A Bio-Cultural Study of the Common Bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) in the New World
Timothy Baumann1, 2, 3, Katharina Höland4, Ingo Ohlsson5, Kandace Hollenbach1, 2, Hector Castro4, 6, Shawn Campagna4, 6
1UTK McClung Museum of Natural History & Culture, 2UTK Department of Anthropology, 3UTK Laboratory of Environmental Archaeology (LEA), 4UTK Department of Chemistry, 5UTK Bioinformatics Resource Center, and 6UTK Biological Small Molecule Mass Spectrometry Core
At the University of Tennessee, a diverse research team has come together from archaeology, paleoethnobotany, chemistry, and genetics for the Beanome Project, a bio-cultural study of the common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) in the New World (Figures 1 & 2). The research objectives for this project are to determine when, how, and why the common bean was introduced into Native American diets in the Southeastern United States, and to define the biochemical and genomic structure of the common bean, including ancient DNA (aDNA).
In the New World, there are more than 50 bean species but only five were domesticated prehistorically: common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris), lima bean (Phaseolus lunatus), runner bean (Phaseolus coccineus), tepary bean (Phaseolus acutifolius), and year-long bean (Phaseolus dumosus). Of these, the common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) is the most prolific with numerous varieties (e.g., kidney, pinto, navy) and was the lone species adopted into prehistoric Native American foodways east of the Rocky Mountains. Previous research on wild and cultivated common beans has focused on archaeological as well as modern samples from the Southwestern US, Central America, and South America. This work has identified two independent sites of domestication. The first occurred in the Peruvian Andes by 2400 B.C. and the second occurred in central Mexico about 2,000 years later (Kaplan and Lynch 1999; Monaghan et al. 2014). In the United States, the common bean entered through the Southwest by 500 B.C. However, it did not spread over the Rocky Mountains to the Plains and the Eastern Woodlands until after A.D. 1100 (Adams and Fish 2011; Monaghan et al. 2014). In the Eastern Woodlands, the current model of bean introduction has it taking a northern route from the Plains into the Great Lakes and Northeast region. From there, beans moved south and west into the Illinois Valley after A.D. 1200 and through the Ohio Valley after A.D. 1300 (Monaghan et al 2014; Baumann et al. 2019).
This northern path into the Eastern Woodlands may reflect the impact of different agricultural practices or cultural boundaries between food producers who employed raised gardens (e.g., Oneota, Iroquois) with mixed plantings of the “three sisters” – maize (Zea mays ssp. mays), squash (Cucurbita sp.), and the common bean, and more southern Mississippian agriculturalists who utilized large communal fields of maize (Hart 2008; Scarry and Scarry 2005; Monaghan et al. 2014).
Archaeological Evidence in Tennessee
In Tennessee, archaeological specimens of the common bean have been recovered from at least 44 Native American sites, including 31 from prehistoric contexts and 13 from historic villages (Figures 3 and 4). There are probably additional sites, but the preservation, recovery and identification of beans has been problematic. Unlike maize that have cobs, beans are eaten completely and only survive if they were accidently burned or carbonized in a cooking hearth or in a house fire. Even then, carbonized beans are very fragile and can be easily destroyed by normal excavation methods (e.g., shoveling, dry screening). Tennessee beans have been recovered most frequently on burned house floors, in or near hearths, or when they have been quickly buried in a secondary deposit or feature. The latter is common in older postholes that were filled inadvertently with food remains from a house floor during reconstruction and resetting of posts (Baumann et al. 2015).
In order to determine the age and route beans arrived in Tennessee, 13 beans have been directly-dated using radiocarbon from 10 prehistoric sites. Funding for all but one of these dates was provided by the Bush Brothers Company, which is headquartered in Knoxville, Tennessee. The results have a date range from A.D. 1309 to 1562, which supports the current model that the common bean did not arrive in the Upper South until the 14th century. The introduction of beans into Tennessee may be linked to environmental stress during a prolonged drought in the midcontinent from AD 1250 to 1350 (Meeks and Anderson 2013; Baumann and Altizer 2017). This rainfall shortage reduced the maize yield and was a prime factor for Mississippian sociopolitical tension, which was manifested by the appearance of palisades with bastions around large centralized villages. After AD 1350, the major Mississippian sites in the lower Ohio River valley and the Nashville Basin of Tennessee were abandoned, creating the “Vacant Quarter,” with many of their occupants moving south and taking their beans with them (Cobb and Butler 2002).
Biochemical and Genomic Research
The origin of the common bean and its path to Tennessee can also be traced through biochemical and genetic research. The biochemical analysis is being conducted at UTK’s Biological and Small Molecule Mass Spectrometry Core (BSMMSC) facility, which has six mass spectrometers to conduct metabolomics, lipidomics, and small molecule analyses. This metabolic analysis can be used to identify the biochemical structure, function, and interaction of thousands of molecular cells (metabolities, lipids, and proteins) that make up a bean. This UTK core facility has already completed biochemical analysis on 32 modern common bean varieties to help establish a baseline from which to compare ancient beans. The initial analyses suggests that the metabolic signatures are not only geographically distinct (region versus countrywide), but also dependent upon domestication alterations (wild versus domestic species).
