Food and Food Systems in the Age of Revolutions: Rethinking the Indigenous Contours of World History
Natale A. Zappia
How might the powerfully compelling yet somewhat abstract "age of revolutions" speak to students immersed in the most integrated world economy in human history? How do world historians provide inclusive, relevant narratives without re-inscribing "peripheral" actors and places during seminal global events such as the age of revolutions? As with many other problems (academic and otherwise), thinking about food may help.
The long nineteenth century ushered in an "age of revolutions" that rippled across the globe, riding on the waves of the Atlantic Ocean.1 Through eloquent and radical ideas transported on parchment paper, former colonies coalesced into "invented communities" called nations.2 And through revolutionary advances in technology, infrastructure, and energy development, disparate producers and consumers united via invisible yet unshakable bonds that paved the way to modernity. This period marked a singular moment in world history. In this sweeping narrative framed by writers even before the ink of the Declaration of Independence went dry, the Atlantic and its Euro-American participants acted as the primary conduits and vessels for this new age.3
But away from these ocean currents, an environmental revolution equally as dramatic and far reaching took place in the seemingly remote corners of the Atlantic World—a food revolution underpinning all of the other coalescing global political-economic and cultural events. And this transformation originated in the most humble and ubiquitous of media: the soil, where the food revolution continues to transform the world.4 Across the Americas, while coastal elites debated the meaning of liberty, freedom, and sovereignty, operators of newly integrated food systems further inland churned out more commodities than ever before. This expansion intersected with new technology, legal precedents, transportation corridors, and food products.
Within North America, interior Indigenous production centers and their complex, carefully managed ecologies connected the continent along overlapping highways (through rivers, valleys, and forests) that forged these new configurations, providing suitable soil environments, trade routes, and commodities for an increasingly mechanized food system. The global markets for wheat, livestock, and maize (among other food commodities) reflect some of the clearest examples of these forces.5 Food producers put the land (rather than the sea) at the heart of global economic development while simultaneously contending with (and ultimately seizing) Indigenous control of vast continental landscapes.
These Native and non-Native "food frontiers" cascaded towards the end of the colonial era through the global age of revolutions and into the modern era of the nation-state. Throughout this period, food producers at every level of the food system—cultivators, ranchers, merchants, and others—prioritized staple commodities like wheat. Their new calibrations further linked the Atlantic world with the North American continent. Similarly, during the age of revolutions interior ranchers (both Native and non-Native) across the Southwest borderlands raised or indirectly managed over a million head of cattle, three million sheep, two million horses, and millions more buffalo on the Plains.6 Food Frontiers, then, became the sites for new forms of commercial farming, Indigenous identity, and even global exchange.
Relatively non-perishable foodstuffs catering to local and far-flung markets, these products underpinned the political-economy of emerging nation-states. The very fertility of the North American soil and in food producing landscapes in Latin America and Africa, though, resulted from carefully managed Indigenous agro-pastoral complexes that continued even as these regions rapidly became global commodity chains. In North America, centuries of careful Indigenous maize (also known as corn) cultivation resulted in soil systems that afforded the rapid expansion of the "wheat belt." Indigenous communities practiced a highly productive maize agriculture that included the most advanced methods retaining nitrogen in the soil through the cultivation of the "three sisters"—maize, beans, squash. They also collectively preserved meadows for herbivores like deer, and effectively managed rice, root, and seed economies that were integrally linked with larger Atlantic economies. This was especially true in Native management of keystone species like beavers and large herbivores that preserved an imperfect yet stable ecological balance. The global beaver fur and deerskin trade, irrevocably shattered many of these relationships through habitat destruction, overhunting, widespread warfare, and the spread of disease. Yet, Indigenous communities and polities continued to control the levers of continental food systems. That is, until the global push of Afro-Eurasian food systems reached into the first interior spaces west of the Appalachian Mountains.7
These new Afro-Eurasian settler societies sought to capture the fertility of Indigenous foodways and convert this energy into political-economic power. The same set of economic concerns framed the politics of those engaged in livestock production even further in the more parched landscapes of the desert west. Myriad food production enterprises coalesced into a convergence of ecological forces. At the same time, competing Indigenous interests demanded a seat at the table of these new food regimes, sometimes even forming their own "empires" and confederacies to challenge the expansion of this new, global food system.8 Taken together, these economic battles between creole elites, former colonies, local economies, and Indigenous communities acted as a struggle over controlling the direction of a new food system. These are but a few of the multi-layered, far-reaching examples of how food systems weighed heavily upon the age of revolutions.9
Let us stop for a moment to define "food system." In recent decades, the term relationships shared between producers, consumers, political entities, infrastructure, transportation, and environments. Activists and food studies scholars employed the phrase to identify inequities in urban landscapes (i.e. food deserts) and map out economic and racial segregation. But food systems are also intensely local. Different regions evince divergent or overlapping methods of land use, trade, or environmental degradation, and even preservation. Thus particular food products (like domestic animals or crops) may act as bundles of information revealing historical patterns of human and environmental interactions.
