Ancient Puebloans Weren't Into Maize Craze As Much As Previously Believed
April 3, 2013

Ancient Puebloans Weren’t Into Maize Craze As Much As Previously Believed

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

Perhaps the ancient Puebloans weren't as into the maize craze as scientists once thought.

A new study from the University of Cincinnati led by Nikki Berkebile, a graduate student in anthropology in UC´s McMicken College of Arts & Sciences, explores the subsistence habits of Puebloans, also known as Anasazi, who lived on the southern rim of the Grand Canyon in the late 11th century. Ethnographic literature traditionally indicates these ancient American Indians were dependent on maize as a food source. Berkebile isn't so sure about that, however.

“I´m trying to assess sustainable subsistence strategies within the time period of the site,” Berkebile says. “I´m not trying to bash anyone who says maize is not on the table, because I have maize in my samples. I´m just saying maize is not as important as once thought.”

Berkebile will present her research this week at the 78th annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) in Honolulu, where more than 3,000 scientists from around the world convene to learn about research covering a broad range of topics and time periods.

Occupied by ancient Puebloans from 1070-1090, the MU 125 archaeological site in northern Arizona features a multi-room masonry structure. Using a flotation technique to reveal secrets hidden in the ancient earth, Berkebile searched for plant remains in the soil samples. She dropped the soil into water-filled buckets and swirled them just enough to cause lightweight bits of plant material to rise to the water's surface, where they could be easily skimmed off. The tiny plant fragments were analyzed and cataloged with help from a research team of fellow graduate and undergrad students.

So far, the results suggest Puebloans of MU 125 had a wider variety in their diet than just maize. Other possible food sources, such as purslane, pinyon nut, juniper berries, globemallow and even cactus, have been uncovered. The region's scarcity of water and seasonal climate — prone to periods of drought and frost — along with the diverse amount of wild resources makes Berkebile think the Puebloans had to rely on more than maize to survive.

“If you think about the climate of the Upper Basin, there´s only 145 frost-free days in which you could grow maize,” Berkebile says. “What are you going to do for those months when you don´t have anything?”

According to Berkebile, it is likely the Anasazi lived at the MU 125 site all year long; making it necessary that they develop sustainable agricultural methods that complemented their maize crops. The plant samples she has found at the site allow her to assess the agricultural strategy of the inhabitants, splitting it into three categories:

First, they cultivated wild resources; these are hardy and easy-to-cultivate plants that existed in the Southwest a thousand years before maize. Examples at MU 125 include purslane, globemallow and chenopodium. Second, they gathered wild resources; these are also Southwestern plants that predated maize, but they weren´t necessarily actively cultivated. Puebloans would gather what they needed from these plants and bring them home to process. Examples at MU 125 include pinyon nut, juniper berries and cactus. Lastly, they domesticated resources; these are plants brought to the Southwest by humans and made to adapt to the environment. Examples at MU 125 include maize and possibly a type of bean.

Berkebile has two hopes for her research: that it can be a game-changer in how archaeologists perceive ancient cultures´ reliance on maize, and also a mind-changer in the way modern society views its environmental resources.

Aspects of the intercropping strategies and implementation of wild resources could be adapted to a modern context, according to Berkebile. She also thinks how Puebloans thought about food is an important lesson for today.

“We think that we can just go to the grocery store any time and get whatever we want,” Berkebile says. “To the ancient Puebloans, it was all about seasonal availability. And if we have a mind-set that we can have certain foods when they are in season, the process becomes a lot more sustainable.”