Anthropology

Lovely grub

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Western gourmets are happy to tuck into a bowl of mussels or get to grips with a lobster, but a plate of earthworms or ants would probably be politely declined. The example of Amazonian Amerindians shows that these fusspots are passing up a nutritious and ecologically friendly food source.

From fieldwork and surveys of the literature, Maurizio Paoletti and colleagues found that invertebrates form an important part of the diets of 32 Amazonian ethnic groups (Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 267, 2247–2252; 2000). The most widely consumed species are those that feed on leaves or leaf litter, including leaf-cutter ants, termites, caterpillars (including the cassava hornworm, pictured) and large earthworms. The last, when smoked, are a delicacy to the Ye'Kuana people of Venezuela — who even 'farm' the worms by introducing them into worm-poor patches of ground and reharvesting them.

Leaves are the most abundant source of plant matter in the Amazon. So the animals that feed on them are a highly efficient and sustainable source of nutrients. This is a good example, say Paoletti et al., of how indigenous peoples support themselves from natural resources without causing ecological damage.

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