Social scientists have explored the relationship between modern political movements and the industrialization of food systems. Historians of early America are beginning to utilize this lens, and in this essay, I briefly highlight the history of a few key components of the food system, including production, transportation, and energy. But these are just a few of the entry points. A "food archive" affords many opportunities to arrive at a more accurate and equitable historical narrative. Exploring food systems enables a fresh look at the relationship between producer and consumer, techno-ecology and commodity, monocultural and polycultural land use practices, public and private infrastructure projects, and parallel local and global supply chains.
Historians charting the global exchange of technology through Atlantic World cities have emphasized the importance of urban market demands on the development of borderlands economies. Atlantic (and Pacific) networks as well as global cosmopolitan pallets certainly shaped "peripheral" economies in places like "the West" or "the borderlands."10 These geographies evince a "center to the edge" narrative that dominates even the most up-to-date world history surveys. Yet these vast interior worlds are better understood as places where Indigenous actors and actions emanated out from within to shape the contours of the age of revolution and world history.11
These repositories of Indigenous or traditional knowledge (widely known as "traditional ecological knowledge, or TEK) directly correspond to crisscrossing Indigenous cultivators, soil builders, pyrogenic and agro-forestry managers, grass seed collectors, and herbivore herders that participated in the transformative global age of revolutions. An Indigenous foodscape connected all of these cultures, histories, economies, and environments. Indeed, accessing this archive of food technology, land use practices, political-economy, and culture is a vital task that may guide humanity through the current ecological crises, including making a smooth energy transition, overcoming food scarcity, diverting irrigation away from fossil water, and Indigenous models of smart growth.
TEK practitioners have already begun meeting these challenges, working with state/national agencies, NGOs, and policy makers to maintain more sustainable environments. At the same time, tribal governments have employed TEK to address inadequate access to healthy and culturally resonant food systems. The food archive, then provides a comprehensive and far-reaching set of primary sources that simultaneously situates Indigeneity at the heart of U.S. and world history while also empowering Indigenous communities with tools to overcome historic trauma, strengthen sovereignty, and sustain community health. Many of these sources are difficult to locate and somewhat translucent—hidden in plain sight—like much of our food system that sustains us.12
Thinking about Food Revolutions: Food and World History Pedagogy
Thinking about food and food systems as an archive offers a more capacious palette for research and methodologies uncovering new ways to understand the age of revolutions in world history. But equally as important it draws on relevant and timely themes that resonate with students enrolled in world history surveys. Buzzwords like food consumption, diet, sustainability, provenance, GMO, organic, localvore, foodies—all of these have become part of campus lexicons and shorthand for an eco-consumer culture embraced by so-called millennials. The broad, thematic contours of world history courses can speak to these concerns and interests. In fact, rather than bemoan the invasion of "presentism" creeping into our courses, historians should embrace the tangible connections between past, present, and future. The complete global integration of ecologies, energy/food systems, and flora/fauna migrations is indeed another world historical conjuncture, and historians can utilize a food systems approach to capture the imagination of students but also encourage the instructor to be even more interdisciplinary, creative, and vulnerable.
