Lost Indian crops of North America: a) goosefoot (Chenopodium berlandieri); b) sumpweed/mars helder (Iva annua); c) little barley (Hordeum pusillum); d) erect knotweed (Polygonum erectum); e) maygrass (Phalaris caroliniana).
We Europeans got potatoes, tomatoes, sweet corn, and tobacco from the Indians, but they apparently also cultivated a wide repertoire of crops which nobody adopted and which have been entirely forgotten.
Adventurers and archaeologists have spent centuries searching for lost cities in the Americas. But over the past decade, theyâ€™ve started finding something else: lost farms.
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 havenâ€™t simply lost a few plant strains: an entire cuisine with its own kinds of flavors and baked goods has simply disappeared.
By studying lost crops, archaeologists learn about everyday life in the ancient Woodland culture of the Americas, including how people ate plants that we call weeds today. But these plants also give us a window on social networks. Scientists can track the spread of cultivated seeds from one tiny settlement to the next in the vast region that would one day be known as the United States. This reveals which groups were connected culturally and how they formed alliances through food and farming.
Natalie Mueller is an archaeobotanist at Cornell University who has spent years hunting for erect knotweed across the southern US and up into Ohio and Illinois. She calls her quest the â€œSurvey for Lost Crops,â€ and admits cheerfully that its members consist of her and â€œwhoever I can drag along.â€ Sheâ€™s published papers about her work in Nature, but also she spins yarns about her hot, bug-infested summer expeditions for lost farms on her blog. There, photographs of the rare wild plants are interspersed with humorous musings on contemporary local food delicacies like pickle pops.
Indigenous to the Americas, erect knotweed grows in the moist flood zones near rivers. Itâ€™s a stalky plant with spoon-shaped leaves, and it produces achenes, or fruit with very hard shells to protect its rich, starchy seeds. Though rare today, the plant was common enough 2,000 years ago that paleo-Americans collected it from the shores of rivers and brought it with them to the uplands for cultivation. Archaeologists have found caches of knotweed seeds buried in caves, clearly stored for a later use that never came. And, in the remains of ancient fires, theyâ€™ve found burned erect knotweed fruits, popped like corn.
Mueller told Ars Technica that erect knotweed was likely domesticated on tiny farms on the western front of the Appalachians. There are clear differences between it and its feral cousins. After years of comparing the ancient seeds with wild types, Mueller has found two unmistakable signs of domestication: larger fruits and thinner fruit skins. We see a similar pattern in other domesticated plants like corn, whose wild version with tiny seeds is almost unrecognizable to people chomping on the juicy, large kernels of the domesticated plant.
Obviously, bigger seeds would make the erect knotweed a better food source, so farmers selected for that. And the thinner skin means the plants can germinate more quickly. Their wild cousins evolved to produce fruits tough enough to endure river floods and inhospitable conditions for over a year before sprouting. But farm life is cushy for plants, so these defenses werenâ€™t necessary for their survival under human care.
Still, even the domesticated fruits of the erect knotweed have skins so tough that Mueller has not been able to crack them using the stone tools typical of the Woodland era. Working with a team at Cornell, sheâ€™s been trying to reverse engineer how they could have been eaten.
â€œThe fruit coat is really hard, and it would have been necessary to break through it,â€ she mused. â€œItâ€™s like buckwheatâ€”the sprouts are nutritious. So maybe they ate the sprouted version.â€
As for whether early Americans ate popped knotweed like popcorn, she was less certain. â€œThe only way to preserve it is to burn it, so [the remains we find] could have been accidents while cooking. It might have been for drying.â€ But yes, people from long ago might have munched on popweed.
Another possibility is that the seeds were soaked in lime before being turned into a hominy-style porridge. Ancient Americans used limeâ€”the chemical, not the fruitâ€”to soften the hulls of maize before cooking it, in a technique called nixtamalization. Itâ€™s very likely the Woodland peoples used this prehistoric form of culinary science on other plants, too. So people 2,000 years ago may have been eating a rich, knotweed mush.
Mueller is currently cultivating her own erect knotweed to test various forms of preparation, but sheâ€™s not quite ready to go into the kitchen yet. â€œIâ€™m trying to be a good farmer and put my seeds back first,â€ she said. â€œIn five years of looking, Iâ€™ve only found seven populations of this plant. I want to conserve the seeds as much I can.â€ Sheâ€™s going to accumulate a sizable cache of seeds before wasting them on dinner.
San Diego Natural History Museum Paleontologist Don Swanson pointing at a large horizontal mastodon tusk fragment.
Wired reports on a fossil find near San Diego from the 1990s that may completely upset the chronological apple cart.
