National Geographic News
Three thousand eight hundred years ago, long before U.S. plains rippled with vast rows of corn, Native Americans planted farms with hardy "pioneer" crops, according to new evidence of the first farming in eastern North America.
Because the area appears to have been well stocked with wild food sources, the discovery may rewrite some beliefs about what led people to start farming on the continent, scientists say.
Rather than turning to farming as a matter of survival, the so-called Riverton people may have been exercising "free will" and engaging in a bit of gastronomic innovation, archaeologists say.
Farming Not a Necessity?
The ancient farm was found at a Riverton site along the Wabash River in present-day Illinois.
At least five varieties of seed-bearing plants, such as easily cultivated sunflowers and gourds, were grown at the site, the new study says.
This "crop complex" is the earliest known east of the Great Plains—previous evidence from this time period had indicated that only single crops were domesticated at a time.
Around the world and throughout ancient history, people switched from mainly hunting and gathering to farming as a way to cope with environmental stresses, such as drought—or so the conventional wisdom says.
But the new research "really challenges the whole idea of humans domesticating plants and animals in response to an external stress [and] makes a strong case for almost the polar opposite," said lead study author Bruce Smith, curator of North American archaeology at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
Before they began farming, the Riverton people lived among bountiful river valleys and lakes, apparently eating a healthy and diverse diet of nuts, white-tailed deer, fish, and shellfish, the study says.
Farming may not have been a necessity but rather a reflection of their "own free will," Smith said.
How They Lived
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