8 August 2000

Written in celebration of South Carolina Archaeology Month

September 8 – October 7, 2000, and accompanied by a poster







        The three sisters – maize, beans, and squash – were important in the diet of eastern North American Indians in the centuries just prior to contact by Europeans. Long domesticated in Mexico, these crops spread into the Southwest and eastern North America. Their use is well documented in historic records. Less well known is that they did not spread together or evenly into the same areas. More surprising, for thousands of years prior to their introduction, Indians domesticated and cultivated local, North American crops. Some of these ancient, native crops are now extinct.


BOTTLE GOURD  Lagenaria siceraria

PEPO SQUASH Cucurbita pepo

        The earliest presumed domesticate discovered in eastern North America is the bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceraria), dating to 7,000 years ago at a wet site in east-central Florida. Evidence for use of a gourd-like squash (Cucurbita pepo subspecies ovifera) with a thin, hard rind and probably bitter flesh (but edible seeds) is also found at this time in west-central Illinois. By virtue of morphological studies and genetic testing, early (Middle Archaic Period) squashes are thought to have been growing wild locally and were not the domesticates imported later from Mexico. Interestingly, the bottle gourd is considered to be a native of Africa that floated naturally on ocean currents to land on beaches in the Americas. Experimentation demonstrates that the hard shell may remain impervious to seawater long enough to allow the currents to complete the trip.

        In other words, experimentation with planting and maintaining crops was occurring by the Middle Archaic Period, with native domesticates developed by the Late Archaic (see "Weeds Vs. Domesticates"). The two oily seeded plants, sumpweed (Iva annua variety macrocarpa) and sunflower (Helianthus annuus), are present in domesticated form by the Late Archaic, or by 3,000-4,000 years ago. By this time, pepo squash and bottle gourd are fairly widespread at eastern sites, and the first domesticated chenopod (Chenopodium berlandieri subspecies jonesianum) is found at sites in Kentucky and Arkansas. A crop locally important in the Midwest at this time is giant ragweed (Ambrosia trifida), although it was never domesticated. Another cultivated but not domesticated crop that appears by 3,000 years ago is maygrass (Phalaris caroliniana), grown for its starchy seeds available by late spring/early summer.


 Sumpweed (Iva annua)


SUNFLOWER (Helianthus annuus)

CHENOPOD (Chenopodium bushianum)

MAYGRASS (Phalaris caroliniana)

        By the Late Archaic Period, or 2,500 years ago, people’s diets were rich in the starchy seeds of chenopod and maygrass, the oily seeds of sumpweed and sunflower, as well as in domesticated pepo squash. Erect knotweed (Polygonum erectum) was another cultivated starchy seed that rose to dietary importance during the Woodland period in parts of the Midwest. Little barley (Hordeum pusillum), a spring/early summer starchy-seeded weed associated with maygrass, is frequently found in the same deposits.

ERECT KNOTWEED (Polygonum erectum)

LITTLE BARLEY (Hordeum pusillum)

            By the Middle Woodland Period, or about 2,000 years ago, Indians from the Upper Midwest down to Tennessee were farmers who grew the starchy seed complex (chenopod, maygrass, little barley, and sometimes erect knotweed), pepo squash, bottle gourd, and the oily seeds of sumpweed and sunflower. With this agricultural system well in place, no change can be discerned when maize (Zea mays) was added by 1,850 years ago (see "You Are What You Eat"). It took hundreds of years for maize to become established as an important item in the diet (see "Uses Change Through Time"). Tobacco (Nicotiana species), which was introduced at about the same time, probably arrived via a different route than did maize.

MAIZE (Zea mays

TOBACCO (Nicotiana rustica)

            Between about 800-1,200 years ago, maize production intensified and use of the native starchy seeded crops began to diminish. About this time, domesticated beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) were introduced, probably from the Southwest. Whereas beans were eagerly adopted in some areas of the east, such as along the Ohio River, in other areas they appear to have played a minor role until just before European contact. Only two other domesticated crops spread into the east prior to European contact – pale-seeded amaranth (Amaranthus hypochondriacus) and cushaw squash (Cucurbita argyrosperma). Their use is neither widespread nor major.

COMMON BEAN (Phaseolus vulgaris) climbing a maize plant

            Sometime between 700-300 years ago, the starchy seed complex of chenopod, maygrass, and little barley, along with the oily seeded sumpweed fell out of use and our domesticated forms of chenopod and sumpweed went extinct. The maize, beans, squash, sunflower, and tobacco first domesticated by the Indians were adopted by European settlers, and the rest, as they say, is history.