Whittier College, where I teach world history, encourages these approaches to push pedagogical boundaries. History 101 (see appendix I for syllabus), as its known, is the "gateway course" in our department. The course is a collaborative effort in the History Department. Almost all of my colleagues co-teach the course, and it provides a survey of world history since the fifteenth century along with a basic introduction to the discipline of history and to the major. In particular, it familiarizes students with a global, non-Eurocentric approach to history, de-centering the West in the process. Given the geographical and chronological scope of the course, its intent is not to "cover the facts," but rather to introduce students to the key themes of world history and help them employ these themes as tools with which to answer the question of why the modern world looks the way it does. It is a course, furthermore, that relies heavily upon the idea of contingency, overturning the familiar assumption that the West "rose" because its success and eventual power were inevitable. Students are introduced to the idea that there is nothing inevitable about the world as it is today, that the world is the product of individual decisions that could have been made differently with different consequences.
During my first opportunity to co-teach it with a European historian, I was also eager to bring my perspective on the Americas (and particularly Indigenous actors) into the course. This emphasis on the Americas, in fact, allowed us to work with students to find common themes shared between Eurocentrism and American exceptionalism. Based on our evaluations, many students enjoyed these discussions because it allowed them to see two different historians having a spirited discussion about methodology, metanarratives, and world history. And it allowed them to situate their own personal narratives into a larger global framework that connected family migration stories and a more integrative history of Latin America into the course. As a federally designated Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) located in southern California, Whittier College reflects the diverse histories that resulted, in part, from this earlier age of revolutions, and for many, History 101 helped crystalize that fact.
Despite its "non-Eurocentric" approach, though, History 101 is like most other world history courses taught today. It has thankfully shed the older "western civilization" approach, but remains tethered to the "core-periphery" paradigm championed by Immanuel Wallerstein.13 Even though sympathetic to the trauma and colonization of Indigenous societies, the Wallersteinian approach continues to view Native cultures as peripheral actors swept up in the age of revolutions and other world historical events. Yet, a closer, more nuanced look that incorporates Braudel's longue duréereveals other subtle yet not less enduring impacts of Indigenous cultures, technology, and ideas on the age of revolutions. Hidden in plain sight, these particular Indigenous archives of food systems have much to teach those engaged in food justice issues but also those attempting to rethink local, regional, and global environments. Both metaphorically and physically, the seed stores and captures this Indigenous longue duréethat continues to shape the modern world.14
In History 101, for example, our thematic approach provided an opportunity to think about the role of local and regional producers, transporters (i.e. middlemen/middlewomen), and consumers. Viewed carefully through global supply chains, the critical role of Indigenous fur hunters, maize farmers, pemmican traders, ginseng foragers, moccasin manufacturers, and wampum suppliers (to name but a few) became quickly apparent. Not only did students reevaluate their assumptions about Euro-American "winners" and Native "losers," but they also began to understand how their own individual consumption habits tug on world history.
Our course never sugarcoated the horrific demographic decline, patterns of genocide, and traumatic forms of colonialism that impacted the Indigenous Americas. However, by exploring food, food systems, provisioning, and local ecologies, we encouraged students to think about the Indigenous past and even contemporary issues around tribal/first nations sovereignty, comparative frameworks for human rights, and the role of repatriation and reparations in world history. Thus early modern food systems, continental landscapes, and Native practitioners simultaneously shattered our students' preconceived notion around Indigenous agency, core-periphery relationships, and their relationship with food. Collectively, a food systems lens (along with its Indigenous participants) provides a clear yet steady thru-line across both land and sea, giving both places and its inhabitants their proper historical platform. This is especially resonant when world historians rethink the global age of revolutions.
Natale A. Zappia is associate professor and Nadine Austin Wood Chair in American History at Whittier College. His work explores the intersection of food systems, Indigenous political economies, and ecological transformations across the early modern world.
Appendix I: History 101 Syllabus
History 101: Introduction to World History attempts to familiarize students with a global, non-Eurocentric approach to history. The course surveys world history since the fifteenth century, de-centering the West in the process. Given the geographical and chronological scope of the course, its intent is not to "cover the facts," but rather to introduce students to the key themes of world history and help them employ these themes as tools with which to answer the question of why the modern world looks the way it does. It is a course, furthermore, that relies heavily upon the idea of contingency, overturning the familiar assumption that the West "rose" because its success and eventual power were inevitable. Students are introduced to the idea that there is nothing inevitable about the world as it is today, that the world is the product of individual decisions which could have been made differently with different consequences.
