Seri Indian food plants: Desert subsistence without agriculture

Statement of Responsibility:
Felger, Richard S. and Mary B. Moser
Part Of Series:
Ecology of Food and Nutrition, 5(1)
pages 13-27
The Seri Indians of Sonora, Mexico, living on the east side of the Gulf of California, utilized over 75 species of seed plants from the desert and sea as food. Potable water, rather than food, was undoubtedly the primary factor limiting pre‐contact population levels of these hunting and gathering and seafaring people. Fewer species of plants were used for food than for medicinal purposes. Basic staples were obtained from the fruit of columnar cacti (Pachycereus, etc.), the pod and seed of mesquite (Prosopis), seed of eelgrass (Zostera), leaf‐base and stem of century plant (Agave), and seeds of various ephemerals such as amaranth (Amaranthus), goosefoot (Chenopodium), plantain (Plantago), and bean (Phaseolus). Other important food plants include cholla (Opuntia), wolfberry (Lycium), mala mujer (Cnidoscolus), palo verde (Cercidium), and saiya (Amoreuxia). Mesquite, columnar cacti, and eelgrass were harvested at the height of the dry season and, because of drought‐evading adaptations, could be relied upon even during years of extreme drought. Various seeds and other plant‐derived foods were stored against time of need. Seeds and fruit of 59 species of plants were eaten, while only 16 species were utilized for their vegetative parts, and of these only two were prepared as greens. Seri predilection to watery foods (and medicines) appears to be an adaptation to the arid enviroment. Most plant‐derived foods were parched or toasted, ground into flour and consumed as gruel. Increasing the surface area of food particles by this means, a common practice in southwestern North America, effectively conserves water, fuel, and time required for cooking. The diet of the different Seri Bands necessarily varied because of floristic, vegetational, faunal, and environmental differences. Each season and year in each region yields a different array of kinds and quantities of wild crops.
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