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date: 23 April 2019

Summary and Keywords

The possibility that native peoples in eastern North America had cultivated plants prior to the introduction of maize was first raised in 1924. Scant evidence was available to support this speculation, however, until the “flotation revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s. As archaeologists involved in large-scale projects began implementing flotation, paleoethnobotanists soon had hundreds of samples and thousands of seeds that demonstrated that indigenous peoples grew a suite of crops, including cucurbit squashes and gourds, sunflower, sumpweed, and chenopod, which displayed signs of domestication. The application of accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) dating to cucurbit rinds and seeds in the 1980s placed the domestication of these four crops in the Late Archaic period 5000–3800 bp. The presence of wild cucurbits during earlier Archaic periods lent weight to the argument that native peoples in eastern North America domesticated these plants independently of early cultivators in Mesoamerica. Analyses of DNA from chenopods and cucurbits in the 2010s definitively demonstrated that these crops developed from local lineages.

With evidence in hand that refuted notions of the diffusion of plant domestication from Mesoamerica, models developed in the 1980s for the transition from foraging to farming in the Eastern Woodlands emphasized the coevolutionary relationship between people and these crop plants. As Archaic-period groups began to occupy river valleys more intensively, in part due to changing climatic patterns during the mid-Holocene that created more stable river systems, their activities created disturbed areas in which these weedy plants thrive. With these useful plants available as more productive stands in closer proximity to base camps, people increasingly used the plants, which in turn responded to people’s selection. Critics noted that these models left little room for intentionality or innovation on the part of early farmers.

Models derived from human behavioral ecology explore the circumstances in which foragers choose to start using these small-seeded plants in greater quantities. In contrast to the resource-rich valley settings of the coevolutionary models, human behavioral ecology models posit that foragers would only use these plants, which provide relatively few calories per time spent obtaining them, when existing resources could no longer support growing populations. In these scenarios, Late Archaic peoples cultivated these crops as insurance against shortages in nut supplies.

Despite their apparent differences, current iterations of both models recognize humans as agents who actively change their environments, with intentional and unintentional results. Both also are concerned with understanding the social and ecological contexts within which people began cultivating and eventually domesticating plants.

The “when” and “where” questions of domestication in eastern North America are relatively well established, although researchers continue to fill significant gaps in geographic data. These primarily include regions where large-scale contract archaeology projects have not been conducted. Researchers are also actively debating the “how” and “why” of domestication, but the cultural ramifications of the transition from foraging to farming have yet to be meaningfully incorporated into the archaeological understanding of the region. The significance of these native crops to the economies of Late Archaic and subsequent Early and Middle Woodland peoples is poorly understood and often woefully underestimated by researchers. The socioeconomic roles of these native crops to past peoples, as well as the possibilities for farmers and cooks to incorporate them into their practices in the early 21st century, are exciting areas for new research.

Keywords: origins of agriculture, paleoethnobotany, domestication, eastern North America, archaeology, native cultigens, Eastern Agricultural Complex, lost crops

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