There are in our country, whole provinces where peasants eat chestnut bread only; this bread is more nourishing and tastier than the barley or rye bread which feeds so many people and is much better for sure than the bread ration given to soldiers.

    More than two hundred years later we find A. Bruneton-Governatori (1984) agreeing with Voltaire, noting that chestnuts provide a balanced diet and around 4,000 calories of energy. The condemnation the chestnut received in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries might “raise doubts about the pertinence of contemporary evidence concerning the nutrition of non-elite people.”

    Compare with:

    Stanwell was cited in 1744 as an example of the evil effects of open fields and commons on the character of the villagers. Those with only ‘a poor house and little orchard (which for the most part are their own, copyhold or freehold), by keeping mares and foals, cows and calves, hogs and geese without stint. . . make shift just to live, some of them doing without any work at all, and those that go to day labour are very lazy and care not whether they are employed or not.’ (link – see my old article, ‘Snippets on Enclosure‘)

    In both cases it seems know-nothing progressives replaced a functioning subsistence peasant economy with a destructive, unsustainable piece of shit. But hey, at least you couldn’t call them ‘lazy’ – booted off their land and bleeding themselves dry in the mills & factories. Much more ‘productive’…

    Incidentally I’ve been looking up WWOOF hosts in the Florence/Pisa area for a visit over the last 2 weeks in March. It’s been heartening to see how many farms and smallholdings still maintain chestnut plantations. Maybe I’ll get to try some ‘castagnaccio’ or other chestnut-based recipes :)

    cheers,
    Ian

  17. The Forager Says:

    The ability of archaeologists to detail palaeolithic balanophagy is, I would suggest, less than your own through the combination of your reading and being someone who does it. I say this as an archaeologist. It’s about taphonomy – the lesser likelihood of older organic remains surviving and the lack of depositional contexts before the Neolithic. Once you have the storage pits of farmers that archaeologists love to dig you suddenly have contexts in which to find things. And even then, the evidence doesn’t write its own story. ‘I have an old belief that a good theorist is really just a good observer’ wrote Darwin (or something close to that). Combined with a maxim archaeologists are very fond of – the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. You present an overview that leaves me little uncertainty that balanoculture is, in archaeological time frames, as old as culture amid oaks. You make sense, and it makes sense. If required to take a more scientific view, I can’t imagine a null hypothesis to this that you couldn’t take down.
    Great piece, thanks,
    Oliver

  18. The Forager Says:

    Also, I have that Bainbridge 1985 paper if you still need it.

  19. Ian M Says:

    Wow, thanks Oliver! So you would agree with Haws’ statement that ‘inadequate recovery techniques and/or preservation biases inhibit an understanding of the role acorns may have played in European hunter-gatherer subsistence’? Another reader was good enough to send me the Bainbridge paper (thanks for the offer all the same) and I got the same impression of basically sound theory but with very thin evidence to back it up, although I have no background in archaeology so am maybe not in the best position to judge… Could this stem from a cultural reluctance to explore the lives and ways of ‘those damn savages’, which would require us coming to terms with the fact that we exterminated them, at the same time acknowledging the tragedy that the ways we replaced them with were significantly poorer in many/most respects? Ah, but then they uncovered those stashes of charred hazelnut shell from the mesolithic, so maybe it’s just that acorn remains don’t keep so well. Still, maybe if someone set out deliberately to find them…?

    But yeah, like you say the hypothesis doesn’t live or die solely on the archaeological record. Ray Mears’ reasoning was persuasive enough for me:

    In other parts of the world, where you find acorns you find hunter-gatherers using them as a staple food.

    cheers!
    Ian

  20. The Forager Says:

    Having just taken on my first holly oak processing, I would imagine that charred acorns are unlikely to turn up the same as anything that might be roasted (and perhaps occasionally charred) would – like most other nuts. You seem to soak and boil and mash acorns – there probably isn’t even much in the way of grinding implements as either evidence in themselves or from which to isolate diagnostic starch.
    So, yep, recovery techniques and preservational bias indeed.

    In archaeology, we still have to theorise our search reasonably. If we can’t find solid evidence, we can still suppose it to exist (or scientifically, fail utterly to suppose it not to exist) for the purpose of sketching (the best we can do) past lifeways.

