The Original Blended Economies

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Science  20 Nov 1998:
Vol. 282, Issue 5393, pp. 1447
DOI: 10.1126/science.282.5393.1447

In the textbooks, preindustrial societies typically have two different ways to make a living: farming or hunting and gathering. But archaeologists studying ancient cultures are finding new evidence that people cultivated crops long before they settled down in one place or adopted full-blown farming (see main text). Recently anthropologists have found vivid examples of this middle way in historic cultures, which offer clues to how such mixed societies might have been organized in the past. Particularly in the Americas, many historic societies once labeled as hunter-gatherers turn out to have done a surprising amount of plant cultivation and management.

Some cultures actively planted seeds, like the historic Cocopa people of northwestern Mexico, who supplemented their diets of wild game by sowing two species of panic grass on the floodplain of the Colorado River after the waters receded, says National Museum of Natural History archaeologist Bruce Smith. Other peoples simply altered the landscape to change the mix of plants. The historic Kumeyaay people of southern California, for example, burned ground cover to eliminate competitors for their favored wild plants. “In a lot of environmental, social, and cultural situations, populations aren't forced into a developmental trajectory that leads to agriculture,” says Smith. “They find solutions that are a better fit.”

One of the most dramatic examples comes from published ethnographies of the Owen Valley Paiute in eastern California. Based on descriptions given by Paiute elders during the 1920s and '30s to American anthropologist Julian Steward, these writings describe how the Paiute propagated wild hyacinth, nut grass, and spike rush—root crops that thrived naturally in swampy meadows bordering the Owen River. Each year, Paiute men dammed tributary creeks in nearby hills and built irrigation ditches up to 6 kilometers long to the swampy meadows in the valley, thus creating hectares of new habitat for the crops. Even though they didn't plant seeds, notes Smith, “they're expanding the habitat of naturally occurring plants to increase their yield and productivity.”

The Paiute dismantled their dams every year, so without historic records their work would have been invisible to archaeologists. But as researchers begin to look for the signs of such low-level food production, ancient examples are turning up. In the American Southwest, for example, Suzanne Fish, an archaeologist at the Arizona State Museum in Tucson, has recently identified rock mulching beds that prehistoric peoples in Arizona built nearly 1500 years ago for stands of agave, cultivated for both food and fiber. These early food producers, says Fish, “were transplanting the agave to lower elevations in areas where it's too hot and dry for it to normally grow. Mulching gives it a moisture advantage.” Smith agrees, concluding, “It really is one of those rare situations where this shows up archaeologically.”

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