Corn Culture In The Alleghey Highlands And Native American Tribes
Monterey, VA – One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. So goes the familiar saying, and it has never been truer than for archeologists investigating Native American sites in Virginia. Tom Klatka, Staff Archeologist for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources office in Roanoke, brought the details of this story to a recent meeting of the Highlands Chapter of the Archeological Society of Virginia.
Mr. Klatka, a native of Pennsylvania, got his training at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and the University of Virginia. He has been doing archeology in Virginia for over 20 years.
For thousands of years, Native Americans acquired their food by hunting, fishing and collecting edible plants. Waste from their meals often ended up in the cooking fire or in a trash pit in or near their shelter. By carefully excavating the remains of these fires and trash pits, it is possible to determine what foods were being eaten thousands of years ago.
These techniques have made it possible to track the movement of crops from one group or tribe to another. Mr. Klatka says Native American settlements were often located adjacent to rivers. He says environmental change led to newly formed flood plains along the rivers, which in turn led to more varieties of plants.
“The game was very attracted to the area,” says Klatka, “so the humans became very attracted to the area and that’s when they picked up on all these plants.”
So Native Americans in Virginia had a long history of working with native plants as food items. Other native cultures around the world were also developing these skills. Current evidence suggests that indigenous people in highland Mexico began the domestication and cultivation of corn about 6,000 years ago. The use of corn then spread throughout north America arriving in the Mississippi valley near present day St. Louis around 2,200 years ago.
Extensive use of corn in Virginia does not show up in the archeological record until about 1000 years ago. Klatka says Native Americans in western Virginia already had a well established practice of plant cultivation, so it was easier for them to accept corn as part of their culture.
The Appalachian region has very high plant diversity, more so than the Virginia piedmont and coastal plain, so the natives living here gained much experience working with a large variety of edible and medicinal plants. When the knowledge of how to grow corn along with the seed arrived here after being passed from one native group to another, it was adopted rapidly.
Mr. Klatka also addresses the often repeated story that there were few permanent Native American settlements in this part of Virginia. He says it’s a persistant myth.
“There were prehistoric indigenous cultures in this area and throughout the Shenandoah and southwest Virginia, and we see that archeologically, but people don’t always want to accept it” says Klatka.
He says for many years, archeologists did minimal study in western Virginia, choosing instead to focus on coastal areas. Members of the Highlands Chapter of the Archeological Society of Virginia hope to help discover and investigate new Native American sites in western Virginia.