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Rivers of Change: Essays on Early Agriculture in Eastern North America.

Smith, Bruce D. Rivers of Change: Essays on Early Agriculture in Eastern North America. With contributions by C. Wesley Cowan and Michael P. Hoffman. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992. xiv + 302 pp. Illustrations, bibliography, index. $49.95 cloth.

Assign your class the task of listing the crops domesticated by Indians north of Mexico. Even if you allow the students to refer to textbooks on Indian history or archaeology, they probably will not come up with more than corn, beans, squash, and maybe sunflower and tobacco. How many of them know that except for sunflower and perhaps squash, these crops actually originated in Mesoamerica? And how many students -- how many historians and anthropologists -- know that corn and beans were late arrivals, adopted in eastern North America by peoples who already maintained diverse agricultural systems based on native crops?

Between the 1930s and the 1970s, a few archaeologists and ethnobotanists tentatively suggested the existence of a pre-maize native crop complex in the Mississippi Valley and surrounding regions. Because there is virtually no historical evidence to suggest that native agriculture in the East involved any crops other than those noted above, the concepts of indigenous horticulture and farming have centered on the introduced crops of Mesoamerican origin that dominate current and Historic Era Indian gardens and fields. Over the past twenty years, though, a new picture of Indian agricultural history has emerged, slowly at first; but now a torrent of studies provide convincing proof that ancient farming involving goosefoot, marshelder, maygrass, little barley, knotweed, and other seemingly unlikely plants. Although modern America ignores these plants or considers them weeds to be eradicated, their nutritious grains-or those of their now-extinct domesticated varieties -- sustained Indian people for two thousand to four thousand years, long before corn was brought north of Mexico.

Bruce Smith tells the story of this native crop complex, combining archaeological data with the results of recent botanizing in the southeastern United States. By documenting the independent development of agriculture in eastern North America, Smith forces recognition of this area as one of only a handful of primary centers of domestication worldwide.

Smith notes that any suggestion of indigenous North American plant domestication received relatively little attention until archaeological methods were developed to permit direct study of the ancient seeds. The most basic advance was the widespread adoption of fine-screen flotation, which allows the collection of tiny, carbonized plant remains from archaeological deposits such as refuse pits. Also, the use of scanning electron microscopes has helped paleoethnobotanists measure microscopic yet significant differences between the seeds of domesticated plants and those of their wild cousins. A third recent step forward has been the use of accelerator mass spectrometry for radiocarbon dating of the seeds themselves, building a chronology of agricultural development based on the actual crops rather than on putatively associated materials.

Eastern North American agriculture originated, according to Smith, in the large floodplains of the mid-latitudes. Climatic and environmental changes attracted larger and more sedentary settlements in these river valleys sometime around five thousand to seven thousand years ago. During this period, Archaic peoples utilized three floodplain weeds: Iva annua (marshelder), Chenopodium berlandieri (goosefoot), and Cucurbita pepo (native gourd). These plants were "pre-adapted to becoming components of the plant communities of anthropogenic open habitats" (p. 28). As human settlement of the floodplains intensified and anthropogenic open habitats expanded, use of these plants increased. Their growth was encouraged and eventually became closely tied to humans through "the deliberate planting of seed stock" (p. 30). By three thousand to four thousand years ago, eastern North American Indian societies had developed domesticated varieties of these three floodplain plants as well as of sunflower, another disturbed-ground weed that was brought eastward from the Plains.

In addition to presenting archaeological evidence for this scenario of independent domestication, Smith describes modern stands of the floodplain triad, confirming the productivity of wild marshelder (already indicated by David and Nancy Asch) and goosefoot. Readers can only conclude that the domesticated varieties -- now extinct in North America -- would be even more productive and easier to harvest and process than the wild plants. Regarding Cucurbita pepo, paleoethnobotanists have long debated its status as a native versus an introduced crop in eastern North America. Relying on data provided by chapter coauthors C. W. Cowan and M. P. Hoffman, Smith believes the evidence from modern stands, herbarium collections, and isozyme studies demonstrates that the gourd was a wild, indigenous floodplain plant that eastern Indians domesticated thousands of years ago without any "foreign" involvement.

In the chapter entitled "Hopewellian Farmers of Eastern North America," Smith examines the major pre-maize cultural climax of eastern North America, ca. A.D. 1 to A.D. 200, looking closely at community plans and inferred population size. With botanical data indicating the use of seven indigenous crops by that time, Smith redefines Hopewellian communities as farmsteads generally consisting of up to three households. These relatively dispersed, low-density habitations contrast with (or complement?) the elaborate corporate-ceremonial sites and vast trading network for which Hopewell is best known.

While half of this book's twelve chapters have appeared as journal articles or as chapters in other volumes, taken together they tell a more cohesive and compelling story than they do as separate papers. One chapter alone brings the account into the Historic period: Smith identifies the eighteenth-century Natchez "mystery crop" choupichoul as goosefoot. Studies not reported in this book tend to show that the use of most native crops declined after A.D. 1200; most had been abandoned by the time the first written records were made of Indian life in eastern North America. Smith's valuable service, then, is to bring to light these nearly forgotten aspects of native agriculture. It is hoped that this significant new information will start showing up in textbooks and in applied contexts such as sustainable agriculture efforts.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Green, William
Publication:The American Indian Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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