A Feast of Snakes?

By Brandy Norton, Field Technician

In prehistoric Tree Island middens (old piles of trash), a large amount of animal bones are often found deep within the ground.  At two test units excavated at the North Crescent site on the Brighton Reservation, the Tribal Archaeology Section (TAS) has uncovered literally thousands of bones, over 40,000 in fact. The majority of these bones belong to three types of animals: turtles (including softshell, cooter, and snapping turtles), fish (including bowfin, catfish, and garfish), and snakes (including corn, king, eastern diamondback and other rattlesnakes, and water moccasins).

image 1
Water Moccasin (Venomous) also known as a Cottonmouth (photo courtesy of Shawn Keyte)

These bones can often be interpreted as evidence of what prehistoric people ate. This makes sense when you think about how many people consider fish and turtles to be a delicious meal. Based on similar evidence, researchers have long assumed that the only reason for snakes to be present in the midden would be because they, too, were being eaten. However, the Seminoles disagree with these findings. They would never eat snakes because of cultural taboos. Snakes are generally avoided and shouldn’t even be touched. So why are they in the trash with things that are obviously food?

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Two test units from the North Crescent excavations

In order to understand some reasons why snakes might be there, we had to do some research. This included analyzing the evidence of burning and cutmarks on the bones. Burn marks on the bones could indicate the animal was cooked. The presence of cutmarks could be evidence of butchering the animal.

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Water Snake (Non-Venomous) (photo courtesy of Shawn Keyte)

What did we find?

There was consistently less burning on snake bones than on turtle and fish bones. Only 5% of snake bones were burned, compared to 7% of fish bones and 24% of turtle bones. The difference between burning on snakes and fish bones is not large, and the fact that there is any burning at all needs to be explained. This is where talking to Tribal members, such as Quenton Cypress, comes in handy. Quenton noted that snakes were unwelcome in camps and often killed so they could not return. Venomous snakes would be thrown into the fire because people would not have wanted to accidentally step on one and inject themselves with venom.

image 4.5 combined
Eastern Diamondback Vertebrae (Venomous; left: not burned, right: burned) (photos courtesy of Samantha Wade)

Overall, only 3% of the snake bones had cutmarks, whereas 24% of deer (another undisputed food source) had cutmarks. Quenton suggested that cutmarks would not necessarily be present because snakes would have been knocked on the head before being thrown into the fire. This would be especially important for venomous snakes as mentioned above. Since we only recovered snake vertebrae (back bones) and no skulls, it is difficult to prove or disprove that theory.

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Calcined Water Moccasin Vertebra (Photo courtesy of Samantha Wade)

No cutmarks were found on venomous snakes at any point in time. Non-venomous snakes, however, did have cutmarks. This doesn’t necessarily mean they were butchered though because the cuts could be from killing the snake.

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Example of a Cutmark on a Cow Middle Phalange (photo courtesy of Samantha Wade)

As you can see, there isn’t an easy answer as to why snakes are commonly found in middens. However, using interviews with Tribal members, like Quenton, is one of the most important aspects that differentiates tribal archaeology from archaeology in general.  In the academic world, it is easy to make assumptions based on the European perspective and these are not always entirely correct. That is why it is so important to understand the past with the aid of oral histories in order to see the full picture.

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Pygmy Rattlesnake (Venomous) (Photo courtesy of Shawn Keyte)

 

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4 thoughts on “A Feast of Snakes?”

  1. Oral history is important, but is it a valid assumption that because the Seminole did/do not eat snakes, the prehistoric Glades people also did not? There are way too many snake remains in many Everglades archaeological sites for me to believe that the snakemeats weren’t a part of the Glades diet.

    1. Hi Karen, that’s a valid point! The Seminole firmly believe the prehistoric peoples of the area are their ancestors, and I wanted to reflect that viewpoint regarding the archaeological evidence. That being said, there is evidence in my research that suggests the possible introduction of the snake eating taboo during the Little Ice Age (there is a change in burning and cutmark patterns). Because of the large quantity of snakes in the middens, it is entirely possible that snakes were being eaten before then, especially during times when resources were scarce. However, I really wanted to drive home the importance of listening to native peoples in interpreting the past! -Brandy

    2. I would also add that snake vertebrae are also fairly common in middens outside the South Florida area; they have been in nearly every midden I have ever excavated on the northern Gulf Coast and elsewhere, although typically in lower density. Does this mean they are food remains – of course not. However, one can easily prepare and cook snake without burning or cutting vertebrae. I have done so and saved the vertebrae for examination. If you burn the bone during cooking, the meat is just a little over done unless it comes from the cut ends of a segment. Cut marks would be the best evidence and they are rare. The question remains pretty much unanswerable without additional evidence such as ethnographic observations and historic documentation. Snake bone in midden is likely there from a variety of human behaviors, including eating them.

      1. Hi Gregory, you make some good points! Since we practice Tribal archaeology here, our archaeological findings are always coupled with oral histories to help us understand the full story and to stay true to Seminole history and culture. -Brandy

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