Botanical lesson: Osage orange tree

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

Osage orange hedgerow and windbreak in a late March snowstorm in Michigan.

The background for this discussion is drawn from Frank F. Schambach’s ground-breaking article in Plains Anthropologist (vol. 45, pages 7–33), “Spiroan Traders, the Sanders Site, and the Plains Interaction Sphere: A Reply to Bruseth, Wilson, and Perttula,” published in 2000. It is available online as a PDF, but is not free.

Across the Southeast, before Europeans arrived, Native Peoples prized the wood of a tree that inhabited only a small portion of the vast interior of the North American continent. The tree is commonly known as the osage orange, and has the scientific name Maclura pomifera. The fruit of this tree looks like a lumpy bright green to yellow-green softball. The limbs and twigs of the tree are thorny. Its range at the time Europeans arrived along the Atlantic Coast was limited to a small area near the junction of the modern states of Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas, in the Red River Valley and along its tributaries. This tree has many other common names, too, including hedge apple, horse apple, and mock orange.

One other name has a big clue as to why this tree is a topic here on the website of the Society for Georgia Archaeology: bow wood, or bois d’arc. The wood is very dense, heavy, close-grained, and resists rot. Historically, an osage-wood bow was equivalent in value to a horse and a blanket. Thus, it was quite valuable.

But, you may be thinking, wood is organic, and doesn’t preserve well archaeologically under normal circumstances. This is true, and indeed prehistoric wood samples are rare, other than charcoal. Still, we have records from early French trappers who traversed the Caddo territory along the Red River in what is now southeastern Oklahoma and northeastern Texas that discuss the bow wood and its value.

Schambach argues that osage orange bows were so highly prized, they were an important commodity. After all, the wood was available from only a small region, since the trees grew in a limited area.

Schambach argues that access to the prized osage orange wood groves, and the wood they yielded, were controlled by the people who lived at the archaeological site we know as Spiro, in far eastern Oklahoma on the south bank of the Arkansas River. This famous site was a large village with civic-ceremonial architecture central to the community. The site had eleven platform (flat-topped) mounds and one burial mound. Unfortunately, the burial mound, known as Craig Mound, was mined by looters in the 1930s, because the grave goods were so abundant and amazing—and valuable.

The question Schambach sought to answer was: how did the peoples of Spiro get all those fancy grave goods, many made of materials that came from far away, including copper and marine shell. They would have had to have something valuable to trade to get those items. So, Schambach hypothesized that the peoples of Spiro controlled trade in osage orange bows and bow wood from the Great Plains, and funneled them via trading networks to the east and south to peoples living farther from the wood source. In return, they obtained the goodies that had been recovered from the Spiro burials.

There is more detail to Schambach’s argument for the osage bow wood trade hypothesis in his article, but the portion presented here is sufficient to introduce the topic of osage orange trees in a short story on this website. Although not everyone agrees with Schambach’s hypothesis about Spiroan trade, the osage-wood bows certainly were expensive and highly prized. And osage orange trees are an odd species and have an interesting story. (Click here to download a 2001 article by Connie Barlow on “anachronistic” North American species, including the osage orange.) Indeed, osage-orange wood is still prized by some archers.

This is the kind of problem archaeologists researching the ancient past often face: how to explain why certain artifact types cluster in certain areas. Perhaps you can think of a different hypothesis for why there were so many fancy grave goods at Spiro. What data would you need to support your hypothesis?