Ancient Vegetarians? Absorbed Pottery Residue Analysis of Diet in the Late Woodland and Emergent Mississippian Periods of the Mississippi Valley

Article excerpt

Absorbed pottery residue analysis of potsherds from Late Woodland and Emergent Mississippian sites in the Mississippi Valley detected a large number of residues originating primarily from non-maize plants. Such a low incidence of animal products in residues is unusual, particularly compared with results from similar studies in the Old World. Animal products appear to have been rare and valuable to people along the Mississippi Valley during the Late Woodland and Emergent Mississippian periods. Possible reasons for the rarity of meat during this period are discussed and compared with ethnographic accounts of diet during the contact period in the region.

Dietary reconstruction is one of the most useful tools in understanding ancient political and social structure. Bone stable isotope analysis, among other techniques, permits an understanding of the time frame and sociocultural changes surrounding the widespread adoption of maize in Midwestern North America (Kelly 1992; Rindos and Johannessen 1991; van der Merwe and Vogel 1978; Vogel and van der Merwe 1977; Voigt 1986). Bone stable isotope analysis permits dietary analysis of an individual human over his or her lifetime, while paleoethnobotanical and faunal remains analysis together allow the study of the overall diet of the members of a community. Now, absorbed pottery residue analysis allows the reconstruction of ancient cooking practices and diet over the lifetime of a pottery vessel. When used in concert, this toolbox of archaeometric techniques allows a more accurate reconstruction of ancient diet and pottery use than has hitherto been possible.

Previous papers have discussed the analysis of absorbed pottery residues from 134 Late Woodland (Reber 2000; Reber and Evershed 2004a), Emergent Mississippian, and Mississippian samples originating from four areas along the Mississippi River. The development of detection methods for maize-based compounds in absorbed pottery residues allowed the determination that unexpectedly small amounts of maize compounds were present in these residues. Possibly more interesting than this lack of maize compounds, however, was the wealth of compounds from non-maize plants found in these residues, and the unexpectedly small number of residues made up primarily of meat-based compounds.

The relative rarity of animal products in residues analyzed in this study appears to show that meat enjoyed a less prominent place in the diet of Late Woodland and Emergent Mississippian peoples along the Mississippi Valley than previously expected. The bulk of the Late Woodland/Emergent Mississippian diet, as reconstructed in this analysis, was made up of non-maize plants, including nuts, Eastern Horticultural Complex crops, and possibly gathered tubers. Meat and animal products may have been rare and valued.

Technical Background

In 2000-2001, absorbed pottery residue analysis was carried out on 134 Mississippi Valley pottery samples dating from the Middle Woodland to Mississippian periods. These samples originated in four regions of the Mississippi drainage:

1. The lower Mississippi Valley, where Dr. T. R. Kidder and the Louisiana Division of Archaeology submitted sherds from the Osceola site, the Reno Brake site, the Emerson site, the Bayou des Familles site, and the Morgan Mounds site.

2. The American Bottom region, where Dr. John Kelly, Dr. Timothy Pauketat, and Dr. Mary Beth Trubitt submitted samples from the Mees-Nochta site, Halliday site, and Cahokia Palisade project, respectively.

3. The Illinois Valley region, where the Center for American Archeology at Kampsville submitted a sequence of Middle-Late Woodland sherds from eight sites: Audrey North (Late Woodland), Koster East (Late Woodland), Evie (Late Woodland), Hill Creek (Mississippian), Apple Creek (Middle and Late Woodland), Walsh (Mississippian), and Starr Village (Late Woodland/Mississippian).

4. The Wisconsin River Valley, where Dr. …