        Their Usal Grain which they make use of is the Indian Corn as being best Adapted to the Soil and Climate besides which they have Generally 3 Crops in that one; for first they plant the Corn five of which grains they put in a hole which holes are made in Rows and Cross Each other at right angles which when they Hoo the Corn they Carry in a Double Pocket or Bagg a Quantity of Kidney Beans and Pumkin seeds of which they throw in 3 of Each and Gather the mould together with their Hoo like our Hop Hills; Thus have they 3 Crops in the Ground at once, that when the Corn comes to Shoot up into Large Stalks the Kidney Beans Lay hold of them with their Claspers and run up with it while the Pumpkins Shoot out their Vines through all the Intermediate Spaces below. The Beans are usally gathered when they Top the Stalks of the Corn . . . [captive English soldier, along the New England coast in 1748]. (Calder 1935:133-134)

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        The crops known to us today have not always been important to the Indians, and the ways in which we use some crops are different from the ways they were first used by the Indians. Today we eat the flesh of squashes such as pumpkins, but the earliest squashes were hard-shelled with probably bitter flesh. Instead of eating the flesh, seeds were eaten and the hard shells were used for containers. Squashes first appear in the archaeological record of eastern North America during the Middle Archaic Period, prior to the invention of pottery. By heating small rocks and dropping them into a squash or bottle gourd bowl of liquid, one could quickly bring the liquid to a boil and yet not burn the container.

Stone boiling water in a hard-shelled squash container

        Maize, relished by modern Americans as a food, may first have traveled across the American Midwest in shaman or medicine man bundles. Although a few cobs and kernels are found as early as the Middle Woodland Period about 1,800 years ago, maize did not become an important item in the diet for nearly 800 years, or not until about A.D. 800! We can chart the rise to importance of maize through a rise both in cob/kernel fragments in the trash at archaeological sites, and in a change in the heavy carbon isotope ratio in the bones of human skeletons (see You Are What You Eat).

        For a final example of how uses may change through time, consider the sunflower. Actually, let’s begin with sumpweed. This is a plant that likes to grow in disturbed ground that was flooded the previous year. It produces an oily achene (seed) amazingly like a sunflower achene. Both sumpweed and sunflower were developed into domesticated crops by Indians in eastern North America by the Late Archaic about 4,000 years ago. Sumpweed, unlike sunflower, has a strong, perfumed odor. Yet, many historic accounts of sunflower (we have no definite historic accounts of sumpweed) describe using the seed oil on hair. You can’t help but wonder whether such a use was originally ascribed to sumpweed, then later transferred to sunflower when sumpweed fell out of use!


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        The italicized names you see in this text are the scientific names of plants. Whereas a plant may be named by multiple common names, it has only one scientific name. A scientific name consists of a genus (always capitalized) and a species (never capitalized). For example, one of the extinct domesticates formerly important to many ancient people in eastern North America is known by the common names of marshelder or sumpweed and the scientific name of Iva annua.


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        Maybe you’ve heard the saying, "You are what you eat". Archaeology shows the truth to this statement! For example, there are three forms of heavy carbon isotopes, C12, C13, and C14. All three of these may accumulate in the tissues of living organisms (such as humans) through the food they ingest. One of these isotopes, C14, is unstable, meaning that once the organism dies, this isotope begins to degrade. Because it degrades at a known rate, it is commonly used by archaeologists to date organic objects. The other two isotopes, C12 and C13, are stable, meaning that the ratio ingested during life remains the same even thousands of years after death. The sort of photosynthetic pathway a plant follows to form carbon predicts the ratio of C12 to C13 the plant will have in its tissues, or that another organism such as a deer or a human will have in their tissues after eating that plant.

        It just so happens that maize, originally a tropical plant, has a different photosynthetic pathway and therefore a different C12/C13 ratio than do most other plants native to eastern North America. The other plants with a similar ratio to maize are not commonly found in the trash at ancient sites, meaning that they were not significant components in the diet. By tracing the change in ratio of the heavy carbon isotopes in human bone, we can trace the rise to importance of maize in the diet of ancient peoples! Thus, although the first archaeological evidence of cob and kernel fragments occurs as early as the Middle Woodland Period, about 1,800 years ago, when the heavy carbon isotope evidence is linked to the quantities of cobs and kernels in the trash we can say that maize was not important in the diet until nearly 1,000 years after it was first introduced into the eastern Woodlands. To find out what people were eating before maize, see "The Three Sisters".


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        Archaeologists specialize in trash. When we sift through an archaeological site, what we commonly recover is the trash that people left behind. Even so, finding plant remains requires special procedures. Since plants are organic, most fruits, nuts, or seeds thrown away as trash or simply lost in the grass or leaf litter will rot long before an archaeologist has a chance to find them. What, then, do archaeologists find and how can they talk about what people used to eat thousands of years ago?

        There are three basic kinds of plant remains that may be preserved at archaeological sites. Pollen, the product of flowers, has a tough coat that allows for preservation. Phytoliths, miniature silica skeletons that form in plant cells, likewise are tough as rock (see "Pollen and Phytoliths"). What I’ll talk about here are macrobotanical remains such as wood, nuts, seeds, stems, and leaves.

