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1st Farm in Eastern U.S. Grown for Taste, Not Hunger?

Christine Dell'Amore
National Geographic News
April 8, 2009
 
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

Smith and colleagues radiocarbon-dated samples of seeds in soil collected in the 1960s from middens, or garbage piles, of the Riverton culture.

In communities of about six to ten families, the Riverton people prepared their food without ceramic pots or boiled water: The families broke nuts, ground food on slabs, and used earthen ovens with fire-heated rocks.

They likely ate sunflower, marsh elder, two types of chenopod—a family that includes spinach and beets—and possibly squash and little barley, according to the findings. The people also grew bottle gourd to make into containers.

Several of these "aggressive" colonizer plant species, such as sunflowers and bottle gourd, are around today, said Smith, whose research appears this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Many of the Riverton plant species are so hardy that modern gardeners in the U.S. Midwest or Southeast often find them stubbornly popping up in their backyards, he said.

(Related: "Ancient Seeds Sow Debate Over Sunflower-Farming Origins".)

Icing on the Cake?

The Riverton crops may have "added to what was [already] a successful life" for the ancient Americans, said Brian Redmond, curator and head of archaeology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in Ohio.

But that doesn't mean farming didn't give the Riverton culture a practical advantage: In addition to their normal fare, the people may have relied on the crops as a stable source of food—insurance against shortages of wild food sources—Redmond added.

The Riverton discovery, he said, "gives us a whole lot of dimension to what these people are doing in this time."
 

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