Bug Honeydew was a Sweet Treat for California Indians

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Certain insects in the true bug order are specialized to only feed on plant sap, including all aphids (Aphidae) and scales (Coccidae), and most of the planthoppers, leafhoppers, froghoppers, and cicadas (Hemiptera:Auchenorrhyncha aka Homoptera). These insects have syringe-like mouthparts to pierce the sap and/or water-conducting vessels of leaves, veins, stems, and fruits. Their adaptation to their extremely watery diet has also given rise to a very long intestinal tract with which they can absorb most of the nutrients of the sap before it passes out. But this still isn’t enough to absorb the sap’s sugars and other nutrients completely, so their frass (insect excrement) is very sweet.

A) shows an aphid piercing plant tissue with its syringe-like mouthpart B) shows how this stylet pierces a single cell (in this case making it ideal for sampling cell contents for an experiment by a plant physiologist) Credit: http://5e.plantphys.net/article.php?ch=t&id=136

This sugar-rich exudation of…

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How to Make Moccasins: a Photo Guide

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1) First, trace your foot on some paper to make the pattern for the sole. You should leave a centimeter or so space between your foot and the edge of the pattern:



2) Trace these other patterns based on the size of the sole pattern. Analyze the below photos to determine the relative shapes / sizes. See step the third photo below to better size the tongue pattern (pattern on right side). Basically it should cover the top of your foot and its sides wrap around to meet the edges of the sole pattern with sufficient space (~ 1cm) to stitch.



4) Check the patterns have the right size and shape by lightly taping the edges to form a model of the moccasin.



5) After correcting for any size / shape problems revealed by the model, trace the patterns onto your leather (or other material of choice). Be sure to…

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Fried Fiddleheads and Further Functions of Ferns

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The fiddleheads of most (if not all) species of ferns are edible. The fiddlehead refers to the unfurling young fronds that appear in late winter through spring, appearing singly for new plants, or at the base or middle of full-grown ferns. They can be eaten raw, but are better after being lightly fried.

The species pictured below, Polystichum munitum (Kaulf.) C. Presl, aka western sword fern, is very common in the east bay hills. Also pictured below are its fiddleheads that I fried and ate this spring.




It is somewhat asparagus-like in flavor and texture. It makes a great side dish or could be an important survival food if lost in a fern-rich area.

Other uses:

Fronds of Polystichum munitum were also used by the Kashaya Pomo Indians of California to line earth pit ovens for slow-cooking many types of foods, as well as to line basins formed in sand…

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How to Make a Rabbitstick (non-returning boomerang)

See my earlier posts How to Make a Returning Boomerang and Boomerangs are awesome! for more info about boomerangs.

The non-returning boomerang, aka rabbitstick was a ubiquitous and important weapon among hunter-gatherer cultures around the world, especially those living in open environments like desert, scrubland, and grassland.

The rabbitstick was used, obviously, to hunt rabbits, but also many other animals such as ground fowl, squirrels, and even large ungulates such as deer. The rabbitstick could instantly kill smaller animals when struck, but could also take down deer and antelope since it could break their legs, rendering them unable to flee.

The rabbitstick took many forms, but was always flattened and a foot to several feet long, and was usually bent along its length. Being thrown bend-first (with the V facing forward), the angle gave more force to the blow if it hit properly since the momentum would be directed along the length, striking with a smaller area of the weapon.

The rabbitstick was superior to a regular stick since the modification to be flat, bent, and with airfoils allowed it to travel much longer distances. A proper rabbitstick could be thrown with enough force to kill up to 200 yards, whereas a stick could only be thrown at most third of that distance. The flat shape, beyond enhancing flight distance, gave a more powerful blow since it concentrated the force to a small area.

The rabbitstick is fairly simple to make, and would be a great weapon to fashion in a survival situation. It is also pretty effective as a hunting weapon in general since it makes a two or three foot by 600 ft long killing zone. Compared to a bow and arrow or even a rifle, the rabbitstick may be better to hunt for medium-sized ground game in open areas, in such situations being only inferior to a shotgun.

Here are some basic instructions how to make one. More in-depth treatments of how to make rabbitsticks with different methods can be found in these blog posts: https://naturalskills.wordpress.com/2011/01/27/non-returning-boomerangs/ and https://naturalskills.wordpress.com/2011/06/17/boomerang-build-a-long/(also an awesome blog in general), and in the Bulletin of Primitive Technology #4 (1992) article by Errett Callahan “The non-returning boomerang.” Callahan (1999) has a similar article in a book (see reference).

