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Staple, Feasting, or Fallback Food? Mussel Harvesting among Hunter-Gatherers in Interior Central California


Shells are a visible component of archaeological middens in Central California. While coastal and bay shore sites are often dominated by shells, these food items were sometimes hauled many kilometers from their collection points and are found in appreciable numbers in inland sites as well. Using oxygen and carbon stable isotope data from 44 Mytilus sp. (mussel) shells, we reconstruct shellfish seasonality harvesting at one inland site dating to the Middle Period (ca. 2500-1000 cal yrs BP), CA-SOL-364. Data show that shells were collected from nearby Suisun Marsh and were harvested almost exclusively during winter, a pattern that contrasts with coastal and bay shore sites. Such a harvesting signature is unlike that expected for a food staple or a feasting resource. We suggest mussels were harvested as a fallback food, as a source of protein or micronutrient to complement carbohydrate-rich foods that were stored and consumed during winter, or perhaps were only exploited as opportunity costs relaxed during winter, making sessile mussels an attractive subsistence pursuit.

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