Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

Maize Adoption and Intensification in the Central Illinois River Valley: An Analysis of Archaeobotanical Data from the Late Woodland to Early Mississippian Periods (A.D. 600-1200)

Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

Maize Adoption and Intensification in the Central Illinois River Valley: An Analysis of Archaeobotanical Data from the Late Woodland to Early Mississippian Periods (A.D. 600-1200)

Article excerpt

How, why, and when ancient Eastern Woodland peoples intensified maize (Zea mays) farming is a question that has resonated with archaeological research interests for decades. Early investigators viewed the adoption and intensification of maize as a prime mover in the development and spread of Mississippian culture. These traditional explanations of increased maize production tended to invoke subsistence stress and risk as primary causal factors (Chmumy 1973; Ford 1974; Muller and Stephens 1991; Peebles and Kus 1977), which were then tied more generally to models of population pressure (see Scarry 1993a for a summary).

However, more recent archaeobotanical analyses have revealed significant regional variation in the timing of maize adoption and intensification relative to the rise of political complexity (Chapman and Shea 1981; Crites 1978; Gremillion and Yamell 1986; Johannessen 1993a, 1993b; Kidder and Fritz 1993; King 1988; Scarry 1986, 1993a, 1993b; Simon and Parker 2006). Indeed, in some regions, there was a significant delay in terms of both the reliance on and intensification of maize with respect to political development (e.g., Brown 1984; Fritz 1982; Kidder and Fritz 1993); in other regions, increases in maize production occurred within the context of only weakly centralized hierarchical political institutions (Emerson et al. 2005).

Early attempts at understanding the delay between the introduction of maize (A.D. 100-500) and its elevation as a staple food (A.D. 800-1100) in the Eastern Woodlands argued for the arrival of a more productive maize variety that would have made it suitably productive as a staple crop (Coe et al. 1986; Fowler 1975; Galinat and Campbell 1967; Galinat and Gunnerson 1963; see also Fritz 1992). Fritz's (1992:28) research on the topic however, has revealed a paucity of archaeobotanical evidence to support the "introduction of a new type of maize around A.D. 800-1000 that might have been superior to previously existing types [that] thereby played a causal role in agricultural intensification and culture change." Fritz (1992:29) instead argues that increased maize productivity witnessed after A.D. 1000 is better explained by cultural and political factors, such as "individual and corporate group decision making and information sharing, field allocation policies, and responses to demands for increased surplus and trade." In addition to political development are other variables that factor into the variation regarding the timing of maize production increases, such as rainfall, "temperature, and soil conditions. Such variation implies that blanket explanations of subsistence risk and population pressure are inappropriate, and that any investigation into the adoption and intensification of maize must take place on a region by region basis.

With these issues in mind, we consider the timing of maize adoption and intensification in the late prehistoric central Illinois River valley (CIRV) through a diachronic analysis of plant assemblages dating from A.D. 600-1200. We draw on published data from the Late Woodland period and present new data from the Early Mississippian period. In general, we argue that an understanding of changes in maize production requires a consideration of changes that occurred (or did not occur) in the entire plant subsistence system, and thus we explore trends in the collection and production of plant foods throughout this time, using all the plant data that are currently available. By contextualizing changes in maize production as embedded within broader shifts in plant subsistence, we ultimately hope to better understand why people increased food production, in addition to describing how it happened. Currently, there exist no published data on plant remains from Mississippian sites in the region, leading most regional scholars to generalize about subsistence strategies or offer comparisons to the nearby American Bottom or other regions of Mississippian occupation. …

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