1) find a piece of wood. It should have the bend of the angle you are looking for. If you try to artificially make a bend in an otherwise straight piece, you will have to cut across the grain, weakening the rabbitstick at the bend. It should be wide and thick enough to end up after trimming bark and shaping to be several inches wide by about an inch thick. The heavier the wood, the better. If you don’t have a saw or don’t want to use one, take into account the splitting ability of the wood. Many pines and cedars split cleanly. I chose incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens) since it was easy to find a flattened, well-bent piece, and I knew it would split easily. This wood is not particularly heavy though, so I made the boomerang pretty wide to give it some heft. Another benefit to using this tree species is that it makes an excellent hearth-board for friction fire starting (the board you put a hole in that you spin a stick on), being used by many Californian Indians for this purpose.

2) cut it to size then split it down the middle. You will need at least two wedges and a mallet, which can be fairly easily obtained in primitive situations. A very hard wood, bone, or best, antler, ground to shape makes a good wedge. A hard wood or rock makes a good mallet. I used a hatchet and splitting axe in place of wedges and a hammer for a mallet. I started the split on one end, got stuck in the middle so started again there, and to keep it splitting in the center, started a split once more at the other end. Pics below show this:





3) choose the better half and split that. Put your wedge in the center at one end (pictured below) and work it as far as you can. It may veer off and you’ll have to start at the other end and middle. If it won’t split at all just trim with your hatchet, knife, or saw. It should be only an inch or so thick uniformly along the length. I used the piece to the left in the below photo.


4) trim the split piece to size, giving one end a good hand grip, and making the edges pointed. It should be somewhat elliptical in cross section like this shape: (), with the edges near the center of its thickness. The cross section of mine was more rhomboid or diamond-like, like this shape: <==>. Callahan (1999) discusses the effects different airfoils and edge shapes have on the flight of the non-returning boomerang. Most importantly, if the edges are too blunt or too near the top or bottom, it may not fly well. The finished rabbitstick should weigh about 12 ounces for optimum performance (Callahan 1999)

Here is my finished (I left it pretty rough) rabbitstick. It’s about 1/2 to 3/4 inch thick throughout the length, and 1.5 to 2.5 in wide on the ends, with the max width of 5 in in the middle. The end I’m holding is more elliptical in cross section to make a good grip, while the other end is more flat on the top and bottom, with edges angled like an axe blade.



Many different shapes and sizes will work.

The most important factors are keeping it flat, straight, and with edges along the centerline. A good bend helps, but it may also be more of a gradual curve like this shape: (.

You can work the wood green (which is better for splitting or using stone tools), but keep in mind it may warp when dry. You can take steps to secure it in shape as it dries, or bend it back to shape after it warps by applying oil or grease and heating it steaming hot over a fire, bending it to shape, and allowing it to cool while holding it in shape.

Disclaimer: I take no responsibility for any injury or death resulting from any information in this blog.


Callahan, Errett. 1999. How to make a throwing stick: the non-returning boomerang. In D. Wescott (ed.) Primitive Technology: a book of earth skills. Gibbs Smith, Publisher, Layton UT.

How to Make a Returning Boomerang

A returning boomerang is not just a cool toy: this is a weapon useful for killing birds in flocks, and as a hawk decoy to flush waterbirds into nets.

What do you call a non-returning boomerang? A stick!… Not! Actually, although what most think of as a “boomerang” is the returning kind, most boomerangs used traditionally by Australian Aborigines were non-returning, but still specially designed to be thrown long distances in a straight line to deliver a lethal blow, as well as used for many other purposes.

See my post Boomerangs are Awesome! for background info and more about technical principles about boomerangs.

Steps to make a returning boomerang:

1) obtain a section of wood with a bend measuring 90-120 degrees. It must be from a fork, or bent root so the grain follows the bend. If you cut the proper angle into a straight piece, the boomerang will be weak and liable to break at the bend. It should be fairly straight and flat besides the bend. I chose blue gum eucalyptus wood, which is not particularly good for carving, but is very abundant around here and had that Australian authenticity to it.

2) cut it to equal lengths from the bend and cut that in half. I used a saw but for straight-grained, easily split wood, you can split it with a hatchet or axe and wedge.


3) thin it down and carve airfoils on both ends, facing opposite directions and blending at the center bend.

boomerang constructionDSCN0748DSCN0750DSCN0752

4) once you’ve finished the airfoils, round the ends. The below photo shows all the tools I used so far with the unfinished boomerang in the middle and the unworked half on the right.


5) carve flutings along the length of the top of the airfoils using a small gauge.