        Only those macroremains that are desiccated, waterlogged, or charred are commonly preserved at archaeological sites. Under extremely dry or wet conditions, organic remains do not rot or rot very slowly. Thus, even 10,000-year old leaves may be preserved under the overhang of a dry rockshelter or in a dry cave. The earliest bottle gourd rind so far recovered from eastern North America was preserved for 7,000 years because it was consistently waterlogged in an anaerobic environment. Charcoal, the product of charring, is relatively inert and may also preserve the anatomical structure of the original plant part. By far the vast majority of plant remains reported by archaeologists have been preserved by charring.

        Of course, the ancient peoples did not deliberately char plant remains for archaeologists to find! In parching, boiling, simmering, roasting, baking or otherwise preparing food, accidents occurred. The seeds dropped into the hearth or the burnt dinner became part of the trash that archaeologists recover. But even though plant remains may be preserved in the archaeological record, they cannot be recovered systematically by shoveling or even by troweling. An archaeologist recovers pollen or phytoliths by taking small bags of dirt back to the laboratory, where strong chemicals are used to remove all except the pollen or phytoliths. Macrobotanical remains are recovered through flotation, in which a large bag of dirt is dumped into a screen-bottomed container immersed in a tank of liquid (usually water). While the dirt sifts through the bottom of the screen, the small, fragile charred plant remains float to the surface of the water where they may be recovered. Heavier charred plant remains sink to be caught in the fine-mesh screen underneath. The screen that can be used in flotation is much smaller than the screens otherwise used by archaeologists to sift their dirt.

Measured dirt for a flotation is stored in a bag for transport

Dirt is poured into a screen-bottomed container immersed in water

Small, fragile plant remains float to the surface and are gently decanted into a fine cloth

Heavy plant remains and artifacts sink and are caught in a fine-mesh screen, here being cleaned between samples

        The  paleoethnobotanist (an archaeologist specializing in the identification and interpretation of plant remains) maintains a modern comparative collection of nuts, seeds, stems, wood, etc. in order to be able to identify the archaeological specimens recovered. Because most the archaeological plant remains are charred, the paleoethnobotanist frequently chars samples of their comparative collection! He/she uses a microscope to compare the modern and ancient specimens. Even specimens 10,000 years old are likely to be the same species or closely related to those that grow today. By comparison, a paleobotanist is a botanist who studies plant fossils or mineralized plants that may be millions of year old, predating the beginnings of humankind.

Macrobotanical remains are analysed under a microscope


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        Palynology (pollen analysis) has been used by North American environmental archaeologists for decades but its function has evolved from simply providing broad scale paleoenvironmental reconstructions to examining more closely the changing relationships between people and vegetation. Phytolith analysis has been used to a lesser extent, but is increasing. Both can be used to elucidate both the sequence of vegetation history and also the composition of agricultural fields and gardens, which allow our interpretations to account for the dynamic ways in which humans have manipulated their environs.


        Seed bearing plants produce pollen grains, which are transported by wind, water, insects, etc. to eventually become deposited in various contexts. Pollen grains have a resilient outer layer called the exine that can survive for millions of years. The shape of the exine is unique to each type of plant, often on the genus and species level, so that the shape and pattern of the exine provides a plant signature. Samples of soil are taken back to a laboratory and chemically processed to remove dirt debris, leaving behind pollen for identification. Amounts of different pollen throughout different deposits indicate a change in vegetation over time.

        Archaeologists learn from pollen analysis in several ways. "Pollen rain," the overall airborne pollen at any given time, sampled from lakes and bogs, informs about regional paleoenvironments (past environments). Pollen mixed in with archaeological soils can often indicate plant assemblages that are more local to the area. Ceramic and stone artifacts may retain intact traces of pollen or phytoliths, from which we can discern diet and numerous cultural activities. With regard to ancient and historic agriculture and gardens in the Southeastern United States, the first two instances of pollen analysis are most informative.

        Regional paleoenvironmental histories via the pollen record show that the Southeastern forest changed over the past 10,000 years since the end of the Ice Age; through time, mixed hardwood deciduous trees were supplanted by mixed pine and hardwood deciduous forests. Native Americans managed their landscape by clearing gaps in the forest with fire for many reasons, including preparation of garden plots where crops such as maize, chenopod, and maygrass would flourish; burning forests also let the fire-loving pine tree spread.

        Charcoal and pollen studies at Cliff Palace Pond, Kentucky, link an increase in both episodes of fire and weedy plant pollen to known Late Archaic and Woodland period gardening. As maize agriculture became a mode of subsistence in Mississippian times, clearing intensified and the pine tree/ weedy seed pollen patterns become emphasized in the archaeological record.


