Searching for the lost crops of North America
January 26, 2018 8:09 AM   Subscribe

Hunting for the ancient lost farms of North America (Annalee Newitz for Ars Technica) -- 2,000 years ago, people domesticated these plants. Now they’re wild weeds. What happened? One notable archaeologist and ethnobotanist in this field (heh) is Natalie Mueller, researcher (The earliest occurrence of a newly described domesticate in Eastern North America: Adena/Hopewell communities and agricultural innovation; Growing the lost crops of eastern North America's original agricultural system - both abstracts) and blogger, who investigates the Eastern Agricultural Complex in the American South with the Midwest.
Over 2,000 years ago in North America, indigenous people domesticated plants that are now part of our everyday diets, such as squashes and sunflowers. But they also bred crops that have since returned to the wild. These include erect knotweed (not to be confused with its invasive cousin, Asian knotweed), goosefoot, little barley, marsh elder, and maygrass. We haven’t simply lost a few plant strains: an entire cuisine with its own kinds of flavors and baked goods has simply disappeared.

By studying lost crops, archaeologists learn about everyday life in the ancient Woodland culture of the Americas, including how people ate plants that we call weeds today. But these plants also give us a window on social networks in the ancient Americas. Scientists can track the spread of cultivated seeds from one tiny settlement to the next in the vast region that would one day be known as the United States. This reveals which groups were connected culturally and how they formed alliances through food and farming.
posted by filthy light thief (17 comments total) 77 users marked this as a favorite
 
More from Natalie Mueller and colleagues: Growing the lost crops of eastern North America's original agricultural system (full paper), and the Lost Crops Garden Network, "Cultivating the Forgotten Indigenous Crops of Eastern North America."
At least five species were domesticated in prehistoric eastern North America: sunflowers, squash, goosefoot, erect knotweed, and marshelder. The domesticated forms of goosefoot, erect knotweed, and marshelder have been extinct for hundreds of years. These lost domesticated crops can tell us much about the lifeways of prehistoric peoples. As we learn more about these lost crops, we learn how to build increasingly resilient and sustainable food systems for people today.
And more on the region: Eastern agricultural complex, covered at The Walden Effect, part of their Native American Paleoethnobotany lunchtime series, with more links at the end of that brief overview.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:15 AM on January 26 [3 favorites]


Fascinating stuff, thanks for the post!
posted by languagehat at 8:40 AM on January 26


Goosefoot / lambs quarters / fat hen is still widely cultivated in Asia, and *delicious" as a cooked green (especially in any of the many varieties of saag). It grows everywhere near me and is impossible to keep out of raised beds or window boxes - figuring out it was not only edible, but good and nutritious felt like a minor gardening victory, and also a small window into some of what might have been going on here long before the neighborhood I live in occupied this land.
posted by ryanshepard at 8:51 AM on January 26 [5 favorites]


Huh, I knew that the NA goosefoot (which I know as lamb's quarters) was once a domesticated crop, but I did not know it was related to quinoa. They are both in the genus Chenopodium.
posted by tavella at 8:57 AM on January 26


ryanshepard, apparently the goosefoot species cultivated in India is Chenopodium album, while the species that was formerly cultivated in North America is Chenopodium berlandieri.
posted by tavella at 9:02 AM on January 26


This is fascinating! Thanks for posting it.
posted by maurice at 9:33 AM on January 26


This is really useful and interesting to me, since we part of my WiP km researching crops that aren't part of the standard modern staples.

I think I really want to write an article sometime for fantasy writers about foods to feed their characters that aren't potatoes and bread.
posted by happyroach at 9:41 AM on January 26 [7 favorites]


ryanshepard, apparently the goosefoot species cultivated in India is Chenopodium album, while the species that was formerly cultivated in North America is Chenopodium berlandieri.

My botany is admittedly shaky, but I can say definitively that whatever one is common in Washington, DC is tasty, and works well in saag, curries, etc.
posted by ryanshepard at 10:24 AM on January 26 [3 favorites]


Oh, lamb's foot is a great green, works like spinach in just about anything. But the cultivated version in India doesn't mean that the NA cultivated species wasn't lost, it was.
posted by tavella at 11:01 AM on January 26


I didn't know this was a thing but it makes perfect sense and now I want to eat them
posted by vibratory manner of working at 11:14 AM on January 26 [1 favorite]


This is just terrific - mindblowing, difficult reconstructive project. Wow!

Some other resources on indigenous food history that might be of interest:
RAFT - Renewing America's Food Traditions
Native Food Systems Resource Center
Slow Food Turtle Island
posted by Miko at 11:35 AM on January 26 [4 favorites]


foods to feed their characters that aren't potatoes and bread.

But they're so versatile! You can boil them, mash them, stick them in a stew...
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:13 PM on January 26 [3 favorites]


The post talks about the research of Logan Kistler of the Smithsonian Institution's Department of Anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History. However it is worth noting that his retired colleague, Dr. Bruce D. Smith, was one of the pioneers in this research for North America. You can find some information about this in this profile on him. See the sections called "A Cigar Box Of Seeds" and "Layers In A Mexican Cave".
posted by gudrun at 3:27 PM on January 26 [3 favorites]


I think I really want to write an article sometime for fantasy writers about foods to feed their characters that aren't potatoes and bread.

Or mutton stew. So much mutton stew.

This is a neat thing to read about, thanks for the post.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:38 PM on January 26 [2 favorites]


This is super cool! I've been reading Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California's Natural Resources by M. Kat Anderson. Lots of discussion of Native American harvesting and intentional propagation of wildflower seeds, greens, and root vegetables for food. No full domestication, but there's evidence of genetic changes due to indigenous activity. More discussion in Edible Seeds and Grains of California Tribes and the Klamath Tribe (pdf).
posted by Mister Cheese at 9:40 PM on January 26 [6 favorites]


Anyone interested in this might also be interested in Alfred Crosby's seminal Ecological Imperialism, which explores the spread of European plants in the Americas.
posted by aspersioncast at 5:33 PM on January 29 [2 favorites]


I'm always fascinated by the grinding stones you'll find all over the West in the middle of what's now desert - people were grinding acorns, goosefoot variants, and squash seeds in places where none of those things will currently grow.
posted by aspersioncast at 5:35 PM on January 29 [2 favorites]


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