Native Americans did not have dairy cows or other domesticated milk-producing animals before Europeans arrived in the Americas. So what did they use instead of cow’s milk?
Native Americans got most of the nutrients found in milk from plant sources. Many tribes made plant-based “milks” by grinding seeds or nuts in water. Some common examples include:
- Almond milk – Made from ground almonds and water
- Cashew milk – Made from ground cashews and water
- Coconut milk – Made by grating coconut meat and mixing it with water
- Sesame seed milk – Made from ground sesame seeds and water
- Pecan milk – Made from ground pecans and water
These nut and seed milks provided fats, protein, vitamins, and minerals to Native American diets. The milks were often strained to achieve a smooth, creamy texture.
Other Animal-Based Options
In addition to plant-based milks, some Native Americans also got nourishment from animal sources such as:
- Bone broth – Broth made by boiling animal bones and fat was nutritious and filling.
- Blood – Animal blood was occasionally consumed as a source of protein and minerals.
- Meat fats – Rendered fats from animals provided concentrated calories and vitamins A, D, E and K.
When hunting buffalo, deer, elk and other animals, Native Americans used every part of the animal for food, clothing, tools and more. This included finding creative ways to extract nutrition from bones, blood and fat.
Unusual Animal Milks
Some Native American tribes did actually milk animals! But these weren’t the typical dairy mammals that Europeans milked. A couple examples include:
- Reindeer milk – In Arctic regions, reindeer were semi-domesticated and milked. Reindeer milk is very rich like cow’s milk.
- Horse milk – Some Plains tribes milked horses. Horse milk is similar to cow’s milk but lower in fat and lactose.
Milking these animals provided additional sources of nutrients for tribes living in extreme northern and plains environments without access to typical dairy animals.
Fermented Milks from Animals
Native Americans also consumed fermented milks made from wild animals. These provided probiotics and preserved the nutrition in milk. Some examples include:
- Moose or caribou yogurt – Milk fermented from moose or caribou.
- Pemmican – A mix of dried meat, fat and berries that was sometimes fermented into a yogurt-like food.
Fermenting milks helped preserve nutrients while also making them more digestible and increasing their nutritional value through probiotics.
For infants and young children, mother’s milk provided ideal nutrition. Breastfeeding typically continued for several years, ensuring children received complete nourishment during this critical developmental period.
If a mother could not produce enough milk herself, another lactating woman from the tribe would serve as a wet nurse to feed the child.
The Milk of the Agave
The agave plant played an important role in multiple Native American cultures. One edible form of agave was the “milk” contained in the plant’s core. To extract the agave milk, the core was scraped and ground down to release its juicy contents.
Agave milk provided sugars, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. It was often fermented into an alcoholic drink, such as pulque for the Aztecs.
In summary, Native Americans did not have access to dairy cows before European contact. But they still found many nutritious “milks” from the plants and animals around them. Plant-based milks, meat fats, fermented drinks and human breastmilk sustained generations of Native Americans before the introduction of dairy cattle and other European livestock.
This demonstrates how creative and resourceful early Native cultures were about using every part of their environment for food. Next time you add almond milk to your coffee or snack on cashews, thank Native civilizations for discovering the versatility of plants and pioneering non-dairy milks!
|Moose or caribou yogurt
|Pulque (from agave)
|Sesame seed milk
This table summarizes some of the main plant-based, animal-based, and fermented milks consumed by Native Americans before European contact.