    I suspect it is mostly a preservational (taphonomic) bias – like absence of evidence for seaweed, entomophagy (insect eating) (in Australia at least – for optimal foraging reasons, it may have never been important in Britain (see Marvin Harris for delightfully readable thinking on this), and leafy greens without accompanying seeds (fat hen gets mentions in archaeology for its seeds turning up in Neolithic bog people guts for example (foraging literature included, such as in Mabey), but what of the seedless weeds away from grain fields?).

    I would suggest no reluctance, among archaeological thinking at least, to explore the lives of ‘damned savages’ – it is indeed our very raisin d’etre. That said, we are all still conditioned in our thinking, and my appreciation for your insights is probably mostly as a fellow forager rather than as a professional prehistorian. Archaeologists may often simplify their understandings of non-agricultural people as much because they cannot fully grasp the complexity of a foraging life, as because the archaeological record is not the inevitable record of times past but a picture painted from extraordinarily unlikely skerricks of evidence.

    Cheers, Oliver

  21. Ian M Says:

    Thanks for that explanation. Makes my head spin a bit but you dumbed it down enough for this layperson to understand ;)

    re: grinding implements – actually, as Bainbridge talks about in the agriculture paper, these have been recovered in Mexico ‘1,500 years before corn became important’, and in California:

    One of the key elements throughout the thousands of years of occupation in California is the occurrence of mullers and grinders(20). It is thought that these were used primarily for acorns, although Chenopods, Bromus, Hordeums, Avenas, and other grains were also collected and eaten (25, 26).

    Closer to home (for me – yours was the first instance I’ve come across of someone mentioning an oak presence in Oz):

    The use of acorns has been an integral element in the Middle Eastern cultures for more than 10,000 years. In early times the acorn was probably a staple food, as the occurrence of acorns in digs and prevalence of grinders in the Natufian period (1) and at Zawi Chemi Shan suggests (58)

    It’s just Northern Europe where there’s an ‘absence of evidence’ for the Mesolithic, which frustrates me somewhat!

    Interesting stuff about entomophagy. Can you recommend a Marvin Harris book for me to get started with? I’ve heard about the cultural materialism philosophy mainly from Jason Godesky’s writing on the Anthropik Network and always meant to look deeper into it, but was put off a bit by Harris’ writing style (what little I could find on the internet).

    I would suggest no reluctance, among archaeological thinking at least, to explore the lives of ‘damned savages’ – it is indeed our very raisin d’etre.

    Fair point. I only ask because of Daniel Quinn’s comments about the discovery of so-called pre-history, wondering how exempt archaeology (and other fields dealing with that area) really are from the cultural bias of what he calls the Great Forgetting:

    Historians were sickened to learn the true extent of the human story. Their whole discipline, their whole worldview, had been shaped by people who thought that everything had begun just a few thousand years ago when people appeared on the earth and started immediately to farm and to build civilization. This was history, this story of farmers turning up just a few thousand years ago, turning farming communes into villages, villages into towns, towns into kingdoms. This was the stuff, it seemed to them. This was what counted, and the millions of years that came before deserved to be forgotten.

    Historians wouldn’t touch this other stuff, and here’s the excuse they fashioned for themselves. They didn’t have to touch it … because it wasn’t history. It was some newfangled thing called prehistory. That was the ticket. Let some inferior breed handle it – not real historians, but rather prehistorians. In this way, modern historians put their stamp of approval on the Great Forgetting. What was forgotten in the Great Forgetting was not something important, it was just prehistory. Something not worth looking at. A huge, long period of nothing happening.

    The Great Remembering was in this way turned into a nonevent. The intellectual guardians of our culture – the historians, the philosophers, the theologians – didn’t want to hear about it. The foundations of all their disciplines had been laid during the Great Forgetting, and they didn’t want to reexamine those foundations. They were perfectly content to have the Great Forgetting go on – and, for all practical purposes, it did exactly that. The worldview we transmit to our children today is fundamentally the same as the worldview transmitted to children four hundred years ago. The differences are superficial. Instead of teaching our children that humanity began just a few thousand years ago (and didn’t exist before that), we teach them that human history began just a few thousand years ago (and didn’t exist before that). Instead of teaching our children that civilization is what humanity is all about, we teach them that civilization is what history is all about. But everyone knows that it comes to the same thing.

    In this way human history is reduced to the period exactly corresponding to the history of our culture, with the other ninety-nine point-seven percent of the human story discarded as a mere prelude.

