Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Small Game in Primitive Living, Part 2: Protein, Fat, & Calories

Without a doubt, the procuring of adequate food while in a primitive living situation is one of the most consuming (pun unintended) tasks that any modern abo-wannabe participates in.  After several days in the backcountry with a group of fellow primitive living enthusiasts, food fantasies inevitably come up.  "Oh, man, it'd be so great if we came across a pizza smothered in cheese, topped with pepperonis and meat. "  Sometimes these food fantasies take on a spirit of their own and the resultant food combinations are often dishes that no normal, well-fed human being would enjoy (or even think of, really) in civilization.  I once heard a guy say, "I had a dream last night that I was gorging on Church's Chicken topped with ice cream and chocolate syrup."  Mmm ... fried chicken and Ben & Jerry's in one glorious conglomeration.

What does it take to keep a person satisfied in the wilderness when he or she is living on the land, solely utilizing what is in nature to fill his or her belly?  Is it possible to live primitively, happily, with a full stomach while keeping the food fantasies at bay?  First and foremost, it depends on the environment in which one is attempting to get fed.  Many natural areas in the world are sorely lacking in many of the abundant plants and animals that used to flourish only a few hundred years ago.  In the Sonoran Desert, for example -- my stomping grounds -- wild antelope, grazing on extensive, lush grasslands, used to be a common sight.  Now, in most areas where the antelopes once roamed and the grass once grew, there remains scrubby, sad-looking mesquite trees, strangling the land and creating an impermeable barrier of interlaced thorny branches.  Along with over-hunting and over-population, this is a direct effect of over-grazing cattle on lands where they never ranged historically. 

Human beings have left a profound mark upon the earth, and this leaves folks who want to recreate a primitive living experience with limited resources.  What modern abos are left with is but a miniscule piece of nature's pie.  "The old gray mare, she ain't what she used to be."  And, unless we go to Alaska or other relatively unspoiled places, we cannot simply walk out into our backyards and find dinner.  Or can we?

A question I've pondered often is whether or not human beings can live comfortably and successfully with what is available in these altered natural places -- can we work with the limited resources available?  While the abundance of large game animals and wild plant foods in most places -- especially deserts -- has dwindled, perhaps there remains an underestimated, underutilized opportunity for sustenance in small game animals, whose populations have remained relatively stable over time.  Can squirrels, rabbits, birds, mice, and other tiny creatures provide all that a person needs to live well in the wild or elsewhere? 

Matt Graham's experience suggests that it is indeed possible to meet at least one person's caloric and nutritional needs on such fare.  By setting traplines of two simple traps -- one being a spring snare and the other being a Paiute figure-four deadfall -- checking them every day, and cooking the caught animals (mostly squirrels and rabbits) for optimum calories and nutrition, Matt was able to provide for himself during his three months of full-on primitive living in the southern Utah desert.  However, over those three months, he also ended up slowly losing body mass, indicating inadequate caloric intake over time.  Just how many squirrels and rabbits was he eating day to day?  If he had attained more, would he have felt more satisfied and maintained a better body composition?  And what quantity of small game would that require?  I hope to discuss some of these questions with Matt at Wintercount.  Until then, I thought it would be interesting to speculate a little.

Using the data from a research paper (intended for the evaluation of predators' diets in zoos) called "Nutrient Composition of Whole Prey (Excluding Fish) Fed in Zoos" -- and a lot of help from Stephan at Whole Health Source -- I was able to make some calculations and come up with the protein, fat, and calorie content of a few small game animals per pound of whole carcass (note: some animals are eviscerated, meaning their hides and internal organs are discarded):

Here we see that, while a pound of each animal provides adequate protein, when it comes to fat and overall calories, any person would be feeling pretty darn hungry after a while on such a dietary regimen.  Aside from that, there's also the reality of just how many successful traps one can set in a day and just how many animals such traps can provide.  Let's say we want a minimum of about 1500 calories per day, give or take.  That would require roughly:
  • 56 adult mice (avg. 20 grams each)
  • 2 gray squirrels (avg. 1.1 lbs each)
  • 1/3 of an eviscerated domestic rabbit (avg. 9 lbs each)*
  • 1/2 of an eviscerated black-tailed jackrabbit (avg. 8 lbs. each)
  • 6 Japanese quail (avg. 1/3 lb each)**
*Wild cottontail rabbits, for comparison, weigh an average of 2.3 lbs
**Similar in weight to Gambel's Quail of the Sonoran Desert

If we want to have enough calories to maintain body mass and even build muscle in primitive living, it would require twice those numbers.  Realistically, no person is going to be able to procure the amount of mice it requires to sustain a person in this way.  I certainly wouldn't be up for setting the number of traps that it would take, considering the fact that one whole mouse is only one bite and down the hatch!  However, when we look at some of the larger animals, surviving comfortably in the wild becomes more than a pipe dream.  Catch a few squirrels, maybe some mice and quail, and a rabbit or two per day and you have the makings of a successful primitive living experience!  The question of fat, however, is inescapable, and may require the taking of some animals soley for the fatty parts, which would add on a few more squirrels or one more rabbit to account for this need (if we are to achieve an ideal 60/40 or, best, 80/20 ratio of protein to fat).

Of course, not all of the animal can be eaten in most cases (aside from the very tiny ones) so we are left with the question of just how much of each animal can, in fact, be digested and utilized for nutrients.  In the next post, we'll discuss cooking small game in primitive living.

Note: I realize I'm leaving out the addition of plant foods to the primitive diet and their caloric contribution.  Seasonal variation and environmental degradation, not to mention the extensive processing many wild edibles require, makes them a questionable food source for practicing abos in many parts of the world.  If they're abundant, though, definitely eat 'em!


Robert McLeod said...

Mmm... rabbit starvation. I take it you were unable to find data on macronutrient composition for whole rabbits?

If the maximum protein content of our diets are somewhere around 35 % then I can imagine that large portions of the muscle meat might need to be discarded, or perhaps used as bait.

This does go a good ways to illustrate why most hunter gatherer societies are thought to go for big game if there's any available.

Ryan Koch @ Health Matters to Me said...


Nope. I couldn't find data for whole rabbits. They're pretty lean and would have to be cooked in stews to extract all the fat possible, which I'll get into next post.

Large game is certainly where it's at!

eric said...

Hey Ryan, I was looking up info for an activity that involves figuring how many calories can be procured from a defined area solely on wild game and plant foods. A google search brought me to you! Thanks for the info. Let me know when you are in Tucson for a visit.

Eric Dhruv

Ryan Koch @ Health Matters to Me said...

Hey Eric!

That's cool that you stumbled upon my blog. Glad that you got some info from it. Hope it's useful!

We should definitely connect next time I visit Tucson. I'd love to catch up with you and Suzanne!