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PRECONTACT AGRICULTURE

Prior to the arrival of Europeans on the American continent in the fifteenth century, agricultural practices were fundamentally different than those that later defined a major aspect of the American economy. Preceding the appearance of the Spanish, French, and English, there were no draft animals to harness to the plow; horses, cattle, and oxen were all brought to the New World by the European explorers and colonists. North America's one indigenous animal large enough to have served such a purpose was the bison or buffalo. However, the bison was never domesticated. Native peoples in the New World also lacked iron and steel that could be turned into plows and cultivators. Despite the absence of these "essentials," late-prehistoric societies throughout many areas of the United States (including Oklahoma) developed extensive and sophisticated agricultural systems.

Beginning around 4000 years ago in the eastern United States, prehistoric societies began to manipulate indigenous plants such as sunflower, gourd, chenopodium (pigweed), and amaranth (goosefoot), promoting the development of larger fruits and seeds. In the southwestern United States tropical plants introduced from Mexico, such as corn, beans, and squash, were being cultivated. By roughly 2000 years ago, many American Indian societies were cultivating small garden plots, raising the above-noted varieties, and producing other edible cultigens as well as plants for ceremonial and medicinal purposes (i.e., tobacco). These peoples typically situated their hamlets and villages in stream valleys, where fertile soils aided in nurturing crops. Garden areas were prepared by burning off vegetation and clearing the area of trees that could shade crops. Seeds were planted using bone and wooden digging sticks. The burning of fields provided fertilizer and slowed down the invasion of weeds. This technique, called slash-and-burn, has been used by small-scale agricultural societies for thousands of years.

With the establishment of larger, increasingly sedentary settlements beginning around 1000 years ago, there was a greater need for agricultural produce as well as for crop surplus to carry people through the winter months. This resulted in a pronounced intensification of agricultural production. As witnessed at the time of European contact, large agricultural fields produced corn, beans, squash, and a variety of other plants that were the mainstay of human subsistence. In the eastern United States it is likely that there were two plantings annually and that there was intensive field maintenance. Most of these societies also practiced agriculturally based ceremonies such as the busque (green corn ceremony). This agricultural intensity is evidenced by the large number of stone, bone, and shell hoes found at most village sites, reflecting the weeding and tilling of the soil. In the Southwest, irrigation systems were designed to provide water for cultivated fields. At the time of European contact agricultural societies flourished from Arizona and New Mexico to the southeastern United States and in the Great Plains, Midwest, and Northeast. Subsequent climatic change brought cooler and drier conditions that lasted through the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, and diseases introduced by contact with Europeans devastated native groups. These events significantly reduced agricultural productivity and forced many societies to abandon or reduce in intensity the sophisticated agricultural system of late prehistoric times.

SEE ALSO: PALEOENVIRONMENT, PRECONTACT HUNTING PATTERNS, PRECONTACT TRADE PATTERNS, PREHISTORIC NATIVE PEOPLES.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Robert E. Bell, ed., Prehistory of Oklahoma (Orlando, Fla.: Academic Press, 1984). Thomas D. Dillehay, The Settlement of the Americas (New York: Basic Books, 2000). Brian M. Fagan, Ancient North America: The Archaeology of a Continent (London, England: Thames and Hudson, 1995). Claudette Marie Gilbert and Robert L. Brooks, From Mounds to Mammoths: A Field Guide to Oklahoma Prehistory (2d. ed.; Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000). Waldo Wedel, Prehistoric Man on the Great Plains (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961). Don G. Wyckoff and Robert L. Brooks, Oklahoma Archeology: A 1981 Perspective, Archeological Resource Survey Report No. 16 (Norman: Oklahoma Archeological Survey, 1981).

Robert L. Brooks

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