        All plants produce hard, crystalline structures around their cells called phytoliths. Plants have thousands of these and when the plant dies, the structures stay behind in the soil. Like pollen, each plant or group of plants has its own signature structure. Consequently, identification of phytoliths in archaeological samples can tell us about the plants in the area. For instance, maize phytoliths are very distinctive and have been used to locate Native American agricultural fields. Since phytoliths are incorporated into the dirt when a plant rots, they can aid in reconstruction of actual garden fields and grounds. When the grounds around Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello were sampled for phytoliths, archaeologists were able to pinpoint fields and identify which European plants were introduced there.


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        How does a domesticated plant differ from a wild or weedy one, how can plants become domesticated, and how can an archaeologist tell which they have? Both weedy and domesticated plants like to grow in soil that has been disturbed, whereas wild plants do not. Weedy plants possess a number of characteristics that enable them to survive on their own: they are good at dispersing their own seeds, their seeds may have dormancy or the ability to lie in the ground for many years before sprouting, different plants and sections of individual flowers mature at different rates, and overall the plants display phenotypic (morphological) plasticity or variability.


Little barley (Hordeum pusillum) on left; maygrass (Phalaris caroliniana) on right.

The inflorescences ripen from the top down at different rates on these weedy plants. As each unit containing a grain ripens in little barley, the unit breaks off and spreads the seed. Note the protective coverings on little barley grains that would have to be removed to make the grain edible.

         Domesticated plants, on the other hand, are usually less good at dispersing their own seeds, their seeds do not possess dormancy and must either sprout the year they are planted or not at all, different plants and individual flowers tend to mature at the same rate, and overall the plants are more rather than less similar to each other. Finally, among most domesticated plants the desired part – whether it is a fruit, nut, seed, leaf, root, or stem – is usually larger than it is in nondomesticated plants. Alternatively, the domesticated plant may be less toxic than the nondomesticated plant. All of these morphological changes indicate genetic changes that set domesticated plants apart from weedy plants.

         How can such changes come about? Nearly all of our domesticated plants were domesticated prehistorically by ancient peoples. Archaeologists believe that domestication was an unconscious process that occurred thanks to everyday interactions between peoples and plants. Let’s follow a hypothetical weedy plant through its process of domestication. One patch of this weedy plant is visited by a person who collects seed. The collector is able to gather only a portion of the genetic variability present in the weedy population, which in effect jump starts a genetic change if she then plants the collected seeds elsewhere and collects the next generation to plant again. Those weedy individuals good at dispersing their seeds escape collection. Likewise, those individuals that mature at a different time escape collection. By collecting once, the horticulturalist gathers only those seed with genetic tendencies to mature at the same time and not disperse their seeds. By harvesting the seed once again the following year from the planted collection, the horticulturalist selects for those seeds that lack dormancy. When this process is repeated year after year, the differences between the collected plants and the weedy populations become more and more pronounced: in effect, the weedy plants become weedier (those with less weedy tendencies have been collected and removed from the gene pool) and the collected plants are selected to exhibit more domesticated properties. No deliberate breeding program need be followed. However, if the horticulturalist specifically selects certain seed to plant – say, from the largest fruit – then selection will also result in a planted population that tends to have larger fruit than the original weedy population.

        Although the genetic changes that set a domesticated plant apart from its weedy relatives may not be examined in the charred plant remains commonly preserved (see "What Can You Learn From Trash?"), morphological or physical characteristics that CAN be examined accompany the genetic changes. In particular, the paleoethnobotanist can track the enlargement through time of plant parts such as edible seeds. One example of this is the domestication of the oily seeded sumpweed (Iva annua variety macrocarpa). First recovered from late Middle Archaic Period sites dating to 5,000 years ago in west-central Illinois, over the next 1,000 years the mean size of sumpweed achenes (woody seeds) increased to up to ten times larger than their original size! Its progress toward domestication was matched by that of sunflower (Helianthus annuus variety macrocarpus). Whereas domesticated sunflower is still grown today, the domesticated sumpweed faded from the memory of all but archaeologists by the time of European contact (but see "Uses Change Through Time").

        The loss of seed dormancy or the ability to lie in the ground for many years before sprouting may also be tracked in the archaeological record. Seeds that possess dormancy have thick seed coats that keep out moisture. Seeds lacking dormancy have thin seed coats. Domesticated chenopod (Chenopodium berlandieri subspecies jonesianum), present as early as 3,500 years ago in eastern Kentucky, has a thin seed coat with truncate seed margins (edges) compared to weedy chenopod, which has a thick seed coat and biconvex seed margins. The North American domesticated chenopod whose seeds were an important source of starch for thousands of years perhaps survived to European contact – there are one or two historic accounts that seem to describe this plant in Indian gardens – but soon after contact it went extinct, evidently to be replaced by corn in the diet. Although only weedy forms of chenopod or goosefoot survive in North America today, elsewhere other domesticated chenopods (such as quinoa, sold at health food stores) still survive. Take a look at quinoa and you will notice that the thin-coated domesticated seed is pale or white in color, whereas the thick-coated weedy seed from a plant in your yard is dark or black in color. Colors such as these are visible only in rare desiccated specimens.

