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Tennessee’s First Crops: Research in Paleoethnobotany

by Gary D. Crites, Research Assistant Professor, Director of Paleoethnobotany* at the McClung Museum of Natural History & Culture

* Paleoethnobotany is the study of the direct interrelations between humans and plants, as expressed in the archaeological record.

When Columbus reached the New World, Native Americans in the Tennessee Valley already had been practicing a socially complex, maize-based agriculture for more than 500 years. This system, based upon fields in which crops of maize, beans, and squash — commonly referred to as the “Three Sisters” — were grown in combination, has generally been viewed as marking the transition of prehistoric Native Americans from nomadic hunter-gatherers to more sedentary and “sophisticated” populations. This perspective is inaccurate, and has been fostered by a spotty archaeological record and the presumption that both the knowledge and availability of “appropriate” plants for gardening or farming were introduced to the region relatively late in prehistory.

Intensive archaeological investigations in East and Middle Tennessee have yielded one of the most detailed records of prehistoric human-plant interaction in eastern North America. Ongoing paleoethnobotanical research has documented the presence of Cucurbita (the botanical genus containing the various squashes) in Middle Tennessee 7,000 years ago. This is one of the three earliest occurrences of Cucurbita in North America (all dating between 6,900 and 7,100 years ago).

Research into the ecology and expression of genetic change in plants under cultivation has documented the domestication of certain “weeds,” and their maintenance as garden or field crops by at least 1,000 BC and perhaps as early as 2,000 BC. Examples include the common lambsquarter or goosefoot, sunflower, and sumpweed or marsh elder. Archaeological and botanical evidence also suggest that maygrass, a spring-maturing annual which today is not common in Tennessee, was being cultivated as early as 1,800 BC.

Maize (which evolved in Mexico and South America) recovered from the Icehouse Bottom site in east Tennessee has been radiocarbon dated to AD 175 plus/minus 100 years. This represents the earliest secure date for maize in eastern North America, but it still places the arrival of this Mexican species in eastern North America at least 1,000 years after the appearance of native domesticated plants.

Accumulating paleoethnobotanical data from Tennessee argue strongly for a prehistoric food production system that evolved in place, based originally upon cultivated and domesticated indigenous seed-bearing plant species that had been known to Native Americans for thousands of years.

Because of the great time depth represented, and the consistency in research focus and methodology, the paleoethnobotanical collections now housed in the McClung Museum constitute one of the most significant research collections of its kind in eastern North America.