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Oyster shell middens

Hakaimagazine.com

by Evan Lubofsky

Indigenous peoples in the Chesapeake harvested oysters sustainably for thousands of years—until the introduction of new techniques by Europeans decimated the stocks.

As long as 3,200 years ago, Indigenous peoples living along the banks of the Chesapeake Bay harvested oysters in vast quantities. They extracted the meat and piled the shells into mounds known as middens. Archaeologists have long studied these shell mounds—some of which are meters deep—for a window into the lifestyles of these peoples: what they ate, how they hunted, and the tools they used. Now, clues unearthed in these mounds also suggest they likely knew a thing or two about how to sustainably harvest oysters.

“Despite the significant role oysters played in the Native American diet back then, they weren’t overexploited,” says archaeologist Alex Jansen, leader of a recent study analyzing the middens.

“Even though it is possible that these early societies may not have been practicing sustainable harvesting intentionally, it appears they were able to balance management with fishery needs,” Jansen adds. “That’s something we need to get back to.”

Since the early 1900s, overfishing in the Chesapeake Bay has led to steep declines in oyster stocks. Around 1990, oyster harvests across the bay were less than one percent of historical levels. Harvesting techniques introduced by European colonists during the 18th and 19th centuries, such as dredging and tonging, were responsible for much of this enormous toll. These destructive techniques rip living oysters from the reef, often before they’re fully grown, reducing the size and damaging the structure of the reef.

Given that oysters play an important role in filtering algae, plankton, and other particles from the water, the depletion of the bay’s oysters caused the water quality to suffer. The destruction of wave-buffering oyster reefs also reduced the protection they offered to the shoreline.

Examining shell middens near Chesapeake Bay showed Jansen that the Indigenous peoples’ harvesting practices were much less destructive, which is what allowed them to exploit oysters for thousands of years.

Jansen also found tools such as ceramics, projectile points, and stones used for heating water at the study site. But based on his analysis, these tools were not used for oyster harvesting, which, he says, was mostly done by hand. He also noted the large sizes of the oyster shells, which suggests the oysters were given time to grow and reproduce before being snagged.

Throughout the thousands of years captured in the shell middens, “the oysters were largely consistent in shape and size,” Jansen says. He says the oysters were likely harvested from the water close to shore, rather than from deeper waters where reefs form. “By leaving the reefs alone and intact, Native American harvesters were able to give the oysters a chance to reproduce and restock the bay.”

Today, after years of restoration efforts, oyster populations in the Chesapeake Bay are showing signs of a rebound. Carmera Thomas, a program manager for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, says that over the past few decades, millions of baby oysters attached to recycled oyster shells have been placed on sanctuary reefs throughout the bay, contributing to the restoration of oyster reefs on target tributaries. In 2017, a bill proposed by state officials and watermen in Maryland to open more than two million square kilometers of oyster sanctuary to harvest did not pass.

Despite the momentum, Thomas says pressure on wild oyster populations will continue unless we learn lessons from the past and put some ancient practices into play.

“If we as a population were more diligent about restoring what is taken out of the bay, using less invasive tools, and not harvesting as much … it would put less stress on the population,” Thomas says.

Jansen agrees. Even though we no longer have the same technological limitations as our ancestors, that doesn’t mean we can’t heed the lessons of the past and leverage simpler approaches. Only this time, the act of conservation would undoubtedly be intentional.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Carbon-dating techniques have now identified this ancient maize cob at about 950 to 1,000 years old. (Greg Powers)

Orginal Article:

Charles C. Mann

Smithsonianmag.com

 

It took millennia, but America’s founding farmers developed

the grain that would fuel civilizations—and still does

Sometimes it’s the little things that count.

Movie archaeologists are often pictured triumphantly extracting precious objects from the earth, instantly solving long-standing mysteries. Think of Indiana Jones’ Cross of Coronado, Staff of Ra and Ark of the Covenant. Real archaeologists mostly find small, almost valueless objects—and won’t know for years, or decades, what mystery they are resolving. Consider this ancient ear of maize, which Walter Hough pulled out of a New Mexico cave more than a century ago.

Hough worked at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (the repository of this artifact) from 1886 to 1935. A kindly man with a static-cling memory who hunted arrowheads as a boy in West Virginia, he spent most of his career on the unsung but vital task of cataloging the museum’s collections. But he also took field trips into the Southwest, and in September 1905 he spent 12 days in what he called an “interesting cave.” It was in a bluff 150 feet above the Tularosa River, in New Mexico, about 30 miles east of the Arizona border. Because the climate there is extremely dry, virtually nothing in the cave had decayed. Formerly used by early colonists as a donkey corral, the cave was full of “rubbish and the droppings of animals, to a depth of 8 feet,” Hough wrote. Just walking around kicked up a choking cloud of dust that forced researchers to wear goggles and cover their faces.