    Thanks again for sharing your interesting observations.
    Ian

    PS – being part French I had a good lol at ‘raisin d’etre’ – was that conscious?

  22. Holm oak acorns (Quercus ilex) and a crack at the forager’s carb conundrum « The Forager's Year Says:

    […] of ideas from books and the net I came up with a fairly random experimental approach (mainly from here and pages on the same blog, here and here and (surprisingly from a fellow-Australian) here). The […]

  23. Coming down from the mountain #2 | Frequently Found Growing On Disturbed Ground Says:

    […] acorns I had in my lentil stew after they expressed an interest. So I got to impart some of my Useful Knowledge to at least two people, and it sounded like they were keen to try out the leaching […]

  24. Peter Michael Bauer (Urban Scout) Says:

    Dude. This is amazing. I can’t believe I just found this. What a STOREHOUSE of information. I’ve been trying to get into acorns for a couple years, as the Willamette Valley cultures in the Portland area ate them and many global varieties are planted throughout the town. This year though, I’m finally getting a system down, but was wanting to research old world uses and history. This is an AMAZING collection. Thank you so much for putting all of this in one place!

  25. Peter Michael Bauer (Urban Scout) Says:

    Also, there is some interesting anecdotal history at this Acorn Farm in Greece’s Website: http://www.iloveacorns.com/history.html

    Watch the video about their acorn farm. It’s pretty amazing.

  26. Ian M Says:

    Hi Peter, thanks for stopping by and glad you found it useful :)

    I seem to remember seeing that Greek website in my previous research, but didn’t look very closely at what they were doing, so thanks for drawing my attention to it – looks like a very worthwhile project. Personally I’m more interested in the possibilities for direct subsistence outside of the current food industry (or any other industry), so I wouldn’t want a big hulling machine or to ship caps to tanners in Germany. But if, by persuading the capitalist system to see ‘value’ in them, they manage to stop the trees getting felled for ruinous ‘development’ projects then that’s something. This was an interesting comment in the video:

    ‘The return of the acorn harvest has only really been possible since the crisis. People are now more open to non-building forms of income.’

    I’m not sure the UK is ‘ripe’ for this kind of development yet, possibly because things haven’t collapsed here to the same degree yet. Also it doesn’t help that there’s no real tradition to fall back on and the elders are just as clueless about acorns as the youth. Something to keep plugging away at…

    Good luck with your ‘system’ this Autumn – will be interested to see a blog about it if you’ve the time/inclination. Also check out Christian Siems’ blog if you haven’t already: http://oak-watch.blogspot.com Not sure if he’s close to you at all but loads of great stuff on there nonetheless.

    cheers,
    Ian

  27. Peter Michael Bauer Says:

    Yeah, the acorn farm is a cool in a “we were able to prevent this last oak forest from being turned into firewood by stealing all the acorns from the other wildlife on the island…” but at least they are saved. And interesting how the collapse of civilization leads people to reconnect with forgotten foods.

    Things are definitely not that bad here either unfortunately. There is now only 2% left of the Oak Savanna that once existed here through management of the Native populations. There are other oaks though, that have been planted as ornamentals but that produce TONS of acorns. These are mostly the ones I eat, but I do have a couple of wild patches of Native oaks that I harvest from. I will definitely be posting a blog on my processing system once it is stream-lined. I’m looking into DIY solar dehydrating set-ups for the flour because right now the second biggest energy sink (next to the amount of water required to leach them) is using an electric dehydrator. It’s funny to think how much easier this would be with less people and a sweet spot by a clean creek. Now we have to use tap water because we’re deep in the city and a clean stream is really far from here.

    As an aside, a lot of the research I was looking into was saying that Old World agriculturalists would feed their pigs on acorns. It made me think of the Great Basin region here in the States. My friend Finisia Medrano says that the settlers let their pigs go into the wild because they knew the pigs would root out the roots that the Native people there had been managing. It was basically a way of waging war on the Native populations in an attempt to destroy their food supply. When I started reading that agriculturalists sent their pigs out to eat acorns I thought of this same thing.