These results are now being used to help with the genome sequencing of 10 bean specimens through UTK’s Genomics Core facility and its Bioinformatics Resource Center. The 10 common bean samples include nine contemporary varieties and one archaeological specimen. The contemporary beans were selected based on the following ordered criteria:
- Direct Native American origins – historical or oral tradition evidence (e.g., Cherokee Trail of Tears bean),
- Regional distribution – South, Central, and North America; in the US include Southwest, Northeast, Plains, and Upper South,
- Include one wild bean from central Mexico, the source location of bean domestication that spread into the US, and
- Selection of beans that are of similar colors.
The archaeological specimens used in this study were desiccated beans that were generously provided by the University of Arkansas Museum from the Craddock site (3CW2), a dry rockshelter in Northwest Arkansas (Fritz 1986). These dry Arkansas beans were necessary for ancient DNA analysis because only carbonized samples have been found in Tennessee, which are not viable options for genetic testing. One ancient bean from this site was also subjected to biochemical analysis and one has also been submitted for a new radiocarbon date, resulting in a 16th to early 17th century age. If successful, the aDNA from the Arkansas beans represents the first time that this has been accomplished in the United States. The preliminary results are very promising.
First Step to a Larger Project
The Beanome Project is just now beginning to see results that will lead to a greater understanding of the common bean and its use by Native Americans in the New World. Future work is still needed to collect archaeological data and additional radiocarbon samples from specimens in Tennessee and throughout the Southeast. To support his work, the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture has established a bean repository for all ancient beans (wild and domesticated) recovered from Tennessee’s archaeological sites. The museum has also created a large contemporary bean type collection of the five domesticated bean species in the New World as well as the two wild bean species, trailing bean (Strophostyles helvola) and thicket bean (Phaseolus polystachios), that are native to Tennessee. These wild beans were eaten by prehistoric Native Americans in the Southeast before the common bean arrived in the 14th century.
Adams, Karen R., and Susana K. Fish. 2011. Subsistence through Time in the Greater Southwest. In The Subsistence Economies of Indigenous North American Societies: A Handbook, edited by Bruce D. Smith, pp. 147–184. Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, Washington, D.C.
Baumann, Timothy, and Valerie Altizer. 2017. Beans (Phaseolus vulgaris): An Indicator of Stress, Conflict, and Migration in Southeastern Mississippian Communities. Paper presented at the 74th Annual Meeting of the Southeastern Archaeological Conference in Tulsa, Oklahoma, November 8-11, 2017.
Baumann, Timothy, Gary Crites, and Lynne Sullivan. 2015. The Emergence and Distribution of Beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) in the Upper Tennessee River Valley. Paper presented at the 80th annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in San Francisco, California, April 15 – 19, 2015.
Baumann, Timothy, Tony Krus, and Gary Crites. 2019. The Age and Arrival for the Common Bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) in the Eastern Woodlands of North America. Paper presented at the 9th Radiocarbon and Archaeology International Symposium in Athens, Georgia, May 20 – 24, 2019.
Cobb, Charles, and Brian Butler. 2002. The Vacant Quarter Revisited: Late Mississippian Abandonment of the Lower Ohio Valley. American Antiquity 67(4):625-641.
Fritz, Gayle. 1986. Prehistoric Ozark Agriculture: The University of Arkansas Rockshelter Collections. PhD dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Hart, John. 2008. Evolving the Three Sisters: The Changing Histories of Maize, Bean, and Squash in New York and the Greater Northeast. In Current Northeast Paleoethnobotany II, edited by John P. Hart, pp.87– 99. New York State Museum Bulletin 512. University of the State of New York, Albany.
Kaplan, Lawrence, and Thomas F. Lynch. 1999. Phaseolus (Fabaceae) in Archaeology: AMS Radiocarbon Dates and Their Significance for Pre-Columbian Agriculture. Economic Botany 53:261–272.
Meeks, Scott, and David Anderson. 2013. Drought, Subsistence Stress, and Population Dynamics Assessing Mississippian Abandonment of the Vacant Quarter. In, Soils, Climate, & Society: Archaeological Investigations in Ancient America, edited by J. Wingard and S. E. Hayes, pp. 61-84. University Press of Colorado, Boulder.
Monaghan, G. William, Timothy M. Schilling, and Kathryn E. Parker. 2014. The Age and Distribution of Domesticated Beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) in Eastern North America: Implications for Agricultural Practices and Group Interactions. Midwest Archaeological Conference, Occasional Papers 1:33–52.
Scarry, John, and C. Margaret Scarry. 2005. Native American “Garden Agriculture” in Southeastern North America. World Archaeology 37:259–274.