1. Course readings:
Required readings for this course will be taken from the following books:
Achebe, Things Fall Apart
In addition, there are a variety of required readings on Moodle. These readings have been put on Moodle in order to save you the cost of buying full books. We expect, then, that you will be able to pay the nominal fee for the printing of an assigned article or chapter.
Furthermore, you must have your reading assignments with you in class (and this includes copies of any assigned material that happens to be on Moodle). Class discussion necessitates detailed references to texts; without your texts in hand, you cannot participate in discussions, and thus you will not be counted as being in attendance until you have gone to retrieve your reading material.
Attendance is unconditionally mandatory, and class roll will be taken daily.
Each student may miss up to three classes in the semester. We make no distinctions between "excused" and "unexcused" absences. An absence is an absence – whether for illness, athletics, work, or a faulty alarm clock – and you are allowed three of them in this class; use them wisely. This attendance policy applies uniformly to athletes and non-athletes. No additional attendance exceptions will be made for athletes. Therefore, athletes should use their three absences for athletic events in which they are participating as members of a team.
Beyond these three absences, continued absence will affect your grade in the following way: upon the 4th absence, your final grade will be lowered one full letter grade; upon the 5th absence, two full letter grades; and upon the 6th absence, you will automatically fail the course.
Please also note the following:
3. Class Participation – 10%
The purpose of this course is to discuss as a group the ideas that the assigned readings raise. In order to assure stimulating discussions, punctual completion of the reading assignments is indispensable. It is expected, however, that at the time of the class the student will not only be conversant with the assigned material, but will also be capable of offering meaningful comments about it. In other words, class participation is not equivalent to class attendance.
Since meaningful conversation cannot occur without a text, students must bring their assigned readings to class; lack of assigned reading will connote lack of preparation, and lack of preparation will affect a student's participation grade.
4. Quizzes – 30%
There will be a number of unannounced quizzes over the course of the semester. Students may not make up a pop quiz that is administered on a day when they are absent. Period. At the end of the semester, however, a student's lowest score will be dropped.
5. Midterm Examinations – 30%
There will be two in-class midterm examinations, on Monday, February 29 and Monday, March 28. Students will be held responsible for the material presented in lectures, issues raised in class discussion, the assigned primary and secondary sources, and basic historical and chronological facts.
6. Final Examination – 30%
There will be an in-class final examination held on May 7, 2016 from 8-10am. Under no circumstances will we schedule early exams. The examination will cover the entire semester's material.
If you bring your cell phone to class, it must be completely silenced (not even a vibrate) and put completely away (not under your desk). The first time that your cell phone is visible to us (in your hand, on your lap, on your desk), we will assume that you have forgotten the classroom policy, and will ask you to put it away; this constitutes your first infraction warning. On the second time that your cell phone is visible, you will be dismissed from class for the day; you will be considered absent; and you will automatically lose half a grade on your final exam. On the third time that your cell phone is visible, you will be dismissed from class for the day; you will be considered absent; and you will be referred to the Dean of Student's Office for discussion as to whether you will continue in the course.
If your phone rings or vibrates in class, you will immediately gather your belongings and leave class; you will counted as absent for the day. The second time this happens, you will immediately gather your belongings and leave class; you will counted as absent for the day; and you will automatically lose half a grade on your final exam. On the third time that your cell phone rings or vibrates, you will be dismissed from class for the day; you will be considered absent; and you will be referred to the Dean of Student's Office for discussion as to whether you will continue in the course.
There will be an in-class final examination held on Saturday, May 7, 2016 from 8-10am. Under no circumstances will we schedule early exams.
The author would like to thank Christoph Strobel and the anonymous reviewers for their feedback and advice. Sections of this essay appear in earlier works by the author including "Revolutions in Revolutions in the Grass: Energy and Food Systems in Continental North America, 1763-1848," Environmental History 21, 1 (January 2016), 30-53 and "Indigenous Food Sovereignty: An Introduction" American Indian Culture and Research Journal 43, 1 (Spring 2018).
1 Eric Hobsbawm coined the term "long nineteenth century," which he argued began with the French Revolution (1789) and ended with World War I (1914). See The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848 (New York: Vintage [revised edition], 1996). New Recent scholarship has expanded this further back to include other events of the "age of revolutions." See Peter Stearns, Michael Adas, Stuart Schwartz, and Mark Jason Gilbert, World Civilizations: The Global Experience (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Longman Press, 2011).
