Researchers are studying the connections between early plant domestication and changing patterns of settlement and conflict during the Middle Holocene. 

By Julian Smith

This is an article excerpt from the Summer 2020 edition of American Archaeology Magazine. Become a member of The Archaeological Conservancy for your complimentary subscription. 

Few things have changed the course of human history as dramatically as the advent of agriculture. Reliable food supplies could support permanent settlements with increasingly large populations and complex social dynamics. While researchers still debate the number of places around the world where farming developed independently—estimates range as high as fifteen—there is little argument that agriculture was a major step toward the creation of the modern world.

Sumpweed, amaranth, and Chenopodium are three of the plants that were cultivated by ancient peoples. Archaeologist Stephen Carmoday has been growing these plants about five years ago to address archaeological questions as well as questions pertaining to sustainable food production in the future. | Credit: Stephen Carmoday

But what was its more immediate effect on cultures which had practiced hunting and gathering for thousands of years? “We had been studying the causes of farming, but what about the consequences?” said Elic Weitzel, a Ph.D. student at the University of Connecticut. The long-terms effects were obvious, but the short-term changes were not as clear.

The researchers analyzed data from more than 700 sites, including Moundville in Alabama. In this 2011 photo, archaeologists excavate Mound P, one of the site’s twenty-nine mounds. | Credit: John Blitz
Elic Weitzel and his colleagues also analyzed data from the Modoc Rock Shelter, a national Historic Landmark in southwestern Illinois. | Credit: Nyttend

Weitzel set out to answer this question with help from Stephen Carmody of Troy University, Brian Codding of the University of Utah, and David Zeanah of California State University, Sacramento. Each of the researchers had already studied aspects of the origins of plant domestication in Eastern North America during the Middle Holocene, roughly 8,200 to 4,200 years ago. They knew that the dawn and rise of agriculture coincided with a general population increase in the region. But no one had looked closely at how this connected to changing patterns of settlement and conflict over that time period.

Many of the indigenous plants that residents domesticated, including gooseweed, sunflower, and erect knotweed, were highly productive seed-bearing annuals that didn’t need much effort in the form of plowing and irrigation to grow and harvest. Native people would have quickly discovered how even small additions of labor could make large gardens proportionately more productive, Weitzel said, a concept that economists call increasing returns to scale, meaning output increases by a larger proportion than the increase in input.


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