Despite the terrible conditions, the researchers made an impressive haul: dried turkey cadavers, mammal bones, broken crockery, a brush made from grass, incense pipes, stones for grinding, cigarettes made from reeds, yucca-leaf sandals—and about a dozen maize cobs, some with kernels intact. (Archaeologists typically call the grain “maize,” rather than “corn,” because multicolored indigenous maize, usually eaten after drying and grinding, is strikingly unlike the large, sweet yellow-kernel cobs conjured up by the word “corn.”) Hough was working before archaeologists had the tools to accurately date artifacts, or even, pre-GPS, to note their exact location. He simply recorded the locale of his finds and carried them back to Washington, D.C.

It would be four and a half decades before Paul Sidney Martin, an archaeologist at Chicago’s Field Museum, examined Hough’s reports and followed in his footsteps. Most archaeologists specializing in the Southwest believed that its earliest inhabitants were the Anasazi (as the ancestral Pueblo were then known), who built cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde, 225 miles north of Tularosa Cave. But a few experts argued that the Tularosa area had housed a different culture, called the Mogollon, after a nearby mountain range. To resolve what was becoming a bitter controversy, Martin and his co-workers went to Tularosa Cave in June 1950—the first researchers there since Hough. In two summers, they unearthed tens of thousands of artifacts. And they made a convincing case that the pottery they found—especially starkly beautiful black-and-white remnants—looked nothing like Anasazi handiwork.

Among the Tularosa objects were, astonishingly, 33,000 ears of ancient maize. Fortuitously, Martin had access to a brand-new technology: radiocarbon dating, just invented at the University of Chicago. It can determine the age of plant remains and other organic materials. Indeed, the Tularosa cobs were among the first archaeological finds ever carbon-dated. Martin reported that some of the cobs were as old as 2,500 years. That suggested the cave had been inhabited before the Anasazi—key evidence, along with the unusual cave artifacts, for a separate Mogollon culture.

From about A.D. 200 to the arrival of the Spaniards, the Mogollon had occupied most of what is now Sonora and Chihuahua in Mexico as well as parts of southern Arizona and New Mexico. Their ancestors began as foragers, then switched to agriculture, including the cultivation of maize, which helped fuel the flowering of Mogollon culture. The Mogollon, in turn, played a large role in introducing maize to societies north of the Rio Grande, a pivotal event as important to North America as the arrival of rice was to China or wheat to the Middle East.

Hough and Martin didn’t have the scientific tools to analyze the genetic makeup of their maize specimens and trace precise origins or lineage. Perhaps hoping that future researchers would pore over his finds as he had pored over Hough’s, Martin and his coworkers sealed thousands of ancient cobs in plastic bags that are stored today at the Field Museum—the world’s greatest collection of Mogollon artifacts and remains.

Lately researchers using DNA probes and other technologies have been detailing the roughly 9,000-year process by which Native Americans transformed teosinte, the smallish semitropical grass with no ears or cobs, into maize, a productive, elaborate plant that can thrive in a cool temperate climate. In a 2003 analysis of cobs from Tularosa and locations in Mexico, researchers found that the earliest samples, some 6,300 years old, were apparently bred by people focused on boosting the crop yield by increasing the size of cobs and kernels. Later, in Mogollon times, growers were selecting for starch and grain qualities useful in making tortillas and tamales.

The transformation of a weedy grass into one of the world’s most important foodstuffs—think of the enormous stalks of corn rippling across Midwestern fields—is far more complex than anything we can do today in a lab, even with all our genetic prowess. How the continent’s first farmers accomplished that feat is a mystery. Drab debris found in a cave may hold the clues.

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Corn smut: disfiguring but delicious.
CARMEN HAUSER / GETTY IMAGES

 

Original Article:

cosmosmagazine.com

 

Eating only maize leads to disease, and why the Basketmaker II people didn’t fall ill has long been a mystery. Now it’s been solved. Andrew Masterson reports.

 

A mystery concerning how some of North America’s first farmers survived on a diet that appears manifestly inadequate may have been solved.

The ancestral Pueblo people who lived in what is now known as the Four Corners region of the southwestern United States shifted from a nomadic to a settled lifestyle centred on crop-growing around 400BCE.

The primary crop cultivated was maize (known in the US as corn), which accounted for an estimated 80% of calorific intake.

During the ensuing 800 years – a stretch known as the Basketmaker II period – the settlers’ diet contained very little meat. This was perhaps a cultural choice. Basketmaker II people became efficient turkey farmers, but the birds were raised primarily for their feathers, used in the manufacture of blankets, and for certain ritual purposes. They were not eaten.

