The State of Paleoethnobotanical Research in East Tennessee

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2015, Day 11

Jessie L. Johanson
Department of Anthropology, University of Tennessee

Modern example of indigenous cultigen found at the Birdwell site. Modern Hordeum pusillum Nutt. (little barley) seed, Steve Hurst, USDA-NRCS Plants.

Modern example of indigenous cultigen found at the Birdwell site. Modern Hordeum pusillum Nutt. (little barley) seed, Steve Hurst, USDA-NRCS Plants.

The collection and analysis of plant remains from archaeological sites across the state of Tennessee is increasingly becoming a standard component of archaeological excavation.  Paleoethnobotany, or the study of human-plant relationships in the past, has increasingly become a useful tool for archaeologists to interpret past life-ways.  The acquisition of and the organization of labor around food is arguably the first and most significant endeavor of human communities.  As such, foodways research can give archaeologists insight into the daily activities of people in the past; for example, how food was acquired, distributed, prepared, consumed, and discarded.  The types, the quantities, and the spatial distribution of plants can also allow paleoethnobotanists to investigate how the human-plant relationship changed over time, especially as prehistoric peoples became more sedentary and transitioned from gathering to horticulture.

The domestication of plants was one of the greatest and most profound of human innovations.  Decades of archaeological and paleoethnobotanical research have designated the eastern Woodlands region, which encompasses the state of Tennessee, as one of the eight centers of the independent domestication of plants in the world.  The Eastern Woodlands is a region that interests paleoethnobotanists due to broad temporal trends consisting of the early and independent development of an agricultural complex based on indigenous crop husbandry in the Late Archaic, the early introduction of corn in the Middle Woodland, and the transition to a farming economy based on corn agriculture in the Late Woodland and Mississippian (Smith and Cowan 2003).

Example of carbonized Hordeum pusillum Nutt. (little barley) seed, Gayle Fritz, Laboratory Guide to Archaeological Plant Remains From Eastern North America.

Example of carbonized Hordeum pusillum Nutt. (little barley) seed, Gayle Fritz, Laboratory Guide to Archaeological Plant Remains From Eastern North America.

Tennessee has a rich history of paleoethnobotanical research.  Some of the best evidence for early maize in eastern North America comes from Monroe County, TN at the Icehouse Bottoms site (Chapman and Crites 1987).  The recovery of the earliest domesticated sunflower from the Hayes Site in Middle Tennessee predates the previous record holder, domesticated sunflower achenes from the Higgs Site in eastern Tennessee, by 1400 years (Crites 1993).  These dates and new records collected from archaeological sites will continue to expand our understanding of plant domestication by Native American peoples here in the eastern United States.

More recent excavations in eastern Tennessee continue to produce rich botanical assemblages spanning from the Early Archaic to the Mississippian periods.  I have had the opportunity to do paleoethnobotanical research on one such TDOT excavation conducted by the University of Tennessee’s Department of Anthropology Archaeological Research Laboratory.  The plant assemblages collected from the Birdwell and Neas sites in Greene County, TN contained a rich Early and Middle Woodland assemblage of early cultigens including maygrass, little barley, chenopod, and bearsfoot (Johanson and Hollenbach 2013).  Many of these seeds were recovered from a test unit from a portion of the site that at first glance would have been labeled a high energy floodplain unsuitable for human use.  However, the flotation column sample collected from this test unit and the plant remains tell a different story.

Excavations in progress in 2010, upper (T2) terrace in the North Block of the Birdwell site (40GN228) (lower terrace and Nolichucky River in background).

Excavations in progress in 2010, upper (T2) terrace in the North Block of the Birdwell site (40GN228) (lower terrace and Nolichucky River in background).

The column flotation samples from this test unit are notably different from all other column samples collected from other contexts at the site.  The analyzed column flotation samples from test unit N1003 E5055 are impressive due to the volume of carbonized botanical remains, the diversity of plant taxa, and the counts and combinations of edible seeds.  The high recovery of cultigens from the lower terrace, non-midden location of the site, along with a large amount of wood fuel suggests that these early seed crops were being managed with a burning regime, particularly in the Early Woodland occupation of the site.  This site provides direct archaeological evidence of the planting and management of these earliest seed crops, which were the precursors to full blown agriculture.

Collection of flotation samples from a feature at the Birdwell site, 2010.

Collection of flotation samples from a feature at the Birdwell site, 2010.

The archaeological identification of a cultivated plot composed of edible seed crops along the floodplain at this excavation gives us a rare opportunity to examine how people in the Southern Appalachians of East Tennessee planted, cared for, and first cultivated economic plants in North America.  This study reveals that prehistoric farmers in the Tennessee foothills used a burning regime—likely to increase soil productivity—to encourage the growth of these early crops on the floodplain.  Importantly, these findings suggest a degree of investment and intention that is frequently dismissed when addressing women’s labor and the production of indigenous seed crops in the eastern United States.

This highlights one of the many exciting paleoethnobotanical research projects occurring in Tennessee.  This case demonstrates how the diligent collection of flotation samples and paleoethnobotanical analyses are crucial to archaeological interpretations. With the continued incorporation of paleoethnobotanical analyses within archaeological research designs and excavation strategies we will continue to see the state of Tennessee play a central role in increasing our understanding of plant use in the past.

View looking west across the Nolichucky River towards the Birdwell site, 2010.

View looking west across the Nolichucky River towards the Birdwell site, 2010.


References Cited:

Chapman, Jefferson and Gary Crites. 1987.  Evidence for Early Maize (Zea mays) from the Icehouse Bottom Site, Tennessee. American Antiquity 52:352–354.

Crites, Gary D. 1993. Domesticated Sunflower in Fifth Millennium B.P. Temporal Context: New Evidence from Middle Tennessee.  American Antiquity 58:146–148.

Johanson, Jessie L. and Kandace D. Hollenbach. 2013. Plant Remains from the Birdwell (40GN228) and Neas Sites (40GN229). In Phase III Archaeological Investigations at the Birdwell (40GN228) and Neas (40GN229) Sites, Greene County, Tennessee, by Boyce N. Driskell, Matthew D. Gage, and Jessie L. Johanson.  Submitted to Tennessee Department of Transportation. TDOT Project Number PE-D 30946- 1435-94, PIN 101173.00, Agreement Number E-1239, Work Order Number 04. Archaeological Research Laboratory, University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Smith, Bruce D. and C. Wesley Cowan. 2003. Domesticated Crop Plants and the Evolution of Food Production Economies in Eastern North America.  In People and Plants in Ancient Eastern North America, edited by Paul E. Minnis, pp. 105–125. Smithsonian Books, Washington, D.C.

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