The development of agriculture, the Marxist archaeologist V. Gordon Childe declared in 1935, was an event akin to the Industrial Revolution—a discovery so disruptive that it spread like the shocks of an earthquake, transforming everything in its path. Childe’s work on what he termed “the Neolithic Revolution” focused on just one site of innovation in the Near East, the famous Fertile Crescent, but over time archaeologists posited similar epicenters in the Yangtze River valley of East Asia and in Mesoamerica. From that third point of origin, corn is supposed to have converted naive, nomadic hunter-gatherers into rooted, enlightened farmers throughout the continent, all the way up into the northern plains.
This long-held narrative now seems to be incomplete, at best. After all, corn took its sweet time fomenting that revolution—thousands of years to transform from scraggly specimens like the ones found in Oaxaca to full-on corn, thousands more to migrate up from Mesoamerica, and still more to adapt to the growing season at higher latitudes. In the rolling fields of the Midwest, the breadbasket of the United States, maize-based agriculture took over only with Mississippian culture, which began just one short millennium ago.
Over the past few decades, a small group of archaeologists have turned up evidence that supports a different timeline, which begins much, much earlier. Plant domestication in North America has no single center, they have discovered. In the land that’s now the U.S., domestication was not an import from farther south; it emerged all on its own. Before Mexico’s corn ever reached this far north, Indigenous people had already domesticated squash, sunflowers, and a suite of plants now known, dismissively, as knotweed, sumpweed, little barley, maygrass, and pitseed goosefoot. Together, these spindly grasses formed a food system unique to the American landscape. They are North America’s lost crops. [Continue reading…]