Native American Agriculture in Virginia: Part I - Before the Arrival of Corn
Native American Agriculture in Virginia:
Part I - Before the Arrival of Corn
The first humans to visit what is now Virginia could hunt animals, gather
fruits from trees/vines, and pull handfuls of seeds from wild plants to ob-
tain protein, carbohydrates, and lipids.
Through human intervention, several species of wild plants were domest-
icated in Eastern North America - not in Virginia, but to the west in the Mississippi River watershed. Evidence of early domestication of plants is
found at archeological sites in Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kentucky starting about 4,000 years ago (around 2000
About 1,000 years ago (around 1000 A.D.), additional domesticated spec-
ies - corn, beans, and a new form of squash - were introduced from Mexico/southwestern United States. Fields were located on river flood-
plains and also in upland areas, where trees were killed in order to create
open fields where plants could obtain essential sunlight. When the first
Spanish sailors met Virginia natives in the 1500's, and when the English
colonists established Jamestown in 1607, Virginia tribes depended upon
home-grown food for a significant percentage of their annual diet.
Development of agriculture in Eastern North America was not a swift
process. Domesticating plants was a major cultural change that required
centuries of discovery, adaptation, and adoption in contrast to modern
times, when dramatic revisions of technology can be implemented in just
The very first humans to arrive in Virginia, perhaps as much as 15,000
years ago, are called Paleo-Indians by acheologists. The Paleo-Indian
lifestyle during the Pleistocene epoch was based on nomadic hunting and gathering wild foods. About 10,000 years ago, after perhaps as much as
5,000 years of initial human occupation in North America, the large mega-
fauna (such as mastodons and caribou ) had been exterminated by climate
change and hunting pressure. Animal species changed, as the Ice Age of
the Pleistocene ended and the chestnut-oak-hickory and southern pine for-
ests developed in Virginia.
Perhaps in response to the loss of the megafauna and the increase of deer
and smaller game, nomadic groups changed the technology for their pro-
jectile points, their hunting patterns, and their food gathering/settlement
patterns. As the climate and the forest changed, people in the Archaic
Period began to visit the same places repeatedly to hunt and gather wild
foods. The first Virginians shifted from roving around to hunt/gather in
distant locations, and became more-sedentary foragers utilizing the same
places on a regular basis. There was a greater and greater understanding
of how and where to gather food from wild plants, thousands of years be-
fore Native Americans in Virginia intentionally planted crops and depend-
ing upon a human-generated harvest.
The sedentary foragers established camps in specific places. Repeated
occupation of the same location, with repeated collection of firewood and concentrated deposition of human waste, would create openings where
soil was disturbed and enriched by organic wastes. The hunters/gatherers
would have re-visited those camps regularly, and middens (mounds of dis-
carded materials) mark some of those locations. The Native Americans
during the Archaic Period probably defended some specific territories,
those with valued natural resources, against food collection by rival groups. Archeologists use these major changes in behavior/technology to distin-
guish the Paleo-Indian from the Archaic Period, when people settled down
more and hunted smaller game with differently-shaped stone projectile
As part of that repeated gathering of food from the same places, Native
Americans focused on gravel bars, mud flats, and floodplain terraces
along river bottoms and along the edges of swamps. Generation after gen-
eration of hungry people would have looked for plants with the biggest fruits/seeds, and especially for plants whose seeds hung on after ripening.
In North America, people started farming with local wild plants, altering
their growth patterns and "domesticating" the plants over perhaps 1,000
years. Humans shaped the genetics of a few wild plant species through
selective collection practices. In particular, humans altered the natural
genetic pattern of a few floodplain annuals that produced edible seeds.
For example, seed pods on most native plants shatter as soon as seeds are
ripe, dispersing seeds quickly and throughout the season. However, some individual plants have a genetic quirk, and their seeds do not scatter im-
mediately. Each visit, Native Americans would have collected seeds from
the plants with that genetic quirk, pulling seeds from plants where food
was just waiting to be plucked rather than trying to collect the tiny seeds
already scattered on the ground. The Native Americans concentrated in
their hands, year after year, seeds with a certain genetic pattern (hanging
onto the plant after ripening).
