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Crop Histories

The major goals of this project are to establish (1) a history of the three principal agricultural crops used by Native Americans in New York: maize (Zea mays ssp. mays), bean (Phaseolus vulgaris), and squash (Cucurbita pepo) and (2) an evolutionary explanation for the development of the polycropping system that included these three crops. Much of the work to date has involved establishing the histories of the crops. This has included Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) dates on macrobotanical remains (Hart 1999a; Hart and Asch Sidell 1997; Hart et al. 2002; Hart and Scarry 1999) and the extraction and analysis of lipids, phytoliths and starches from AMS-dated charred cooking residues adhering to the interiors of pottery sherds in the Museum's collections (Hart et al. 2003, 2007b; Hart and Matson 2009; Reber and Hart 2008a, 2008b; Thompson et al. 2004). Another aspect has been the investigation of the potential functions of Cucurbita pepo gourds in northeastern North America during the Mid-Holocene (ca. 8000-4000 B.P.). The flesh of C. pepo gourds is extremely bitter and inedible as are the seed coats. The question, then, becomes, why was this plant so widely used during the Mid Holocene well north and east of its presumed native range? Two hypotheses were tested: (1) dried gourds were used as fish net floats (Hart et al. 2004) and (2) gourd seeds were processed to remove bitterness from the seed coats for consumption (Hart 2004). The experimental results indicate that both uses are feasible. Another aspect of the research has been developing theoretical frameworks for understanding the evolution of agricultural systems in northeastern North America. Initial attempts included developing a model for maize adoption and intensification (Hart 1999b, 2008) and a model of the relationships between maize and matrilocality among the northern Iroquoians (Hart 2001).