Monday, October 17, 2011

Bainbridge for Nobel Prize

I have long thought that Dr. David Bainbridge should be given a Nobel Prize for his work in  ecological restoration, sustainability and, of course (and most importantly) promoting acorns as a food crop for the future.  In fact it was he who coined the term "balanoculture" to label the acorn eating cultures of the world.
I have been reading his 1986 paper, "Use of Acorns for Food in California: Past, Present, and Future," presented at the Symposium on Multiple-use of California's Hardwoods.

It's pretty much a sentence-by-sentence process, since it is so information dense; each new sentence sends my poor little brain spinning in twelve different directions.  I'll be dissecting the paper in a series of upcoming posts.

Here are a few snippets:

"Acorns have been used as food by Homo sapiens for thousands of years virtually everywhere oaks are found.  The worldwide destruction of the acorn resource by mismanagement may well have led to the development of annual plant based agriculture and to civilization as we know it today (Bohrer, 1972; Bainbridge, 1985b)"

The two papers referenced are listed as:

Bohrer, V.L. On the Relation of Harvest Methods to Early Agriculture in the Near East. Economic Botany, 16:145-155; 1972

Bainbridge, D.A. The Rise of Agriculture: A New Perspective. Ambio.14(3):148-151

I going to try to get my mitts on these two papers, because the idea fascinates me.  I often fall into the trap of viewing our acorn-eating past as Utopia - or more accurately and more specifically as an Eden, and as punishment for our Fall From Grace we were doomed to live by the sweat of our toil and by working the soil year after year after year, despite the fact that everything we need to eat grows on trees.

But here we're being told by a source I respect more than almost any other that in was probably the other way around:  we trashed our acorn resource and were forced to grow annual cereal crops to survive.

This might be a distinction without a difference:  One way or another we stopped relying on acorns and started beating the snot out of the ground to grow grains.  In the end it doesn't really matter how or why it happened, only that it did happen, and only that we knock it off and get back to perennial woody crops like acorns.

It would surprise me not at all to know that mankind wrecked the acorn resource.  I have always been searching for the great Why? of acorns - why did we stop eating acorns which are gathered with minimal work, which provide more nutriment than grains, and which can be stored for years?  My working theories have focused on control - on how reliance on annual grains allows for divisions and stratifications within society, and allow a small number of people to control the actions of large numbers of underlings by tying them to an annual cycle of toil.

I always love learning more about this - even if it is only to learn for the 7 millionth time how short-sighted man is.

On to a couple more excerpts:

"In Spain and Italy acorns provided 20 percent of the diet of many people just before the turn of the Century (Memmo, 1894)."

Think about that!  Not much more than a century ago there were places in Europe where acorns provided 20 percent of the human diet.  I find this fact astonishing - the great grandparents of many Americans subsisted largely on acorns, and yet it is completely forgotten as a food source.  I also find this fact encouraging - it really shouldn't take much to reinfuse acorns back into the "modern" diet.

"Acorns were perhaps nowhere more important than in California. For many of the native Californians acorns made up half of the diet (Heizer and Elsasser, 1980) and the annual harvest probably exceeded the current Califonia sweet corn harvest of 60,000 tons."

I find draw great strength and inspiration from the thought that I am now sitting and typing on ground once inhabited by people whose diet was 1/2 oak!


  1. Chris,

    I may be able to help you get those articles you need. Unfortunately my computer broke down and I don't have access to my contact list anymore so I will need to get your email. Mine is dntl at


  2. Hi Christian,

    what interesting, I am just in Spain at the moment because I plan to write my thesis about the use of acorns as human food, compare to grains. Where I especially focus on Quercus ilex Rotundifolia. I do compare it to other regions in the world.
    I am interested to do share some literature, as it is hard to find.


  3. Hi Christian,

    Great blog! Funny, I read that Bainbridge paper just the other day. Have you seen his Mother Earth News article from 1984?

    It touches on the transformation of American land-use from Oak to Corn, even though the former can give comparable yields without depleting soils and ravaging other plant & animal communities. So yes indeed, why did this happen? I thought maximising economic productivity was the primary goal of this culture, but even if they don't produce as many food calories as corn, it's obvious you can get more use out of perennial trees (eg: fuel, building material, medicine, tools, animal fodder, leaf mulch...) than you can from the bodies of corn that get ripped out of the ground after just one year. My 'working theories' sound a lot like yours! Control, centralisation of wealth & power... etc. Possibly relevant: Ran Prieur's Oct 14 comment:

    'In a 30 year study , organic farming outperformed conventional farming in every measure. Of course they're forgetting the one measure by which "conventional" farming is greatly superior, and the reason for its success: it's a better fit for central control of the food system.' (

    Also, I'm guessing it's easier to chop down 1,000-year-old forests to plant grains than it is to do the reverse, which would give early farmers the competitive edge over their neighbours when it came to expansion & conquest.

    I've been doing my own acorn research lately, trying to establish what part they played as a human foodstuff in Europe (especially the UK where I'm from) either for the early farmers / pastoralists or for the hunter-gatherer cultures from 6,000+ years ago. The high percentage of Oak in the original Wildwood would surely suggest it played a key role, if not providing the caloric staple. Unfortunately it doesn't seem like acorn fragments survive well enough to be recorded by archaeologists very often! Perhaps they're just not interested... If you like I can let you know when I put my findings up in a blogpost of my own. At the moment it seems like early European farmers relied on acorns as a 'back-up' in case their main harvests failed. They apparently preferred roasting the nuts whole, rather than the Native American process of grinding for flour or mush. I want to re-introduce balanoculture over here too!

    best wishes,

  4. David: I'd love to see those two articles too, if at all possible. If not, don't worry - the online abstracts give me something to work on already... My email address is: frequently_growing at yahoo dot com