How can understanding the past help us with…global food production?

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

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Early European settlers were impressed by the productivity and sustainability of Native American agriculture in the Northeast. Today, as farmers begin to come to grips with the consequences of modern, mechanized agriculture, i.e., soil compaction, erosion, the run-off of fertilizers and top soil, and the cost of petro-chemicals to boost production, agronomists and some Native Americans are revisiting the techniques of 300 years ago to test their advantages.

This is how David J. Minderhout and Andrea T. Franz begin their article, “Native American Horticulture in the Northeast,” published in the Spring 2009 General Anthropology Bulletin of the General Anthropology Division of the American Anthropological Association, available here (currently free from Wiley InterScience).

They briefly summarize archaeologists’ current understanding of prehistoric agriculture and food preparation in Northeastern North America, with an eye to modern practices and our current food production situation. They note, for example, that, “Research also shows that intercropping, i.e., growing several crops in the same field, produces a diverse plant environment that is more resistant to drought and attacks by pests and plant diseases.”

One message that can be drawn from the information these authors present is that pre-modern innovations, methods, and techniques can provide us with important lessons relevant to the present.

The American Anthropological Association was founded in 1902 and “is the world’s largest organization of individuals interested in anthropology,” according to their website. Membership is approximately 10,000, with annual meetings attended by around 5000 individuals.