Fish as Fertilizer?

Erhard Rostlund’s “The Evidence for the Use of Fish as Fertilizer in Aboriginal North America” (Journal of Geography 56:5 [1957], 222–228) is an attempt to debunk the apparently widespread (at time of writing) belief “that the Indians used to put fish in the ground to fertilize their corn fields.” Rostlund writes “The first and rather obvious point to make is that fish, a valuable food, would hardly have been used as manure unless it was so abundant that people could easily catch more than they could eat. […] The interior of eastern North America, which constituted by far the greater part of the aboriginal farming area, was not rich enough in fish to warrant its use as fertilizer.” Under “The Negative Evidence” he says “in the entire record there is virtually no reference to the use of fish as fertilizer.” But what brings it to LH is this section:

The Linguistic Argument:

Another type of affirmative evidence, or at least affirmative argument, is based on the etymology of “menhaden” and “poghaden” (also called “pauhagen” and “pogy”), which are local names of Brevoortiu tyrannus, an Atlantic fish of the herring family. These names, according to J. H. Trumbull as quoted by G. Browne Goode, are derived from Indian words that mean literally “to fertilize,” and Goode argues that this derivation constitutes “unanswerable evidence” for the manuring with fish in aboriginal time. The validity of the argument naturally depends on the correctness of the etymology, which can be verified only by authorities in the Algonquian languages, and such verification is clearly needed and would be welcome[…]

If a speculative note may be introduced, one may wonder, since the evidence for Indian use of fertilizers is at best rather dubious, whether they had a word meaning “to fertilize.” The missionaries, who compiled many of the Indian dictionaries, studied the aboriginal languages largely for the purpose of translating the Bible, and had the problem of finding Indian expressions for manuring, for example in the parable of the fig tree, “I shall dig about it and dung it” (Luke 13,8). If the Indians had no word for dunging, they soon got an idea for it — suggested perhaps by the missionaries — from seeing the New England colonists manuring their fields with fish. The question is perhaps whether the etymological cart has been put before the horse. Maybe the fish gave its name to manuring, instead of vice versa.

Thoughts? (Thanks, Warren!)


  1. I know nothing about this, but the phrase “unanswerable evidence” sets off alarm bells in my mind.

  2. Thanks for posting this! This is great. In regard to the image, as printed in old textbooks, of Squanto dropping a whole fish into a dibber hole, I also liked the following note from this discussion:

    As a modern Massachusetts gardener has found (Moss 1975), use of fish fertilizer seems impractical where wildlife abounds. Skunks, raccoons, dogs and other animals dig up the rotting fish and damage or destroy the planting.

  3. Michael Eochaidh says

    As a resident of Toronto, the world’s raccoon capital, I agree with the gardener from Massachusetts.

  4. at time of writing

    Still widespread. Just check wikipedia or google. As usual, it’s just in the popular circulation without people trying to figure out where exactly it comes from. J. H. Trumbull (Natick dictionary) indeed connects the name of the fish to fertilizer without any explanation. I do not have time today for research in languages that I don’t know, so I leave it there.

  5. Fishermen off Hokkaido caught such huge quantities of herring that they shipped lots of it south to fertilize rice fields. It was a regular part of the trade down the Japan Sea coast, and salted herring on soba noodles became a local specialty in Kyoto. When I ordered it on my last visit to Kyoto, I told the friendly proprietor that it was the best fertilizer I had ever tasted.

  6. From H. Bruce Franklin, The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden and America (2007), note 17, p. 227:

    A decades-long controversy about whether the Indians used fish as fertilizer was kicked off by Lynn Ceci’s attempted debunking in her “Fish Fertilizer: A Native American Practice?” Science (New Series) 188, no. 4183 (April 4, 1975): 26–30. Responses by Howard S. Russell, G. B. Warden, Sanford A. Moss, and Ceci appeared in Science (New Series) 189, no. 4207 (September 19, 1975): 944–50. William Cronon sided with Ceci in Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill & Wang, 1983), 45; this invaluable book is marred by a number of errors about fish, including the statement that Indians caught eels “as they returned from their spawning in the sea” (American eels all spawn in the Sargasso Sea, where they then die). A strong attack on the debunkers was made by Nanepashemet in “It Smells Fishy to Me: An Argument Supporting the Use of Fish Fertilizer by the Native People of Southern New England,” in Algonkians of New England: Past and Present, ed. Peter Benes (Boston: Boston University Press, 1993), 42–50, but even he never mentions menhaden or the origin of their name. Stephen Mrozowski discusses the dig and its potential significance in his “The Discovery of a Native American Cornfield on Cape Cod,” Archaeology of Eastern North America 22 (1994): 47–62. In a telephone interview on February 8, 2006, Mrozowski told me that a graduate student of his is currently writing a thesis on the bones retrieved from the corn hills, and they appear to be consistent with either shad or menhaden.

    OED says of menhaden:

    < Narragansett munnawhatteaûg, plural (1643 in R. Williams A Key into the Language of America), or an unrecorded cognate of this, apparently influenced by the synonym poghaden, variant of pauhagen n. (though this is attested only later).
    The suggestion is made in N.E.D. (1906) that, as the fish was used by North American Indians for manure, its name might be connected with the verb munnohquohteau ‘he enriches the land, fertilizes’ (in J. Eliot’s translation of the Bible into Massachusett (1663)); this is etymologically incorrect.

    (and for poghaden it says, “etymology unknown”.)

    I enjoy reading about fish fertilizer as much as the next person, but I haven’t netted much. It’s a reasonable assumption that where handy, fish were indeed used as fertilizer. Corn, a.k.a. maize, requires a good supply of nitrogen and phosphorus. Nitrogen can be supplied by growing beans together with the corn. Phosphorus can come from bone ash. This was evidently known by all Indian corn farmers. I imagine that in some places fish could have been a more convenient substitute for bone meal or ash.

    I fear that the “skeptical” argument, as in many other occasions, requires extra-stringent evidence to show that people other than modern Europeans could figure out anything by themselves.

  7. The argument is not that indigenous peoples were too dumb to figure stuff out but that fish were too scarce to use in this way (except on the coasts and certain rivers). I appreciate calling out Eurocentric assumptions as much as the next anti-colonialist, but I think you’ve got hold of the wrong end of the fish.

  8. It seems that there’s no argument on whether the Indians were using fish as fertilizer, since the eyewitness accounts are unambiguous. The argument is that Squanto learned fish fertilization during his time in Europe, then passed it to the Indians, who passed it back to the European settlers.

  9. I have to concur with Y that the skeptical argument (insofar as I’ve gleaned it from here) seems to contain at least two (!) straw men, non sequiturs, or whatever label you want to stick on them.

    The first sounds like the equivalent of saying that Europeans don’t eat herring because they’re quite rare and hard to get down in Munich or Moscow.

    The second is the rather odd assumption that fertilizing with fish must mean something other than fish trash. You don’t have to catch more than you can eat!

  10. Good points, I agree.

  11. Dmitry Pruss says

    When we fertilize with fish, it’s usually a fish gone bad. In our case, forgotten in the freezer for a few months too many. But wherever people fish, they also throw away some.

  12. Trumbull’s etymologies are generally very shaky, and this one’s no different, I think. There’s no particular reason to believe in a link between Narragansett munnawhatteaûg ‘herring-like fish’ and the verb munnohquohteau ‘he fertilizes the land’ in the Eliot Bible. These languages are polysynthetic, and good at coming up with words for new concepts, so it’s hard to state unequivocally that the word for ‘fertilize’ preceded contact with Europeans–but there’s also no reason to believe that it didn’t, as far as I can see.

  13. Are there transparent etymologies for either word?

  14. >Phosphorus can come from bone ash. This was evidently known by all Indian corn farmers. I imagine that in some places fish could have been a more convenient substitute for bone meal or ash.

    Between fish bones and Dmitry’s rotten fish, I’m convinced.

  15. Even if the words are related, it’s easy to think of other possible semantic relations between a root meaning “fertile” and a fish that forms schools over a mile wide.

