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Native American agriculture, 1200 AD

Mark and his motherThis weekend, I tricked Mark and his mom into taking me to Sunwatch Indian Village in Dayton.  My companions win the patience award for not even looking bored while I took notes for three hours on how Native Americans fed themselves 800 years ago.  Okay, maybe they do look a little bored....

I was intrigued by this particular window into the past because corn had just become the mainstay of the Native American diet, making up over half of the villagers' diets.  Meat (76% of which was venison) made up another 40% of their diets, so I wasn't surprised that the Sunwatch villagers were actually less healthy than their recent ancestors, with over half of their children dying before the age of six.  We all know that a diet of corn and meat with very few fruits and vegetables isn't going to promote good health.

The villagers stored their corn for the winter in large, grass-lined storage pits.  Each family of six to eight people had their own pit, which would hold 500 or more pounds of corn.  I loved the museum's reconstruction of a typical storage pit while in use:

Fort Ancient corn storage pit


...and then, once emptied of corn, how it might have looked when filled with the family's garbage...

Fort Ancient midden pit


...and, finally, what the pit looked like when archaeologists carefully picked through it 800 years later:

Midden-filled corn storage pit 800 years later


Three sisters gardenThe reconstructed village also included a typical three sisters garden, which I've pictured here.  Unfortunately, there was much less interpretation about the garden than about the buildings, so I came away with more questions than answers.  Most importantly, I ended up curious about how the Native Americans combatted the squash vine borers, which my trained eye noticed were already hard at work wiping out the pumpkins in Sunwatch's garden.  Does anyone know?

Charred base of post to protect from rot and insectsI posted some images of the lodges in my review of Sunwatch Village over on our Clinch Trails website (which I've decided to reenvision as our travel website), but what caught my eye in the architectural arena was the way the Native Americans burned the bases of their posts to protect the wood from insects and rot.  I would have thought that charring the base of a post would make it less structurally sound, but presumably they knew what they were doing.

On the other hand, the buildings weren't meant to last forever.  Like my method of intentionally underbuilding, the Sunwatch villagers were used to moving on after a couple of decades when firewood and game in the immediate vicinity had been exhausted.  As with slash and burn agriculture, the sustainability of using up all of an area's resources and then travelling to a new region is questionable, but the method might make sense if populations are low enough that the land is given a century to recover after each episode.

Native American watch tower

Finally, doesn't this watch platform look perfect?  I've long wanted to have one of these in the middle of the garden with a ramp up to the platform so Lucy could nap there and watch over our entire domain.  Who knows --- the Sunwatch villagers might have even let their dogs stand watch there too!

Our homemade chicken waterer is perfect in coops and tractors.


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A guess on the squash vime borer--a European import. So many of our plants and insects are.
Comment by Errol Mon Jul 5 08:07:48 2010
That was my thought too, but when I looked it up, the vine borer turned out to be native to our area. (Which makes sense, in retrospect, because most (all?) of our cucurbit food species are from America.) My best guess at the moment is variety selection --- I've been reading a book about Native American agriculture in Nebraska, and all of their squash pictures look an awful lot like cushaws, which are one of the more resistant varieties.
Comment by anna Mon Jul 5 09:05:00 2010

Interesting storage method for the corn! But what about groundwater and burrowing animals?

With regard to the poles, it could be a technique evolved from fire hardening of spear points. The poles of the platform look overdimensioned. I'd guess that one or two of those poles would be enough to support the weight of one person. So burning the top layer of the poles is not that big of a deal.

Comment by Roland_Smith Mon Jul 5 13:24:31 2010

Last year was a mistake, but this year I did it to repeat the results.

I tilled up a spot, planted my seed and then neglected it. Surprisingly after all my squash in the garden died, I looked and the vines had squash.

Although the plants growth is stunted (plants are smaller and later), they look much healthier and produce much more. Last year I got a grand total of 2 squash before all of my vines turned yellow and died. But the others produced well. I am having the same results this year. Although my squash in the garden produced better this year, they are now tilled under and the overgrown plants are still producing?

Next year I think I will only plant one hill in the garden for some early squash and plant the remainder in the pasture.

Comment by Erich Mon Jul 5 14:04:21 2010

Groundwater was my first thought too! I can only guess that they have very sandy soil and good drainage at Sunwatch. The village is near a river, which often means sandy soil and potentially good drainage. I read in a book that the Native Americans in the prairie states all used pits like this to store corn, but that those in the south used aboveground cribs. I sure wouldn't try these pits in our swampy soil! :-)

Thanks for the thoughts on fire hardening. That would make a lot of sense!

Comment by anna Mon Jul 5 16:35:12 2010

What kind of squash were you growing? We mostly have trouble with our summer squash --- butternuts plug right along, and our cucumbers and melons get wiped out by other things. :-)

Our first year here, though, we had a great summer squash harvest with no borer damage. I suspect it just took a year for the borers to find us. Perhaps if your pasture is far enough from your garden, that could be what's going on with you too? I don't know how far apart you'd have to plant each year's patch to take advantage of that effect, but it might be worth a shot.

On the other hand, for some reason, the vine borers seem to be mostly leaving us alone this year?!!! Our summer squash have slowed down a bit, but I still froze a quart and a half today after being gone a few days. Since my next set of squash is about to start blooming, I suspect succession planting might do the trick!

