Small insects made big sense in the desert
“A Grasshopper in Every Pot”
In 1984, while archeologists from Utah State Historical Society were investigating Lakeside Cave, at thewestern edge of the Great Salt Lake, they made an unexpected discovery. While digging into deposits left by prehistoric people—Great Basin hunter-gatherers visited and utilized this cave intermittently during the past 5,000 years—the archeologists found tens of thousands of grasshopper fragments.
Bits of the insects were found at every level they uncovered, and considering the entire floor area, they estimated that the cave contained remains from as many as five million "hoppers".
- At first the archeologists had no rational explanation for the phenomenon nor could they explain why the cave deposits were so evenly layered with sand from the nearby beach.
- Some two dozen specimens of dried human feces provided their first important clue:
- Most consisted of grasshopper parts in a heavy matrix of sand.
- This indicated that people ate the hoppers and suggested that the sand was somehow involved in the process of the insects for consumption.
- One day in the spring of 1985, some amateur archeologists reported finding "millions" of grashoppers lying along the eastern margin of the lake.
- When the investigators went to see the discovery, they found that enormous numbers of the insects had flown or been blown into the salt water and had subsequently been washed up, leaving neat rows of salted and sun-dried grasshoppers stretched for miles along the beach.
- Because of the varying wave actions, as many as five separate rows existed in places which ranged from an inch wide to more than six feet wide and nine inches thick and contained anywhere from 500 to 10,000 grasshoppers per foot.
- The rows, well sorted by the waves, contained virtually nothing but grasshoppers coated with a thin covering of sand.
- Up until the revelation of this natural preparation, the archeologists figured that the grasshopper collecting procedure was a tedious task, but then they realized that the prehistoric hunter-gatherers at Lakeside Cave could simply have scooped up the grasshoppers piled along the beaches and consumed the sun-dried product then and there.
- The sand in the human dung was the residue of sand clinging to the grasshoppers that were eaten.
- Research of ethnographic and historical records of Native American groups in the western United States to see if similar practices were observed in more recent times led to the discovery that insects, particularly grasshoppers and the grass-hopperlike Mormon crickets (so named because they had threatened to destroy the Mormon pioneers’ first crops in 1848), were indeed favored food resources in the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau and were regularly included in their diet.
- Speaking of the Ute and Southern Paiute, for example, geologist-ethnologist John Wesley Powell noted in the 1870s that:
. . . grasshoppers and crickets form a very important part of the food of these people. Soon after they are fledged and before their wings are sufficiently developed for them to fly, or later in the season when they are chilled with cold, great quantities are collected by sweeping them up with brush brooms, or they are driven into pits, by beating the ground with sticks. When thus collected they are roasted in trays like seeds and ground into meal and eaten as mush or cakes.
Another method of preparing them is to roast great quantities of them in pits filled with embers and hot ashes. . . . When the insects are abundant, the season is one of many festivities. When prepared in this way these insects are considered very great delicacies.
An 1864 account of cricket collecting along the Sevier River in Utah describes an occasion when a small group quickly gathered “fifty bushels” by driving the insects into the stream with willow branches and scooping them up in carrying baskets.
According to the historical accounts, grasshoppers and crickets were usually roasted and ground, then mixed with pine seeds, baked, and eaten as cakes.
The acrido- (grasshopper) word unit is here.
You can also get the phago- (eat, ingest) word unit.