The Cultural Life of Early Domestic Plant Use

By Hastorf, Christine A. | Antiquity, December 1998 | Go to article overview

The Cultural Life of Early Domestic Plant Use


Hastorf, Christine A., Antiquity


This paper is a contribution to the on-going discussion about what is often called the 'origins of agriculture'. The literature has seen a broadening of perspective over the past 10 years. We have gained from these works and have reoriented much of our thinking about this societal transition. Nevertheless, there is still room to ask what cultivation looked like in the early days. What were the cultural settings that initiated these changes in plant-human interactions? We can gain further understanding about this transition by thinking more about the 'invisible' and the 'unstudyable', by trying to understand why people might have nurtured plants in the first place. This paper proposes that the domestication process was tied to intensifying social relations and lineage construction. Further, the suggestion is that the plants that were adopted early on had special meanings and identities due to their associations with places, events, and lineage groups, especially for women. The plants that accompanied people into new communities and placers were part of these groups' cosmologies and identity constructions. It is hoped that the individual plants themselves might give us clues to the past cultural changes that were taking place. Several cultural examples will illustrate how women and their lineage associations are important instigators in the spread of plants and therefore were probably involved in plant domestication.

To address these questions, this paper focuses on the social and cultural side of plant 'mothering' and cultivation.(1) Plant tending is biological but it is also cultural. At some point, people began to act and think differently about the world around them, including the plants and animals, which they had eaten since before they became 'people'. Why did people change their social, economic, and ecological practices? How did their perceptions of close and distant social interactions alter their relationships with plants and animals? The suggestion put forward here is that the creation of identity (and difference) at the personal, familial, and group level was a dynamic process which also underlay early plant cultivation. Gatherers and hunters began to associate and identify certain plants and animals with themselves. They brought the plants into their community to be cared for, like the people in their community. This process of changing relationships with plants (and animals)(2) accompanied changes in the relationships between humans. We might benefit from looking at practices and interpersonal relations that are routine and repeated in most people's lives in order to see how the nurturing of new social relationships might have been linked to horticulture.(3)

There are now many archaeological examples of early cultivation that suggest a low level of plant use for many generations, even hundreds or thousands of years, before agriculture became important in the subsistence base. These early cultivated plants were both local and nonlocal. Only some of these early cultivars, however, grew to dominate agricultural assemblages (Johannessen 1988), shown by the evidence along the coast of Peru and the western coast of Mesoamerica (Hastorf 1998). While the dominant, carbohydrate plants later came to support surplus and hierarchy (Johannessen 1993; Welch & Scarry 1995), the early propagated plants were not carbohydrate, staple crops; rather they were medicinal, industrial, spicy, hallucinatory or merely exotic. Our problem is that if the earliest plants are not exotic, morphologically altered or densely deposited, archaeologists have not been able to recognize and identify agriculture in the archaeological record. It is argued that some early sedentary sites were pre-agricultural, but they could have been intensely horticultural, dealing with plants that did not have the physical changes that we normally assume to be required in the definition of agriculture (Bar-Yosef & Belfer-Cohen 1989). Places like the desertic Peruvian coast, where virtually all cultivated plants are foreign, make such a subtle artefactual event more visible to archaeologists, and it is here that we see spicy and industrial plants being nurtured first, at a low level and for a long time (Hastorf 1998; Pearsall 1992). …

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