Current Northeast Paleoethnobotany II: A Few of the Highlights

Posted by Edward V. Curtin on June 1, 2010 in Book Reviews |

New York State Museum Bulletin Series 512, titled Current Northeast Paleoethnobotany II, was published in 2008 and edited by John P. Hart.  This book follows Current Northeast Paleoethnobotany (New York State Museum Bulletin 494), also edited by Hart and published in 1999.  The new volume significantly updates progress in the field of Northeastern paleoethnobotany, as discussed in Hart’s introduction.  The introduction brings into perspective the importance of new and developing technologies to learn about the use of plants by ancient peoples. Several of the new or developing areas of research are dealt with by some of the chapter authors.

The recovery and analysis of phytoliths, lipids, and starches, as well as small amounts of charcoal from cooking residues for accelerator dating are providing important new information on the ancient uses of plants.  The introduction also refers to the use of plant isozemes and DNA to study the genetic history and differentiation of cultivated species, including the domestication of native eastern North American squash (gourds).

As Hart explains in more detail in his contribution to the volume, “Evolving the Three Sisters: The Changing Histories of Maize, Beans and Squash in the Northeast”, the recovery of plant phytoliths from–  and the radiocarbon dating of–  charred residues from potsherds in old museum collections has pushed back the apparent introduction of corn in central New York to approximately 1000 years earlier than the previously  accepted date of  circa AD 1000.  Research on the Three Sisters reveals their largely separate cultural histories prior to their association in native Northeastern agriculture. This convergence apparently was completed with the introduction of beans about AD 1300.

While there are many very interesting and important chapters in Current Northeast Paleoethnobotany II, I find that a few in addition to John Hart’s contributions strike me as essential to my work as a regional specialist and contract archaeologist in the Saratoga-Capital District area of New York State.  I list these chapters in the order of their appearance in the book:

“The Impact of Maize-based Agriculture on Prehistoric Plant Communities in the Northeast” by Nancy Asch Sidell provides an overview from Maine to Pennsylvania, with a certain concentration of data from the Hudson, Mohawk, and Susquehanna drainages.  Asch Sidell provides information on the uses of a variety of plants, a delineation of forest regions, tables of data from a large number of sites examining the age, size, quality and contents of a large number of samples, and discussions of the implications of recovered maize, wood charcoal, nutshell (with a special discussion of the role of butternut), seeds, tobacco, the Eastern Agricultural Complex, and changes in forest composition.  This, among a series of contributions by Asch Sidell, provides a substantial advance in thinking about ancient habitats, forest alteration, food gathering, and agricultural practices in the Northeast.

In “So Little Maize, So Much Time:  Understanding Maize Adoption in New England”, Elizabeth S. Chilton cites a debate in New England concerning maize, namely  “whether or not New England Algonquian were sedentary farmers prior to European Contact.”  In discussing this subject, Chilton revisits and expands upon her idea of mobile farmers (which was introduced and developed in earlier articles, including some published in previous New York State Museum Bulletins).  Mobile farmers is a very useful concept emphasizing diversity and flexibility in mixed hunting-gathering-horticultural subsistence strategies.  In the course of this discussion, Chilton explores disparate sources of direct or indirect evidence of maize, such as residue and stable isotope analyses; evidence for the chronology of maize use in New England; and just as significantly, a current perspective on existing settlement pattern data.  Archaeologists and cultural resource managers in New York’s Capital District and Hudson valley will note that Chilton includes this region in her discussion of New England (a fair contrast to the maize- and village-based Iroquoian cultures of the Mohawk and Susquehanna valleys, and westward).

Jack Rossen, in “Exploring New Dimensions in the Study of Archaeological Plants” outlines the recent growth and increasing maturity of paleoethnobotany as an archaeological discipline.  Summarizing selected cases, Rossen discusses how the study of paleoethnobotany can affect understandings of chronology, and perhaps, cultural evolution; social status, ideology, politics, and indigenous archaeology.  With regard to indigenous archaeology, the archaeological study of ancient plants, it turns out, is a subject that can be particularly meaningful to Native American communities, and may provide a cogent and compelling connection between archaeology, Native American history, and contemporary site use and interpretation.

John Edward Terrell’s “Domesticated Landscapes of the Northeast” comments on various subjects explored in this book, illustrated with references to some of the things the chapter authors have expressed as their interests, or their needs for data of certain types, depending upon problem orientation.  Terrell’s approach to this emphasizes the intellectual movement between archaeological and paleoethnobotanical details and what he refers to as the Big Picture.  He asks questions such as “why do we need to know what people were eating in the past?”  “What difference does it make whether something people harvested in the past was wild or domesticated?”  “Why do we need to know whether people were hunter-gatherers or agriculturalists…Would how we label them make any difference to them?”  These questions are not to be answered with any finality. They are rhetorical questions designed to refocus attention on a big picture of relevance to Northeastern archaeologists.  Presumably, Terrell observes, this is not a big picture of the evolution of complex societies, but a picture that nonetheless needs sharper resolution.

What, by the way, is a domesticated landscape?  According to Terrell this refers to the human use of a broad landscape containing a wide variety of useful species; the selection of species for human use; and the knowledge, tactics, and strategies developed to use the landscape.  One gathers that the domestication of the landscape is the Big Picture of Northeastern archaeology, and an intellectual context within which evidence of maize cultivation and the rest of Northeast paleoethnobotany are very important.


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