The Hunt for Fat -Lewis and Clark

To summarize this article, the most sought after and most scarce resource in the upper Midwest and Rocky Mountains was animal fat.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition journals are a good source of details about life in a pre-civilized world, and therefore a potential source of information that could influence a paleo lifestyle. Meriwether Lewis kept detailed records of plants, animals, and the food sources that Indians relied on; this was critical to the success of the expedition, because the party eventually exhausted their prepared food stock, forcing them to eat the same diet as the Indians that they frequently traded with.

The Indians of the upper mid-west – think South Dakota, eastern Wyoming, eastern Montana- lived a migratory and rough life. They were traditional hunter-gatherers, moving wherever the best dietary supplement could be found.  Within the seasonal cycle, their diet was cyclical; desperate during part of the year, and satisfied during other parts. The end of summer and start of fall usually indicated the most plentiful period. Because there was no snow cover, game animals had access to much larger swaths of grazing. Foods suitable for gathering and foraging were widespread and easily available. The animal biomass could disperse across a wider area, propagating a larger population of hunters.

Winter prompted a migration into the mountains. First, rivers running through steep valleys did not freeze up, guaranteeing a source of drinking water for both man and animal. Second, forest canopy protected some of the grazing plants from snow cover, attracting game animals.

Early spring was a time of starvation and desperation. Stocks of prepared meat and gathered edibles had been consumed, forcing the tribes back on to the plains and out of the mountains. Lewis describes encountering entire tribes spread across the plain digging for edible roots. Sometimes men and women completely wore their teeth away on the dirt mixed in with these roots and died, unable to chew another meal! However, the plains would steadily grow back, and animals would leave the mountains and spread back across the plains. Migratory ducks and geese returned.

Regardless of the season, little animal fat could be found. All game meat is naturally lean because of the nomadic lifestyle of big game involving constant walking and movement. Even the largest animals, buffalo, have little fat; their thick fur provides winter insulation. Indians had to rely on quantity, not quality.

The expedition marveled at their ability to eat upward of three pounds of meat per person in  a day! Their bodies stayed in a constant state of hunger;  dog meat and horse meat became delicacies because of the slightly higher percentages of body fat. Until the party reached the west coast, where fish and sea lion could be procured, the expedition hunters had to continuously range out from the main party and ensure that enough meat could be brought back. George Drouillard, the expedition’s interpreter and best hunter, had lived for most of his life in the Indian’s lifestyle and the lifestyle of a trapper. He is widely regarded to have saved the entire expedition with his ability to bring back game.

My challenge to you:  recognize that humans have domesticated animals with the highest fat content, and recognize how  scarce natural fat is. Contrast the Native American lifestyle to modern lifestyle, where fat is demonized.

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One Response to The Hunt for Fat -Lewis and Clark

  1. Keoni Galt says:

    Oh yeah…about 3 years ago I read the abridged version of their Journals. I was struck by the exact same thing – how they’d often trade goods for barrels of pork fat (lard), and that their most prized delicacy of all was beaver tail (nearly pure fat). I often thought of doing a blog post just like this one!

    Well done.

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