Chenopod (Chenopodium berlandieri) has both edible leaves and seeds



scanning electron microscope (SEM) photograph of a charred, wild chenopod seed. Note the thick seed coat visible to the lower left and the accompanying biconvex shape to the seed. This thick seed coat allows the seed to lie dormant in the ground for a number of years before sprouting.

An SEM photograph of a charred, domesticated chenopod seed. Note the thin seed coat visible at the upper edge of the seed and the accompanying truncate-margined shape to the seed. Domestication frequently results in a thin seed coat that does not allow the seed to lie dormant for years in the ground before sprouting.


A present-day domesticated chenopod called Quinoa is available at health food stores and specialty shops. Note how this "Ancient Harvest" is touted as the "supergrain of the future"!



        Those plants that show no morphological or physical changes yet occur in quantities, associated with known domesticates, or in geographic regions where they would not naturally grow, are considered to have been at least cultivated if not domesticated. Maygrass (Phalaris caroliniana) is one example of a cultivated plant valued for its starchy seeds prior to the rise in importance of maize. Native to the coastal plain and lower piedmont along the eastern seaboard, maygrass was an important item in the diet of Indians who lived in the midcontinent far away from its native habitat.


So far, no morphological (physical) changes have been found on archaeological maygrass that would indicate it was domesticated rather than simply cultivated. Nevertheless, it was an important source of starch prior to dependence on maize.


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        Like people today, ancient Indians needed to eat a balanced diet with protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals. From about 2,500 to 1,000 years ago, many Indians from the Upper Midwest to Tennessee depended on a diet of hunted meat (white-tailed deer, elk, turkey, and fish in particular), gathered wild nuts and fruit (especially hickory and acorn), and the cultivated and domesticated suite of starchy and oily seeds (see "The Three Sisters"). The three starchy seeds of maygrass, chenopod, and maize are comparable in the amount of kilocalories they possess (320-370). As expected, the oily seeds of sumpweed, sunflower, and squash are higher in kilocalories (535-560), and hickory is higher still (673). Oils and fats were valued not only for their high energy, but also for the taste that they added to meals. Bear fat and hickory nut oil were two major sources of oil in the diet of southeastern Indians. Oils were not only incorporated into food, but also were used as a base for body paints and for dressing people’s hair.

        The oily seeds of sumpweed and sunflower and the starchy seed of maygrass are high in protein, thiamin, and iron. Yet, as is true of many starchy seeds, including maize, maygrass is low in many of the amino acids, and particularly in lysine. A balanced diet could be provided only by supplementing the starchy-seeded crops with amino acid-rich proteins such as meat or roots.


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        You may be surprised to learn that people have been managing the landscape, and particularly the vegetation, ever since they arrived in the Americas. The virgin forest the Europeans thought they found upon their arrival along the eastern seaboard was actually the result of thousands of years of interaction with and management by Native Americans. Even many archaeologists still mistakenly believe that until maize was cultivated intensively in the centuries just prior to European contact, Indian impact upon the landscape was minimal.

        Human influences on vegetation include both deliberate and unintentional effects. Hunter-gatherers as well as agriculturalists were active managers of resources. Human impacts to ecosystems may be grouped under the broad categories of fire, agricultural practices, and woodland use.

        For an example of woodland use, let us look at wild hickory trees. By the Middle Archaic period, or by 8,000 years ago, nuts (particularly hickory) had become an important source of food for the non-coastal eastern Indians. Yet, modern ecological studies indicate that the yield of nuts from closed canopy forests can be too low to predictably or economically support humans. Archaeologist Patrick Munson hypothesizes that Indians managed forests to increase the yield of nut trees, and that they have been doing so for thousands of years. You could open up the canopy around hickory trees, for example, by girdling (stripping a ring of bark) unwanted trees and then using low intensity fire to maintain the opening.

        Perhaps the most common tool used by the southeastern Indians to structure vegetation was fire. There are many historic accounts telling how Indians set fires to deliberately manipulate vegetation and animals. Fire has been a tool used by Native Americans to sculpt the landscape for thousands of years, resulting in many of the vegetation associations first seen by Europeans and mistakenly thought by them to be entirely Anatural@ or pristine.

        In fact, the southeastern pine forests are thought to owe their existence to a fire regime. Historically, when fire has been suppressed in pine forests, forest composition changes and hardwoods become more dominant. However, it can be difficult to tell anthropogenic (human affects) fire regimes apart from natural fire regimes.

