I just finished reading Empire of the Summer Moon by S C Gwynne, and it is a fabulous read. It’s the true story of the Comanche Indian tribe in Texas in their struggles against the whites. Of course, it was a lost cause, and ultimately, they had to submit, and they did. But, for centuries, they put up a heck of a fight. It was said that the march of the Spaniards through Texas, with their missions and their cattle empire, only went as far north as San Antonio, and then it stopped. And it stopped because of the Comanches.
The Comancheria, as their homeland was called by whites, reached as far south as the Texas Hill Country whch lies just north and west of San Antonio. And it came very close to the city of Austin, where I live. And it covered a huge expanse that went clear across West Texas and into New Mexico, and it delved into Oklahoma and southern Colorado. But, the heart of it, the very center of it, was the Palo Duro Canyon, which is close to present-day Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle. I didn’t know it until recently, but the Palo Duro Canyon is the second biggest canyon in the United States, after the Grand Canyon.
The Comanches were successful warriors against both whites and other Indians, and they were feared by both. Their success stemmed partly from their culture because they were a warrior culture. But it also arose from their mastery of horsemanship. They were said to be the best horsemen in the world, and they fought mounted. And in the beginning, the whites weren’t doing that, and it gave the Comanches a huge advantage.
But, I mainly want to talk about their diet. Keep in mind that they were truly a Stone-Age people. And they were hunter/gatherers. They had no agriculture. And they were nomadic. They stayed put an average of just 3 weeks; then they packed up and relocated, with all their wives, children, horses, and belongings. It was a rough life.
But, they lived primarily on buffalo. That was their main food, their ancestral food, and their preferred food. They sometimes hunted other game, and if they were really desperate, they would kill one of their horses and eat it. But, they didn’t like doing that and they didn’t particularly like the taste of horse meat. That was considered a last resort.
So, they ate a lot of buffalo. They ate it fresh, and they also ate it dried. The men killed the buffalo and dragged it to their camp. And the women processed the buffalo, and that was just about as hard a job. Maybe harder. And of course, they used every part of the buffalo. The skin became clothing and also shelter, as their tepees were made of the hides. They used the bones to make various tools and weapons. And the fat was used in different ways, including as insulation. There was very little waste.
And the ways in which they consumed buffalo included practices which most of us would consider gross. For instance, if they killed a lactating female, they would squeeze the milk out of her udders, as much as they could. And then, they would mix it with her fresh blood and drink that combination of blood and milk as a sort of health tonic. Hey, it was a raw food, wasn’t it? You can’t say it wasn’t nutritionally potent.
But, it got worse. They would cut out the gall bladder and drink the bile. Yuck! And if they killed a calf that had been nursing, they would collect the partially digested milk from its stomach and eat it like cheese. Again, yuck!
They did consume some plant food. It was mentioned that they gathered and ate berries in season, which I presume was the Spring. We still have wild blackberries in Texas, and they’re not hard to find, although the season is short. And it was also mentioned that they ate nuts, and I’m sure that included pecans because they are the most abundant and widely distributed nut here. There are also some black walnuts, but they are much more scarce. And even the pecans, although they’re diffuse, they are not ubiquitous. You can go for miles and miles without seeing any. They’re not common the way oaks and cedars are common. And it was also said that they collected “roots and bulbs” to eat. But, they didn’t specify which ones, and my impression was that it formed only a small and irregular part of their diet. They lived mainly, and at times exclusively, on meat.
You have to wonder how that came about. If it is true, as taught, that all Native Americans are descendants of Siberians who crossed the frozen Bering Strait, on foot, during the last Ice Age, then they had to be from a line of confirmed meat-eaters because you couldn’t survive in such a harsh, frozen place without eating meat. There would have been no plant food for them to eat for most of the year.
But, as they moved south to milder climes, there was probably the opportunity to eat more plant food, since it was more abundant. But by then, the culture had been oriented to a high-meat diet, and it wasn’t going to change. Culture and tradition, more than anything else, including climate, determine what people eat.
So, the Comanche were big meat eaters, and in some ways, it seemed to serve them well. It didn’t make them fat. And they were physically strong, and sometimes prodigiously strong. The book centered around the life of the last Comanche chief, whose name was Quanah. What a life he led. I don’t know how Hollywood missed making a movie about him. His mother was a white woman, Cynthia Ann Parker, who had been kidnapped by the Comanches at the age of 9. She was adopted by a childless Comanche woman and fully integrated into the tribe. She learned their language and soon forgot English. She learned all the ways of the Comanches, and she eventually became the wife of the Comanche chief, Peta Nocona. Ultimately, Peta died at the Battle of Pease River, and she was recaptured by the whites and returned to her family in East Texas. But, she was miserable there and only lived a few years. Some say she starved herself to death.
But, her teenage son Quanah, who survived the Battle of Pease River and escaped, went on to become the last and greatest chief of the Comanches. He led them in war, and he also led them in peace when he realized in the late 1870s, that further resistance was futile. He lived well into the 20th century and became a leader and spokesman for Indians in polite white society. He went on to mix and mingle with the high and mighty, including Presidents, such as Teddy Roosevelt. Just think: earlier in his life he was a mighty warrior, scalping his white enemies and later, he was socializing with presidents.
But, I want to tell you about his feat of strength. During the Battle of Adobe Walls, he saw a fallen comrade who was still alive. So, he rode toward him and with one hand he lifted this fallen warrior and swept him up and onto the back of his horse- WITH ONE HAND! Everyone was amazed, including the whites. Think about the leverage that was working against him. And he did it with one hand.
So, the Comanche were plenty strong from their steady diet of grass-fed, organic buffalo meat. But, they also suffered from it. They suffered from constipation, as you can imagine, and they took various herbs as laxatives. They suffered from dental caries, and they figured out a way of packing carious teeth with dried mushrooms to fill the holes. But the worst thing was the epidemics of acute disease. They died in droves from exposure to small pox, diphtheria, dysentery of various causes, and worst of all, cholera. It was said that more Comanches died from the white man’s diseases than from the white man’s bullets.
A lot has been said about the idea that the Indians were so vulnerable because they had never been exposed to these diseases before, and so they had no natural resistance. But, I have to wonder how much of their vulnerability resulted from simple malnutrition. Today, we know about the important role that Vitamin C plays in immunity. Where were they getting Vitamin C? From a few berries eaten in the Spring? That wouldn’t have sustained them through the year. Carotenoids also play a crucial role in immunity, and that had to be lacking in their meat-centered diet. And of course, there were many other plant-based nutrients that they would have lacked as well. But, what did they know about these things? Nothing.
Ultimately, the Comanches were settled on a reservation in Oklahoma. And their diet switched from buffalo to beef. In fact, Chief Quanah became a big cattle rancher himself. It doesn’t sound like he or any of them ever learned about the importance of plant food. Quanah died of an undisclosed illness at the age of 66 in 1911. Of course, for that particular time, it was considered a ripe old age. But, what a life he lived, and what a life they lived: a Stone Age people to within 20 years of the 20th century. Amazing.