Some seeds would have been eaten on the spot along the riverbanks. Other
seeds were carried back to the human camps, for sharing with others or
eating later. In the course of preparing/eating the food, some of those seeds
would have been accidentally scattered. The habitat at the human camps
would have resembled the open river bottoms and the edges of swamps,
with heaps ("middens") of disposed bones/shells/inedible plant materials, disturbed soil, and plenty of light. Discarded organic material and even
human waste would have fertilized the soil around the camp, providing a
rich opportunity for some seeds to grow at those locations during the next
Over several thousand years, selective collection and seed deposition on
middens by sedentary foragers would have had the same impact as selec-
tive breeding done by scientists today: genetic modification of the plant community. In patches of disturbed soil at the Archaic Period campsites,
the seeds deposited by humans would not have been from "average" plants.
Those plants would have had larger-than-average seeds, more-than-the-
average-quantity of seeds on each plant, more-than-average percentage of
seeds that would ripen at the same time, and more-than-average percentage
of seeds that would cling to the plant after ripening.
Humans independently established agriculture in nine separate places,
including the Middle East, Ethiopia, and China. In the Western Hemi-
sphere, plants were domesticated in Eastern North America separately
from the development of agriculture in Central and in South America. Domestication of three species occurred in the Mississippi Valley - and
perhaps in Virginia as well, though the archeological evidence is docu-
mented primarily from sites in the Ohio/Tennessee/Mississippi River
About 4,000 years ago, Native Americans in the Mississippi River Valley
first domesticated a species of squash, Cucurbita pepo ssp. ovifera. Mod-
ern forms of crookneck, acorn and scallop squash developed from Cucurb-
ita pepo ssp. ovifera. Pumpkins come from a different form of Cucurbita, introduced later from Mexico.
The gourds - the fruits of the squash plants - may have served more as
carrying vessels rather than as food. It is even possible that another spec-
ies, the bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceraria) was domesticated in Asia and
brought to North America across the Bering land bridge - along with the domesticated dog. If Paleo-Indians migrated into North America with domesticated plants and animals, then the first humans to visit what is
now Virginia may have been able when they arrived to plant, nurture,
and harvest a crop, and had the expertise and tradition of practicing agri-
The traditional interpretation is that after domesticating the Cucurbita
pepo ssp. ovifera variety of squash, Native Americans transformed two
other wild species - marsh elder or sumpweed (Iva annua) and goosefoot
or "lambsquarters" (Chenopodium berlandieri). A relative of Cheno-
podium berlandieri was domesticated in South America, and is still sold
today as quinoa.
These three species of floodplain weeds grew wild in river valleys, where
floods regularly exposed bare soil and removed competing vegetation.
The end of the Ice Age 10-15,000 years ago created new river and swamp
habitats, as the ice sheets melted.
Regularly-occupied human camps in the new riparian areas created un-
planned experimental plots for genetic modification of plants. By selec-
tively collecting the larger marsh elder/sumpweed seeds, and choosing
more of the goosefoot or "lambsquarters" with thinner seed coats, humans
altered the physical characteristics of the plant species as domestication progressed. At some point, humans became purposeful in their manage-
ment of the modified plants, by collecting seeds in the fall and replanting
them at the start of the next growing season.
Sunflower (Helianthus annuus) may have a slightly different history. The sunflowers may have been an upland plant species that was originally a
native plant west of the Mississippi River, and then introduced to the east
via bison or humans. Domestication appears to occurred in the eastern re-
gion, where other species were also altered by Native American horti-
cultural practices that selected for plants with preferred characteristics.
In addition, wild crops of knotweed (Polygonum erectum), maygrass
(Phalaris caroliniana), and "little barley" (Hordeum pusillum) were harvest-
ed; but those species may not have been fully transformed into domesticat-
ed versions before Eupropeans arrived. Archeologists and botanists can tell
the difference between wild and domesticated plants because the domest-
icated variety has extra-large seeds, thinner-than-average seed coats, and
increased requirements for human assistance in order to spread the seeds.
About 1,500 years after the initial start of the development of the Eastern Agricultural Complex corn arrived. Corn is a relative late-comer to the
garden in Eastern North America. The first agricultural fields in the Miss-
issippi Valley, Ohio River Valley, and Tennessee River Valley did not
include corn. It took 500+ years for corn to go from a marginal new food
source and become the dominant food crop in the Mississippi River
Crooked Run Valley