        Agricultural management techniques grew out of these earlier, less obvious resource management techniques. Agricultural management included tillage (working the dirt and perhaps fertilizing it) and burning vegetation prior to planting.

The greatest labour they take, is in planting their corne, for the Country naturally is overgrowne with wood. To prepare the ground they bruise the barke of the trees neare the root, then doe they scortch the roots with fire that they grow no more.

The next yeare with a crooked peece of wood they beat up the weeds by the rootes, and in that mould they plant their Corne. Their manner is this. They make a hole in the earth with a sticke, and into it they put foure graines of wheate [maize] and two of beanes. These holes they make foure foote one from another; Their women and children do continually keepe it with weeding, and when it is growne middle high, they hill it about like a hop-yard [Captain John Smith observing farming practices along the Atlantic seaboard in 1607-1608] (Smith 1907:58-59).


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        As to the Domestick way of living of the Chicasaws it’s much like to the Savanoh’s. The men apply themselves to the warr and hunting, supply their Houses plentifully with meat, the woman plant and howe the Corn. It’s reckoned beneath a man to touch a howe or bring a litle wood to the fire. . . [Alexander Nairne, the provincial Indian agent for South Carolina, in 1708] (Moore 1988:48)


        Given that Indian women historically have been the main caretakers of gardens, and given that nearly all our modern crops were first domesticated by ancient Indians, it follows that women likely were domesticators of many of our crops today.

        One of the most common themes in eastern North American Indian societies was that of an Earth-Mother or Earth-Goddess, often identified as Old Woman or Grandmother. As pointed out by archaeologist Guy Prentice, she is the mythological mother of all humans and plants, the womb from which life originates and to which it returns in death, a symbol of the cycle of life. According to archaeologist Thomas Emerson, women are symbolically connected to fertility, including agricultural fertility; water, rain, and lightning; serpents, death, and the Underworld; and the moon. Men are associated with fire/sun; bird/falcon and through it thunder, lightning, rain, and fertility; warfare; and the Upperworld.

        A number of ancient female stone figurines have been interpreted by archaeologists to be prehistoric representations of the Earth-Mother described in historic mythology. Premier among these is a bauxite figurine known as the Birger figurine, ritually killed (purposely broken) and buried around A.D. 1100 at a religious structure in west-central Illinois. It shows a kneeling woman dressed in a short skirt and carrying a bundle on her back. Her left hand rests near the head of a toothed, feline-headed serpent, while her right hand hoes its body. The tail of the serpent splits and climbs up the woman’s back as a squash vine. Figurines such as this do not depict everyday women as they are associated with gardens: rather, they illustrate a mythological woman such as the Earth-Mother.


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Re-created A.D. 1250 garden at SunWatch Village, Dayton, Ohio. Young maize and sunflowers are in the foreground, and a drying stage for drying garden produce is in the background.



        This is their common plantation, and the whole town plant in one vast field together, but yet the part of share of every individual family or habitation, is separated from the next adjoining, by a narrow strip, or verge of grass, or any other natural or artificial boundary. [William Bartram, describing gardens of southeastern Indians in the 1770s]

(Harper 1958:325)

        There are few archaeological clues to tell us how the gardens looked, but we have rich historical accounts. One example of ancient tillage practices was making artificial ridges and hills, sometimes used in combination. The use of ridges may be older than the use of hills, but evidence of both remained visible into the twentieth century. Most of the remnants of ridged field systems have been found in the upper midwest, where it is hypothesized that in addition to tillage, their function was to drain frost and raise the temperature of the ridge, thus slightly extending the growing season in marginal maize-growing areas. These field systems are found in both uplands and floodplains. However, an ancient ridged field has been discovered at the A.D. 1000 Ocmulgee site in Macon, Georgia, where the length of the growing season was more than adequate for growing maize.

        On the east banks of the Oakmulge, this trading road runs nearly two miles through ancient Indian fields, which are called the Oakmulge fields: they are the rich low lands of the river. On the heights of these low grounds are yet visible monuments, or traces, of an ancient town, such as artificial mounts or terraces, squares and banks, encircling considerable areas. Their old fields and planting land extend up and down the river, fifteen or twenty miles from this site. [William Bartram, summer of 1776, at what is now Ocmulgee National Monument, Macon, Georgia] (Harper 1958:34)


        Archaeologist Julia Hammett has written about the different perceptions of the landscape by Native Americans as opposed to Europeans at contact. Native Americans developed a model of informal landscaping in which crop fields were within sight of the houses, and these were surrounded by a mosaic of cleared and wooded areas. The house and garden clearings generally were circular in shape, with rings of lesser intensity and control as one moved further from the center. The English, in contrast, imposed a landscape design based on enclosure of gridded squares, reflecting their concern with private ownership. These areas of control were more homogenous and less varied biologically than were those of the Indians.

