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Arkansas Archeology Month
- March 2009 -

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Theme: Planting the Seed

Chenopodium. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Evidence for the cultivation of domesticated plants in Arkansas is found as far back as 1,000 B.C. toward the end of the Archaic period. By the Woodland period (500 B.C. to A.D. 1000), a number of seed-bearing plants were being grown, most of which today are ignored as weeds, but which provided life-sustaining nutrients and carbohydrates to the Native peoples of Arkansas. By the Mississippian period (A.D. 900-1541), large populations depended on the “three sisters” of corn, beans, and squash, though the earlier cultigens remained important.

Maygrass, little barley, chenopodium (lamb’s quarters), knotweed, marshelder, sunflowers, and squash were domesticated in the mountainous regions of Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, and Kentucky by Native Americans. This group of plants is known as the “eastern agricultural complex.” While some of these plants have reverted to weeds today, squash, sunflowers, and a species of chenopodium called quinoa are still important.

Quinoa. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Maygrass and little barley are plants that produce abundant high carbohydrate seeds. They were planted in the fall, like winter wheat, and harvested in May or June. Chenopodium, which also produces many seeds, matures in the fall, although its leaves can also be eaten in the spring. Several quarts of chenopodium seeds can be gathered in an hour, and they can be ground into flour to make bread or a dish like oatmeal.

Several varieties of squashes—acorn, scallop, fordhook, and crookneck—were independently domesticated in eastern North America during the Archaic period from a native wild squash. The squashes were probably valued more for their seeds than their flesh, since the seeds are rich in oil or fat, like nuts, and contain more protein than corn. Sunflowers, knotweed, and marshelder were also valued for the high fat content of their seeds

Sunflower. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Corn was domesticated in Mexico as early as 6,000 B.C., but it was not until the first two centuries A.D. that it was grow in small amounts by the Native Americans of eastern North America. For about 800 years it remained a minor food, perhaps eaten as sweet corn in the summer. About A.D. 900, corn began to assume its historic importance as a staple grain. The varieties grown were starchier, more nutritious, and more suitable to storage. By the Mississippian period (A.D. 1000-1541), corn was grown as the primary crop and supported large population centers. In order for people to get sufficient nutrients to remain healthy, other foods needed to balance corn’s deficiencies, and beans and squash helped to fill these needs.

Corn. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Food contributions from southeastern Native Americans live on today in the plants we grow, as well as the recipes we use. Corn, beans, squash, and pumpkins are major American food crops. Hominy, grits, hush puppies, and corn bread are just some of the dishes made from corn that follow Native American preparations. Beans boiled with fat, and corn and beans cooked together as succotash, are also descendants of Native American dishes.

In historic times, Euro-American settlers who came to Arkansas in the early 1800s grew both native plants and Old World plants for personal consumption as well as sale. Women grew vegetables and herbs in gardens close to home, while fields were cleared and planted with corn and other commercial crops. In the eastern and southern parts of Arkansas, cotton-growing was of primary importance. Some families grew rich on cotton, bringing enslaved African-Americans to clear many acres of land and work the cotton fields. Even many small farmers grew a few bales of cotton to make a cash crop.

Cotton. Courtesy Wikipedia.

At the turn of the 20th century, new crops—such as apples, peaches, tomatoes, and wine grapes—increased in importance in regions of the state. Today, although cotton is still grown, rice and soybeans have become important commercial crops in Arkansas.

For more information:
Schambach, Frank, and Leslie Newell
1990    Crossroads of the Past: 12,000 Years of Indian Life in Arkansas. Popular Series No. 2, Arkansas Archeological Survey, Fayetteville.

Williams, C. Fred
2008    “Agriculture.” Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.

Kavasch, Barrie
1979    Native Harvests: Recipes and Botanicals of the American Indian. Vintage Books, New York.

Densmore, Frances
1974    How Indians Use Wild Plants for Food, Medicine & Crafts. Dover Publications, Inc., New York.

Hudson, Charles
1976    The Southeastern Indians. University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville.

Simon, Mary L., and Kathryn E. Parker
2006    Prehistoric Plant Use in the American Bottom: New Thoughts and Interpretations. Southeastern Archaeology 25(2):212-257.

Fritz, Gayle J.
1997    A Three-Thousand-Year Old Cache of Crop Seeds from Marble Bluff, Arkansas. In People, Plants, and Landscapes, ed. by K.J. Gremillion, pp. 42-62. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.

Ideas for Archeology Month Activities

  • Put together an exhibit comparing ancient, antique, and modern farming tools
  • Make a display of plants once cultivated by early Native Americans. Research their uses.
  • Make a display of Native American-domesticated plants that are still grown and used today.
  • Try some Native American recipes and share with your class or club.
  • Study the history of cotton-growing or fruit-growing in Arkansas.
  • Have your library display books about archeology.
  • Visit an archeological park, such as Toltec Mounds, Parkin Site, or Hampson Museum.
  • Visit Historic Washington State Park to learn about life in 19th-century Arkansas.


More ideas for Archeology Month activities can be found in our Archives (below).


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Copyright 2008 Arkansas Archeological Survey, Revised - November 2008
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