Daily Stone Age Life – Sohi Food

The Sohi people who live by the lake are fortunate to have a varied and nutritious diet, helped greatly by the availability of fresh fish. Others who live away from the lake are not so fortunate. Nevertheless, there’s still a wide choice of food.

The main staple food is sago starch, harvested from felled sago palms that the tribe planted many years previously and carefully nurtured. Taro root is also a staple, usually cultivated but occasionally growing wild.

There’s not a lot of protein in their diet. It comes from fish, and also from grubs, insects, small birds and rodents. The grubs and insects are obtained by foraging, the rodents by trapping, and the birds by shooting with a bow and arrow – a bamboo bow with a twine drawstring, and a very straight hardwood arrow with a very, very sharp tip.

It’s not easy catching birds this way, and they don’t yield much meat, so they don’t form a large part of the diet. But a bird is not caught just for food – the feathers of the bird (and often the entire wing) are worn proudly on the head as a sign of prowess. The bigger and fancier the feathers, the more admired the wearer will be.

Most of the food is baked in an underground oven. Stones are heated in a fire, a hole is dug, and a layer of hot stones is placed in it. Next comes the food, wrapped in palm leaves. Water is thrown in to keep everything moist, and dirt is heaped on top. Two hours later a steaming baked dinner is ready. It will be eaten using the fingers. There are no spices, but the nutty-tasting grubs add interest, and the slivers of rodent meat “taste just like chicken”, although of course the Sohi don’t know this as they have never seen a chicken.

The mother implores the children to eat their greens so that they may grow up to be strong. Greens are eaten with most meals, and don’t need to be grown as they are available for the picking. There are some trees whose leaves are edible, and a clover-like plant grows pretty-much everywhere.

Dessert is usually nuts and berries, but tonight there’s also papaya. The papaya trees can sometimes be coaxed to grow around the village, and the children are experts at bringing down a papaya by slinging a carefully-aimed stone at it.

The crops are cultivated in heavily-tilled earth, hunched up into square beds raised above the level of the surrounding ground. In this way, and for reasons we don’t yet fully understand, the Sohi achieve yields slightly in excess of what we would be able to grow on the same land.

The Sohi discovered crop rotation long ago, and on one side of the village are crop-beds that are being left fallow this year. Further up the hillside they are clearing some more land for agriculture. They cut down the trees, leave them for six months to dry out, then set fire to the whole area and plant the crop immediately afterwards. It’s not at all unusual to see a fire raging on some distant hillside, but it doesn’t matter: the heavy tropical rain that arrives every afternoon will put out any burnoffs that threaten to turn into wildfires.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention the pigs. Although the Sohi keep domestic pigs, and may also trap the occasional wild pig, pigs are only eaten on ceremonial occasions.

Once every few months, there will be a great feast. Sufficient pigs will be killed, each with a single blow to the head from a heavy club. They will be cooked on spits and in the underground ovens, and eaten along with the usual staple foods. At these occasions, everyone gorges themselves for hours until they couldn’t possibly eat any more. There’s enough pig for everyone to have as much as they can eat, provided they don’t feast too often.

Coming next: Trade and war

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