Public Release:  Ancient Indians In Iowa May Have Grown Weeds As Crops, Scholar Says

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Had history gone another way, the traditional American Thanksgiving Day dinner might have included dishes made from common weeds.

A team of archaeologists from the University of Illinois has found that in addition to corn, beans and squash, the residents of a prehistoric Indian village in southeastern Iowa consumed great quantities of a carbohydrate-rich gruel made from the roasted ground seeds of knotweed and little barley, common weeds by today's standards. In their excavations of an Oneota Culture village (called the McKinney Site), which was occupied between 1580 and 1640, the team turned up as many as 2,000 charred seeds per liter of soil, "suggesting that the Oneota continued to cultivate the starchy North American weeds alongside their mesoamerican crops [corn, beans and squash] right up until early contact with the Europeans," said Eric Hollinger, field director of the dig and a doctoral student in anthropology at the U. of I.

"Most Midwestern Indian sites have these seeds, but not this late in time and not in these quantities," Hollinger said. "We thought corn, beans and squash replaced the North American crops."

The knotweed seeds that were found derive from a shrubby branch (Polygonum erectum) of the buckwheat family; knotweed is considered a serious weed pest. Little barley, whose scientific name is Hordeum pusillum, is a grass that grows throughout the United States, except in the Northeast and northern Midwest.

According to Hollinger, the Oneota Village site presents a "unique opportunity to characterize what Native American life ways were like just prior to the changes brought about by European contact -- until now a poorly understood time period."

The Oneota village was on a bluff overlooking the confluence of the Iowa and Mississippi rivers, near what now is Toolesboro, Iowa. Using remote sensing techniques to guide them in choosing where to dig, the archaeologists -- many of them college students in 1995 and 1996 summer field courses co-sponsored by the university's Extramural Programs -- found hundreds of storage, roasting and refuse pits; ceramic pots in abundance; possible human burials inside longhouses; and art -- a broken shard with the image of a birdman, and a hematite thunderbird tablet. The tablet was engraved on both sides, one image appearing to be a rough draft for the other.

Perhaps as many as 1,000 people may have lived in the Oneota village at its peak, making it a large population center. However, "By the time the first French explorers -- Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet -- paddled past the site in 1673," Hollinger said, "the village had been abandoned for 40 years." Hollinger speculates that the Oneota, who were farmers, may have been decimated by epidemics inadvertently introduced by Europeans, or by conflict with other tribes who were moving west.

He reported his findings at the Midwest Archaeological Conference in mid-October.

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