Annalee Newitz has written an article about Natalie Mueller’s search for the ancient food crops of North America: “Hunting for the ancient lost farms of North America”.
Over 2,000 years ago in North America, indigenous people domesticated plants that are now part of our everyday diets, such as squashes and sunflowers. But they also bred crops that have since returned to the wild. These include erect knotweed (not to be confused with its invasive cousin, Asian knotweed), goosefoot, little barley, marsh elder, and maygrass. We haven’t simply lost a few plant strains: an entire cuisine with its own kinds of flavors and baked goods has simply disappeared.
The article focuses upon the case of erect knotweed, but the others are worth comment also. The biological experimentation of ancient people was impressive, and in North America, the spread of maize farming reduced or eliminated many early domesticates.
The archaeology of plants has become more and more important to our understanding of ancient peoples—before, during, and after the adoption of agriculture. It will be amazing to see whether these aborted domesticates have any genetic signs of the ancient human manipulation.
What I think is so neat about these plants is that they trace the complexity of information exchanges across a network of societies over more than a thousand years:
She had assumed, based on previous studies, that knotweed was domesticated in Illinois, possibly about 1,200 years ago. But then she spoke with a Kentucky museum curator who told her about a mysterious grave from the 2,000-year-old Hopewell culture, found stuffed with seeds.
Examining the seeds, Mueller identified them as domesticated erect knotweed. This find makes the plant’s domestication roughly a millennium older than previously thought. But given that these fruits probably came after generations of breeding by farmers, it hints at a much older date.
It will be astounding to have greater knowledge of these kinds of exchanges in both the Americas and in Eurasia and Africa.