Ancient Great Plains Farming

Primary Researcher: Mary Adair, curator

Native American groups who occupied the Great Plains are historically viewed as bison dependent, as bison have a long history of use on the Plains and have today become a symbol of the vast prairie grasses.  However, the tallgrass prairies of the eastern portion of the central Plains are intermixed with oak/hickory woodlands and floodplain forests that provide diversity in the available plant and animal communities.  In prehistory, these regions supported both residentially mobile and sedentary groups who maintained a balanced hunting-gathering and farming economy.

My research has focused for decades on documenting the presence and importance of prehistoric farming on the central Plains.  The ongoing goals of this research include the recovery and identification of both indigenous domesticates and introduced farm crops in the prehistoric central Plains; chart the spatial and temporal distribution of each domesticate; document the contextual relationship of domesticates to other cultural data; and record the relative contribution of each domesticate to the overall diet and general health of cultures through time.  The remains of domesticated plants are preserved in archaeological sites as either macro remains (i.e. charred complete or fragmented particles of seeds, nuts, wood, rind, etc) or micro remains (i.e. pollen, phytoliths, starch grains, or lipid particles).  Each category requires specialized recovery and identification methods, although analyses of both kinds of remains provide a more comprehensive approach to delineating the etiology and economic importance of farming on the North American Great Plains.

To date, remains from the indigenous plants of marshelder (Iva annua), sunflower (Helianthus annuus), gourd (Cucurbita pepo var ovifera), goosefoot (Chenopodium berlanderie), little barley (Hordeum pusillum), maygrass (Phalaris caroliniana), erect knotweed (Polygonum erectum) and tobacco (Nicotiana spp.) provide evidence that Plains groups tended, encouraged and eventually domesticated these resources.  Most were probably consumed as food, although the gourd may have been selected for use as a container in pre-ceramic times and tobacco was grown for smoking.  Crops that arrived in North America as domesticates include corn (Zea mays), squash (Cucurbita pepo), common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) and gourd (Langeria siceraria).

Direct radiocarbon dates on the plant remains document that the earliest crops were the native squash (dated to about 2000 BC), followed by marshelder (dated to ca. 750BC) and sunflower.  By the Middle Woodland period of about AD200-400, the native plants of maygrass, erect knotweed, little barley and goosefoot were tended and may have been undergoing genetic changes leading to domestication.  The tropical variety of squash is also present.  Micro remains of corn document that this crop had been introduced into the central Plains but the plant might not have been an important food item. By the Late Woodland period of ca. AD 800-1000, all of the native plants are fully domesticated and corn becomes part of the economy.  The common bean is the last of the tropical cultigens to arrive with direct dates suggesting this happened around. AD 1100.

After European contact, other foods were gradually introduced into North America and were occasionally added to the diets of Native groups.  In the central Plains region, we have recovered the seeds of watermelon (Citrullus lanatus), cantaloupe (Cucumis melo), peach (Prunus persica) and the garden pea (Pisum sativum).

Maize, or Indian corn (Zea mays) became the most economically important crop to Native populations in North America.  At the time of European contact, this crop was grown over most of North America and was thus adapted to diverse environments, ranging from high altitudes, low precipitation levels, short growing seasons, and temperature extremes.  The process by which maize spread throughout the continent and was accepted by diverse cultural traditions is both complex and not totally clear.  In most agricultural complexes, corn was not the only crop grown, but intercropped with different squashes and pumpkins (Cucurbita spp.), beans (Phaseolus spp.), and indigenous plants.  The crops of corn, beans and squash are often referred to as the “Three Sisters” to signify their combined importance in Native American societies.  While these crops all originated in Mexico, their spread northward was temporally independent and, as advances in plant genetics demonstrate, likely followed different pathways.