    Looking up how to pronounce menhaden (a word that’s new to me) I found that Google now has a “Practice” button where you can record your pronunciation of a word and get automatic feedback. It didn’t like how I formed the first vowel and recommended I open my mouth to the width of a finger (or a juvenile menhaden, I suppose), but I don’t have much faith in its phonetic expertise since it now gives me an equally cheerful “Good job!” whichever syllable of the word I stress, including the vowelless ultima.

  16. I guess I had mostly assumed that the fish used as fertilizer were some combination of catch that had gone bad, incidentally caught fish that were too small to eat, and leftovers. So covering corn and bean seeds with rotten fish entrails would be like fertilizing them with garum!

    When a potential food source shows up in great profusion, it is not necessarily uncommon to use it in a rather wasteful fashion as fertilizer. There was traditionally lots of edible kelp* harvested along the coasts of northern Europe, but it was mostly burned to make fertilizer ash. Of course, people are probably less likely to do something like that with a protein source such as fish. However, if, during the right season, your weir catches too much fish to eat and you don’t know how to preserve the catch effectively, you might end up composting everything but the most desirable filets (rather than eating the fins and tail and everything down to the eyes, like Ivan Denisovich).

    * Kelp is no longer deemed to be a plant, biologically—although it might be said to contain plants. The primary cells in brown algae are now known to be heterokonts, and the plastids they contain are not ordinary two-membrane chloroplasts (descended from symbiotic photosynthetic cyanobacteria) but four-membraned organelle structures descended from monocellular green algae.** (Fleas upon fleas,*** indeed.) The linguistic question of whether it still makes sense to refer to kelp as a plant probably has no particularly unequivocall useful answer.

    ** It gets weirder too. There are dinoflagellates with photosynthetic plastids that are descended from endosymbiotic heterokonts (diatoms).

    *** Until I tracked down that link for this comment, I had no idea that Augustus De Morgan had cribbed his famous verse about fleas (which appeared in his elegant book A Budget of Paradoxes) from Jonathan Swift.

  17. The history of sushi says otherwise, eg:

    The history of sushi is an interesting tale of the evolution of a simple dish. What was to become sushi was first mentioned in China in the second century A.D. Originally, sushi arose out of a way of preserving food. Fish was placed in rice and allowed to ferment, which allowed an individual to keep the fish edible for some time. The rice was thrown away and the fish was eaten when needed or wanted.

    On any fine day in spring, when the sky is clear and the waters of nearby Lake Biwa are calm enough for locals to go carp fishing, you can find Mariko Kitamura and her husband Atsushi at their shop Kitashina in the small Japanese town of Takashima making sushi.

    With the dexterity and speed you’d expect from sushi chefs, they scrape off the fish’s scales with a knife, remove its gills and carefully angle a skewer down its throat to remove its innards without penetrating its flesh. But what happens next is truly unexpected. They pack the fish with salt, layer them in a wooden tub, weigh the lid down with 30kg stones and leave them to cure for two years. Each fish is then thoroughly rinsed, dried in the sun for a day and fermented for one more year in cooked rice before it is ready to be eaten.

    This is not the kind of sushi you might get in New York or London, or even easily in Tokyo for that matter. It is the predecessor of what the world now knows as sushi – the original sushi – called narezushi (fermented sushi). Kitamura’s family has been making it for 18 generations, ever since Kitashina opened in 1619 in this remote corner of Shiga prefecture, and today the centuries-old shop is one of a handful of places left in Japan, and the world, where you can experience how “real” sushi is supposed to taste.

    Narezushi is thousands of years old and traces its roots back to the rice fields of China, where the method of curing in salt and fermenting the freshwater fish that lived in the paddies was developed to give the seasonal catch a long shelf life. It is believed to have arrived in Japan at the country’s ancient capital of Nara sometime in the 8th Century. For the next 1,000 years, until it evolved in the 18th Century into the slices-of-raw-seafood-draped-over-mounds-of-rice dish we know today, narezushi was a commonly consumed, nourishing and tasty source of protein. People would eat a few pieces of it with the fermented rice. They’d put a slice of it in hot water to make a medicinal tea. And they enjoyed it as a delicacy with sake at the tables of aristocratic and samurai families.