In 1993, construction workers building a new freeway in San Diego made a fantastic discovery. A backhoe operator scraped up a fossil, and scientists soon unearthed a full collection of bones, teeth, and tusks from a mastodon. It was a valuable find: hordes of fossils, impeccably preserved. The last of the mastodonsâ€”a slightly smaller cousin of the woolly mammothâ€”died out some 11,000 years ago.
But the dig site turned out to be even more revelatoryâ€”and now, with a paper in the journal Natureâ€”controversial. See, this site wasnâ€™t just catnip for the paleontologists, the diggers who study all fossils. It soon had archaeologists swooping in to study a number of stone tools scattered around the bones, evidence of human activity. After years of debate over the dating technology used on the mastodon, a group of researchers now believes that they can date it and the human tools to 130,000 years agoâ€”more than 100,000 years earlier than the earliest humans are supposed to have made it to North America.
The researchers expect a bit of controversy from a discovery that pushes back the arrival of humans in North America by a factor of ten.
Business Insider describes one of the North American finds strikingly resembling Solutrean tools from Western Europe, which suggest the possibility of some Paleolithic settlement of North America from Europe.
Most researchers believe the first Americans crossed the Bering Strait from Siberia about 15,000 years ago and quickly colonized North America. Artifacts from these ancient settlers, dubbed the Clovis culture after one of their iconic archaeological sites in Clovis, New Mexico, have been found from Canada to the edges of North America.
But in 1974, a small wooden scallop trawler was dredging the seafloor, about 230 feet (70 meters) below the sea surface and nearly 60 miles (100 kilometers) off the coastline in the Chesapeake Bay.
“They hit a snag, or a hang, as they like to say, which meant that something pretty heavy was in their net,” said Dennis Stanford, an archaeologist with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., who has analyzed the find.
When they pulled up their net, they found the partial skull of a mastodon, a distant cousin of the woolly mammoth that began its slide into extinction about 12,000 years ago, Stanford said. The fishermen also noticed a flaked blade made of a volcanic rock called rhyolite.
The fisherman couldn’t lug the skull back to shore in their tiny wooden boat, so they sawed off the tusks and teeth, tossed the rest overboard and eventually handed portions to the crew as souvenirs. Capt. Thurston Shawn gave the remaining tusk portions, teeth and knife to a relative, who donated the remains to Gwynn’s Island Museum in Virginia. There they sat, unnoticed, for decades.
But while doing his doctoral dissertation, Darrin Lowery, a geologist at the University of Delaware, noticed the teeth and the tusk at the museum. …
By measuring the fraction of radioactive carbon isotopes (elements of carbon with different numbers of neutrons), the team found that the mastodon tusk was more than 22,000 years old.
There was no way to date the blade precisely, but the deft flint-knapping technique used to make it was similar to that found in Solutrean tools, which were made in Europe between 22,000 and 17,000 years ago.
Melting glaciers raised sea levels and submerged that area of the continental shelf about 14,000 years ago, so the knife must have been at least that old, Stanford added.
In addition, both pieces showed characteristic weathering that indicated they were exposed to the air for a while and then submerged in a saltwater marsh, before finally being buried in seawater.
That finding suggested that the two artifacts were possibly from the same environment â€” such as the marshes found between sand dunes that are often set back from the seashore. That would have been a perfect place for mastodons to find food, Stanford said.
“They like to chew on bushes and more rough shrubbery,” Stanford said.
To Stanford, Lowery and their colleagues, the discoveries suggest that people lived along the East Coast more than 14,000 years ago â€” potentially thousands of years before the Clovis culture emerged there. These first American colonizers may have even crossed the Atlantic Ocean from Europe, Stanford said.
The Daily Mail reports that discoveries of more sites and more artifacts are continuing to undermine the “Clovis First” theory. Evidence for what is being called the Solutrean Hypothesis keeps piling up.
America was first discovered by Stone Age hunters from Europe, according to new archaeological evidence.
Across six locations on the U.S. east coast, several dozen stone tools have been found.
After close analysis it was discovered that they were between 19,000 and 26,000 years old and were a European-style of tool.
The discovery suggests that the owners of the tools arrived 10,000 years before the ancestors of the American Indians set foot in the New World…
Finding the tools is being heralded as one of the most important archaeological breakthroughs for several decades.
Archaeologists are hopeful that they will add another dimension to understanding the spread of humans across the world.
Three of the sites were discovered by archaeologist Dr Darrin Lowery of the University of Delaware, while another one is in Pennsylvania and a fifth site is in Virginia.
Fishermen discovered a sixth on a seabed 60 miles from the Virginian coast, which in prehistoric times would have been dry land.