        Then at dawn, the Spaniards marched on through some great fields of corn, beans, squash and other vegetables which had been sown on both sides of the road, and were spread out as far as the eye could see across two leagues of the plain. Among these fields there were sprinklings of settlements with houses set apart from each other and not arranged in the order of a town. [Garcilaso de la Vega, writing about Hernando de Soto’s journey through Florida and the Carolinas in 1538-1543] (Varner and Varner 1988:182)

        Historic accounts from the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries describe Indian gardening practices.

        Then their fetting or fowing is after this maner. Firft for their corne, beginning in one corner of the plot, with a pecker they make a hole, wherein they put foure graines with that care they tough not one another, (about an inch afunder) and couer them with the moulde again: and fo through out the whole plot making fuch holes and vfing them after fuch maner: but with this regard that they bee made in rankes, euery rake differing from other halfe a fadome or a yarde, and the holes alfo in euery ranke, as much. By this meanes there is a yarde fpare ground betwene euery hole: where according to difscretion here and there, they fet as many Beanes and Peaze: in diuers places alfo among the feedes of Macocqwer [squashes and pumpkins], Melden [possibly chenopod] and Planta Solis [sunflower]. [Thomas Hariot in North Carolina in 1585] (de Bry 1966:15)


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        "In front of their houses they have peach trees right in the open, which bear excellent peaches and make a pleasant shade for their houses." [Andre Penigault among the Natchez in Louisiana in 1704] (McWilliams 1981:85)

        People do not readily adopt new crops or foods. Which new domesticates, then, are most likely to be adopted? We can answer this question by looking at three crops adopted by the southeastern Indians from Europeans during the early years of first contact. These three crops are watermelon (Citrullus vulgaris), peach (Prunus persica), and cowpea (Vigna species). The watermelon, originally from Africa, was introduced to the southeast by the Spanish. Its use spread so quickly that by the 1600s the French encountered it under cultivation by Indians around the Great Lakes and along the Mississippi River, where the Indians said they had been growing it forever. The peach, originally from Asia, was also introduced to the southeast by the Spanish, who grew it in their mission gardens. Although cowpeas are found associated with Spanish trade goods at one site in Alabama, it remains possible that its mode of transmission was through African slaves rather than Spanish colonists.

WATERMELON (Citrullus vulgaris) is originally from Africa

   PEACH (Prunus persica) is originally from Asia

COWPEA (Vigna sp.) is originally from Africa

        Several characteristics of each of these crops (besides their good taste and high nutrition) likely contributed to the speed with which they were adopted by southeastern Indians. First, because all were incorporated as dietary supplements, their adoption posed little risk to the Indians. All three produce high yields relative to the work needed to cultivate them, and all do well in the hot, humid southeastern summers. Perhaps most importantly, all three are cultivated by methods that were already well known by the Indians, negating the necessity to learn new agricultural techniques. These same factors probably played a role in the decision to first begin cultivating corn, a foreign crop that was introduced to North American Indian farmers experienced in growing their own native crops (see "The Three Sisters").

        The colonists, for their part, set out to replicate Europe at their new home in America. What they discovered was that in order to adapt to their new surroundings, they sometimes had to adapt to native crops. For example, wheat and wine grapes necessary for communion among the Spanish were not easily grown in South Carolina. Along the eastern seaboard, colonists quickly adopted maize and other native crops and wild foods from the Indians, overlaying on top of them those European or Caribbean crops and livestock that could survive in this new environment. Whereas Europeans adopted the use of the corn crib or barbacoa from the southeastern Indians, the Indians did not readily adopt the use of the plow from the Europeans. Likewise, Europeans also began to use fire to manage vegetation. However, although they adopted the custom, they did not apply it in the same way in which the Indians had, resulting in the development through time of new vegetation associations.

           Worker hoes the re-created A.D. 1250 garden at SunWatch Village, Dayton, Ohio. Note that sunflowers border areas of maize and beans, separated by aisles of squash and gourds.

        The savages have flat, hooked sticks with which they pick the ground, as they know nothing about plowing the way we do in France. They scratch the ground with these hooked sticks and uproot the canes and weeds, which they leave on the ground out in the sun for two weeks or a month, and afterwards they set fire to them, and when they are reduced to ashes, they take a stick as big as one’s arm and sharpened at one end and make a hole in the ground every three feet, into which they put seven or eight grains of corn per hole and cover it over with dirt. In this way they plant their corn and their beans. When the corn is a foot high, they take great care, as we do in France, to pull up the weeds that grow in it; this they repeat two or three times during the year. They still use their wooden picks nowadays despite the fact that we have given them iron ones, because they find theirs lighter. [Andre Penigault in Louisiana in 1698] (McWilliams 1981:20)



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Calder, Isabel M., editor
1935 Colonial Captivities, Marches and Journeys. Macmillan, NY.

