A Dec. 23, 2019 news release from Washington University in St. Louis reports new research results about the “lost crops” of North America that could have been more productive than maize for feeding people. This tentative finding is based on experimental cultivation of some of some crops for which ancient agricultural methods have long been lost. It’s a good reminder of how hard it can be to figure out what ancient peoples ate and how they obtained their food.
Writing in the Journal of Ethnobiology, Natalie Muellert, assistant professor of archaeology in Arts & Sciences, describes how she painstakingly grew and calculated yield estimates for two annual plants that were cultivated in eastern North America for thousands of years — and then abandoned.
Growing goosefoot (Chenopodium, sp.) and erect knotweed (Polygonum erectum) together is more productive than growing either one alone, Mueller discovered. Planted in tandem, along with the other known lost crops, they could have fed thousands.
Archaeologists found the first evidence of the lost crops in rock shelters in Kentucky and Arkansas in the 1930s. Seed caches and dried leaves were their only clues. Over the past 25 years, pioneering research by Gayle Fritz, professor emerita of archaeology at Washington University, helped to establish the fact that a previously unknown crop complex had supported local societies for millennia before maize — a.k.a. corn — was adopted as a staple crop.
But how, exactly, to grow them?
The lost crops include a small but diverse group of native grasses, seed plants, squashes and sunflowers — of which only the squashes and sunflowers are still cultivated. For the rest, there is plenty of evidence that the lost crops were purposefully tended — not just harvested from free-living stands in the wild — but there are no instructions left.
“There are many Native American practitioners of ethnobotanical knowledge: farmers and people who know about medicinal plants, and people who know about wild foods. Their knowledge is really important,” Mueller said. “But as far as we know, there aren’t any people who hold knowledge about the lost crops and how they were grown.
“It’s possible that there are communities or individuals who have knowledge about these plants, and it just isn’t published or known by the academic community,” she said. “But the way that I look at it, we can’t talk to the people who grew these crops.
“So our group of people who are working with the living plants is trying to participate in the same kind of ecosystem that they participated in — and trying to reconstruct their experience that way.”
For years many have assumed that maize took over as a staple because it was more productive than other plants that once were cultivated, but Natalie Muellert, assistant professor of archaeology, wanted to test that hypothesis by growing and analyzing crops from five different plants. Unfortunately, they were only able to get good yield measurements for two goosefoot and knotweed, but not for maygrass, sumpweed, and little barley.
Wait, little barley? Haven’t certain experts told us that the Book of Mormon fails because barley was unknown in the New World before Columbus? Does this “little barley” plant have any relationship to Old World barley?
Little barley is Hordeum pusillum, a distant relative of Old World barley, Hordeum vulgare, but more closely related to other Hordeum species in the grassy regions of Argentina and Uruguay. But calling it “barley” is not scientifically ridiculous and would be appropriate for Old World immigrants learning encountering this edible plant in the New World. It’s been found in pre-Columbian sites in North America and northern Mexico, as has been known since about 1983 when it was first discovered in Arizona (making this barley update “barely” an update). I’m not aware of it being found in the more humid and hotter regions of Mesoamerica, where it may not grow as well or where I think remains may be less likely to endure and be found centuries later, but imported Old World barley grows in the highland regions of Mesoamerica (e.g., in Guatemala) without any obvious difficulty (see Tyler Livingston, “Another Look at Barley in the Book of Mormon“).
For an interesting report on some of the many seeds found in an ancient Native American site, see Michael T. Dunn and William Green, “Terminal Archaic and Early Woodland Plant Use at the Gast Spring Site (13LA152) Southeast Iowa,” Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology 23, no. 1 (1998): 45-88. The University of Iowa has a page about little barley finds in archaeological sites in Iowa. Also see Book of Mormon Central‘s article on barley, which cites the valuable work of Dunn and Green a couple of times.