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Animal remains recovered during ongoing excavations in western North Carolina at Spanish Fort San Juan and the adjacent Native American town of Joara—known collectively as the Berry site—gave us the opportunity to investigate subsistence practices and the relations that existed between the Spanish soldiers and their native neighbors. Fort San Juan was established by Captain Juan Pardo in 1566 and intentionally burned to the ground in 1568. During the brief 18-month occupation, the garrison relied heavily on their Catawba neighbors for survival, both subsistence and otherwise.

Changing Relations at Fort San Juan

Our findings indicate that during the initial occupation of Fort San Juan the Spanish soldiers were provisioned by the native townspeople with whole deer carcasses and prepared or partially prepared dishes of bear meat. Bear meat was a special food in many Southeastern Native American societies, and often reserved for esteemed guests and ceremonial occasions. The large amount of bear provided to the garrison early in its occupation suggests that the Spanish soldiers were treated as guests when they first arrived at Joara. Later in time, bear becomes rare in fort contexts and prepared meats entered the fort more often, providing evidence that the soldiers had worn out their welcome and were becoming increasingly isolated by the local townspeople and town leaders.

black bear
American black bear (Ursus americanus).
turtle soup
Turtle soup anyone?

A Preference for Turtle Soup?

Turtle was an important part of the meat diet at the Fort San Juan. The prevalence of turtle may represent a preference among the soldiers for a familiar food (turtle recipes were common in Europe at that time) and perhaps also a desire to adhere to Catholic traditions. The Church prohibited the consumption of warm-blooded animals during days of abstinence, but permitted the faithful to eat fish, seafood, and turtle. With the low availability of fish at the Berry site, turtles may have been a familiar and readily available food that allowed the soldiers to maintain their Catholic identity.

For More Information…

This research was completed in collaboration with the Exploring Joara Project, co-directed by Drs. David Moore (Warren Wilson College), Robin Beck (University of Michigan), and Christopher Rodning (Tulane University).

Inquiries about zooarchaeology at the Berry site, please contact Dr. Heather Lapham.

To read more about archaeology at the Berry site, check out the newly published book, Fort San Juan and the Limits of Empire: Colonialism and Household Practice at the Berry Site (available from the University of Florida Press and and American Antiquity article, The politics of provisioning: Food and gender at Fort San Juan de Joara, 1566–1568.