Crites, Gary D. and R. Dale Terry
1984 Nutritive Value of Maygrass, Phalaris caroliniana. Economic Botany 38(1):114-120.

de Bry, Theodore
1966 Thomas Hariot’s Virginia. Readex Microprint.

Fritz, Gayle J.
1990 Multiple Pathways to Farming in Precontact Eastern North America. Journal of World Prehistory 4(4):387-435.

Gremillion, Kristen J.
1993 Adoption of Old World Crops and Processes of Cultural Change in the Historic Southeast. Southeastern Archaeology 12(1):15-20.

Harper, Francis, editor
1958 The Travels of William Bartram. Naturalist Edition. Yale University Press, New Haven [original William Bartram, 1791, Travels Through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida. James & Johnson, Philadelphia]

McWilliams, Richebourg Gaillard, translator and editor
1981 Fleur de Lys and Calumet: Being the Penicaut Narrative of French Adventure in Louisiana. The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.

Moore, Alexander, editor
1988 Nairne’s Muskhogean Journals: The 1708 Expedition to the Mississippi River. University Press of Mississippi, Jackson.

Prentice, Guy
1986 An Analysis of the Symbolism Expressed by the Birger Figurine. American Antiquity 51(2):239-266.

Scarry, C. Margaret, editor
1993 Foraging and Farming in the Eastern Woodlands. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Smith, John
1907 The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England and The Summer Isles, 2 vol. James MacLehose and Sons, Glasgow.
Varner, John and Jeannette Varner, translators and editors
1988 The Florida of the Inca. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Wagner, Gail E.
1997 "Their Women and Children do Continually Keepe it with Weeding": Late Prehistoric Women and Horticulture in Eastern North America. In The Influence of Women on the Southern Landscape Conference Proceedings, ed. by Flora Ann Bynum, pp. 8-33. Old Salem, Winston-Salem, N.C.

Watson, Patty Jo and Mary C. Kennedy
1991 The Development of Horticulture in the Eastern Woodlands of North America: Women’s Role. In Engendering Archaeology: Women and Prehistory, edited by Joan M. Gero and Margaret W. Conkey, pp. 255-275. Basil Blackwell, Oxford.


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Seed Savers Exchange, 3076 North Winn Rd., Decorah, IA 52101 

Seeds of Diversity Canada, P.O. Box 36, Station Q, Toronto, ON M4T 2L7

, Monticello, P.O. Box 316, Charlottesville, VA

DeMuth, Suzanne P., compiler. Sept. 1998. Vegetables and Fruits: A Guide to Heirloom Varieties and Community Based Stewardship. U.S.D.A. SRB 98-05. 3 vol. 285 pages. Available by writing: USDA, ARS National Agricultural Library. Send a self-addressed return mail label.



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        Before visiting any of the following gardens, please call to confirm that it is still open to the public. The type of garden is listed first, followed by the organization and address.


Historic Brattonsville
1444 Brattonsville Rd.
McConnells, SC 29726

Re-created Fort Ancient (A.D. 1250) village at SunWatch Village, Dayton, Ohio.


Museum of Appalachia
P.O. Box 1189
Norris, TN 37828
located on Highway 61 one mile east of I-75

Catawba Cultural Preservation Project
Rock Hill, SC

Re-created Catawba garden at the Catawba Cultural Center, Rock Hill, South Carolina. In order to clear woodland, trees are girdled (the bark is stripped in a ring around the trunk) and left standing. Maize, beans, and gourds are visible in the foreground, with a large drying stage in the background.


Oconaluftee Indian Village
U.S. Highway 441 North
P.O. Box 398
Cherokee, NC 28719

Mississippian (A.D. 1300-1500), Creek (A.D. 1700), and Cherokee (A.D. 1800)

Atlanta History Center
130 W. Paces Ferry Rd., NW
Atlanta, GA 30305-1366

Mississippian (A.D. 1000-1700)

Town Creek Indian Mound
509 Town Creek Mound Road
Mt. Gilead, NC 27306

Fort Ancient, A.D. 1000-1700

SunWatch Indian Village and Archaeological Park
2301 West River Rd.
Dayton, OH 45418-2815

A re-created garden located just outside the palisade of the re-created SunWatch Village (A.D. 1250), Dayton, Ohio.

Middle Woodland, 500 B.C. – A.D. 500

Fort Ancient State Park
6123 State Route 350
Oregonia, OH 45054

Document's URL: http://www.cas.sc.edu/anth/gardening/AncientGardening.html
Published 9/4/01; 3:57:38 PM by the College of Arts & Sciences, University of South Carolina.
Maintained by Claudia Carriere, claudiacarriere@sc.edu. ©Copyrighted 1995-2001. All Rights Reserved.