Three thousand eight hundred years ago, long before U.S. plains rippled with vast rows of corn, Native Americans planted farms with hardy "pioneer" crops, according to new evidence of the first farming in eastern North America.
Because the area appears to have been well stocked with wild food sources, the discovery may rewrite some beliefs about what led people to start farming on the continent, scientists say.
Rather than turning to farming as a matter of survival, the so-called Riverton people may have been exercising "free will" and engaging in a bit of gastronomic innovation, archaeologists say.
This does not surprise me in the least. We always assume 'prehistoric' peoples started farming because they had to, as a survival technique, but we don't ever stop to think that they might be just like us, inventing new things simply because they want to. Did we need the iPod or the car? Was our survival significantly enhanced because of either of them? We grow later to think we can't live without electricity, flush toilets, and the internet, because they make our lives easier or more enjoyable.
Around the world and throughout ancient history, people switched from mainly hunting and gathering to farming as a way to cope with environmental stresses, such as drought—or so the conventional wisdom says.
But the new research "really challenges the whole idea of humans domesticating plants and animals in response to an external stress [and] makes a strong case for almost the polar opposite," said lead study author Bruce Smith, curator of North American archaeology at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
Before they began farming, the Riverton people lived among bountiful river valleys and lakes, apparently eating a healthy and diverse diet of nuts, white-tailed deer, fish, and shellfish, the study says.
But that doesn't mean farming didn't give the Riverton culture a practical advantage: In addition to their normal fare, the people may have relied on the crops as a stable source of food—insurance against shortages of wild food sources..