    Then I came across this article: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/08/130827113020.htm

    Basically its new evidence that points to hunter-gatherers eating domesticated pigs. This article tries to say that the animals were traded and possibly raised by hunter-gatherers. Considering global history of agricultural and hunter-gatherer relations, I seriously doubt these historians assertion that hunter-gatherers simply gave up their lifestyle for farming:

    “Aberdeen universities, showed there was interaction between the hunter-gatherer and farming communities and a ‘sharing’ of animals and knowledge. The interaction between the two groups eventually led to the hunter-gatherers incorporating farming and breeding of livestock into their culture, say the scientists.”

    The interaction was almost certainly one of colonization. “Sharing” isn’t a word in the vocabulary of farming peoples. Especially when it comes to their “barbaric”, “savage”, hunter-gatherer neighbors. So, when I read that hunter-gatherers were eating domestic pigs, I makes me think that they were hunting the agriculturalists pigs because the pigs were being turned out to eat their acorns. Just a thought, no idea if I am correct but I feel that it makes more sense than what these scientists claim.

    Just more things to think on. :)

  28. Ian M Says:

    Thanks for that, interesting.

    Yeah, the acorn farm is a cool in a “we were able to prevent this last oak forest from being turned into firewood by stealing all the acorns from the other wildlife on the island…” but at least they are saved.

    It took me ages to get this: just because a human being didn’t eat something s/he was capable of eating doesn’t mean that it was ‘wasted’. Also: just because you can harvest a certain abundant wild food doesn’t necessarily mean you should. We need shamans to tell us how much is appropriate to take and what gifts to give in return (especially management gifts that actually increase the fecundity of the land above & beyond providing for our own simple subsistence). I feel okay harvesting the amount of nuts I usually do, mostly because I’m not aware of that many other (human) people who do the same. But I’m not sure how I would know if I was taking too much, unless the squirrels decided to gang up on me or something…

    And interesting how the collapse of civilization leads people to reconnect with forgotten foods.

    Yeah, hence the association of acorns with famine and starvation, I suppose. Puts me in the rather odd position of cheering failed wheat harvests while, um, I eat bread all the time. Same goes for the financial situation I suppose. Depending on the economy for basic elements of survival yet requiring it to crash before the embryonic independence skills can really flourish.

    I’ll be fascinated to read about your experiments with dehydrators. Not something I’ve really considered yet myself, as with using a food processor rather than mortar & pestle for initial grinding. I tried using a sledgehammer on the whole nuts inside an old dishcloth but the fibres got mashed up and filthy in about 2 seconds and there was lots of extra debris in with the flour afterwards. Unfortunately most of my solutions have to be compatible with a small indoor space at the moment…

    Re: pigs in the new world, that figures. I remember a similar analysis in ‘Tending The Wild’ about cattle being deliberately (or at least with unforgivable ignorance) let loose to undermine the native grasslands and outcompete the buffalo herds on which various Indian tribes depended. And the white farmers had the cheek to victimise the Indians (jail, murder, journalistic campaigns etc.) when they poached and ate these animals. I would think they had a right to that livestock considering they provided for most of the food and habitat throughout their lives. Also, if the cows are destroying your landbase aren’t you justified in treating them as an invasive species? I think that’s what the wolves were doing here:

    The monk Galfrid, whilst writing on the miracles of St. Cuthbert seven centuries earlier, observed that wolves were so numerous in Northumbria, that it was virtually impossible for even the richest flock-masters to protect their sheep, despite employing many men for the job.

    Thanks for the sciencedaily article. I agree your interpretation makes much more sense than theirs. They obviously don’t know anything about the history of indigenous peoples. The thing about H/Gers supposedly being ‘fascinated’ by the ‘strange and exotic’ spotted-coat pigs is moronic, if not racist. Compare with another recent scientific discovery, that prehistoric europeans had a sense of taste!!

    The implications from these findings challenge the previously held belief that hunter-gatherers were simply concerned with searching for calorific food. Dr Saul believes these latest results point to something much more like cuisine.

    What rock did they look under to find an idiot who still believed that?

    Anyway, I bet it was hunting, but coupled with the same forthright defense against an invasive species that’s wrecking your landbase – probably why they were over-represented in the archaeological record.

    Thanks for the thought-food :)
    I

  29. De eetbare herfsttafel | De Wonderen van Plantae Says:

    […] is één van de weinige blogs die niet de massa volgt en daarbij alles altijd goed onderbouwd. Klik hier om te lezen over de achtergrond en geschiedenis van het eten van eikels, en hier voor het vervolg […]

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