Colonizers of the Americas often paid natives for work in food, and justified the certainty in doing so as an improvement over the supposedly hazardous, unpredictable lifestyle those natives previously led. For example, Fermin Francisco de Lasuén wrote that mission neophytes "are sure of daily sustenance, when before they lived from hand to mouth."

Of course, the native societies were relatively stable. People could could call on a range of resources and social networks as needed. Was there a real risk of deprivation or starvation in those native societies, before they were disrupted?

  • Allow me to clarify the question: you mean to ask was there an actual deficiency or danger of an unstable source of food before the Europeans? Dec 21, 2016 at 4:45
  • Yes, that's a good way to paraphrase it. Clearly the colonists' concerns were overblown, but had they any basis in reality? Dec 21, 2016 at 5:21
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    Any preagricultural and most agricultural society was under the constant threat of famine and malnutrition. The pink romantic memories about the paradise lost are just nostalgia, most of the part.
    – Greg
    Dec 21, 2016 at 12:29
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    I find the recourse to "social network" arguable. A "social network" could work when there are resources but they are unevenly distributed (so they "flow" through the network). But if drought happened or the animals they hunted became scarce, it would have affected the whole of the population of a wide area, and then there would have been no resources to redistribute.
    – SJuan76
    Dec 21, 2016 at 15:09
  • This question can be better answered with ecological food cycles than historiography. People forget that humans are just another animal amongst a food chain. So when there has been an abundance of food in the immediate environment, natives would eat well. Conversely, if natives over-hunted an area food would be scarce and they might starve. This is why many of them were nomadic. Dec 21, 2016 at 17:04

2 Answers 2



Absolutely all hunter-gatherers live "hand-to-mouth", malnutrition is common, and starvation is not just a "risk" - it is a permanent threat.

This should be obvious because they cannot effectively store excess food and thus are subject to the standard predator–prey model:

plenty of food --> 
population expansion -->
depletion of food sources -->
population contraction -->
plenty of food

native societies were relatively very stable

Medieval inner city looks like a modern college campus "safe zone" compared to the level of violence in "native societies".

People could could call on a wide range of resources

This is an exaggeration: a tribe hunting deer will probably have little to fall back on, especially in winter.

social networks

A tribe is a single social unit. They hunt together, they eat together, they starve together. Remember, they cannot store food! Yes, some have a better teepee or moccasins, but not food.

A neighboring tribe might fare better (unlikely, but possibly), but the distance kills cooperation. They are not likely to be bosom buddies (they attack each other to kidnap women all the time), and transporting food is very hard.

Agricultural Societies

These fared better, but not by much.

They did not have high-yield crops and draught animals (and thus the wheel).

The first meant that they still lived hand-to-mouth (even though sightly better than hunter-gatherers because grain store better than meat) and the second meant that a local crop failure (due to, e.g., a drought) could not be mitigated by import.

See Guns, Germs, and Steel for details.

Food Storage

Effective food storage is a relatively recent invention. Pre-industrial societies did not produce much excess food for storage and could not store if very well.

E.g., GurvenKaplan2007 mention

the case of an Nunamiut Eskimo group that perished in its entirety, having been snowed in without sufficient food supplies to survive through the winter.

PS. I am not saying that if a man fails to catch his daily quota of fish/fowl/venison, then his family will starve tomorrow. They can survive on the combination of yesterday's catch and the wife's gathering. Death from starvation was probably not an annual event. However, hunger was.

PPS. Further reading:

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – T.E.D.
    Dec 28, 2016 at 17:06
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    The Kamchadals and the Ohlones both stored their staples for the whole year. Their diets were not monocultures and when they couldn't get the kind of salmon or acorn they preferred they would resort to alternatives. I can believe that there may have been episodes of starvation, but see the paper "On sustainability of human ecological niche construction" for why predator-prey is an oversimplification for modeling human population. Mar 24, 2018 at 5:12

From a New York Times review (Don't Blame Columbus for All the Indians' Ills) of the book The Backbone of History: Health and Nutrition in the Western Hemisphere:

What had not been clearly recognized until now, though, is that the general health of Native Americans had apparently been deteriorating for centuries before 1492. ... More than 12,500 skeletons from 65 sites in North and South America -- slightly more than half of them from pre-Columbians -- were analyzed for evidence of infections, malnutrition and other health problems in various social and geographical settings. ... The surprise, Dr. Armelagos said, was not the evidence of many infectious diseases, but that the pre-Columbians were not better nourished and in general healthier. ...

The more mobile, less densely settled populations were usually the healthiest pre-Columbians. They were taller and had fewer signs of infectious lesions in their bones than residents of large settlements. Their diet was sufficiently rich and varied, the researchers said, for them to largely avoid the symptoms of childhood deprivation, like stunting and anemia. Even so, in the simplest hunter-gatherer societies, few people survived past age 50. In the healthiest cultures in the 1,000 years before Columbus, a life span of no more than 35 years might be usual. ...

The researchers found one exception to the rule that the healthiest sites for Native Americans were the oldest sites. Equestrian nomads of the Great Plains of North America in the 19th century seemed to enjoy excellent health, near the top of the index. They were not fenced in to farms or cities.

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    Yeah, no kidding about the 19th century Plains Indians. For most of the preceding 100 years there were more buffalo on the Plains than Indians, due to the mass deaths (due to imported disease) in the 200 or so years preceding that. The survivors were just that - survivors and direct descendants of survivors of multiple epidemic waves. Dec 21, 2016 at 21:39
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    There were no "equestrian nomads" in America before the Spanish came with their horses, right?
    – bof
    Dec 23, 2016 at 5:06

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