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The Edens Bluff seed bag. Photo by David Dye.

In 1932 Dellinger’s crews excavated the Edens Bluff Shelter in Benton County, Arkansas, along the White River. Among the other interesting artifacts found at the site was a bag of seeds. This woven bag contains about a liter of seeds from a starchy-oily seed plant called chenopodium. This was a plant first collected by Native American hunters and gathers and later domesticated in North America and Mexico. It is related to the grain quinoa which has recently become popular again. A radiocarbon date of approximately AD 20 was obtained on a sample of seeds from this bag.

Edens Bluff Seed Bag
The Edens Bluff seed bag. Photo by David Dye.

Paleoethnobotanists study the use plants in human history. They are particularly interested in where, when, and how humans went from gathering wild plants to selecting and changing plants through domestication. Native American hunters and gatherers knew a lot about wild plants and gradually began to select and encourage plants with particular traits. For example, grains with larger seeds or thinner outer seed coatings would be easier to use as food and would be encouraged and later cultivated. Paleoethnobotanists can track these changes through time and tell if a plant found archeologically has been altered by human selection. They can also track these changes, as well as different varieties of the same plant, geographically to trace its movement through trade or diffusion.

This bag of seeds from Edens Bluff tells us a small piece of the story of plant domestication in southeastern prehistory. This is one of many samples of chenopodium found in bluff shelter sites in the Ozarks. Bluff shelters contain large samples of seeds from single storage events and because of dry conditions the seeds are preserved. On an open archeological site individual seeds can be recovered through special collection techniques but they are often not large enough to radiocarbon date on their own. Large samples found in bluff shelters allow us to radiocarbon date seeds, which helps piece together the story of when and where particular plants were being domesticated. The seeds in this bag represent a one of several types of chenopod found in the Ozarks. These were then compared to other examples from the same time period to show the spread of this particular variety. The dates for this sample are comparable in type and age to chenopodium found in sites in Kentucky and Alabama.

 

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