2 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 1983).
3 Scholars have coined the term "age of revolutions" to account for the series of global political-economic uprisings that transformed empires and colonies into nation-states. The dates for this "age" continues to shift. Sarah Knott synthesizes much of this recent debate (discussed at the 2014 Omohundro Institute of Early American Culture Workshop) in the William and Mary Quarterly [hereafter WMQ] (forthcoming). Also see Roger R. Palmer, The Age of Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800 [updated edition] (Princeton: Princeton University press, 2014); and Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolutions, 1789-1848 [updated edition] (New York: Vintage Books, 1996).
4 The literature on the American origins of the global food system is vast and impossible to encapsulate in an essay much less footnotes. But a few excellent and comprehensive works include Courtney Fullilove, The Profit of the Earth: The Global Seeds of American Agriculture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017); Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food (New York: Free Press, 2002); and Rachel Laudan, Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).
5 There are many other global food products that shaped the age of revolutions (potatoes, rice, and sugar immediately come to mind). This essay focuses on just a few of those revolutionary food products relying directly on interior landscapes and continental networks.
6 While bison are not usually considered livestock, Native communities manipulated these herbivore populations and their grazing patterns. Estimates range between twenty-four and one hundred million buffalo in the northern and southern plains on the eve of Anglo/Mexican independence. See, ibid, 5-6; also see Maria Nieves Zedeño, Jesse A. M. Ballenger, and John R. Murray, "Landscape Engineering and Organizational Complexity among Late Prehistoric Bison Hunters of the Northwestern Plains," Current Anthropology 55 (February, 2014): 23-58; M. Scott Taylor, "Buffalo Hunt: International Trade and the Virtual Extinction of the North American Bison," The American Economic Review 101 (December 2011): 3162-3195; and George Colpitts, "Provisioning the HBC: Market Economies in the British Buffalo Commons in the Early Nineteenth Century," Western Historical Quarterly 43, 2 (Summer, 2012): 179-203.
7 See James Rice, Nature and History on the Potomac Country: From Hunter-Gatherers to the Age of Jefferson (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2009).
8 The historiography on Indigenous power in colonial/early national America is vast. Just a few recent approaches include Pekka Hamalainan, The Comanche Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008); Andrew Lipman, The Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the Atlantic Coast (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015); Kathleen DuVaal, The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006); Joshua Reid, The Sea is My Country: The Maritime World of the Makahs (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015); Colin Calloway One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West Before Lewis and Clark (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003); and Elizabeth A. Fenn, Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People (New York: Hill and Wang Press, 2014). The United Indian nations included the Haudensaunees, Hurons, Delawares, Shawnees, Odawas, Cheppewas, Potowatanis, Cherokees, and others. See Colin G. Calloway, The Victory with No Name: The Native American Defeat of the First American Army (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).
9 James E. McWilliams, A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).
10 See Cindy Lobel, Urban Appetites: Food and Culture in Nineteenth Century New York (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014); and Jennifer Anderson, Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).
11 For pre-Columbian environments, see Charles Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (New York: Knopff Press, 2005).
12 For recent work on TEK, see Charles Menzie, Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Natural Resource Management (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006); Laurelyn Whitt, Science, Colonialism, and Indigenous Peoples: The Cultural Politics of Law and Knowledge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Nancy Turner, Ancientsd Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge: Ethnobotany and Ecological Wisdom of Indigenous Peoples of Northwestern North America (Toronto: McGill University Press, 2014); and Beth Rose Middleton, Trust in the Land: New Directions in Tribal Conservation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).
13 For "core-periphery" approaches, see Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century [updated edition] (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011); and Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History [second edition] (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010).
14 Fernand Braudel coined the term "longue durée" to describe deeper historical relationships between human communities and their environments over millennia. See The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II [two volumes] (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996) [reprint of 1966 edition]. For the longue duréein Native America, see Juliana Barr, "There's No Such Thing as "Prehistory": What the Longue Durée of Caddo and Pueblo History Tells Us about Colonial America." The William and Mary Quarterly 74, 2 (2017): 203-40; and James Brooks, "Women, Men, and Cycles of Evangelism in the Southwest Borderlands, AD 750 to 1750," American Historical Review 118, 3 (2013): 738-764.
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