The nutritional components of Basketmaker II cuisine has been well established through a number of analyses, including radio-isotope sampling conducted at burial sites. A study published in 2013, for instance, found that while maize comprised the massive bulk of food intake, it was accompanied by small amounts of wild plants, including yucca, and – more so in men than women – occasional bits of wild rabbit.

Over all, the Pueblo menu should have been dangerously low in a number of essential nutrients, particularly niacin, tryptophan and lysine – the lack of which leads to a range of ailments, including pellagra, an often fatal disease that results in diarrhoea, dermatitis and dementia.

However, no Basketmaker II human remains ever tested have shown evidence of such an illness. This fact leads to the obvious conclusion that the people must have been able somehow to access the crucial nutrients. There is evidence that at least one community boiled maize in limestone, which would have made some amino acids locked up in the corn more biologically available – but even then the amounts would still have been too small to meet dietary needs.

Now, however, archaeologist and biological anthropologist Jenna Battillo from the Southern Methodist University in Texas may well have found the answer to puzzle.

It turns out to be an organism that today is considered a menace by commercial maize farmers: a fungus called Ustilago maydis, or, more prosaically, corn smut.

Analysing “human paleofaeces” found at a Basketmaker II site known as Turkey Penn Ruin in Utah, Battillo found plentiful evidence of U. maydis spores. This, she writes in a paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, indicates that the fungus was included as an intentional part of the diet.

There is considerable later evidence to back up the suggestion. The fungus, which forms distinctive lumps or “galls” on maize heads, is today a popular food in Mexico, where it is known as huitlacoche. It is also popular among some communities in Central America.

Battillo cites a number of studies that found corn smut was historically considered a delicacy among southern and meso-American societies, including the Aztec, Maya and Hopi.

U. maydis causes loss of vitality and weight as well as cosmetic disfigurement in maize and is therefore hated by commercial growers. About 4% of the US crop is lost to the fungus each year – well down from the estimated 80% that blighted farms in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

For the Basketmaker II people, however, the fungus infection was very positive – indeed, quite literally, a lifesaver.

Battillo reports that corn smut alters the nutrient content of corn. It increases the protein levels from as low as 3% to as high as 19%. It also dramatically boosts the levels of lysine, and introduces 16 other essential amino acids. The only one missing is tryptophan, for which no data is available – Battillo suggests limestone boiling and input from other minor food sources might have been sufficient to provide the average four milligrams a day required to maintain health.

And while the new research seems to answer the question of how Basketmaker II people supplemented their nutrient-poor maize diet, it still leaves another matter unresolved.

The evidence, says Battillo, cannot determine whether the early farmer communities intentionally introduced or encouraged corn smut on their plants, or whether infections happened by accident and were simply tolerated.

In either scenario, she concludes, “the ubiquity of the spores in paleofaeces from Turkey Pen Ruin strongly supports intentional consumption”.

 

 

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A multidisciplinary team of experts from the University of Cincinnati determined that the sandy soils of Chaco Canyon were not too salty to grow crops such as maize, beans and squash for the more than 1,200 people who occupied this beautiful but harsh landscape during its most prolific years. The study suggests people of Chaco Canyon largely were self-sufficient.

Source: Ancestral people of Chaco Canyon likely grew their own food

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13-Jun-2018

University of British Columbia

eurekalert.org

 

Agricultural activity by humans more than 2,000 years ago had a more significant and lasting impact on the environment than previously thought. The finding– discovered by a team of international researchers led by the University of British Columbia– is reported in a new study published today in the journal Science Advances.

The researchers found that an increase in deforestation and agricultural activity during the Bronze Age in Ireland reached a tipping point that affected Earth’s nitrogen cycle– the process that keeps nitrogen, a critical element necessary for life, circulating between the atmosphere, land and oceans.

“Scientists are increasingly recognizing that humans have always impacted their ecosystems, but finding early evidence of significant and lasting changes is rare,” said Eric Guiry, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral research fellow in UBC’s department of anthropology. “By looking at when and how ancient societies began to change soil nutrients at a molecular level, we now have a deeper understanding of the turning point at which humans first began to cause environmental change.”

For the study, the researchers performed stable isotope analyses on 712 animal bones collected from at least 90 archaeological sites in Ireland. The researchers found significant changes in the nitrogen composition of soil nutrients and plants that made up the animals’ diet during the Bronze Age.

The researchers believe the changes were the result of an increase in the scale and intensity of deforestation, agriculture and pastoral farming.

While these results are specific to Ireland during the Bronze Age, Guiry said the findings have global implications.

“The effect of human activities on soil nitrogen composition may be traceable wherever humans have extensively modified landscapes for agriculture,” he explained. “Our findings have significant potential to serve as a model for future research.”

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The study, “Anthropogenic changes to the Holocene nitrogen cycle in Ireland,” was co-authored by researchers at the Institute of Technology Sligo, Trent University, the University of Oxford, Queen’s University Belfast, and Simon Fraser University.