Comment by anna Mon Jul 5 16:44:51 2010

You might read Notes on a Lost Flute by Kerry Hardy to get your head around pre-contact / early contact agriculture. It's about the Wabanaki of Maine but the descriptions of how they manipulated the land will show you that "slash & burn" isn't necessarily a bad thing if done the way they did it. It's also a good book for the pretty illustrations and the format.... it's the sort of thing you can read in those 5 minute intervals that summer's work grants us for such pleasures.

http://www.amazon.com/Notes-Lost-Flute-Field-Wabanaki/dp/0892727799

Another book that I'm working through right now is Buffalo Bird Woman's Garden. (You'll need 10 minute intervals for that one.) I'm gleaning a lot of useful information even though it's prairie agriculture.

Comment by April Tue Jul 6 07:58:54 2010
Ooh --- thank you! I'll have to check both of those books out. Have you, by any chance, found a good book of basic Native American (pre)history? I started trying to understand Sunwatch village in perspective, and learned that there were quite complex cultures existing in eastern North America 800 years ago. For some reason, I was under the impression that the only really interesting cultures in the Americas before contact were in Central and South America. I've been poking around the internet to learn more, but would love to read a book about it.
Comment by anna Tue Jul 6 08:31:47 2010

The cultures in central america certainly left more in the way of monuments built in stone.

But I'm kind of ambivalent about those. On the one hand they are often remarkable technical achievements, but on the other hand many are temples for nonexisting gods and weird religions (pleonasms, but I digress), and as such a giant waste of time and resources. If some of these cultures had focused their efforts on managing their resources (I seem to recall that several of them failed because of drought) they might have lasted longer.

As to why a lot of north american tribes didn't leave a lot of monuments, you'd have to ask a specialist. It's an interesting question, though. It could be something as mundane as available building materials; wood is easier to work than stone. Or for some of the tribes it could be because they were essentially nomads. They certainly didn't seem to spend their lives building temples and monuments for whatever they worshipped. Very sensible in my eyes.

Personally I find things like the corn storage and remains of houses and tools much more interesting, because it tells is much more about how these people lived.

Comment by Roland_Smith Tue Jul 6 15:42:23 2010

I agree with you that learning about the way earlier people lived and planted is fascinating! On the other hand, I've started getting into the monuments they left behind as well. It's amazing to be on a mound or pyramid built by hand hundreds of years ago.

About them being temples for nonexisting gods and weird religions --- I think all gods are nonexisting and all religions weird, so I figure these are no weirder than any others. :-) I still find some cathedrals fascinating and beautiful. (Though, I totally agree, a waste of resources!)

And I've been noticing recently that there are a lot of native North American monuments, although they're nearly all built of earth, not rock. I really thought that early Native Americans were mainly just nomadic, but I got engrossed in reading Wikipedia this weekend and learned that during the Mississippian cultural period, there were actually large settlements based around growing corn. Lots of interesting artifacts from that time, and mounds! (Yes, I'm now obsessed.)

Comment by anna Tue Jul 6 16:32:34 2010

Anna, I'll ask around about a book on native farming. It'll take me a while, but it's something I'm wanting to read more on too.

One reason we don't see eastern N. American monuments is because nearly all the mounds of the Mississippian period were razed for fill dirt or religious reasons by white folks in the last 150 years or so. Another reason is because we're looking for fancy buildings when an important "monument" may be a precariously balanced rock. Lots of stuff out west... the Anasazi were building structures relative to mind bogglingly complex astronomical alignments, into cliff faces, in canyon networks, with straight line geometry between them, purely for religious use and abandoned it all by 1200. (Because of drought & raids.)

You might consider attending Wisdom of the Elders in KY to meet some living native women who can point you in a good direction. The folks there are exceptionally open to non-natives who want to learn the old(er) ways. So far there are only dates on the website but a call will likely get you all the info you desire. http://www.mantlerock.org/

Comment by April Tue Jul 6 19:29:28 2010

The Wisdom of Elders group sounds wonderful, but they're in the wrong part of the state! With Kentucky just over the next hill (well, mountain), it's a shame that part of Kentucky is 7 hours away. :-/

Any books you can recommend would be much appreciated!

Comment by anna Tue Jul 6 19:40:45 2010

I think all gods are nonexisting and all religions weird

My point exactly! I guess I was being too subtle.

Now that's not something I get a lot. :-)

Comment by Roland_Smith Tue Jul 6 19:51:40 2010
After making my comment and then reading back over your comment (and following the link :-) ), I figured out what you meant. It never hurts to be subtle, though, when talking religion!
Comment by anna Tue Jul 6 20:05:16 2010

It never hurts to be subtle, though, when talking religion!

Quite on the contrary, it does. By giving special consideration to religious beliefs they acquire respect that they not deserve.

Comment by Roland_Smith Tue Jul 6 21:18:50 2010
All that corn will disappear as genetically-modified corn pollutes existing crops and then becomes the legal property of Monsanto. That looks like a good museum.
Comment by Bob Tue Jul 6 22:29:22 2010
I'm pretty sure the museum isn't saving their own seeds, so genetic pollution shouldn't be an issue. You should definitely check Sunwatch out --- it's one of the best I've been to!
Comment by anna Wed Jul 7 07:42:50 2010

One very unique homestead, $1,500 per acre, the opportunity of a lifetime