Root-digging is an important industry among the pre-cibiculturists and furnishes a surprisingly large store of food. The task of digging falls to the women, and since the sole implement employed is a fire-hardened stick, it is, as may be imagined, no light occupation.
Of the various kinds of vegetable food collected by the pre-cibiculturists perhaps the most interesting are grass seeds, for it was doubtless the recognition of their high nutritive value that led to the cultivation of cereals (maize, wheat, barley, oats, rice, and millet), a step which was in all likelihood a necessary forerunner of civilization. It is probable that all the pre-cibiculturists collect grass-seeds, when these are procurable : certainly the native Australians and Californians do, the former harvesting the seeds of silver grass, bower grass, and millet, and the latter (among others) those of sand grass, bunch grass, wild rice, oats, and wheat.
Among the larger seeds may be mentioned those of the oak (acorns), sunflower, cactus, watermelon, and several species of pine and leguminous plants. Acorns entered into the dietary of the early European races, and are to this day largely consumed by the Californians and the Ainus. Among the former the acorns are gathered by the squaws and the old men in deep conical baskets, and Powers describes how the invariable sound which salutes the ear as one approaches a village "is the monotonous thump thump of the pestles used by the patient women in pounding the acorn." So highly do the Californians prize the acorn that they dedicate to it a special dance.
Many varieties of luscious fruits and berries are eaten.
These are chiefly valued for their component salts and water. The aboriginal Australians consume large quantities of the "pig's face" and sow-thistles, which are highly prized for the sake of the large amount of salt they contain. The Californians eat much green food in the spring, especially clover, the early gathering of which is celebrated by the "clover dance:" we read how a whole village may sometimes be seen squatting in a clover meadow plucking the blossoms. The wild lettuce is also a favourite with them.
Though of little nutritive value fungi, when available, appear to be eaten largely by the pre-cibiculturists.
Those living near the sea coast eat certain kinds of seaweed.
Natural vegetable gum is freely partaken of by some pre-cibiculturists, e.g. the Bushmen and the natives of Australia.
Vegetable food being much more easily stored than animal, it is not surprising that the pre-cibiculturists should store the former more commonly than the latter, though in this respect they are surprisingly improvident.
Pre-cibicultural peoples consume their vegetable food both raw and cooked, but as might be expected, a larger proportion of it is eaten raw by them than by the cibiculturists. We moderns cook all our vegetable foods except the luscious fruits, nuts, and those which are eaten under the name of salads, the latter being generally taken with vinegar, which helps in digesting them. On the other hand, pre-cibicultural man consumes a large quantity of vegetable food in the raw state, not only the luscious fruits, nuts, and green foods, seaweeds, and mushrooms being eaten uncooked, but also a considerable number of seeds and roots, the latter fact suggesting that before man began to cook he already grubbed up roots to eat - just as we know baboons to do.
It is an interesting fact that the pre-cibiculturists sometimes put their vegetable food through processes of preparation other than cooking, notably crushing and maceration, the food thus prepared being eaten in the raw state. This strongly supports the conclusion already suggested that even before the invention of cookery man had begun to submit his vegetable food to artificial processes. To this day the Highland gillie is content to eat his oatmeal, mixed with a little water, in the raw state.
The pre-cibiculturists display, in the search and preparation of their vegetable food, a knowledge, resourcefulness, and ingenuity which cannot but excite our admiration. Sheer necessity has made them good practical botanists, well versed in the nature and characteristics of every species of plant likely to serve them as food, and their ingenuity has taught them to prepare these natural products in a variety of ways. They know how to harvest and hull the wild cereals, how to dry and to grind various seeds and roots and to make of the flour biscuits, cakes, and puddings, and - most remarkable of all - how from a number of disagreeable and even deadly vegetable substances to prepare wholesome and palatable foods. The latter feat they chiefly accomplish by maceration and the application of heat.
As with the ingathering of the vegetable food, so, too, its preparation falls to the lot of the women : they it is who pull the grain, grind the seeds and roots, free them from acrid and poisonous matters, and undertake all the complex details of cooking. Cooking is, indeed, with them no light task, in proof of which it is only necessary to refer to the fact that roots are often cooked in rush baskets which rarely serve for more than two cookings.
Sometimes vegetable foods are buried underground, and allowed to remain there until they have undergone partial decomposition, when they are dug up and consumed.
It is somewhat remarkable that in spite of the elaborate processes through which certain of the pre-cibiculturists put their vegetable foods, in spite also of the fact that many of these foods are rich in starch and sugar, no pre-cibicultural people has learnt how to extract these substances. This is probably to be explained by the want of vessels suitable for holding water and resisting fire.
No account of the food of the pre-cibiculturists would be complete without a reference to honey, which constitutes an important source of nutriment for all of them, Esquimaux and Fuegians only excepted. The quantity of honey obtained is often considerable. The Australian natives carry away in baskets specially made for the purpose what they cannot eat on the spot, and so large is the quantity which the Anda-manese obtain that they realize a respectable sum annually by selling it to the residents at Port Blair : they store it in bottles and barrels and are generally able to provide a continuous supply throughout the year. A common way of eating honey with the Australians is to smear a piece of porous bark with it. The honey then becomes partially absorbed, and the primitive sweetmeat is handed round, to be eagerly sucked and chewed by all the company in turn; when sucked dry it is again replenished with honey and again sent round.