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A) Modern distribution of the sweet potato family (yellow line) and genus (white line). B) Fossil leaf of Ipomoea meghalayensis. C) Modern leaf of Ipomoea eriocarpa, showing similar size, shape and vein pattern. Credit: Indiana University

 

 

 

Original Article:

physical.org

 

Sweet potatoes may seem as American as Thanksgiving, but scientists have long debated whether their plant family originated in the Old or New World. New research by an Indiana University paleobotanist suggests it originated in Asia, and much earlier than previously known.

IU Bloomington emeritus professor David Dilcher and colleagues in India identified 57-milion-year-old leaf fossils from eastern India as being from the morning glory family, which includes sweet potatoes and many other plants. The research suggests the family originated in the late Paleocene epoch in the East Gondwana land mass that became part of Asia.

“I think this will change people’s ideas,” Dilcher said. “It will be a data point that is picked up and used in other work where researchers are trying to find the time of the evolution of major groups of flowering plants.”

Previous fossil evidence had suggested the morning glory family may have originated in North America about 35 million years ago. But molecular analyses had supported the idea that it originated earlier and in the Old World. The new research provides evidence for that conclusion.

The discovery also suggests the morning glory family and the nightshade family, which includes potatoes and tomatoes, diverged earlier than previously thought. Together with the recent, separate discovery of 52-million-year-old nightshade fossils in Argentina, it suggests that morning glories developed in the East and nightshades in the West.

The 17 fossils analyzed in the study are the earliest recorded fossils for both the morning glory family, known as Convolvulaceae, and the order Solanales, which includes morning glories and nightshades.

Morning glory fossils are rare because the plants’ soft structure was not easily preserved in rocks.

Dilcher’s collaborators, Gaurav Srivastava and Rakesh C. Mehrotra of India’s Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences, discovered the fossils in Meghalaya, a state in northeastern India.

The researchers used microscopic analysis of the shape and structure of the leaves, comparing details of the leaf veins and cells with plants in the genus Ipomoea. Using such analysis to examine evolutionary relationships has been a hallmark of Dilcher’s paleobotany research career.

The leaves the researchers studied are in the genus Ipomoea, which includes sweet potato but also hundreds of other plants, most of which don’t produce food for humans.

“We don’t know that these were sweet potatoes,” said Dilcher, emeritus professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and the Department of Biology in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences. “We can’t say there were delicious sweet potatoes there. There may have been, or there may not.”

The morning glory family is widely distributed in tropical and subtropical regions and includes about 57 plant genera and 1,880 species. The sweet potato is the world’s second most important root crop, and other members of the family are medicinally and culturally significant.

The study will publish online May 21 in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science.

 

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I found the following article written in 2017 while I was researching the post on fish traps I published last week. Some how I missed it last year. JLP

 

Rocks alignments representing the remains of an intertidal fish trap, Kodiak Island, Alaska. (Photo courtesy the Alutiiq Museum)

Original article:

Ktoo.org

A local archaeologist says there may be the remains of a historic Alutiiq fish trap on the north end of Kodiak Island.

Those types of man-made formations are rare to discover in the region, he said.

The Alutiiq Museum is in its second year of documenting ancestral sites on Afognak Native Corporation lands. Museum archaeology curator 

Patrick Saltonstall noticed something while surveying one area on the shoreline at low tide.

He identified it as a fish trap, which he calls a corral.

“They’re like stone walls on the inter-tidal zone so when the tide came in, all the fish went to go up stream, would float in over the corrals or the trap, and then when the tide went out, they’d be stranded in the pens, so then you catch a whole lot of fish.”

He says it can be challenging to determine whether a corral is natural or man-made, but he sees evidence of it being a fish trap.

“I could tell that there were some boulders that they used that there were there already, but almost all of it was bringing boulders in,” he said. “It’s like a wall, like 5 feet across and maybe 2 feet high now, but it was probably much higher (back) in the day.”

corral like this one on the island, but they’re common in southeast, which he said could because the people there used them more frequently.

“A lot of the places down there are more protected, they aren’t as open to the ocean as Kodiak is, so maybe the lower energy they tend to be preserved better,” he said. “Whereas in Kodiak after a big storm a lot of these things might get demolished.”

Archaeologists found what looks like petroglyphs nearby, he said, speckled dots and incised lines carved into slate.

“What the cool pattern is is they all seem to be associated with fishing localities,” Saltonstall said. “You look at the typical petroglyphs, you know with faces, whales, drummer, they’re associated more with whaling or with villages.”

It’s hard to determine the age of either the corral or the petroglyphs, but based on nearby archaeological sites, the carvings could be dated back to about 500 years ago.

 

 

 

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