6) slightly round the bottom of the front of the airfoils, cutting off this bottom front corner with a single knife sweep.


7) to bend the boomerang at the middle, to give it a positive dihedral shape (meaning if you put the flat bottom of one end of the boomerang on a flat surface the other end will stick up), cover it in oil or grease (I used olive oil) and slowly heat it up til it’s too hot for bare hands over a fire or stove (try not to scorch it), then bend it to the desired shape while it’s hot and hold it like that til it’s cooled. This took quite a bit of strength and using a bench to leverage against. Be careful not to crack the wood. The photo below shows the positive dihedral I put on it.


8) throw it to test it out. Obviously you need a big field with no danger of hitting others. You should throw it with the V facing forward and the ends straight up and down. There should be a constant breeze to your front that you throw at an angle of 45-90 degrees from. Depending on the flight pattern, you may need to reduce weight, change the dihedral, or make other adjustments to get a full return. See these websites’ tips on throwing and tuning:




9) WARNING/DISCLAIMER: a wooden boomerang is a dangerous weapon. Make sure to always throw it in a manner to avoid hurting yourself and others. I take no responsibility for your safety in making or using a boomerang.



Harvester Ants (Pogonomyrmex sp.) Used as Ritual Hallucinogen by California Indians

Pogonomyrmex sp., probably P. californicus – harvester ants; were used as a hallucinogen and medicine by southern California Indians (Blackburn 1976, Groark 1996).

This genus of ants has the greatest mammalian toxicity known of any arthropod (Schmidt and Blum 1978, Groark 1996), with an intravenous LD50 of 0.3-1.1 mg/kg (Schmidt and Blum 1978, Groark 1996).

For use as a ritualistic hallucinogen, in the context of a “vision quest” of Indian youth, harvester ants were eaten after three days of fasting from food, water, and sex and not contacting blood (Groark 1996). In the daytime at an isolated location fully exposed to the elements, an experienced elder administrator, the ant doctor, would lay the youth on their back and feed him, somewhat forcibly, balls of moistened eagle down with about 5 ants inside each (Blackburn 1976, Groark 1996). The dose was regulated, from dozens to ninety or so balls, and the ant feeding stopped when the eyes of the youth turned red and he became lethargic and refused more (Groark 1996). The ant doctor then acts as if they are leaving momentarily, then sneaks up behind and pokes the ribs hard to startle the youth, provoking the ants to all sting his insides at once, causing the youth to pass out (Groark 1996). In most cases, the ants were eaten just once, but in some cases, when the youth awoke several hours later, he would be asked if they can take more ants, repeating the process if able for 2-4 days (Groark 1996).

In the near-death state, the youth would have visions, wherein he would obtain spirits of animals, dream-helpers, to help him in certain abilities in life (Groark 1996). For 4 days afterward, the youth must stay alone and he and the ant doctor must not speak to anyone (Groark 1996). To obtain shamanistic powers, the ants would be eaten in a similar mannar every summer until the powers were obtained (Groark 1996). The ants were also eaten similarly for a variety of ailments, from paralysis to severe colds (Groark 1996).



Blackburn, T. 1976. A query regarding the possible hallucinogenic effects of ant ingestion in south-central California. The Journal of California Anthropology 3(2): 78-81.

Groark, K. P. 1996. Ritual and therapeutic use of “hallucinogenic” harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex) in native south-central California. Journal of Ethnobiology 16(1): 1-29.

Schmidt, J. O. and M. S. Blum. 1978. A harvester ant venom: chemistry and pharmacology. Science, New Series 200(4345): 1064-1066).

Yucca Blossom Fritters

The genus Yucca has 40-50 species, mainly in the US Southwest and Mexico. Most have edible flowers, fruits/seeds, and flower stalks, and some have edible roots (when processed). Common names for this plant usually include “yucca” but some are known as “spanish bayonet” and one is the “joshua tree.” Besides food, the uses of this plant are many, and include the roots being used as soap, the leaves used for fibers, the leaf tips as needles, and the leaves for plaited sandals. Since the dried leaves or woody parts have a very low combustion temperature, they make excellent tinder.

Here I wanted to share a recipe for eating the flowers. Raw, the flowers can be quite bitter. But cooked, they have a nice flavor. I battered and fried some flowers from a spanish dagger blooming on campus. I used whole rye flour, eggs, and water to make the batter. Then I dipped each flower in the batter to coat it and deep-fried it in olive oil. So tasty!


flour, batter, and yucca blossoms


Yucca fritters! I fried a lot more but they were so good they got eaten before I remembered to take a photo!