Lesson Four: Changing Gardens and Evolving Fields

In Lesson 3, students learned how archeologists identified evidence for southeastern Indians’ domestication of a variety of plant foods. Through time, plant foods continued to be an important part of people’s diets, as the local domesticates were replaced by other plants — especially corn, beans, and squash — domesticated by Indians from ancient Mexico. The shift from foraging to gardening to agriculture changed Native American foodways and this in turn changed other aspects of culture for people living during the Mississippi Period (AD 900-1600). In this lesson, students learn about American Indian views on how their ancestors first acquired corn, beans, and squash, explore how and why certain locations were better suited for large scale agriculture, and examine maps of Archaic, Woodland, and Mississippian sites to identify similarities and differences between people living during successive time periods with different foodways, living arrangements, and community organization.

Hands stripping seeds off a plant
Lesson Background Information

This lesson begins with a Native American legend, “The Three Sisters,” because American Indians have their own perspectives on the past. These perspectives include accounts about the creation of their societies and how they changed through time. These accounts are very different from the reconstructions offered by archeologists and historians, but they are no less important for a complete understanding of Indian history. American Indians’ historical perspectives are based on stories and ceremonies passed from generation to generation.

Modern Indian communities actively maintain this information and texts written after the arrival of Europeans preserve additional material. In these accounts, time extends from the present back to an era long ago (that is not measured in years) when events that formed the present world began to take place. Examining Native American stories alongside archeological data offers a fuller picture of what life was like during the Mississippi Period, between 1000 AD and contact with Europeans in the 1500s.

In this lesson, the traditional story provides the backdrop for analyzing archeological evidence to understand the transition from garden production of locally domesticated plants to agriculture, farming corn and other crops. Like archeologists, students use both scientific evidence and Native American stories to better understand the origins and importance of corn both in the Native American diet and over all way of life. Like the complementary nature of corn, beans, and squash, these multiple lines of evidence help archeologists get a fuller picture of the nutritional and cultural importance of corn during this period.

The transition from foraging wild foods to gardening to agriculture is one of the most significant series of events in history and one in which archeologists worldwide are still studying. The human species has spent most of its time (about 99.9%) on earth living as foragers. Some of the earliest domesticated plants come from the Middle East and date to only about 10,000 years ago. Only ten independent centers of domestication have been identified around the world. The Southeastern United States, including Arkansas, is one of those centers. As people became more dependent on domesticated crop plants, they shifted from mixed economies of foraging and gardening to intensive, full time agriculture. This shift was not without risks and disadvantages. Being dependent on crops places people at the mercy of climate and pests. Some crops, while more productive than wild resources, were also less nutritionally balanced, creating challenges to people’s health. Being dependent on crops also requires having access to and control of agriculturally fertile land.

In Arkansas, most Mississippian farming settlements were located along the rivers in the Mississippi River Valley. These locations took advantage of the excellent, high fertility soils of the natural levees. The availability of fish and shellfish from the rivers was an added benefit. Fishing proved highly important to Mississippian Indians because heavy dependence on corn alone can result in nutritional deficiencies (see Parkin, 1350 – 1600 AD: A Case Study).

In the southeastern United States, people made the shift from mixed gardening and foraging to full time agriculture around 900 AD during what archeologists refer to as the Mississippi Period. With the advent of agriculture and increased populations, southeastern Indians lived in societies known as chiefdoms led by hereditary rulers. They established a variety of year-round settlements across the landscape—such as towns, villages, hamlets, and farmsteads. Mississippian towns display striking similarities throughout the southeast. Common elements include square or rectangular houses about 35 square meters in size, houses aligned in orderly patterns, centrally placed plazas, stockades or embankments surrounding the town, and sometimes flat-topped earthen mounds upon which stood the house of the chief, or hereditary leader, or sometimes a temple. They conducted longdistance trade in copper, marine shell, and other valuables, fortified their towns with stockades, and conducted warfare.

During the Mississippi Period, territories with multiple towns were ruled by chiefs. Chiefdoms were a form of community where leaders claim descent from a long line of ancestors. These chiefdoms were less egalitarian than the earlier Archaic or Woodland Period communities. Chiefs and people related to the chiefs had higher social statuses and better access to necessity items or luxury goods. In the Mississippi River Valley, competition over productive agricultural lands frequently led to warfare between groups as access to more land became even increasingly important with large scale agriculture. In this lesson, students explore how the shift to agriculture changed Mississippi Indians foodways and other elements of their lives.

Class Materials
Key Terms

Agriculture: The science, technology, and  skill of cultivating the soil, growing crops, and raising livestock; farming.

Chiefdoms: A form of community where leaders claim descent from a long line of ancestors. Other people inherit importance from the family they belong to, with some families having higher status than others.

Legends: Stories about ancestors and past events that convey important morals, principles, or cultural themes.

Activities for Lesson

1. Ask students: Why is turkey the traditional centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal? For most people, this is connected to the story about the Pilgrims. Explain to students that the story of the Pilgrims and Indians is a fable, or a legend. The “facts” of the story are beside the point. The story provides a reason to be thankful for what we have. The turkey and the Thanksgiving meal symbolize the origins of the United States and encourages us to appreciate what we have.

1. Read the “Legend of the Three Sisters” to the class.

2. Ask students: What plants are discussed in the story? (Corn, squash, and beans.)

3. Ask students: Why did Native Americans plant the Three Sisters together? (Plants complement each other when grown together, people need the nutrients from each in order to digest the corn, and it is a part of the Native American belief in the circle of life.)

4. What does The Three Sisters story tell us that archeology doesn’t? (What Indians thought about the plants they were growing.

1. Explain that the Legend of Three Sisters is similar to the story about the pilgrims. It provides a moral and lesson about the origins of corn.

2. Ask students to think back to the Parkin case study, ask students to list three changes that came with the shift from growing locally domesticated plants in gardens to raising corn, beans, and squashes in larger fields. (Different gardening tools, more ceramics, larger
crop fields and more work, extra crops to store, more people and larger towns, more powerful leaders, etc.) Supplement with the Background information.

3. Help students define legends, chiefdoms, and agriculture and add the words to their Key Terms log.

1. Pass out the “Foodways and the Environment” worksheets. Have students answer the questions individually or as small groups.

2. Review the answers.

1. Pass out the “Mississippi Period Timeline.” Have students complete the sheet by using information from the “Parkin, 1350 – 1600 AD: A Case Study” to identify the key dates of occupation, the artifacts, foodways, and social organization. This assignment could be completed as a class, as a group, or as individual homework/assessment.

2. The Mississippi Period is a period in Indian history between 1000 AD and European contact in the 1500s that is marked by corn agriculture, mound building, and chiefdom level community organization. Use the “Mississippi Period Timeline:Evidence-based Answer Key” as a guide for discussion.