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Making Traditional Pemmican

The Original Survival Food: The History of Pemmican

In this article, we break down the origins story of the original North American survival food: Pemmican.
Read The Story

The Carnivore Bar has a rich history rising from the evolution of a traditional food source called pemmican. Both traditional and modern animal-based and carnivore-based eaters have reaped the benefits of this nutrient dense, travel-convenient food source thanks to this unique recipe. 

Traditional Pemmican  

As this food plays an important role in history, the present, and the future, it’s important we break down the origins story of the original North American survival food: The history of pemmican. 

What exactly is pemmican?

Pemmican is a traditional Native American food consisting of tallow (from bison or wild game) dried meat, and sometimes wild berry. It was prepared to be eaten alongside other meals, or by itself during periods of travel. Native American tribes across USA and Canada both used pemmican as a staple food during nomadic travel while following bison and wild animal herds. 

The Origins of Pemmican

Pemmican and Native Americans

Pemmican originates from the plains of the Americas (the prairie lands of Canada and the United States), where Native Americans lived alongside the bison. Bison were the primary source of traditionally made pemmican by the nomadic native tribes, who would follow the herds where they travelled throughout each season, as bison were necessary for tribe survival. The word pemmican is derived from the Cree word, pimikan, which translates to “manufactured grease.” 

North America Bison

Native American tribes relied heavily on bison, especially during the harsh winters, and pemmican was a creation that was cooled and sewn into bison-hide bags for storage. The nutrient-dense, and calories-dense composition meant a little went a long way, so carrying and packing pemmican while keeping up with the travel of a bison herd was a no-brainer for nomadic tribes.

Bison vs. Buffalo: Although the words bison and buffalo are often used interchangeably, Bison and Buffalo are distinctly separate animals. Buffalo refers to animals of the bovine family native to Africa and Asia, while bison is the correct term for animals of the bovine family found in North America and Europe. 

The ability for Native Americans to survive and thrive off of pemmican was quite stable given the abundance of the bison population pre-European settlement. Estimates range from 30 - 60 million which bison roamed the plains prior to pioneers and the fur trade. In fact, Bison were the most abundant large mammal across the American continent, making them highly influential and vital to the ecosystem and conservation of their natural habitat.

As ruminant animals, they grazed the prairie lands full of native grasses and sedges further north. This vast grazing encouraged native vegetation to flourish as they naturally rotated through the prairies leaving areas to recover and pull nutrients from their dung for regrowth. An ecosystem that historically depended on and thrived on a large population of ruminant animals is a testament to the need for increasing animal agriculture and rotational grazing today!

Pemmican and The Frontier

Fur Pelts

Peter Pond, a historically important fur trader and European pioneer, discovered the junction point of Churchill River and Clearwater River, named Portage La Loche in 1778. Not one year later in 1779 during his fur trading expeditions in the Americas he discovered the value behind the Native American food, pemmican.

This staple food played a vital role in the fur trade years of European settlement.  Pemmican meant pioneers could continue with the expansion of the fur trade across North America due to its longevity and light-weight composition during exploration, especially in the winter months.  

Another famous pioneer and fur trader, Sir Alexander Mackenzie, also recognized the importance and value of pemmican during his travels, and it aided him in his capability to explore the plains of Canada in the 1890s.

Pemmican was used by nearly every fur trade to explore the Americas, from reaching the Pacific Ocean on the edge of British Columbia, to the Arctic Circle expeditions of Norwegian Explorer Fridtjof Nansen.

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

Fast forward to the 1920s and a Norwegian-American Arctic Explorer by the name of Vilhjalmur Stefansson lived with the Inuit population throughout the decades citing their outstanding health and void of diseases that plagued many western civilizations (think scurvy, gum disease, and diabetes). His book, The Fat of the Land, reviews his time spent with the Inuit in which he determines that their high-fat diet is the key to their survival and health, and sparks his 1928 scientific experiment with Dr. Karsten Anderson. The pair not only survived, but thrived on a meat-only diet for one year, which also helped to push Stefansson to promote pemmican as a high-energy, nutrient dense meal for the military to adopt as their go-to travel food source. Although Stefansson promoted pemmican for military rations, Ansel Keys prevented it from becoming a ration, with the military instead adopting the K-ration which Keys sponsored. 

Coming back to the times of pioneers, the fur trade didn’t only rely on the killing and trading of Bison for their fur, but also just as importantly (if not more during the early exploration years), the trade of Pemmican. It was vitally important to the regional economy no matter where trading and exploration happened.

The Breakdown and Benefits of Pemmican

The Breakdown of Pemmican

In its most traditional form, pemmican is made up of lean, dried bison meat, and bison fat. Salt and saskatoon berries, cranberries, currents, or even chokecherries were added based on fur trader preference or if the season allowed for it.

This lean meat was typically dried by sun or fire, and pulverized between rocks. Bison fat was rendered into melted tallow, the pure form of fat, over fire. The meat and melted tallow were then churned together in a bison hide bag until the meat particles were fully covered with tallow and the bag was sewn shut for packing during travel. 

The melted tallow not only combined with the pulverized meat to create pemmican inside the bison bag, but the melted tallow is also poured into the top of the bag covering the pemmican, and creating a solid cap that seals the pemmican away from oxygen and moisture.

If you’re looking to try and make pemmican for yourself, Carnivore Aurelius offers a great beginner’s recipe that is made with the carnivore in mind. You can even get a sneak peak at traditional pemmican around one minute and ten seconds into our Kickstarter video!

Making Pemmican

The Benefits of Pemmican 

There’s more than one reason why pemmican has lasted through history. In fact, here are the top three benefits that pemmican has to offer:

  • Turning meat into pemmican naturally preserves its nutrition. It is thought that traditional pemmican can last up to 50 years without refrigeration, and we are on our way to prove the superiority of pemmican by modern food safety standards.

  • Pemmican is a superior food option while travelling, allowing you not to be tied down to other processed options which gives you your independence and freedom back on the go.

  • The simplicity in a two-ingredient recipe, and nutritionally complete food source makes it not only a meal to survive off of, but a superfood to thrive on. 

The Evolution of Pemmican

Pemmican was first mentioned as early as 1500s in the historical encyclopedias any reader has access to, but its creation dates back significantly further than this with the Native American tribes.

It’s still used today in various forms for hikers, carnivore and keto lovers, and remote expeditions in all corners of the earth.

From its earliest conception, to its present-day composition, we believe we’ve perfected the modern version through our concept, The Carnivore Bar

We offer grass-finished bars that come in salt, salt + honey, or no-salt versions. We even offer sample  boxes if you can’t decide!

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1 comment

Apr 05, 2022 • By Laura

I’ve had my eye on making pemmican myself since last year. This is a great article with information about the history. Fascinating. I’d love to support what you’re doing and I’m going to give these a try. Good luck with your business endeavors!

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