    In other words, it’s the fish that was rare and treasured, not the rice.

  18. “… I had no idea … from Jonathan Swift….” – I read it in a collection of … tales? by Martin Gardner, in Russian translation. I remembered Swift, and remembered that somehow the Russian translation does not match the original (apparently, because it translates De Morgan’s rather than Swift’s verse). But I did not remember De Morgan.

  19. I just paddled my kayak through an enormous school of menhaden a couple of weeks ago in the Croton River, not that far up the Hudson River from NYC. It was solid fish. I’ve been told by a naturalist that they enter the Hudson river in enormous schools in the spring and fall. I can only imagine they were more abundant in the past. Anyone with a net could have hauled in a lot of fish. It makes the fertilizer story seem possible.

  20. David Marjanović says

    It gets weirder too. There are dinoflagellates with photosynthetic plastids that are descended from endosymbiotic heterokonts (diatoms).

    Corals and some sponges have zooxanthellae, which are intracellular dinoflagellates or sometimes diatoms, cryptophytes or chrysophytes (the latter, “golden algae”, are fairly closely related to the brown ones).

  21. Give a man a fish, and it feeds him for a day. Teach a man to bury fish under his corn seed, and he’ll drive you out of your homeland and wipe out your culture.

  22. Richard Hershberger says

    I have no skin in this game, but FWIW I am currently reading This Land Is Their Land by David J. Silverman. This is a history of Thanksgiving from the perspective of the Wampanoag. To my inexpert eye it looks very good, and less tendentious than the title, at least no more so than is inherent in the subject matter. Silverman mentions fish used to fertilize maize. He does not question it. I did not think to follow the citations. I will have to look that up.

  23. Trumbull’s Natick dictionary of 1903, under munnawhatteaûg (from Narragansett), would support its ‘fertilizer’ etymology by quoting Rasles’s Abenaki dictionary, which lists pokkikan̈n ‘On engraisse la terre p’r la faire mieux porter’, and elsewhere pekan̈gané, ganak ‘petits [poissons]’; the latter supposedly being the pauhagen/poghagen. I have no idea if that makes etymological sense.

  24. @drasvi: Martin Gardner quotes De Morgan’s version in either Aha! Insight or the sequel Aha! Gotcha.

  25. > Are there transparent etymologies for either word?

    “Transparent” is pushing it, but both the word for ‘fertilize’ from the Eliot Bible and the Abenaki verb that Trumbull cites, look to me like they literally mean something like ‘cover the ground’ (which I guess refers to spreading whatever you’re using for fertilizer on top of the soil). For the Narragansett word for a kind of fish to be related, it would have to be pretty seriously misspelled, and Roger Williams was generally more reliable than that (he would have to have left out a velar stop in the middle of the word–it wouldn’t have been something subtle).

  26. Thanks! ‘Covering the ground’ might work for manuring, but it’s another semantic step removed from burying the fish for fertilization.
    It sounds like there is not really any linguistic evidence to connect fish and fertilization, aside from whether that was an actual practice.

    (In Trumbull’s time there were plenty of speakers who could tell him what the fish name meant, if the etymology was transparent. A pity he didn’t ask.)

  27. I followed a quote (‘In Bertram Thomas’ (51, p. 11) we read the following passage which is of some interest for our word in question: “Did not the ruler habitually address his slave as abana = our father!…” ‘) in a comment in another threadm and:

    The blockade applied only to the transport of sardines. The secret of its success as a weapon lay in the fact that the mountain wealth is chieBy in cattle, and at certain ‘dry’ seasons of the year, here, as in Oman, sardines are the usual fodder.

    Bertram Thomas, Arabia Felix, p. 13, note.

  28. “Опять ты мне эту икру поставила. Не могу я её каждый день, проклятую, есть!”

  29. David Marjanović says

    “Did not the ruler habitually address his slave as abana = our father!…”

    Did he? Would “our slave” come out as abdana? And perhaps the plosive cluster would get simplified in Zanzibar…?

  30. p.11 “he had manumitted and exalted him to be Counselior, and Commander-in-Chief of his forces- not an impossible destiny for a slave in Arabia.

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