Ancient Great Plains Farming

Primary Researcher: Mary Adair, curator

As a continuation of my dissertation research, the goals of this project are: to recover and identity 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).

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).