North America’s Lost Domesticates

Sunflowers: evidence of an independent origin of agriculture (Courtesy Lucassen Emmanuel)

Contrary to many ninth-grade social studies curricula, the Fertile Crescent doesn’t hold supreme claim to the invention of agriculture. Cultivation, domestication, and farming arose independently several times throughout human history—and in a few places that might surprise you.

Ancient Mesopotamians may have been the first and best known farmers, having domesticated barley and wheat some 10,000 years ago, but it wasn’t long before other major crops arose in far-flung corners of the world: rice in present-day China, millet and sorghum in West Africa, potatoes and quinoa in the Andes, and, of course, maize in Mesoamerica.

Then there’s a small hotspot centered on the eastern United States, boasting a list crops you’ve probably never heard of: marshelder, goosefoot, little barley, maygrass.

As it turns out, the first inhabitants of North America, collectively termed the Paleoindians, cultivated and domesticated an entire complex of crops that are virtually unknown today. In addition to abundant marine resources, game, and wild plants, this group of plants helped sustain the Paleoindians and, later, even the mighty Mississippian culture.

Why can’t we buy these grains today in the supermarket, alongside buckwheat and wild rice? Most of the grains produced by these North American crops remained, though incredibly nutritious, tiny and labor-intensive to collect. Some fell out of favor long before European contact—the arrival of maize in North America prompted a sea change in much of the continent’s food culture, and farmers abandoned old crops for locally-adapted varieties of corn. Others live on as wild varieties, now treated as weeds by modern farmers across the Midwest.

But not all were lost; in fact, you can buy two of the domesticates in grocery stores today. We can thank the Paleoindians for sunflowers and a common squash species.

All of these varieties belong to one species (Courtesy Debora Waller)

All of these varieties belong to one species (Courtesy Debora Waller)

Squash/gourd (Curcurbita pepo ssp. ovifera) — This single species includes a lot of familiar varieties, including summer squash, acorn and other winter squashes, pumpkins, and ornamental gourds. Archaeologist believe the hard-skinned squash was first domesticated for use as a container.

The iconic yellow faces of sunflowers, now grown all over the globe, originated in eastern North America (Courtesy Kristian Kretschmann)

The iconic yellow faces of sunflowers, now grown all over the globe, originated in eastern North America (Courtesy Kristian Kretschmann)

Sunflower (Helianthus annuus var. macrocarpus) — Paleoindians boiled and pounded sunflower seeds for their oil and flour, and used their stalks as candles and animal snares.

The potent smell and skin-irritating qualities of marshelder, or sumpweed, may have contributed to its decline (Courtesy US Geological Survey)

The potent smell and skin-irritating qualities of marshelder may have contributed to its decline (Courtesy US Geological Survey)

Marshelder or sumpweed (Iva annua var. macrocarpa) — The domesticated version of marshelder is extinct, though wild varieties of it persist across the continent. Related to ragweed, marshelder can be a strong allergen.

Goosefoot, or lambsquarters (Courtesy National Park Service)

Goosefoot, or lambsquarters (Courtesy National Park Service)

Goosefoot, also known as lambsquarter or chenopod (Chenopodium berlandieri) — Wild varieties of this plant are still around–and the domesticated variety is still grown and eaten in Mexico for its flowering shoots and greens, eaten like spinach.

It’s unknown whether the following three species were domesticated, but archaeologist do know all three were heavily cultivated:

Erect knotweed (Polygonum erectum) — Knotweed produces starchy, bean-like seeds that were used not just in cooking, but also for medicinal, dyeing, and smoking purposes.

Little barley (Hordeum pusillum) — The nutritious seeds of little barley may have been parched, roasted, boil, or dried and ground into flour.

Maygrass (Phalaris caroliniana) — Native to the Southeast, maygrass is a seed-bearing grass like little barley and may have been cooked in similar ways.

Sources and further reading:

Diamond, Jared. 1997. Guns, Germs and Steel. Vintage: Great Britain.

Mann, Charles C. 2005. 1491. Vintage: United States.

Two of the most comprehensive websites about the eastern agricultural complex include Crops of Ancient Iowa and Ancient Gardening in South Carolina.

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