I’ve been thinking about this while taking short strolls on the mountain where I live.
At the very top is a secluded spot where I go to sit and listen sometimes. A large hickory tree stands tall there, and this weekend, I collected a few hickory nuts that had fallen from the tree. Hickory nuts have a delicious flavor, however, the tiny nutmeat morsels hide inside stubborn shells.
If we had lived here during the hunter-gatherer days, then we would have known where all the productive hickory trees stood and visited them often, to get there before the small animals building their winter stores.
And we would have likely spent hours cracking out enough hickory nuts to amount to a handful.
When he traveled upriver from present-day Augusta, Georgia on his trip through the Southeast, William Bartram observed the Creeks processing great quantities of hickory nuts:
We then passed over large, rich savannas, or natural meadows, wide-spreading cane swamps, and frequently old Indian settlements, now deserted' and overgrown with forests. These are always on or near the banks of rivers, or great swamps, the artificial mounts and terraces elevating them above the surrounding groves. I observed in the ancient cultivated fields:
1. Diospyros; [Persimmon, Diospyros virginiana]
2. Gleditsia triacanthos; [Honey Locust]
3. Prunus chicasau; [Chickasaw Plum, Prunus angustifolia]
4. Callicarpa; [French Mulberry, Callicarpa americana]
5. Moras rubra; [Red Mulberry, Morus rubra]
6. Juglans exaltata; [Shell-barked Hickory]
7. Juglans nigra, [Black walnut]
which inform us that these trees were cultivated by the ancients on account of their fruit as being wholesome and nourishing food. Though these are natives of the forest, yet they thrive better, and are more fruitful in cultivated plantations, and the fruit is in great estimation with the present generation of Indians, particularly Juglans exaltata, commonly called shell-barked hiccory. The Creeks store up the last in their towns. I have seen above an hundred bushels of these nuts belonging to one family. They pound them to pieces, and then cast them into boiling water, which, after passing through fine strainers, preserves the most oily part of the liquid; this, they call by a name which signifies hiccory milk; it is as sweet and rich as fresh cream, and is an ingredient in most of their cookery, especially homony and corn cakes.
In his 1873 book, Antiquities of the Southern Indians, Charles Colcock Jones described the stone implements used to crack hickories and other nuts:
We have thus, at some length, referred to the use of nuts as an article of food among the Southern Indians, because we hence derive the meaning and employment of these cup-shaped cavities. In our judgment these relics are simply the stones upon which the Indians cracked their nuts. Their cavities are so located that one, two, three, four, five, and sometimes more nuts could be cracked at a single blow delivered by means of the circular, flat crushing-stone so common, and so often found in direct connection with the rude articles now under consideration.
The cups are just large enough to hold a hickory-nut or a walnut in proper position so that, when struck, its pieces would be prevented from being widely scattered. Particularly do the soap-stones indicate the impressions left by the convex surfaces of the harder nuts. Upon some of them the depressions seem to have been caused simply by repeatedly cracking the nuts upon the same spot so that in time a concavity was produced corresponding to the half of the spherical or spheroidal nut. Such is the most natural explanation we can offer with regard to the use of these stones.