The Age of the Common Bean (Phaseolus Vulgaris L.) in the Northern Eastern Woodlands of North America. (Notes & News)

By Hart, John P.; Asch, David L. et al. | Antiquity, June 2002 | Go to article overview

The Age of the Common Bean (Phaseolus Vulgaris L.) in the Northern Eastern Woodlands of North America. (Notes & News)


Hart, John P., Asch, David L., Scarry, C. Margaret, Crawford, Gary W., Antiquity


Research in the Eastern Woodlands of North America during the last quarter of the 20th century established that prehistoric agricultural systems centring on a suite of indigenous oily and starchy seeded annual plants began to evolve by 4000 BP (C. 2550 cal BC), (1) becoming widespread by 2000 BP (C. cal AD 15) (Asch 1994; Smith 1992). Except for the squash species Cucurbita pepo L., however, these were not the crops that dominated agricultural systems across the region at the time of European contact. Instead the `three sisters'--squash, maize (Zea mays L.) and the common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris L.)--were the principal Native American crops of the early Historic period (Hurt 1987). Cucurbita pepo was domesticated both in eastern North America (ssp. ovifera (L.) Decker) and Mexico (ssp. pepo) (Decker 1988). Subspecies ovifera spread throughout the northern Eastern Woodlands as a result of human interactions, perhaps at first as a form with hard-shelled, bitter, inedible fruits (Asch 1994; Conard et al. 1984; Hart & Asch Sidell 1997; Smith 1992). Maize and a second squash species (C. argyrosperma Huber) were initially domesticated in Mesoamerica, and the common bean (hereafter `beans') in Mesoamerica and northern South America (Fritz 1994; Kami et al. 1995; MacNeish & Eubanks 2000). These spread to the northern Eastern Woodlands through human interactions, perhaps via the American Southwest and Plains. The timing of the spread of these crops and the processes involved remain important issues for our understanding of prehistoric agricultural evolution (Asch 1994; Hart 1999a; Riley et al. 1990). In this article we provide new dates on beans that change our understanding of the history of this crop and maize-beans-squash agriculture in the northern Eastern Woodlands.

Northern Eastern Woodlands beans

The history of squash and maize in the northern Eastern Woodlands has been clarified over the past two decades as the result of intensive efforts to recover and identify archaeological plant remains, together with developments in accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) that made it possible to date small, critical crop specimens directly. Remains of presumably cultivated C. pepo have been directly dated to as early as 7100 [+ or -] 300 BP (NSRL-298) (cal 2[sigma] 6498 (5988, 5940, 5929) 5476 BC) in the Midwest (Asch & Asch 1985) and 5695 [+ or -] 100 BP (AA-7491) (cal 2[sigma] 4775 (4522, 4509, 4503) 4341 BC) in the northeastern US (Petersen & Asch Sidell 1996), and there are some indications of its biological domestication as early as c. 4250 BP (c. cal 2900 BC) (Asch 1995: 62-3). The cushaw squash, C. argyrosperma, entered the region probably only a millennium ago (Fritz 1994). Maize has been directly dated to as early as 2077 [+ or -] 70 BP (AA-8717) (cal 2[sigma] 354 BC (90, 76, 59 BC) AD 72) in Illinois (Riley et al. 1994) and 1570 [+ or -] 90 BP (TO-5307) (cal 2[sigma] AD 258 (442, 448, 468, 482, 530) 657) southern Ontario (Crawford et al. 1997). The earliest direct date in the northeastern US is 1100 [+ or -] 70 BP (B-53452) (cal. 2[sigma] AD 776 (904, 910, 976) 1145) in eastern New York (Cassedy & Webb 1999). Stable carbon isotope analyses of human bone and measurements of maize quantities on archaeological sites suggest maize did not become an important crop throughout the region until after 1100 BP (Hart 1999a; Smith 1992).

For beans, in contrast to squash and maize, there has been a lack of direct AMS dating to establish firmly the first archaeological visibility of this crop in the northern Eastern Woodlands. Probably because beans arrived relatively late in time, the oldest apparent contexts in which they were found were not deemed controversial. It was long the conventional wisdom that beans were present in Mississippian and contemporaneous cultural contexts of the region, and palaeoethnobotanists estimated their probable time of arrival at 1150-950 BP (Ford 1985a; Griffin 1967; Yarnell 1976; 1986). …

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