American Indians and Colonists Had a Healthy Appetite for Crabs, Study Shows

Native Americans and America’s early colonists ate many more blue crabs than modern researchers previously thought, according to a team of scientists studying crab remains unearthed at archaeological sites in the Chesapeake Bay area.

“I don’t feel confident saying crabs were consistently a dietary staple for Native Americans, but they are found in so many different sites across so many different time periods that we know Native Americans and the colonists were clearly eating them,” says Torben Rick, an anthropologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.  Rick was lead author of a recent paper on the subject in the Journal of Archaeological Science.


“Blue crabs were an important food source for Native Americans, Euro American colonists, and African Americans,” Rick, Ogburn and their co-authors write in their paper.  “They are found at a wide variety of site types, including George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate, a series of plantations and manors in Maryland, a 17th century Native American site, and a 19th-20th century African American domestic site.  These crab remains range in age from the early 17th century to the 20th century, suggesting continuous consumption of crabs from prehistoric times and across all major cultural or ethnic groups.”

By measuring the excavated the crab parts–primarily pieces of claws and shell parts–the researchers determined that large crabs were more common in the archaeological collections compared to crabs caught in the Chesapeake today.

“Large crabs overall seem to have been quite a bit more common in prehistoric times than they are today,” Rick says.  “That’s what we would expect, but it is good to have scientific confirmation that today’s smaller crabs are in part the result of an intensive fishery that removes large crabs from the population.”

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